Castelbuono means, literally, 'good castle'. It's aptly named – nestled in the Sicilian mountains, the air is clear and blue skies stretch on for mile after mile beyond the walls of the Medieval castle itself.
It's a rather unique town. Only a 90 minute drive from the centre of Palermo, Castelbuono feels entirely removed from the hustle and bustle of city life, with the languid pace perfectly reflecting the incredible weather.
Ypsigrock festival was kick-started 20 years ago, utilising the castle as it's base. Since then, the festival has grown from strength to strength, gathering an international reputation thanks to its unique setting and laid-back atmosphere. It's more than this, though: the festival has had an incredible impact on the town itself, meaning that bars in this tiny corner of Sicily resonate to LCD Soundsystem, Mogwai, Belle & Sebastian, and other indie delights. Truly, this is the good life.
This year's Ypsigrock gets under way with an informal party on the camp site, a series of DJs from across Italy uniting to raise the temperature just a little. Georgia plays in the courtyard of a small church, with the Domino signing presenting material from her rightly acclaimed debut album. The sound is perfect, the crushing bass matched against those pulverising drum beats played by Georgia herself. Swaet lashes down from the musicians, who are clearly enjoying every second – and Georgia even utilises some improvisatory sign language to get her point across.
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Truly a band to be cherished...
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With the sun setting behind a Medieval castle and his band setting up in the courtyard Oscar is clearly in his element. The singer positively purrs while onstage, each song seeming to lift the band higher and higher. Ending with 'Sometimes', Oscar promises to stick around – so long as someone offers to drive him to the beach in the morning. Judging by the cheers from the crowd, he won't be short of volunteers.
Liverpool's The Vryll Society are next, and their audacious psychedelia soars into the night. Cosmic Scousers with their eyes set on the prize, the band do themselves no harm with a crisp, impassioned set that is high on energy and thrills.
"We are Mudhoney and we play rock 'n' roll." Mark Arm is in the house, and the grunge pioneers have lost none of their illicit charm. Mudhoney positively slay, the band marking their first ever visit to Sicily with an incredible Big Muff fuelled set that draws on key moments from their classic catalogue. The group's sheer delight in the Italian crowd barking out the lyrics to 'Touch Me I'm Sick' provides one of the weekend's real highlights, but some of the lesser explored cuts rival their seminal cohort. Truly a band to be cherished.
The Vaccines have reached headline status, and – with the band celebrating Freddie Cowan's birthday – they pulled out all the stops for Ypsigrock. 'Post Break Up Sex' unfurls with rare abandon, Justin Young abandoning his guitar to playfully croon with the front row. The sheer zest that dominates the set has to be seen to be believed – the doubters remain, but there's little denying the punch, the impact of a Vaccines live show.
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All weekend we're told that it never, ever rains in Sicily during August. Never. And so naturally, Saturday opens with a downpour of Biblical proportions. Streets are turned into rivers, and the beautiful balconies that jut out from each floor of each building are turned en masse into small ponds. The festival organisers are quick to react, pushing back stage times and promoting Loyle Carner onto the main stage.
It's a masterstroke. The London star's brand of hip-hop goes down a storm with sodden fans, who cram into the main square to catch a glimpse. Loyle is in his element, the set erupting with real passion and a thirst for new ideas – yet there's also enough crisp 90s hip-hop references in those boom bap beats to make the whole affair immediately enticing.
Kiasmos pull out due to injury, but Grandbrothers are able replacements. The German duo fill the darkening sky with beautiful music, aligning notes of neo-classical piano to some exploratory techno. Fellow travellers of the Erased Tapes stable, Grandbrothers are one of the weekend's real surprises.
LUH grew out of WU LYF, and their debut album reeked of distress, disillusionment and an eagerness to find themselves once more. Well, it appears they've succeeded in their search; the band's edgy post-punk inspired set goes down a storm with Italian fans, while Ebony Hoorn's provocative, preening stage manner is reminiscent of those early Garbage shows.
All thoughts are moving towards Crystal Castles. Ethan Kath's controversial decision to continue with the project ruffled feathers, with new vocalist Edith Frances picking up Alice Glass' shattered microphone. It's an able set, one that meshes the chaos of their earlier shows with a little more focus. It's far from the disaster some would wish it to be, with Ethan ably shunting their electro-noize onto a fresh chapter.
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The sun returns for the final day, with Castelbuono once again basking in delirious warmth. The entire town shuts down for Sunday, and no one seems to be doing a stroke of work. The streets are empty and the church are full, with the sound of peeling bells tinkling across those endless azure skies.
A local marching band leads a colourful parade through the town centre, before making way for an unforgettable set from Willis Earl Beal. Demanding that the crowd remain seated and do not – repeat DO NOT – clap between songs, his dramatic voice and powerful stage presence comes to the fore. Soaring, emotive, tumultuous fare, it’s daring, challenging, and entirely unforgettable. His parting words to the audience? “Buy my records because I’m a dirty capitalist”.
Minor Victories are – on paper – a superb proposition. The vocals of Slowdive, the guitar of Mogwai, and the sleek melodrama of Editors. What could possibly go wrong? As it turns out, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, with the group meshing into something quite powerful indeed. Perhaps it’s the location, with that ancient castle smouldering in the late evening sunset, but Minor Victories break free of their prior occupations to become an entirely independent, and wholly affecting entity.
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With the square now full to bursting and the castle falling into shadow...
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Savages, meanwhile, need no introduction. The band’s potent, visceral live show has now empowered two full lengths, with material from ‘Adore Life’ forming the spine of their Ypsigrock set. Lush noise triggers adoration from the crowd, with Jehnny Beth’s stage-diving taking her out across their heads. In tribute to the late Alan Vega the band play a moving rendition of ‘Dream Baby Dream’, which they introduce as “one of the best songs, ever”. Infused with neo-industrial charm, we’d be hard-pressed to disagree.
With the square now full to bursting and the castle falling into shadow it’s time for Daughter to take to the stage. The band’s live set has always been about subtlety and allusion, but that beautiful noise seems to perfectly fill the arena. Humble and humane, Elanda Tonra seems genuinely moved by the response – the crowd are patient, waiting for each song to unfurl before showing their praise, the applause rippling far into the Sicilian sky.
And that’s precisely why Ypsigrock succeeds. It’s not about any one element – the line up, the crowd, the setting, or the weather, even – but the way each interacts with the other, becoming something unforgettable in the process. A quite unique festival, there’s a mysterious charm to this Sicilian event that is nigh on impossible to put into words. It’s a trite phrase, but true: Ypsigrock really is spell-binding.
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