Ritual Union 2024: the stacked day festival laughing in the face of pricey peers

Irish band Chalk perform at Ritual Union Festival 2024

It’s quite remarkable how a relatively small affair like Bristol’s Ritual Union can return year after year with a virtually all-new lineup and still make just as much of an impact.

It’s days such as this that act as a strong reminder that no matter how much we are told the music industry is in crisis, there will always be a glut of bands vying for a spot on the bills of festivals such as this and eager to be at their most impressive for half an hour to win the hearts of the ever-discerning attendees. 

With five stages across four of the city’s most preeminent venues, the third edition of Ritual Union was always destined to provide at least something for everyone and feel like good value for money (with the priciest ticket costing a meagre £30), but the fashion in which RU manages to exceed its previous showings is remarkable, owing many thanks to its stacked lineup.

In a rather genius move, the task of opening the festival is left in the hands of The Cleaners From Venus. Martin Newell’s eccentric charm and wit is able to lift spirits with ease to instil a buoyant mood that will continue throughout the day. It’s a common misconception that the older you get the harder it is for you to hold onto your talent, but for the 71-year old Newell and his ridiculously prolific project, things don’t ever seem to be on the decline. His voice is as strong as ever, the songs haven’t lost their magic or incredible approach to melody and his humour remains razor sharp.

Sure, he’s an oddball in the purest sense of the word – as though Ivor Cutler had the pop sensibilities of Andy Partridge – but by playing “all the songs that made [him] obscure”, he wows with his matinee performance and sets the bar high for the rest of the day.

Aiming to nudge the bar a little higher are another act that have dabbled in obscuring themselves, though only in terms of evading giving away much information about themselves and not yet having released any singles. It’s known that dance-punk newcomers The Itch are a project consisting of former members of Regressive Left, who are joined in their live setup by representatives of Lazarus Kane. There are still remnants of both bands’ sounds in the music they make now, but there’s something more hypnotic about this new incarnation.

The duo emerge on the SWX main stage gradually in Stop Making Sense fashion before the full band erupted into a wall of intense grooves. Early hype suggests there’s something rather special on the way for this group, and with their ability to command a largely oblivious audience and next week’s release of stellar debut single ‘Ursula‘, it’s easy to picture them having something of a ‘moment’ in the near future.

Next up and looking to defy our preview description of them being hardcore with a slightly saccharine edge, Handcuff follow with a full-on set of high octane rippers in the upstairs room at SWX. For another early afternoon showing, there is remarkable liveliness from band and audience alike, and while their rhythm section provide the backbone of this energy, Ayesha Linton-Whittle and Duncan Smith trade riffs and yelps at an unrelenting rate. There are definite comparisons to be made to the likes of Sniffany & the Nits and Bad Breeding, but it’s clear that they’re well on their way to stamping their own place as one of the most formidable punk acts in the country, and they are perhaps the injection of vigour that everyone needs to power them through the rest of the day.

Manchester group Maruja had more than enough opportunity to impress at Ritual Union 2023, having performed twice at last year’s edition of the festival. Their upgrade to a set on the main stage still causes a storm this time around, and their development as a unit in the last twelve months is evident, as they seem unfazed by the large jump in stature. Trading discordant saxophone with post-rock and metal influences, the band straddle genres in a way that makes them simultaneously akin to Rage Against The Machine and Contortions, but as bizarre as that may sound it’s a winning combination, and it’s what has made them not just a favourite at the festival but in the broader UK live circuit.

Another artist looking to recapture the success of their showing at last year’s festival is local star Pem, who is been on a rapid rise having just returned with spellbinding new single ‘awe’. Pem’s approach to shimmering art-pop mixed with folky touches has always shown promise, but her full band setup really brings out the sonic intricacies of her songwriting, allowing the tracks to revel in their ornate beauty. While the gently plucked guitars and swells of synths are a delight, her vocals remain the primary focus, as their unique balance of raspiness and hushed tones are what help elevate her beyond her peers.

Moving into the late afternoon, it’s an unusual placing for one of the headline acts, but Liz Lawrence brings fans in droves for her set of direct and no-frills indie pop. Backed by three additional members, there’s a real power to how Lawrence delivers her understated yet poignant lyricism. Unlike Pem’s set beforehand, Lawrence revels in being less lavish, but that doesn’t make it any less impactful. While it’s been a long road for the Warwickshire-based artist to rise to this level, this set is more than enough indication that it’s well-deserved and that her pursuit is being justly rewarded.

