Photos by Valerio Berdini

The sister event to All Tomorrow's Parties, I’ll Be Your Mirror returned to the luxurious setting of Alexandra Palace for a second year running. In the absence of a single curator, the festival was curated by ATP themselves, with Mogwai curating the Saturday line-up, and each day felt and sounded very different to the previous one.

“We have some bands who haven't played an ATP before and will hopefully redress the codger ratio somewhat.” So say Mogwai in their programme notes, obviously mindful of the fact that loading the line-up with too many old bands will lead to obvious criticisms of creating a 'retro-festival'. Also, this festival hasn't had the best fortune, as Death Grips and El-P both had to cancel their performances, and their presence here would have done a lot to tip the balance away from the retro feel, as both of those are responsible for two of the albums of 2012 so far.

Death Grips are missing from Friday which, without them, runs like a seamless programme of stoner-rock and metal. Oregon three-piece YOB set the tone early on, their sludgy wall of sound from and a set of three epic songs created a doomy contrast with the hot sun outside.

Melvins were the first big draw of the day and the sunlit Great Hall began to fill up during their set. These guys have a huge and varied back catalogue spanning 29 years, but they chose to begin with the pulverising drone of 'Hung Bunny', which of course fits perfectly with the event. This also allowed the band to take the stage gradually – Buzz and Jared building the drone and Dale and Coady joining in with their double drum kits. Essentially the first 20 minutes were music that is 20 years old, yet here it seemed revived and powerful, and served to remind us where the likes of Boris and SunnO))) have come from. A couple of tunes from their recent album 'The Bride Screamed Murder' introduced a bit more punk rock fun into the proceedings with double drum kit interplay and call and response vocals. Another nod to their punk roots came with a great cover of the Wipers 'Youth of America'. They wrapped with an incredibly heavy version of 'The Bit' and despite their early set time they left a lasting impression on today's events.

The band I was looking forward to most today was Wolves In The Throne Room. At the Godspeed You! Black Emperor ATP I could hardly see these guys for the amount of dry ice - here they have the benefit of the darkened West Hall and minimal violet blue lighting, and I can barely distinguish three figures on stage. Their set was dominated by their recent album 'Celestial Lineage', which has as much in common with ambient drone as it has with generic metal. Although trademarks such as the double beater on the drums and the screaming vocals are there, this music would sit well with something like Popul Vuh's Herzog soundtracks. I rated their set, but I felt that for a lot of this crowd they were an ambient lull after the intensity of Melvins. Having said that, the over-powering sound pressure levels they created near the end of the set were one of the most intense things all weekend.

The Great Hall was now packed for the return of Sleep, perhaps the quintessential stoner-rock three-piece. They were a band I never quite clicked with until tonight. They play bits of 'Holy Mountain' and their classic 'Dopesmoker' and get one of the warmest receptions from an audience I can remember. Vocalist Al Cisneros was obviously moved by it and has difficulty expressing his immense gratitude to ATP for bringing his band over and having them play in between Melvins and Slayer. By the time they launch into the classic swaggering riff of 'Dragonaut' they've won everyone over, and they pretty much stole the show.

As soon as they left a huge backdrop of the Slayer logo is unveiled, and there's no doubt who this crowd have come to see. Tonight was billed as “Slayer performing Reign in Blood” but they don't start with that material, and prefer to open with the recent 'World Painted Blood' before playing half an hour of older material like 'Dead Skin Mask'. I'm not a metal fan and this wasn't what I was expecting but most of the crowd were loving it, they were rougher and more gung-ho than the regular ATPers, throwing themselves into the moshpit with clothes and hair and drink flying around. On the 30 minute mark the backdrop changed into the 'Reign in Blood' cover and they launch into 'Angel of Death'. This is the bridge-gap album between metal and punk – ferocious and tight – and as promised it was played in order and sounded great in this grand hall.

Overall, I enjoyed today more than I thought I would, and the bands all fitted together really well. It had the high production values that are synonymous with any ATP festival, and the sound in particular was to be applauded.

