A Quietus Live Report: Meakusma Festival, Brussels (February 28th, 2013)

Given that Brussels is generally associated with rigid bureaucracy, it’s a pleasingly weird and surprising city where roads snake down into wide intersections like a surrealist European answer to San Francisco’s Nob Hill, bleak low-rent streets suddenly make way for gasp-inducing churches, and the smoking ban is casually flaunted, with polite good cheer, in restaurants and bars. The elegant Brigittines Chapel and adjacent modernist dance centre is an outcrop of elegance nestled alongside brutalist council estates and railway lines snaking their way towards the main station (Londoners, imagine the White Cube and Shoreditch Church plonked side-by-side in Bethnal Green). It’s a fitting setting for this live and club night organised by Meakusma, one of Belgium’s premier electronic music labels, as the way the artists on the bill seem to weave between styles and even musical epochs resembles the way old and new, classical and modern are reflected in the neighbourhood’s architecture.

Thomas Köner opens proceedings with a set that is characteristically austere and foreboding, close in style and atmosphere to his recent, excellent Novaya Zemlya album. Standing stock-still in pitch darkness behind his laptop, Köner is a picture of stoic efficiency, and his music has a similar immovability. Huge, cavernous drones and bass lines ring around the rafters of the chapel, punctuated by clanging industrial noises and occasional becalmed, almost reflective passages. The music’s mental imagery will be familiar to any fans of the former Porter Ricks man: ice-covered landscapes and isolated Arctic settlements, all considered with a detached, yet humane, gaze. It’s an often beautiful sound and, although it at times feels more inert and unfocused in a live format than on record, Köner‘s sturdy, steely focus (heightened here by the darkness) is remarkable.

The name Wolfgang Voigt will be instantly familiar to anyone with an interest in German electronica, as he co-runs the always-excellent Kompakt label and has, in various guises, released some of the defining records on both his own and others’ imprints. Mohn is a new project with Jörg Burger, and feels in some ways like a continuation of Thomas Köner’s glacial drone, albeit with more edge. Like their compatriot, the pair stands in almost complete stillness and darkness, but there’s the added interest of a series of hazy, often slow motion, visuals projected against the back of the hall behind them. With the old chapel’s exposed stones providing an uneven surface, this footage becomes more esoteric and cryptic, like scenes played out in a thick fog. Mohn’s music is equally fuzzy around the edges, as if Voigt and Burger are unsure of where to place it in electronic music’s already-elastic continuum. More beat-oriented than Köner, they nonetheless share his taste for drifting synth textures and industrial noise, the result being a hybrid form of gothic, futuristic techno-house. Occasionally, it veers into the kind of post-muzak you’d expect to hear in a designer clothes’ store, but for the most part this is electronica descended from the murky haze of Throbbing Gristle’s ‘After Cease To Exist’, but with more rhythm. The balance isn’t always smooth, but it certainly makes Mohn an intriguing proposition.

Tonight, though, is all about the club night, where I am treated to some of the best electronic music I’ve ever heard. Barnt, aka Daniel Ansorge, is best known as one of the founders of Magazine Records, and his excellent DJ set treats us to an array of throbbing fare, from cosmic disco pounders to minimal hypno-trance. In a pleasingly referential nod, one of the tracks he plays, a friend informs me, is by Wolfgang Voigt. Recyclart is a wonderful club situated over the road from Brigittines inside an active train station (closed on weekends), its walls covered in graffiti. Again, the parallel between location and the sounds pouring off the decks is easy to make.

The biggest draw of the night is, unsurprisingly, Damo Suzuki performing with Groupshow, a trio of Jan Jelinek, Hanno Leichtmann and Andrew Pekler, who set themselves up in a semicircle, with the former Can vocalist sitting off to one side, all the better to bark his lyrics at the audience (although he does generally seem to be singing to himself). Suzuki is one of the most inimitable, instantly recognisable vocalists ever, and his voice has barely been affected by the passing of time. In fact, he sounds more virulent and arch than ever before, hurling his stream-of-consciousness invectives out onto the dancefloor like a possessed shaman, in a style reminiscent of his recent album with Bo Ningen. Groupshow, meanwhile, combine throbbing bass with motorik, krautrockian rhythm patterns and washes of moody synth and guitar drones, resulting in a disjointed post-everything form of electronica that sits somewhere between Neu!’s loping rock and the more electronic fare on show from the other acts. It’s by far the most experimental set of the entire night, and I for one am digging this angry version of Damo Suzuki.

