Levelz

1 May
Yellow Arch Studios

11 men, five hours and only one official track - you’d be forgiven for not knowing quite what to expect from tonight’s spectacle of Manchester’s grime and hip hop collective Levelz getting all up in Sheffield’s grill.

Bringing together four bright young DJs in Biome, Jonny Dub, Metrodome and Rich Reason, and MCs Black Josh, Chimpo, Fox, Skittles, Sparkz, Truthos Mufasa and T-Man (usually accompanied by fellow bar specialist Chunky, who is absent tonight), many of whom are variously connected to other Mancunian acts including the mighty Mouse Outfit, Levelz represent the cream of an almost scarily virile crop which has spilled outside Manchester’s borders and is becoming a nationwide phenomenon.

With hindsight, it should have been obvious what to expect - a party. Displaying seemingly boundless energy throughout, the Levelz crew are clearly having a blast, their good time vibes inescapable no matter which corner of this packed room you find yourself squashed into. The aforementioned single, ‘LVL 07’, nearly brings the place down, with the horde screaming along to T-Man’s opening lines, but the true ingenuity here comes from the interplay between this band of brothers throughout the rest of the night.

MCs take the stage two or three at a time and perform partly freestyled mini-sets, and some of the previously unheard combinations highlight the almost limitless potential for the future of this act. When Skittles finally stops drinking from his massive birthday night beverage and lets loose some rhymes alongside Sparkz, their rapid-fire, machine gun deliveries intertwine to dizzying effect. Later, veteran MC Fox and wild-eyed maverick Truthos Mufasa team up, both espousing soulful, Rasta-styled croons between their stellar flows. The stamina levels of both Black Josh and Sparkz are unparalleled, onstage most of the night between them, yet never missing a beat.

The forward-thinking beats emanating from the speakers veer from spacey to filthy, but always rattling you to the core with thundering bass, with Metrodome’s stint behind the decks standing out as especially impressive. Chimpo’s poorly judged stage dive aside, nothing goes amiss tonight, and Levelz look poised to run the UK hip hop scene in the near future.

Richard Spencer

October Drift

8 May
Plug

First to take to the stage tonight were stripped-back rock ‘n’ roll trio Floodhounds. The newly recorded ‘Bare Bones’, a taster from their upcoming EP, crossed the raw blues of The White Stripes with the garage sensibilities of early Black Keys. Showing further potential with the foot tapping were the catchy and energetic ‘Cold Air’ and ‘Motivation’.

Ordnance, as expected, brought in a bigger audience with a genre-breaking sound their fan base has started calling ‘new culture’, a mix of indie and dance through electronic glitches and MIDI programming, alongside traditional instruments and melodic vocals. Their most popular songs were the fret-tapping 'Seamstress’, with its sub heavy dance beats and delicate yet elaborate vocals, and the not-easily-forgettable ‘Shotgun or Snake’.

The headliners tonight were the social network-shy October Drift, returning to the Plug after two sold out shows last year. A mysterious band who have cleverly been avoiding any online presence, they instead exist through word of mouth. Atmospheric and dynamic single ‘Whoever’ sounds even more volatile and explosive than on record, the moody and passionate vocals imprisoning the spirit of Ian Curtis before soaring into the explosive, fuzzy chorus sounding like a possessed Kevin Shields.

October Drift capture the melancholia of The National and White Lies in their latest self-released single, ‘You Are, You Are’, through its crooning vocals, thought-provoking lyrics and scorching synths. The audience were treated to new tracks in the form of ‘The Pass’ and ‘Pick Me Up’, both holding glowing yet understated grunge hooks not unlike The Smashing Pumpkins. The gig was made even more potent and forceful by their ominous stage presence. The stage sits in a blackened state with strobes of drowning white light which pierce across the quartet, giving a haunting yet vigorous performance.

Their towering and energetic live shows create a backdrop for October Drift’s soaring, atmospheric and picturesque songs to surge within.

Alan Byatt

Mammal Hands

13 May
Lescar

The Lescar cemented its claim of hosting Sheffield’s best weekly jazz night last month after Norwich-based trio Mammal Hands performed a sell-out show in the pub’s teeming back room. Gondwana Records’ freshest signing and rising stars of the UK jazz scene, these young chaps have garnered well-deserved acclaim for their stunning debut album Animalia, released in September. Like label mates GoGo Penguin, their music balances elements of acoustic jazz with diverse and unlikely influences. In Mammal Hands’ case, this sees the band tapping into the traditions of Indian and African percussion, while also taking cues from minimalist and electronic music. The end product is a distinctive, accessible take on jazz.

