The second showcase of Stephen O’Malley’s Ideologic Organ label at London’s Cafe Oto was markedly different to the first, held back in February. Then, audiences were treated to the delicacy, poise and elegance of Elodie, Jessika Kenney and Eyvind Kang, but anyone who had listened to Phurpa’s Trowo Phurnag Ceremony album before crossing the threshold this time would have known to expect something a lot darker and louder this time around.
Slomo is a duo made up of Chris “Holy” McGrail and Howard Marsden. McGrail has long been known for his association with Julian Cope, and there was some of the spirit of the ‘Archdrude’ in his use of double-necked guitar, as he patiently coaxed deep, heavy drones from his 18 strings. Meanwhile, Marsden used a large Korg synth to plough a trench of throbbing sub-frequencies around McGrail, the duo combining to edge close to the kind of floor-shaking intensity that O’Malley himself has indulged in over the years in Sun O))) and Gravetemple. There was even a hint, towards the end, that Slomo were, for all the near-industrial murkiness of Marsden’s synth, edging into the kind of spacey post-metal territories of latter-period Earth, as McGrail used an e-bow to coax a single, continuous, high-pitched note out of his guitar, allowing it to drift while he played a discrete harmonium. There is a tendency for this sort of music to drift aimlessly, and maybe some other instruments would have added a bit of variety, but I think to dwell on this would miss the point; Slomo’s music demands that you sit back and let it roll over you.
Like Holy McGrail, Colin Potter is known for his association with one of the UK’s most esoteric underground figures, in his case Steve Stapleton and Nurse With Wound, although, as this performance demonstrated, he is an innovative musician in his own right. Stood behind an impressive array of devices and pedals, he introduced his set in jovial fashion, injecting a dose of eccentric humour and good-naturedness to what could have otherwise been a rather dour, serious evening. Despite some initial technical glitches with a CD player, he quickly got into his stride, conjuring up a dense veil of sound using untethered synth drones, sustained electric guitar and loops. The piece – jocularly named ‘What Could Go Wrong?’- bore strong echoes of early Cluster, who likewise distorted and mangled electric instruments to create heady musical concoctions as hypnotic as they were experimental. With his amiable manner, Potter also, somehow, evoked a folk-singer of the sort hailed in Rob Young’s Electric Eden (this might have something to do with his ever-so-vague resemblance to Ewan MacColl), and his brief but lovely set was a warm and melodic counterpoint to the doomier ones that bookended it. (As an aside, I have since seen Nurse With Wound, opening for Sunn O))) at Koko, and while it is clear the heart of the band is Stapleton, there was no denying that the architect of their multi-faceted industrial music was Potter, as he mixed and arranged what his partners produced while also dropping in key elements of his own).
And then came Phurpa. I should probably kick off immediately by saying that this was the longest set I’ve experienced at Oto, and probably their longest ever for an evening with three acts. After about an hour of the Russian trio’s cavernous, intimidating chanting, I had to make a break for the bathroom, anxious that I’d miss the climax of their performance, but was informed they still had at least another hour in them!
Predictably, some of the audience didn’t really appreciate this bloody-minded approach, and gradually each renewed gurgle and rumble from the trio was met with incredulous whispers and folks heading for the door. Their loss, because as the noisier punters took their leave, something akin to a hush descended on those remaining, providing the perfect curtain of rapt fascination to tune in properly to what fast became a strange, unsettling ritual. You don’t have to be a follower of the pre-Buddhist Bon religion to be able to release yourself into the strange realms of Phurpa. Under a fug of pungent incense, the trio huddled, sitting cross-legged in their black ceremonial robes around their aged percussion and horn instruments, and patiently, doggedly, intoned their harsh, nocturnal mantras, their voices never relenting, never receding, even when they sprinkled their hoarse drones with minimal percussion. The only respite, if you want to call it that, was when leader Alexei Tegin blasted out echoing notes on his colossal horn. It was almost peaceful, although a very different sense of peace to that conjured up by Jessika Kenney and Eyvind Kang four months previously.
Though the band hardly move and barely deviate from their established sonic formula, the close-up Phurpa experience still resonates more potently than on record. Lying on my back in front of them with my eyes closed, shutting out the occasional chatter of less respectful audience members and honing into their enmeshed alien, my sense of place and time became untethered. And given the intrinsically dark and primordial nature of Phurpa’s music, I found my mind wandering to weird and sinister places on the currents of their tenacious drone, as I pictured myself stumbling into an icy cave under the Himalayas and finding a trio of ancient zombie monks locked in an eternal cycle of chanting. The music is disquietingly beautiful, but at the same time, you fear that if they notice your presence, they might just remember that they require living human flesh to survive. A daft daydream perhaps, but one that seemed apt as I lay sprawled, quailing beneath the impregnable wall of voices conjured by this most mysterious outfit.