Having only recently caught their spellbinding show in support of Folly Group, it was hard to resist temptation to see Ebbb unleash their confounding mix of industrial techno and majestic vocals once again. Will Rowland is far more energetic as a frontman on this occasion, often flailing around at the shoulders as though wrestling his way out of a straightjacket as Scott MacDonald and Levent Ceylan contribute their startling yet cerebral accompaniment to his gorgeous vocals. Whether everyone has left Rough Trade as a fan is uncertain, but it can’t be denied that all of those present will leave with a lasting impression of one of the most unique acts of the day.

It is perhaps unfortunate that one of the most talked-about bands of the moment end up being one of the most talked-over bands of the day, with a large chorus of chatter sadly drowning out mary in the junkyard’s understated approach to indie rock. Their quietness shouldn’t be a valid excuse for the audience’s misdemeanours, but the subtle details in Clari Freeman-Taylor’s guitar playing and Saya Barbaglia’s violin work don’t receive the attention they deserve, not to mention the often raw and intimate lyrics that are whispered over the top. It was a shame that they arrived at a time where attention spans were waning and people are craving something more uplifting, because songs like ‘tuesday’ and ‘marble arch’ really do demonstrate the brilliance of the band.

Whilst also polarising for many, eavesdropping on conversations throughout the day suggested that a large section of the audience were most excited for Cheekface. Attending their set shows that it wasn’t just a pique in interest they were receiving, but an army of rabid devotees who had memorised every single lyric from their four albums, and who had a willingness to chant back their every droll observation with glee.

For every peppy tune and humorous line, there’s an underlying sense of existential dread to what frontman Greg Katz is saying, and while his attire and demeanour scream lost Beach Boy, his actual messages are filled with anxieties about a modern world that seem far removed from surfing and partying. Perhaps the simplest approach to songcraft witnessed all day, but they are far from underwhelming on their first outing to Bristol, and the rapturous response they receive from the diehard contingent of the audience suggests that they’ll make their return before too long.

While many other things of note were happening elsewhere, it becomes quickly apparent that people are beginning to stick to a single venue to see out the night, and therefore in lieu of queuing for something else the option is to take a chance on Belfast tech-noise trio Chalk at Strange Brew. The band end up being the surprise package of the day, and while they didn’t have the same sense of euphoria as some other acts seen earlier there was certainly a tense energy that they projected into the room. Playing songs from their two acclaimed EPs, Conditions I & II, the room stand mesmerised by their raw energy, and it’s clear that the band are in good stead to join the ever-growing ranks of notable Irish bands in recent memory.

Finishing the main programme for the day are Connecticut group Ovlov, another band not only in Bristol for the first time but on their first trip to the UK. Much like a lot of their fellow Exploding in Sound signees such as Pile and Two Inch Astronaut, they operate in a mixture of blistering post-hardcore but throw in the most unexpected intricacies that give them a more melodic angle. Their approach to this facet of their craft is refreshing to hear for a band that are as heavy as they can be, but that’s balanced out by blown-out guitar distortion and bursts of frantic drumming in between all of the prettier moments of their set. 

Despite the main part of the event being over after Ovlov, Strange Brew move into their late-night programming with two additional acts and DJs to see the crowds through the wee small hours. Now a staple of Bristol’s experimental scene, Minor Conflict take to the stage first with their unique incorporation of harp, horns and heaps of percussion. With Natalie Whiteland’s often operatic vocal style being countered by the spoken word poetry of Josh Smyth, the band have taken things further since releasing their debut EP for PRAH Recordings last year, and seem more focused than ever when it comes to challenging genre boundaries and writing complex and propulsive songs.

To counter this, Japanese Television finish the day; fresh from having just released their new album Automata Exotica. Unsure of what to expect, it comes as something of a surprise that they launch into a barrage of what can only be described as ‘doom surf’, and while the new material may not have had time to sink in before their set, it certainly makes an impression on what was left of the receding audience. The fact that they are creating an impact in such a late slot is testament to how strong the dedication of those at Ritual Union continues to be year after year, and it only felt right to cap off another stellar year with a treat for the most devoted of them all.

photographer: Cloe Morrison

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