After a few modest words, Mammal Hands shuffle into position and slide into the music. It’s clear from the off that the label ‘jazz trio’ severely understates the scope of inspiration and knowledge that the band are building on. The self-proclaimed influence of minimalist pioneer Steve Reich is evident in the stylistic appropriation of hypnotic and syncopated piano phrases, which dance over the expert percussion of drummer Jesse Barrett. Like Reich, the band playfully exploits the audience’s rhythmic assumptions through subtle manipulation of time signature and groove.

The interplay between brothers Nick (piano) and Jordan Smart (sax) is so effortlessly clean that at points it sounds like there’s one musician playing both parts. As the brothers’ instruments meld beautifully, the lack of a double bass – so often a staple of live jazz – is rendered unproblematic. Drummer Barrett punctuates the harmonic side of the outfit with finesse, assembling complex and powerful patterns on the main kit one minute, while providing ambient dustings of brushed snares and cymbals the next. He also draws on his experience of Indian classical music, pulling out a tabla for a few songs to add yet another dimension to the performance.

Mammal Hands finish their encore to rapturous and sustained applause from the audience and, as they sheepishly thank the crowd, they look genuinely humbled by the reception. They’d best get used to it.

Aidan Daly

Ensemble 360

14 May
Crucible Studio

Ensemble 360 are some of Britain’s most accomplished chamber musicians, so my excitement for their performances is always piqued by the prospect of fabulous playing. But their performances in the Crucible’s intimate studio space carry an extra appeal - the musicians sit facing each other in a circle, so close that they draw you in, making you feel as if you are an active part of the interplay of energy. The musicians affably joke, laugh and converse with the audience, explaining the context and nuances of each piece before or after commencing - a welcome change from the detachment sometimes felt at a classical concert.

The bill on the night was themed around youth and age, featuring music spanning two centuries of composition, but linked nonetheless by expressions of yearning and nostalgia. To begin with we were treated to Ravel’s ‘Sonata in G for Piano and Violin’, thus exploring old age first. Ravel’s later music was greatly influenced by the blues, melding the raw, pentatonic simplicity of the genre with a modernism unease with beauty in the wake of war.

Following this, we were presented with something that couldn’t be more contemporary: the world premiere of a new composition by Elizabeth Ogonek. Based around Rimbaud’s ‘Enfance’ poems in Illuminations, it wove together two groups of motifs, one representing the innocence of childhood memory, and another more sinisterly suggesting the inevitable contamination of this innocence as we recollect those memories in adulthood.

After the break, things got simultaneously more spritely and more aged, as the program reached further back in time, and yet the composers ages (at the time of the compositions) got ever younger. First we had Shostakovich’s ‘Piano Trio No.1 in C Minor’, a homage to teenage yearning that pays its very obvious dues to the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, but is none the weaker for it. Finally Bruch’s ‘Septet in E Flat’, composed when Bruch was just 11. Owing as much to Beethoven’s bold richness as Shostakovich’s piece did to Wagner’s chilly romanticism, this was a jubilant and playful ending to a fantastic night of music.

Ben Dorey

Stop Drop Robot

25 May
Rocking Chair

Lived through the mosher phase in the early noughties and thought nu-metal was long gone? Think again. Stop Drop Robot are heading a new kind of rock movement in Sheffield which combines indie vocals, metal and electronic beats. The last May bank holiday marked the third gig on their 12-date UK tour.

All the members of support band Servers are in hoodies, whilst one guitarist wears a black leather mask reminiscent of Slipknot. A frightening sample of a man's voice foretells the destruction of earth and I brace myself for an abrasive performance. The front man's gritty shouts can just about be heard over the fuzz of guitars. 'Claustrophobia' and 'Save Me From Myself' give the band a Metallica-like sound, as strobe lights add some theatrics.

Of Allies are melodic and much more approachable with their friendly banter. From the lighter side of metal, they play songs from their EP Fragments, including 'One 19' and Incubus-esque past single 'In Screens', which gained the band attention when it appeared on the Kerrang website. In between songs, the band make the whole crowd crack up with jazzy renditions and take the mick out of the singer's “posh” accent. This Hull band obviously know how to play and work hard, and deserve all the positive press.

