The British Music Embassy returned to SXSW last week for its 12th year, showcasing some of the best new talent that the British Isles have to offer. This year’s festivities took place on March 10-16 at Austin’s Latitude 30, where dozens of acts performed throughout the week in hopes of penetrating the hearts of the music-hungry festivalgoers. Last year, the British Music Embassy hosted artists like Shame, Superorganism, Idles, Our Girl, Pale Waves, Goat Girl and Nilufer Yanya, all of which went on to release impressive debut LPs. As usual, the brick-walled, 150-capacity venue was peppered with journalists, photographers, music industry folk and BBC radio DJs like Abbie McCarthy, Huw Stephens and Steve Lamacq. Most nights throughout the week were so packed that crowds began to huddle around the venue windows to catch a glimpse of an artist that could become a skyrocketing success. Many of the artists that played this year’s showcase were featured in our list of 15 New British Acts You Need to Know in 2019, and several of them became highlights of the whole festival. Check out Paste’s list of the seven best artists we saw at the 2019 British Music Embassy, listed in alphabetical order below.
Black Midi are a band who make no sense on paper. Take four young Londoners who aren’t old enough to drink in the states and bestow them with an amorphous sound and the musicianship of a band two decades their senior. Black Midi brought an experimental mix of noise rock, math rock, jazz, grime and post-hardcore, laden with idiosyncratic textures, mind-bending tempo shifts and uber dynamic vocals. Last Tuesday, the Rough Trade signees stunned the Latitude 30 crowd with jammy, mathcore guitar freakouts, skittering drums and a diverse range of lead vocals from several band members. It was difficult to tell where one song ended and the next one began, but I presume the crowd was too mesmerized to try and work it out.
Celeste Waite, who records under the name Celeste, has the kind of smoky, soulful voice that can make even the most uptight curmudgeons sway back and forth. The jazzy singer took the Latitude 30 stage on Saturday with a downtempo soul sound that is neither hyper modern or retro—it simply eases the pain of the mind, body and soul. Her elegant, ever-so-slightly grizzled pipes were adorned with light percussion, piano and horns, so as to not overshadow the main attraction—a soothing soul voice that only comes around every once in a blue moon. Her Lately EP comes out this Friday (March 22).
Irish band Fontaines D.C. appear to be the next big post-punk export from the British Isles. They’re set to release their debut album Dogrel on April 12 via Partisan Records, and the five-piece band made their SXSW debut this year with some serious hype behind them. Frontman Grian Chatten doesn’t have a rough, throaty punk roar, but his droney, poetic speak-sing packs just as much of a punch. When he’s not evangelizing in a distinctly Irish tongue, he wanders anxiously around the stage rather than throwing himself around or into the crowd. Tracks like “Boys in the Better Land,” “Too Real” and “Big” were all winners—their gritty social commentary is powerful and their no-frills rock riffs possess a meaty, spring-loaded energy.
Bridie Monds-Watson, who records under the name SOAK, began to drum up attention with the release of her 2015 debut album Before We Forgot How to Dream, which received a Mercury Prize nomination. She’s set to return with a follow-up LP, Grim Town, next month, and her British Music Embassy performance proves that her earnest and intelligent guitar pop hasn’t lost a beat. Her marked sweetness and arresting vitality are indicative of someone who hasn’t succumbed to pessimism and isn’t ready to surrender any time soon. New songs like the bewildering beauty, “Everybody Loves You” and the pure, light-hearted “Knock Me Off My Feet” made the crowd swoon and made my heart flutter.
The past decade of British indie rock largely discarded any remaining traces of ’90s Britpop for a smoother, often inoffensive modern rock sound. Enter West London sextet Sports Team, arguably the most exciting Britpop-indebted band in years. Frontman Alex Rice and co. headlined the British Embassy at Austin’s Latitude 30, playing their uncharacteristically funny and charismatic indie rock for about 45 minutes to a packed crowd. The dress coat-suited Rice jerked his lanky arms around like Iggy Pop, Mick Jagger or perhaps a glam rock or proto-punk-esque chicken. Songs like “Kutcher” and recent single “M5” sound even friskier in live form. Rice vigorously mimes words and dances in a disheveled manner during the instrumental passages, giving off an anxious, arty and distinctly British rock energy.
Sure, there’s plenty of great post-punk knocking about on the shores of the old Blighty, but Squid separate themselves with multiple lead vocalists and additional instrumentation—horns, synths, cowbell, triangle, a guiro and god knows what else. They only have a few singles to their name, but tracks like “The Dial” and “Houseplants” are the kind of nervy, spunky art punk tunes that are supremely enjoyable and memorable in both their studio and live forms. Plus, everyone loves a good singing drummer and the London via Brighton five-piece have a great one at that.
After the release of their exceptional debut EP, What’s On Your Mind?, Brighton four-piece Thyla made their American debut at this year’s SXSW. The band performed misty guitar cuts like “Pristine Dream,” “Only Ever” and “Blue,” with enigmatic frontwoman/guitarist Millie Duthie at the helm of their lush dream-pop meets moody post-punk. With an impressively consistent discography thus far and an exuberant live show that does their cloudy atmospherics justice, Thyla have all the bearings of a band worth obsessing over.