A Carefully Planned Festival takes over most of the Northern Quarter's venues for a weekend every October with an eclectic mix of emerging bands from all over the country, many of which we've never heard of let alone heard. We caught six acts on day one, ranging from the solo Jess Bryant playing her first Manchester show for several years, through Emma Kupa playing two sets as herself and leading Mammoth Penguins, Manchester favourites Embers to the full on rock of the magnificently titled Mayors Of Miyazaki and The Spook School.
Jess Bryant's debut album Silvern was one of those wonderful records that go completely under the radar that you discover by accident, in our case her singing in a band with two friends of a then girlfriend's flatmates. It's a soft fragile record with Jess's ethereal haunting vocals piercing through the tension that the minimal instrumentation creates. Even back then her live shows were few and far between and events not to be missed, so her opening the stage at Gullivers was too good an opportunity to miss.
Even though she's struggling badly with a cold, the sniffles audible mid-song at times, her voice loses none of that divine quality that makes Silvern such an intriguing record. But she doesn't touch that record at all. She plays four songs we've never heard before, which we assume must be new ones and the tantalising Dusk from her early EP of the same name. We overhear her telling someone that a second record isn't due any time soon, but it'd be a tragedy if those four songs, in particular the last one about a Turkish film where a boy goes searching for his lost father, were never to get heard and Jess to disappear off the music scene.
We then hot foot it across to The Castle where Emma Kupa is setting up. Formerly of Standard Fare, Emma's branched out with this project under her own name as well as Mammoth Penguins, who we catch later on. Accompanied by banjo, a single drum and a bassist who turns up after the first song with some fine backing vocals that harmonise perfectly with Emma's, the set is a joyous mix of classic alternative pop given a summery, almost country feel by the instrumentation and the harmonies. Recent single Katy NYC is a stand out track as is Consequences and the set-closer Half Sister.
The next band we catch, after a break to do domestic stuff, is Emma's band Mammoth Penguins at Texture. They've recently released an excellent debut album Hide And Seek on Fortuna Pop and the majority of their set comes from the album including the excellent recent single Strength In My Legs. They have that same timeless joyful sound that makes us love Veronica Falls so much, in the way they use all three voices in the band, including classic boy/girl harmonies so simple yet so sweet that they make you melt.
There's harder edges to the sound as well, the way in which when songs drop down they're restarted by Tom's kick drum before the guitars chime back in. There's no theatrics to them, no pretence or attempting to sound like something they're not, just a focus on creating great catchy songs that you won't be able to shift from your brain but that's what makes Mammoth Penguins so refreshing and a band that you need to have in your life.
Next up are Embers. Something's rotten in the state of music that they're not as huge now as the breadth and depth of their ambition and sound. We're not quite sure what happened once they got signed, but it took them away for a year and they're slowly making tentative steps back. They struggle with technical difficulties before they even start so we're restricted to just four songs, but it's enough to convince us that the fire that burns deep in everything they do hasn't been diminished.
Their sole single Part Of The Echoes and their final two songs Shadows and Adrift show that that while they may be battered and bruised by that experience, but also that they're coming out fighting. Even with their restricted time slot which means we don't get the big hitting Hollow Cage to close the set, they simply overwhelm us with the cascading waves of sound that they create.
We take a break from the festival to catch up on a couple of other gigs in town before returning to Gullivers for the intriguingly named Mayors Of Miyazaki. Apparently the London-based three pieces haven't done any gigs for over a year, but you wouldn't tell from their tight, frantic, short but sweet sonic blasts. Gareth and Claire appear to be singing different songs at some points, but somehow that works with the staccato blasts of guitar, bass and drums that get the crowd moving.
Their set as you'd expect from a band that hasn't played together for a while focuses around 2013's album Buffalo which disappointingly means no rooms for a song called Force Feeding Morrissey A Bacon Sandwich. But the likes of Parts Per Million, Souvenir and the even more off the scale closer Muy Sexo more than make up for that. They don't make noise for noise's sake and there's some killer rhythms and hooks lying just under the surface of these songs which make their minimalist no-thrills approach even more exciting.
Our last band of the evening is The Spook School and they've filled the room with people eager to hear tracks from their second album Try To Be Hopeful, an album full of adrenalin and angst-fuelled blasts of dual guitars, that was released a week ago. They might not be expecting a drummer with red gaffer tape over his nipples only wearing a pair of shorts he looks like he could fall out of any minute but that's what they get. They also combine three sets of vocals throughout with Anna's softer vocals offsetting the raw rugged leads of Nye and Adam.
They describe themselves as a "really silly queer band" but their dismissal of themselves as silly doesn't do them justice. Their songs do focus on issues of gender and sexuality and the likes of Burn Masculinity and the riotous I'll Be Honest are pretty direct in their messages which is to be applauded in an macho heterosexual male ego-driven industry. Whether music can change the world and people's attitudes is debatable, but The Spook School are giving it their best shot and creating some of the most infectious agit-guitar-pop around at the moment.
Jess Bryant's website can be found here. She is also on Facebook and Twitter.
Emma Kupa is on Facebook and Twitter.
Mammoth Penguins' website can be found here. They are also on Facebook and Twitter.
Embers website can be found here. They are also on Facebook and Twitter
Mayors Of Miyazaki are on Facebook.
The Spook School's official site can be found here and they are also on Facebook and Twitter.