With its rich rave history, the Bang Face weekender is an aural assault/celebration of all things day-glo and old skool. Just days before the coronavirus shuts down the live music world, we find ourselves at the last party in town 

Long before you arrive at the Bang Face weekender, electronic music’s most extreme carnival of rave-punk carnage, you feel it rattling your teeth and pummelling your senses. Even standing half a mile away, on the windswept expanse of muddy beach that borders the festival’s shabby holiday village location on the edge of Southport, the seismic sub-bass and relentless jackhammer beats slam you in the chest like heavy artillery fire from some nearby advancing army. 

Notorious for hedonistic excess and garish fancy dress, Bang Face is a rowdy celebration of all those uncool, uncouth, untamed electronic sub-genres born in the rave-era Big Bang of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Old skool acid, hardcore, jungle, happy house, drill ’n’ bass, gabba, ragga, breakcore, donk – heavy metal hybrids that have long been eclipsed by more mainstream strains of EDM, but which stubbornly refuse to die. For old-time acid headbangers, Bang Face offers a brain-mashing flashback to their wild youth. For younger fans who missed the party first time around, it provides a raver’s crash course. 

Launched in 2003 as a monthly “neo-rave” party by DJ and promoter James Gurney, who plays the flamboyant ringmaster in his Saint Acid guise, Bang Face hosted its first weekender five years later. It has since expanded into a mini-empire, with takeover slots at the Glastonbury and Glade festivals, compilation albums and a merchandise line of neon-hued leisurewear with slogans in shouty upper case type – “I’LL SUCK FOR ACID”, “MAKE BREAKCORE GREAT AGAIN”, “PLEASE SIR, I WANT SOME MORE GABBA”, “HEALTH & SAFETY CAN FUCK OFF”, and other gloriously dumb jokey fare. 

Like all Bang Face events, the 2020 weekender is a vast cosplay catwalk for the fiercely loyal fans, dubbed the Bang Face Hard Crew. Hundreds of them have come dressed as furry animals, astronauts, aliens, druids, dinosaurs and vintage children’s TV characters. A giant inflatable of Jabba the Hutt squats outside the holiday camp’s main ballroom, his name inevitably remixed to Gabba the Hutt. Inside the building is a sweaty riot of head-pounding music, lurid visuals, luminous smiley faces, and fluorescent glow sticks. It feels stupid and contagious. 

More contagious than ever, as it turns out. Just days before this year’s festival begins, the coronavirus panic escalates from cautionary news stories to a full-blown crisis. Several star bookings, including Squarepusher, Plaid and Venetian Snares, drop out at late notice. 

Outside the walls of the camp, Britain begins edging towards a lockdown. But inside, the fun becomes more extreme than ever, like those medieval plague revellers in Edgar Allan Poe’s classic short story ‘The Masque Of The Red Death’. As things stand, this may well end up being the final UK music festival of 2020, so the Hard Crew are going to make it count. Tonight we’re going to party like it’s 1399. 

The Bang Face bill has always had an eclectic, unpretentious, pick ‘n’ mix ethos. Alongside credible club legends including the late Andrew Weatherall, Aphex Twin, Jeff Mills, LFO, Roni Size, 808 State and Leftfield, the festival has also hosted rockney music hall geezers Chas & Dave, Bez from Happy Mondays, thrash metal overlords Napalm Death, Europop veterans 2 Unlimited and more. Ozzy Osbourne once even sent a video endorsement bigging-up Bang Face. 

But right at the heart of the festival is James Gurney’s large family of regulars, artists who have appeared at almost every event to date. This inner circle includes Luke Vibert, Ceephax Acid Crew, DJ Hellfish and Mark Archer of masked rave-pop pioneers Altern-8. Indeed, Archer performs several times at the 2020 weekender, which opens with a lively blast of whirring, whooshing raptronica from Altern-8. 

“I’m extremely proud to be a part of Bang Face and to have been here every single year,” Archer tells me. “It’s the one rave brand that has not forgotten its roots. Despite it getting bigger and bigger, it never goes for the easy option. It is always as bonkers as the first time you went.” 

Archer even proposed to his wife Nikki at Bang Face. A few years later, the pair were married on stage on the festival’s opening night. 

“We got engaged on a Monday morning at Camber Sands beach after one of the weekenders, so it made perfect sense to get married there,” he explains. “James was absolutely brilliant and allowed our wedding to be included in the opening ceremony, and then for us to go straight into an Altern-8 live PA.” 

But for all its wilfully lowbrow kitsch, Bang Face also has an edge of avant-garde punky extremism, with a policy of booking experimental electronic acts from across the globe. One of this year’s highlights is mullet-haired Estonian “post-Soviet rapper” Tommy Cash, aka Tomas Tammemets, whose delirious performance blends slam dancing Eurodisco bangers with arch, witty, sophisticated visuals. There are hints of Andrew WK or Die Antwoord in Cash’s self-conscious, performative art-trash aesthetic. Besides making music, he is also a conceptual artist who recently exhibited his own sperm at a Tallinn gallery. 