Saturday began with Floor, another three-piece sludge-rock band revived from slumber by Mogwai and ATP. They dovetailed with yesterday's acts really well and I'd suggest that a fair proportion of Friday day ticket holders would've have enjoyed this set and the one immediately after from Harvey Milk. I was wondering which Harvey Milk would show up, and initially they were in full grunge mode, although as the gig develops they hint at the influences of ZZ Top and southern boogie in their music. Not only did their bassist rock the best fuzzy beard and pyjamas look, he was responsible for one of the loudest noises of the weekend thanks to some low string bass impact.

For Saturday and Sunday the festival only used the West Hall and the intimate Panorama Room, and the latter is where I call in to see what The Music Of Can is all about. The room has a greenhouse type feel to it and it is very bright, and this turned out to be quite an odd event. The 75 year old Irmin Schmidt from Can at the decks with Jon Podmore looked and felt like DJs at a wedding reception, and despite some top tunes and the promise of some of the Lost Tapes I didn't stay there long enough to get into it.

They're followed by Antoni Miavvi, a solo act running laptops and drum machines with a Wii-controller. Given what has gone before, he stuck out like a sore thumb, but he was actually a welcome contrast. He isn't a laptop-gazer though and he “works the room”, not intimidated by the lack of atmosphere, he got into the audience and made them get involved. Slightly unhinged synth-pop, and worth investigating further.

Back into the West Hall for the double 1990s bill of Chavez followed by Codeine. I enjoyed Chavez, although I think they lost some of the crowd with their slightly angular indie-rock. Again the sound was great, though this time it was challenging hi-end guitar squall rather than the familiar heavy oomph of some of the grunge acts that went before. I had never seen Chavez before and I was delighted to hear the likes of 'Break up Your Band' and 'Repeat the Ending'.

Of all the buzz about reformations at this festival, Codeine are arguably one of the most anticipated. They were asked to reform the first time Mogwai curated an ATP, in 2000, but turned down the offer only to confirm 12 years later! They don't disappoint and they open with 'D', which is my favourite song of theirs. Often considered the originators of sadcore or slow-core, they are a much more subtle three piece than some of the previous bands. Live, I'm struck with similarities with Slint and the quieter moments of Bitch Magnet, and in fact they dedicate 'Pickup Song' to Sooyoung Park of Bitch Magnet and reveal that it was written for him. 'Tom' was a real highlight, and Chris Brokaw came out from behind his kit to play bass on the closing song, a beautiful version of 'Pea'.

Unfortunately the busy Saturday schedule threw up the worst clash of the weekend, and I opted for Bill Wells And Aidan Moffat over Mudhoney, which actually had Moffat admitting from the stage he would be rather watching Mudhoney, who by all accounts played a cracking set. Despite Aidan's assertion that he “looks and sounds better in the dark”, their jazz inflected tales go down well in the Panorama Room and they are one of the highlights of the weekend for me. 'Glasgow Jubilee' was restored to its mucky electronic version, and 'Keep Me In Your Heart' saw Moffat take up drumkit duties for the closing section. They covered Bananarama's 'Cruel Summer' and play a lovely version of 'The Copper Top' which gets an amazing reaction from the audience.

We went from one showman to another, as Warren Ellis from the Dirty Three was holding court in the West Hall, attacking his violin with verve and kicking his legs higher than a man his age should be able to. Resplendent in a polka dot shirt, he interspersed the band's mesmeric instrumentals with humour, surrealism and theories about how to solve the crisis facing the Euro. Music-wise, they opened with the improv burst of 'Furnace Skies' from the recent album and revisited some lovely older material such as 'Restless Waves' and 'Some Summers They Drop Like Flys'. Some of the best bits came when Ellis played piano instead of his customary violin, and both 'Sometimes I Forget You Have Gone' and the closing 'Ashen Show' are beautiful.

Headliners and curators Mogwai could be justifiably proud of today's varied line-up, and they closed the evening with a career spanning set that opened with 'Sine Wave', and took in very old songs like 'Ithica' as well as last year's beat-driven 'Mexican Grand Prix'. The sound was as good as all the other bands, but it was clear that Mogwai had kept the best lights for themselves. There aren't any huge surprises, although they have worked on their arrangements and some songs such as 'Two Rights Make One Wrong' seemed fresher for it. This wasn't as predictable as some naysayers suggested, and the steady onslaught of the closing ‘Batcat’ typifies their approach these days.