“How we doing Sheffield?” shouts frontman Samuel Christie as Stop Drop Robot's dramatic and bouncy guitar riffs fill the small basement. Anyone would think the band were in a stadium, the way they play with complete confidence and boundless energy. Subtle synths give 'Cerebral Eviction Notice' a nu-metal feel, before charging into a mosh-worthy chorus, whilst new single 'Maps' is a full-on rock track with chanting punk vocals. They finish with the grungy guitars and angry vocals of 'Held Down', welcomed with a whoop of familiarity from the crowd. Safe to say, metal is alive and well in Yorkshire.

Phoebe Seymour

Diane Cluck

2 May
Upper Chapel

The Upper Chapel is gently lit. Little Robots, a Sheffield-based quartet of guitars, ukelele and warm honeyed harmonies, open the night. Theirs is a sound from another time, with gorgeously arranged and delicately delivered blues and folk covers, such as their killer siren-song version of ‘Highland Fairy Lullaby’, alongside self-penned pearls like ‘In Dust and Flames’. “Money matters too much,” is a line that jumps out in one song, given that tonight is also a fundraiser for Sheffield Food Collective. Tins of meat and fish from the generous gig goers are stacked on the ticket desk.

This is Virginia-based Diane Cluck’s fourth visit to Sheffield and she seems genuinely happy to be back. Diane’s is a voice seemingly more waterborne than air-based. It flows like syrup on recent single ‘Sara’, ebbing and swelling over the silence of the church, warming the space like sun on a cold lake. “Now that I’ve calmed down / My heart beats so steady you could set your watch by me,” she lilts over harp-like guitar on ‘Wild Deer at Dawn’ from 2004’s Oh Vanille/Ova Nil.

Diane plays with an inspiring freedom, masterfully picking and plucking at her nylon strings and tapping her boots. Then, taking her place delightedly at the grand piano in the corner of the stage (few venues on her tour have had pianos - “it’s a treat”), she plays ‘Draw Me Out’ from last year’s Boneset and whips up a quiet, rumbling storm for ‘Ink and Needles’ from her self-titled debut. Other instruments include a self-built contraption of copper tubes that chime and tinkle on the playful ‘Red August’, and the zither for ‘Perigee Moon’, when she’s joined by a shyly participating audience.

Seeing Diane play feels like being welcomed into her house. She exudes warmth towards her audience, who demand an encore. Diane responds with the singularly beautiful ‘Half a Million Miles from Home’, singing, “I’ll ride you home and tether you tenderly by a stream / Let you drink alone and dream.”

Nat Loftus

Gilmore Trail

16 May
Local Authority

It takes a brave band to carve their niche in the musical landscape without a vocalist, but the size of tonight’s crowd shows how much this unorthodox path has paid off for Sheffield’s instrumental rock merchants, Gilmore Trail.

Tonight’s only other band, Awooga, bring a unique blend of heartfelt post-rock and Alice in Chains-esque groove and melody, with moments of truly crushing weight to their performance. Local Authority’s sound man does a stellar job tonight, bringing Awooga’s sound to another level of reverb-soaked clarity.

Putting all their eggs in one basket and playing their new album, The Floating World, in its entirety, Gilmore Trail clearly have strong faith in their material, and it’s obvious the crowd share their fervour, many of them already clad in the band’s t-shirts. At some points, sections of the crowd are at least as loud as the music, but the band do more than enough to overcome such distractions, offering a set which demonstrates that they have evolved their already mighty sound into a perfectly rounded supernova of warm, expressive bliss.

The music follows the same formula as their debut album, Sailing Stones, in that you know that an emotional crescendo is coming in every song, yet this never takes away from the experience. The band have a progressive edge which keeps the brain engaged alongside the heart, with time and tempo shifts throughout the set, and when that climax does come, it’s far from predictable. Sometimes a wall of sound will hit you out of nowhere. Other times it’s preceded by a slow-burning build.

Their sound has grown in both dimensions - the loud, heavy sections are more epic and supremely powerful, while the mellow sections are still more subtle and embellished with lush synth lines. In the live environment Joe Richards’ melodic bass playing is more prominent too, often filling the gap that some perceive to be left by the lack of vocals. Clearly humbled by tonight, Gilmore Trail are on the rise, and on the strength of shows like this, they may soon attain the soaring heights their music evokes.

Richard Spencer