By now we’re well and truly into the the wee hours of the morning and a party atmosphere has gripped Recyclart as MM/KM take over for some live house. Repetitive beats flow fast and furious over gorgeous melodic lines and funky bass, all the more impressive for being live. The amiable Belgian crowd relays its appreciation by roaring approval at every tempo shift and shaking the floor as they dance, some of them in bizarre choreographies improvised on the spot. Again I’m left to marvel at the sheer depth and variety of Germany’s electronic scene, as the legacy of early techno is propelled through three decades’ worth of hooks, sounds and omnipresent rhythm. This is minimalist techno at its best, and Germany’s ambassadors are doing her proud tonight. As the clock strikes 3am, it’s left to Anthony ‘Shake’ Shakir to round things off with a joyful bang as he injects a bit of Detroit soul and funk into proceedings in a barnstorming DJ set, which includes a tasty Talking Heads sample that elevates one segment to anthemic levels. As I’m vomited out of Recyclart and back onto the freezing streets of this obscure corner of Europe’s capital, I’m reminded of dance music’s capacity to be an entirely transformative and transportative experience in the right hands.

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Unpublished: Kraftwerk – The Mix, Live at Tate Modern, February 13th 2013

This is a review I wrote for the Quietus on the recent Kraftwerk perforance of their album The Mix at Tate Modern.

The question of whether Kraftwerk needed to do a remix album way back in 1991 will not be answered by tonight’s show at Tate Modern, the penultimate concert of the series and perhaps the most “Greatest-Hits-y” of the lot, which, from what I hear when discussing the event with friends and fellow concert-goers, is saying something.

As I wander into this illustrious gallery’s cavernous turbine hall, swearing under my breath over the price of a can of lager, I’m struck by a realisation that won’t leave me for the rest of the evening: I know what I’m going to get tonight. Perhaps more than any other band in pop music, Kraftwerk have become masters of note-perfectly recreating their studio creations in a live format. I also know that there will be 3D visuals and, beyond The Mix, a smattering of fan favourites from the band’s back catalogue (the latter information courtesy of all the hubbub this retrospective has, somewhat bizarrely, caused. Any excitement I initially felt was quickly dampened by the ticket prices and effectively annihilated as I cried when handing over five pounds per drink consumed. Ok, maybe that’s bugged me inordinately…). So, if surprises are definitely off the menu, beyond the booze (let it go, Burnett!), what is there really to look forward to? I mean, this is The Mix we’re talking about. About as far from a career high-water-mark as Kraftwerk got.

Well, these are still great tunes, aren’t they? And, at the risk of being called a heretic, I think The Mix versions of “The Robots” and “Radioactivity” improved on the originals quite substantially, making them pacier and, somehow, more fun. Aided by the decent acoustics within the turbine hall, both pack a decent punch and quickly get the punters dancing, which is an impressive feat when wearing flimsy 3D glasses. Other tracks such as “Autobahn” and “Computer Love”, however, reinforce the feeling that many had when The Mix was initially released: what’s the point? They’re not bad versions, but they don’t deviate enough from the originals to really excite. 20 years on, and with remixing having blossomed into an art-form itself, these tracks sound more dated than their originals, coming on like Pet Shop Boys B-Sides from 1988. Having said that, only at a Kraftwerk concert will you ever witness an audience erupting into ecstatic cheers upon hearing a bit of morse code. Credit where it’s due!

Personally, I also like the fact that the quartet never really does anything onstage. They don’t smile or acknowledge the crowd, and it’s impossible to determine who is doing what (how cool would it be if it was all lip-synched?), beyond Ralf Hütter’s singing. There is something remarkably post-modern in this deliberately obtuse approach. However, by focusing backwards, musically, at merely celebrating and rehashing their past, Kraftwerk end up undermining their own aesthetic. The 3D videos are simplistic and cartoon-ish, and a slight staleness permeates even the best moments. Kraftwerk were once a sublimely forward-looking band (I still have to pinch myself at the notion that Radioactivity, Trans-Europe Express and The Man Machine all came out between ‘75 and ‘78), but with this concert, and maybe even the entire series, such avant-gardism has become a thing of the past. As enjoyable as many of these songs are, it seems fitting that I’m witnessing them in a museum.