Due to an unfortunate clash with the Dirty Three, I missed Balam Acab on Saturday night, so Sunday morning gave me the only other opportunity this weekend to sample new electronica. Blanck Mass is the solo project of Benjamin Power, one half of Fuck Buttons, who played to a fairly empty hall as most people opted to stay out in the hot afternoon sun rather than stand in the dark of the West Hall. After an unfortunate interruption due to a power cut, he got back into his stride quickly. Musically this was very much the downbeat side to Fuck Buttons, an unlikely bass heavy cousin to experimental music like Eno/ Byrne's 'My Life in the Bush Ghosts' or a dub heavy Shriekback - essentially very loud electronica with maximum bass. His visuals were great and actually looked like proper visual art such as Pipilotti Rist or the Tron movie.

Demdike Stare were also visually impressive, using manipulated VHS transfers of old horror movies, which together with their tribal electronica and its superbly rattling bass makes for an unnerving, spooky vibe. They made me forget the sun outside for 30 minutes, and that says something.

I couldn't forget the sun during Tall Firs set as they were in the brightly lit Panorama Room. Perhaps the quietest band on the bill, they are now back to their original line-up as a guitar duo combining old country stylings with a post-rock feel.

Thee Oh Sees

Back into the dark for the noisy garage rock of Thee Oh Sees. Essentially a party band who work best late at night, they took to their early afternoon set with gusto, blasting through a set of songs taken from their last two albums. 'The Dream' was always going to be one of the highlights of the weekend, and it didn't disappoint.

Another band who really went for it were the revived North Carolina combo Archers Of Loaf. This lot never really clicked with me in the past, and I'm not sure they have the material to have a legacy as strong as their contemporaries like Superchunk, although this was a short sharp energetic set and definitely won them a lot of new fans. They save their best until last with a superb 'Web In Front'.

Make Up

There was an air of anticipation surrounding the return of The Make-Up and they certainly split the crowd. Either you loved them or hated them, and as I've written “amazing show” in my notes, I was definitely in the former camp. They always worked best as a live act and in homage to their 'Live at Cold Rice' album they are introduced by the MC from it, Dale Shaw. This was the biggest room I've ever seen them in, and Ian Svevonius was equal to it. He was in the crowd a lot, with admiring hands holding him aloft as he babbles half-gibberish about “having a baby called ATP” and so on. By the time they are into old classics like 'I Am Pentagon' it feels like they've never been gone.

Afghan Whigs

However, most of this crowd are here for the return of the Afghan Whigs, and this was one of the first shows since they reformed. Much like Slayer two nights ago, this is more of a headline set gig than a curator performance. I don't remember the Whigs ever being a six-piece, but they are now, with additional members on violin and cello adding more width to their sound. The red drapes and mirrorball behind them suit the faded glamour evident in a lot of their songs.

Greg Dulli was in great form and clearly relished performing the likes of 'Gentleman', 'Conjure Me', and 'Debonair'. They closed the main set with 'Faded' and left the surprises for the encore. They played their 'new' song 'See and Don't See', and no-one minded that it is a cover version, then they played a version of Frank Ocean's 'Lovecrimes',which fitted perfectly with their sound and brought their RnB influences up to date. They ended with their own classics – 'Fountain and Fairfax' and a brilliant 'Miles iz Ded'. I'm not their biggest fan but it was hard to fault this impressive set.

As has been shown over the years with the likes of Slint and My Bloody Valentine, ATP are particularly good at reviving old bands and giving them a chance to play live with state-of-the-art facilities. In many cases they sound bigger and better than they did first time around. This was no different this weekend, and many of the acts openly expressed their gratitude and delight at sharing the stage with such a legendary line-up. As I said earlier, this would have seemed a much less retrospective event if they hadn't had the unfortunate late cancellations, and the fact that The National are in place to curate December's ATP event suggests that the organisers have faith in currently functioning bands to take charge of future events. Whatever your theories about this, it was still amazing to find so much quality music crammed into three days.