This is a concert review intended for publication on The Quietus, but which went unused due to a lack of photos.
This concert could hardly have got off to a worse start, with news that dubstep act King Midas Sound had pulled out hours before they were supposed to be on, citing technical and sound issues. A real shame, and KMS’ Kevin Martin expressed understandable dismay and anger at not being able to perform. Huge credit therefore has to go to Exotic Pylon’s Johnny Mugwump, the show’s organiser, for pulling a rabbit out of the hat and getting Bass Clef to take their place at such short notice.
The Bishopsgate Institute may deserve a rap on the knuckles for not giving in to King Midas Sound’s sonic requirements, but their main hall was still a lovely venue, with excellent sound, given the high ceiling, and it was an aural space that fitted well with Raime’s cavernous take on dubstep. I have my reservations as to how the duo will ever manage to expand on their gloomy, heavy sound -which can get slightly repetitive (2012 note: Their 2012 debut full album has drop-kicked these doubts into the dust, as it’s excellent and a wonderful development)- but when they get into full “swing”, they can be very powerful, with kick drums like hammers shuddering across the hall over floor-shaking bass grooves laced with icy synth patterns and disconnected voice snippets. They made good use of the projector, with suitably apocalyptic videos playing out behind them, but you couldn’t help thinking they were a tantalising, appropriately dark, but rather intangible amuse-bouche for what was to follow.
If Johnny Mugwump deserves credit for how he handled the KMS fall-out, so does Bass Clef (apparently fresh off a building site) for answering the call so emphatically. His fast-paced, energetic take on techno/house may have sat awkwardly with the evening’s “haunted” theme, being more designed for a gleeful rave-up than morose head-shaking, but his chattering drum beats and infectious melodies had the audience dancing fervently, whilst he occasionally dropped in random elements like a high-pitched whistle to keep us on our toes. His final piece saw him pick up a trombone and run it through several effects over shifting rhythms, for a nice dollop of the unexpected and genre-bending, the horn coming on a bit like the minimalism of Dickie Landry’s sax on Fifteen Saxophones, only with frenetic beats chuntering along underneath. Rather than being out-of-place, Bass Clef felt engaging (and above all fun), and his high-octane approach gave the evening a much-needed shot in the arm following the deflation of the King Midas Sound cancellation. I have to admit I’d never heard of Bass Clef before, but his take on techno was one of the most exciting I’ve heard in a while, sitting somewhere between The Field and Ital.
But with King Midas Sound out of the picture, there was always only going to be one piece de resistance, and that was Leyland James Kirby, making his first London appearance in several years. And, literally, what an appearance the man has. With his wild curly mane, he looks like a cross between Ian Hunter and French pop star Michel Polnareff, and he has similar charisma, joking with the audience in his Stockport drawl and opening proceedings with an hilarious lip-synced rendition of Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again”, rolling around on the floor like a parody of a demented, boozed-up rock star. If nostalgia has often been a byword for Kirby’s work, he turned the tables here in quite some style, confounding any expectations I had that this would be a restrained, overly pensive performance.
Once he had settled behind his laptop, the focus of the set switched to the screen as a vaguely narrative-driven film unfolded, one that Kirby seemed to turn to and interact with as he slouched and twisted in his seat. If Kirby’s work as The Caretaker haunts the ballrooms at the back of the minds of aged Alzheimer’s sufferers, his music under his own name feels touched by more immediate ghosts, ones that slipped and slid out of focus both onscreen and in what soon emerged musically as something very different to the material on his most recent album, Eager to Tear Apart the Stars. Dense, tortured drones and ragged percussion jostled with distorted organ noise and thudding bass, whilst scenes of Kirby himself stumbling down a flight of stairs flitted in and out of images of floating women and dark, brooding streets.
In many ways, I was reminded of the live sound of American electro-noise stalwart Keith Fullerton Whitman: Kirby whipped up a veritable electric storm that raged and seethed with the phantoms of his earlier projects V/vm and The Strangers jostling for aural space. The set felt angry and industrial, not so much focusing on memories but rather on the crumbling of the now: sodden cityscapes, uneasy machinery and highways fading into exploding galaxies. Later on, images of Thatcher, the Cold War and protesting feminists and gay rights activists would play out onscreen, dragging in the past to enmesh it with the present, heightening the sense that we were witnessing a despondent, even angry, vision of modern times in full audiovisual flight. Leyland Kirby latched onto the Throbbing Gristle side of psychedelia, and the effects bordered on the unsettling, even as his acute sense of melody crept into the sprawling mix.
And then, just as unexpectedly, the atmosphere switched. Mournful piano chords redolent of the music on Eager to Tear Apart the Stars rolled out of the speakers, underscored by heavy bass rumbles. The film switched from its apocalyptic collage to more intimate scenes of a younger Kirby enjoying himself in black-and-white Berlin. Innocence lost seemed to be the theme, and after such a raw first two-thirds, it was an emotionally charged way to end the set. At the death, a slide dedicated the final performance to us, the audience, with a message of love. Then Kirby was on his feet again, mouthing the words to Barry Manilow’s saccharine ballad “I Write the Songs”. It was both amusing and touching, and I was struck by the man’s aura of charisma and strength as he raised his arms and exhorted us to sing along like a hippy folk icon.
Leyland James Kirby’s vision is complex, its expression almost a stream of consciousness. But ultimately, what stands out is its intensity. Whether playing with basic, atmospheric piano chords on record, or unloading a blitzkrieg of noise live; whether playing with pop songs with evident joy, or playing out dreams and political points in film, he gives himself entirely. That was what was witnessed at the Bishopsgate Institute: an artist opening up completely. The result was thrilling, exhausting and unforgettable.