This concert marked the end of Exotic Pylon’s series of gigs at London’s prestigious jazz club The Vortex, and was the last of four nights that brought in a range of experimental and electronic artists, from Cindytalk to Black to Comm, Vindicatrix to Alexander Tucker. The end of Exotic Pylon’s association with The Vortex is a real shame, not just for the music but also because it means we won’t get to enjoy the enthusiastic and indefatigable personality that is Jonny Mugwump. This article serves as a lament to the end of this unique collaboration. As on previous occasions, this was a great line-up and a stirring show. I was left despondent that I’d not been able to attend the other three nights.
When I first saw him perform at this very same venue back in September or so, I had been rather underwhelmed by the laptop-based electronic music of Ship Canal. But time has allowed him to develop and intensify his sound, which is still reliant on his trusty PC, with clouds of electronic atmospheres drifting or edging into aural focus. Where he really has improved is in the use of beats, dropping edgy, dubstep-like percussion into the dense mix of synth lines, tape loops and uneasy samples. The juxtaposition between the beats and the electronics created an uneasy form of dilapidated techno that had the audience shaking in a disjointed parody of dance. My initial reservation about Ship Canal’s music, that he shifts too abruptly between different textures or sounds before the listener has had a chance to settle into what he or she is hearing, still stands, but this first set was a very solid amuse-bouche for what was to follow.
Dalglish’s Dalglish Benacah Drann Deachd was one of my favourite albums of last year, a haunting compilation of evocative post-techno traversed by the memories and emotions of its creator, coming across as a weird internal monologue re-calibrated for the dancefloor during the dying embers of a club night. At The Vortex, however, Chris Douglas proved to be a very different animal altogether. Yes, the gloomy synth ambience and moody crackle were still very much present, but everything was cranked up a notch, with near-IDM percussion driving everything with muted, yet strident, energy and each melody (track?) blended into the next to create a single wall of ever-shifting, troubled electronic mulch. It didn’t so much have a groove as wash over you like a sandstorm, with rugged details popping up here and there to punctuate the morass. Like Ship Canal, Dalglish remained seated behind his laptop, but his apocalyptic take on avant-techno packed a much more disquieting punch.
Judging by the heaving throng that massed into the venue (I’ve never seen The Vortex so packed), Cut Hands, aka ex-Whitehouse frontman William Bennett, was the star act on the bill, and he duly produced a beast of a set. He was actually more subdued than when I saw him last year at The Basing House, standing over his laptop and machines and only occasionally turning his gaze from them to jerk around like a possessed puppet or stare enigmatically at the audience. The sound was no less brutal, however, as deep, rumbling bass tones and nerve-jarring beats -sounding like a million djembes processed through the mother of all distortion pedals- assaulted the auditorium like machine gun bullets under brittle bursts of piercing synth tones. A track like “Stabbers Conspiracy”, from Afro Noise Vol.1, gained so much potency in a live setting, its shrill percussive clangs scattered around the room like sonic ball bearings. On slower-paced pieces, the bleak, oppressive nature of Cut Hands’ music really came to the fore, reinforcing its ties to the power electronics and industrial scenes of Bennett’s past. Beyond the music, what really stood out were the visuals. I’ve long lamented the lack of stage presence of many electro/dance/synth performers, and Bennett is the perfect antidote for many of his peers’ sanguinity: strange, unsettling footage of African people engaging in ancient rituals and struggling with the conditions of Imperialism enhanced the anti-colonial critique behind Cut Hands’ work. Typically with Bennett, though, his stance through these videos is unflinchingly ambiguous, with the ever-present images both haunting and disturbing.
After the full sensory assault of Cut Hands, it seemed Andy Stott was aiming to lighten the mood somewhat, although the audience was close to ecstatic as Bennett left the stage and many promptly headed for the door. I had always associated Stott with the sort of minimal, haunted electronica of Burial and Actress, but at The Vortex he seemed to head more into dub techno territory, with the bass heavier than any preceding act, its smooth, loping lines driving the synth melodies forward with palpable funkiness. This was a set apparently aimed to get the crowd dancing, and he surely succeeded. Stott’s strength is that he plays with melodies that, in the context of dancefloor music, are off-kilter and abstract, but allies them to rhythms that throb and pulsate with the energy of classic dubstep. It was a rousing, invigorating set to conclude a celebratory evening, and indeed – if what I’ve been told is true – a triumphant four days. A fitting farewell to Jonny Mugwump’s association with The Vortex. Thanks Jonny!
Cut Hands image by Scott McMillan