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Shellac curates ATP Nightmare before Christmas

Ten years on, and Shellac reunite with ATP, in a familiar prefab location in Sussex. Camber Sands: no frills summer holiday destination, wind-whipped dunes, birthplace of All Tomorrow's Parties. From the moment Shellac was announced as the curators of this year's instalment of ATP's Nightmare before Christmas, and return to Camber, we knew the line-up would be loud, meticulously picked, and a small slice of Steve Albini's lengthy back catalogue. But, having spent the weekend seeing 35 handpicked bands, and hearing a few thousand people's reactions, loud seems not to do it justice.

Yes, doom noise from Neurosis, and super-smart, hilarious drum metal from Zeni Geva explored the outer reaches of noise, but it might have been the moments between the noise that did it; the bleak beauty of Rachel Grimes, who opened tired eyes on Sunday, or the gold pant-wielding madness of Oxbow's Eugene Robinson, were ones we were glad we didn't miss.

Better still was the collaboration that we saw in between artists. While Shannon Wright and Nina Nastasia's solo sets had us blistered by a hail of right-angle guitars, churning lower end and flights of vocal melody, their haunting cameos in Rachel Grimes' set were pairings that saw passers by stop, and press into the back reaches of the crowd to get a better look. Likewise, though not quite collaboration, hearing Future of the Left tribute former band mclusky album Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues, was a welcome reminder of how viscerally good that band was when it still existed.

What really suggested that this festival was different to others though was Bob Weston and Steve Albini's continual presence behind the sound desk, personally producing Shellac's ATP curation, while Shellac in general made a particular point to see every band on the line-up – even if it was just for a couple of songs.

Shellac's presence across decades of guitar music shaped the weekend in an even more profound and unique way as well. Whether it's a unique performance of visceral, bass-driven comedy Punk Rock from the Membranes; or Mission of Burma's scythingly cynical new wave – capitulated with an aside comment, ‘watch bands, not your cell phones', this weekend allowed us to see generations of bands who have transformed the music we listen to. Albini and Co.'s influence and presence within modern music made ATP the platform for festival-goers to be part of the intimate, personal, solo debut by Kim Deal, and the festival's natural openness and accessibility had punters playing poker with Shellac (provided we brought lots of money).

In between bands saw us suffering through karaoke massacres, blowing away hangovers on the desperately cold, but beautiful expanse that is Camber Sands, and expanding our minds at book clubs about Borges. Waiting for Barry Hogan's perennial DJ set to get us shaking into the early hours had us cracking fingers at the ubiquitous air hockey tables and trying desperately to work out how to operate an obscure Japanese arcade game that revolved around hopping. There was fun to be had.

Then there's Shellac itself. Arguably much of the draw for many punters, the three-piece humbly open and close the festival. Tight doesn't describe their sound. It's sonically perfect. Guitars are overdriven, but to a precision that makes each chord sound like polished steel. Weston's bass glowers over proceedings, while the man stares intently into the lights and the crowd. Todd Traynor, all arms and legs, curls over the drumkit, caressing snare and kick drum together into mortar attacks of treble and bass. Despite having been Shellac for decades, there's always something new, as the band's genuine sense of humour brings them closer to the crowd. I'm a Plane see the band spread their arms and fly with the crowd, while Snare Drum and I closes their set masterfully, Weston's deadpan bassline marching Traynor's drum kit offstage as the band. Leaving five minutes at the end for traditional Q&A, minus questions about greyhounds, has Bob Weston correct grammar and quell demand for his sweatbands, while the band argue about the best Fugazi album (it's the latest one, according to Albini).

Shellac's set is almost a précis of the festival itself. This balance between humour and endeavour has made this year's ATP Nightmare Before Christmas a success. An unusual collection of groundbreaking artists brought together around a band who know what it is to be a band, and also how to make a band sound great is one part. Another part is a sense of camaraderie, of enjoying every moment of a unique and exclusive opportunity to listen to music. What makes this festival quite so special, and never more so than on this year, is a love of exploring and enjoying new music that is shared by the people who play, as much as the people who come to listen.

Words by Oliver Spall
18:42 - 08/01/13