Festival Review: Forwards 2022, Bristol

“Forwards” in Bristol is among the last few festivals to see out what has been a long and beautiful season. From Paul McCartney to Arctic Monkeys, the summer of 2022 has really covered all bases…but it wasn’t over yet. On the 3rd and 4th September, Clifton downs boasted the first year of a new type of festival, with an impressive lineup of some of the best independent acts the UK has to offer, old and new. Furthermore, intriguing lectures and panels were added to the mix. The icing on top of this delightful-looking cake was global dance music legends “The Chemical Brothers” closing Sunday evening, making it their first hometown performance in 30 years. Is there any greater way to catch people’s attention?

The first thing you notice about Forwards is that it is actually pretty tiny, the ground consists of two stages at opposite ends of the field, a plethora of food stalls, and a sprinkle of vintage clothing outlets. Size wise it’s no bigger than your generous village festival, but that is all part of the modest charm that forwards presents us with. 

After sitting on the grass and enjoying a cider with the blissfully psychedelic tones of Ishmael Ensemble, we briefly caught the end of Travis Alabanza and Shon Faye in conversation. “Modern Love and Romance”, a casual, yet deeply insightful talk on what it’s like to be trans in the modern dating scene. Namely the struggles of being in polyamorous relationships, and general minefields and pitfalls. Regretfully, this is the only talk we managed to get a glimpse of, however the concept of having lectures about important issues (in this case also including race, climate change and “the state of food”) is such an incredible thing to have at a festival. The only problem with this was that Forward’s lineup was so stacked with music that we simply couldn’t make time to watch any more of these talks. Regardless, I think that this idea is innovative, and we will hopefully start seeing more of this at future festivals. Its also just a nice place to sit and take a respite, even if you let things wash over you, there’s a chance you’ll absorb something new. 

 “Charli XCX” was the first big act of the Saturday. Now, readers, I will happily put my hands up and tell you that Charli was never an act that I got, as well as pop music of that caliber never being something that I have been into. Well, that was before I saw the marvel that is our girl Charli. We managed to get to the front of the crowd to witness what can only be described as a spectacle of pop music. The energy that Charli and her dancers brought to the stage was infectious and I instantly became infatuated with her brand of deliciously catchy hyper pop and the stage presence she held. I was also surprised at how many songs I already knew, quickly finding myself belting out Vroom Vroom and 1999 with the crowd. Audience participation was some of the best I’ve seen, which goes hand in hand with the style of music. It was especially nice to see such a mix of people enjoying the set just as much – even the 6 music dads were waving their arms in the air with everyone else. This was especially welcome as, having just come back from a weekend at Leeds fest, I could finally see some life. Crowd participation there was essentially nonexistent, despite the big headliners. 

The next act we saw were the psychedelic, funky, dubby, soulful Texan trio “Khraungbin”. Their 45-minute odd set was a display of absolute wizardry on bass and guitar. It was to the point where laser beams could have shot out of the necks of their guitars, like SpongeBob SquarePants embodying the spirit of goofy goober at the end of the movie. I would not have been surprised if the band started flying. The only song I recognized was the luscious Time (You and I), but the insanely mesmerizing set still kept my attention, mainly consisting of one massive cycle through some of the best guitar riffs in musical history. The band would go from playing funky gems like Genius Of Love by The “Tom Tom Club” straight into some deep bassy hip hop track absolutely seamlessly. They made it look so effortless that if you were starting to feel any form of intoxication you would miss it. They were the perfect warm up act for “Little Simz” and I would thoroughly recommend checking them out if you like some chilled out groovy guitars swimming around your ears.

Now, time to talk about the highlight of the Saturday and the absolute tour de force that is “Little Simz”. She is certainly one artist that’s had an exceptional year after the release of her Mercury award nominated album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert. It really took me a long time to get into “Little Simz”, I tried but failed to really connect with the newest album, always being an artist that I respected much more than I actually enjoyed listening to. However, the poetic extravaganza that was displayed on that Saturday night was completely unforgettable, and I cannot think about the absolute trance she put me in. It seemed that the whole crowd felt exactly the same, as the head bopping all around was akin to Whip My Hair era “Willow”. Admittedly, the UK hip hop scene is not really my wheelhouse, but surely it can’t get better than this? One of the most critically acclaimed acts out there right now lives up to all the praise that said critics have been pouring over her. She is an artist that I have gone from respecting to absolutely adoring, and I am absolutely drooling over the sheer talent she possesses. If you need convincing, try and catch her live, it was a performance that encapsulated what hip hop should be: powerful, meaningful, poetic and fucking unstoppable. 

Dashing off to the bar with a triumphant swing in our step, we ordered more drinks in preparation for “Jamie XX”. The spring in our step was now more of a stumble as we elbowed our way to the front of the crowd, ready to be entranced by a whirlwind of ambient drums and synths. Jamie appeared on stage against a smoky backdrop lit up by electric blue lights, and the buzz in the crowd shot up. Opening with a housey/techy track with vivacious drums, the crowd was ready for some of the best atmospheric dance music to come out of the UK in the last decade. My friend and I started discussing which of his own tracks he would open with, we decided that All Under One Roof Raving would be a sublime beginning. Much to our dismay, this “warmup” of a performance went on for what was essentially the entire 90 odd minutes. Those gorgeous synths that made your hairs stand on end and your whole being rise to attention were nowhere to be heard. Jamie’s set would have been fine if it was performed at Manchester’s Warehouse Project or a similar event, and I would walk away satisfied. However, as the headline act for Saturday night, I was expecting the songs that make him so renowned. Anticipating hearing anything from In Colour live made me believe I would be sharing a feeling of pure ecstasy with that crowd, but if anything, it completely sobered me up. In fact, it became grueling to stand there as my excitement faded away. Gosh was played at the very end of the set, but by the time Jamie did it I was so irritated I couldn’t completely enjoy it. 