Another stand-out is Ewa Justka, a Polish-born, Glasgow-based “electronic acid technoise artist”, who is currently in the middle of a PhD rooted in designing and building her own analogue sonic weaponry. Justka’s scouring, pulsing, juddering set is thrillingly abrasive, though she insists she is edging towards more conventional dance music. 

“I try to make rhythmical stuff, but it’s always experimental rhythmical stuff,” Justka explains. “It’s difficult for me to keep it a clean production, I always go kind of bonkers. I started from very noisy tracks, then they began morphing into more hardcore acidy shit. But it was a really excited crowd at Bang Face. I think there’s a difference between a techno crowd and the people that are here, because a techno crowd is very serious whereas Bang Face has a very unpretentious atmosphere. It was nice. I felt welcome.” 

Sadly, the day-glo hordes are denied one of the scene’s most forward-thinking figureheads, when Squarepusher pulls out because of the coronavirus pandemic. But consolation is on hand in the shape of his sometime collaborator Adam Betts, who also drums with experimental math-rock trio Three Trapped Tigers. Performing under his solo alias Colossal Squid, Betts delivers a fantastic one-man show, hammering away on a live drum kit wired up to a laptop that triggers muscular, percussive, monumental electro anthems. 

Afterwards, Betts talks about how the border between avant-punk and “dumb party electronics” gets a bit fuzzy at Bang Face.

“I can see a line through it, I just don’t think I can put a name on it,” he laughs. “I guess whatever it is needs to be kind of fist-pumping. Even if it’s weird and avant-garde, it still needs to pay a debt to that rave energy, that kind of party scene.” 

“The musical range here is huge, but it’s all received by the Hard Crew with the same level of excitement,” Mark Archer says. “Last year, we went onstage after a drum ’n’ bass DJ and before Napalm Death, but we still went down like it was a 1991 rave.” 

By the last day of Bang Face, the already tatty holiday village venue is beginning to resemble a sci-fi disaster movie. Heavy rain has left a giant pond in the centre of the barracks-like accommodation blocks, its cloudy water swirling with plastic dustbins and discarded rave detritus. Those “HEALTH & SAFETY CAN FUCK OFF” T-shirts are starting to lose their humorously ironic edge, as virus panic sweeps the outside world. Bang Face has clearly been rehearsing for this post-apocalyptic moment for years. 

As news breaks that Squarepusher and Plaid will no longer be headlining on the Sunday night, there are frowns across the festival site. Like most artists in these scary times, Adam Betts was faced with the prickly dilemma of whether to cancel his Colossal Squid performance too. On reflection, he decided to press ahead. 

“It was a real tricky one,” he tells me later. “It’s definitely not a decision I took lightly, but then again it’s kind of the only gig I’ve got before July and August. I think if it had been a week later, the festival would not have happened. It really was that quick. You suddenly realised the world was moving very fast.” 

The cancellations and the amended schedule elicit a mixed response among the Bang Face faithful. Some fans express anger on social media that the weekender is even going ahead at all. Others are more defiant. “Coronavirus is probably more worried about Bang Face,” one quips. 

“There will be people who didn’t agree with it going ahead,” Mark Archer concedes afterwards. “But there are a lot of reasons why artists and ravers still went. There was a different vibe there this year, but it was even more friendly than it normally is, and it’s the friendliest weekender you’re likely to go to. A lot of elbow bumping took the place of the usual hugs.” 

After a flat Sunday afternoon, Bang Face rolls with the punches and rallies for its grand finale. Moved up from his early evening slot by the frantic schedule changes, electro producer and label boss Jude Greenaway, aka Scanone, energises the main ballroom with a widescreen barrage of lush sci-fi techno. 

But the closing night belongs to DJ Rap, aka classically trained pianist and left-field pop diva Charissa Saverio, who brings the event to a rousing climax with her juicy mash-up of kinetic junglist rhythms, reggae vocal samples and musical swerves, including a detour into Francis Lai’s immortal theme to the Hollywood weepie ‘Love Story’. This is a masterclass in open-minded, diverse, loud, playful, high-energy electronic music with a heady hint of die-hard hedonism. Very Bang Face. 

Anybody still standing from the Hard Crew responds in the only manner they know how – by partying like it’s the end of the world. The way things are looking right now, they could just be right. But if this rowdy, rave-punk carnival really does prove to be the last festival of 2020, at least it ends on a high. Live music may be staring into an uncertain future right now, but Bang Face is not going gently into that good night.

For more info, visit bangface.com

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