On Sunday, the first big act we managed to see were none other than Nottingham heroes “Sleaford Mods”. Although I only knew a couple of the big tracks, I still thoroughly enjoyed this performance. Their tongue in cheek lyricism went hand in hand with the irreverent stage presence they displayed. Jason Williamson strutted from left to right across the stage with his hand behind his back while his palm was upturned, making him look like a chicken on speed. Meanwhile, Andrew Fearn danced about in the background, in a style that can only be described as a mixture of Bez and Neil from The Inbetweeners. It was the perfect visual accompaniment to their minimalistic, grimy, post punk style, while Williamson spat out his often hard-hitting, nonsensical, and brilliantly bizarre lyrics. “Billy Nomates” was brought on by surprise to sing a highlight from the most recent album and arguably the mods most popular track, Mork N Mindy. Dancing around to the industrial stylings of the track, we knew the day was off to a good start, and that it was likely to only get better. 

Next up, we were straight over to stage 2 to see the nothing short of legendary “Spiritualized”. A band I had always heard about and seen their artwork in just about every independent record store I’ve ever been in, but shamefully never truly delved into until last year. “Spiritualized” are a band that’s characterized by droning guitars, blissful vocal stylings and an otherworldly atmosphere. The album Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating In Space hoisted me into the air and refused to put me down, leaving me peacefully floating throughout its duration. Their new album Everything Was Beautiful has a very similar transcendental feeling to it, with Let It Bleed (For Iggy) being one of the standout tracks of 2022, an impressive feat considering the incredible year of music we have had. Throughout the set, Jason Pierce was set down and appeared to be reading either his lyrics or his notes from a sheet in front of him. However, this was never a problem, as this type of melodic, psychedelic rock isn’t a thing that commands an active stage presence. Unfortunately, the beginning of the set saw some bad sound issues, with engineers dashing on and off stage looking rather concerned. At the front, the sound was loud and tinny, with the vocals struggling to push through, however this was sorted after 10 minutes or so and all was well. What followed was 30 minutes of powerful, transcendent, soul leaving your body type of euphoria. I am forever grateful that I had the chance to see this gem of a band live. “Spiritualized” and their music is the kind that can be construed one of two ways, if you’re having a rough day, it may be best to leave them alone. However, In the context of a Sunday afternoon on a bright September’s day, at what may be the best festival you have ever been to, its nothing short of life affirming, an incredibly special set indeed.

After the obligatory drink top-up, we were back at stage 2 for the penultimate act, Caribou. What was most impressive about this indie, electronic dance act was that all of their instruments were performed live, rather than a guy on decks, which is what I was imagining. Instead, 4 men in all white clothing walked onto the smoky stage to their instruments, giving their set that extra bit of dynamism. Caribou provided what I like to call the “sun going down, feeling rather tipsy, we are about to see Chemical Brothers” atmosphere. The frantic, choppy drums sailed across a bed of smooth, luscious guitars filling the audience with warmth and radiance. One thing I could say about Caribou is that it’s the kind of dance music that just scratches your brain, so you can imagine how good they sound live. Highlights of the set were definitely Sun and their classic Odessa. Unfortunately, we had to leave the set 10 minutes early so we could go and get a good spot for the act we were most excited for, The Chemical Brothers.

After being thoroughly underwhelmed by Jamie and his DJ set, it was safe to say I was absolutely shitting myself for The Chemical Brothers in the fear that they would do a similar sort of thing. The first thing that I noticed was the two screens on either side of the stage displaying a message informing spectators of strobe lighting and other effects, this was a good sign. Chemical Brothers are renowned for their insanely trippy visuals and light shows in their gigs, a feature that’s been an iconic part of their live shows for many years, like a modern, EDM version of Pink Floyd. Well, suffice it to say I had no need to be worried, as soon as they began their set, the fantastically abrasive baseline of Block Rockin Beats washed my anxiety away. Perhaps the greatest opening to a set I have ever witnessed. It was proceeded by Song To The Siren, into the urgent, heart pumping Go. It was the perfect segway of adrenaline. The visuals were hypnotically trippy as giant Pans Labyrinth-esque creatures sang the lyrics to you, or as figures seemingly made of lasers acrobatically jumped at you. At one point, for a version of Under the Influence mixed with Dig your own Hole, two 30-foot-tall robots appeared on the stage, their laser eyes scanning the crowd. It was everything I wanted it to be and more. As a mix of New Order’s Temptation into Star Guitar blasted away, visions of Wayne and Garth pleading “We’re not worthy!” flashed into my head.

As the set mellowed out before its spectacular conclusion, some chemical love of another kind was being passed around the crowd, resulting in excitable babble about how everyone was genuinely honored to be there. At one point I got talking to a man who claimed tonight was the first time in 30 years that Chemical Beats has been played live. It was one of the most glorious atmospheres I have ever experienced, the sense of love and comradery was unrivaled. As Galvanize closed the set, I had already become nostalgic while the previous events passed over me. Nothing else that happened after this moment is worth writing about, because nothing else could top this. So, here’s to Forwards, truly one of the most unique and innovative festivals I have been to, and one that every independent festival should take notes from.