Photo copyright Katja Ogrin, first appearing in The Quietus: http://thequietus.com/articles/11331-kraftwerk-live-review-tate-modern-autobahn

A Liminal Live Report: Iancu Dumitrescu & Ana-Maria Avram with the Hyperion Ensemble, Mats Lindström at Cafe Oto (January 11th, 2013)

iancu-dumitrescu

One of the nicest things about live music is the way it brings together music fans in the mutual admiration or, at times, discovery of a recording artist. It’s a pretty fundamental part of the musical experience: you can share stories on artists or previous gigs, compare thoughts on what you’ve witnessed, and argue over the merits of whatever record or show has pleased or irked you in the past, even the immediate past you’ve just experienced. Sometimes, you can do this with complete strangers, which is even more invigorating and pleasing. This happens to me a lot at Cafe Oto, maybe because it’s such an intimate venue. So, while I am generally disinclined to comment on the antics of fellow concert-goers, the fact that Mats Lindström’s set on this occasion was severely blighted by five boorish idiots had me so incensed that I feel the need to express my irritation. I’m not sure who they were (rumour at the urinals suggested they were radio journalists), but they made it clear in loud voices throughout his three pieces that they thought he was, in their terms, “shit”, before loudly proclaiming “We thought that was bollocks, mate!” at the set’s conclusion. I’m all for people expressing their displeasure at a musician if they, for some reason, are so annoyed as to need to comment, even to the person’s face, but I’ve never before witnessed such rudeness directed towards an artist or an audience. That it occurred at Oto was even more incredible. Here’s hoping I (and any Liminal readers) never have the misfortune of sitting in the same audience as this moronic quintet again.

It was all the more displeasing, however, because the music on this cold January night was at times, and from all artists, pretty stellar. This was the third showcase from Stephen O’Malley’s Ideologic Organ sub-label, and one hopes it’s a sign that Dumitrescu and Avram will shortly be releasing one or more records for the erstwhile SUNN O))) guitarist. Lindström has, of course, already done so, but I was very curious as to how he would translate the abstract electronic works on МИГ into a live format. His three pieces were subtly varied and often bizarre, starting with a touching tribute to the late British composer Hugh Davies, which took samples of Winston Churchill making speeches and news announcements of his death and mashed them together with snippets of patriotic British music (‘Rule Britannia’, for example), gnarly electronic static and throbbing bass oscillations alluding somewhat to dub. Lindström’s approach is minimalist in many ways, as if he’s dedicated to stripping the conventions of electro genres such as techno or dance to their bare bones, but maximalist in his commitment to abrasion and dissonance. Plus, in the context of this current, most cynical of UK governments, Churchill’s ghostly reflections on his empathy for the poor carried quite a bit more weight.

The second piece was altogether less interesting. Set against the backdrop of a commercial video produced by Russia’s major fighter plane company, MIG, Lindström used heavily-processed recordings of jet engines soaring and powering up (I assume taken from the video itself) to build up a dense industrial noise wall that flickered and faltered on its way to joining the dots between Throbbing Gristle and Keith Fullerton Whitman. Nothing remarkable, really, although more irritation (and some amusement) was caused as the aforementioned brain-dead brigade missed the quite blatant irony in the composer’s use of Russian propaganda, falling over themselves to loudly decry his “communist” worldview.

The Swede saved the best piece for last, rigging a series of strobe lights to contact mics and using them to generate (I think randomly) percussive blasts of noise around a series of intricately-placed synth textures, like a techno producer gone mad. Indeed, his live approach is very similar in focus and thoughtfulness to many dubstep or electro-dance producers I’ve seen over the years, but the results are, if this concert is anything to go by, much more abrasive. “Don’t try this at home” he said with a wry smile when introducing the third track – don’t worry, Mats, I wouldn’t even know how!

Lindström’s set wasn’t brilliant or transcendent, with the second piece erring on the dull side, but his humanity and sly humour were clear and refreshing in a domain that can often be a bit dry. Plus, he could have been as awful as a chorus of freshly-castrated pigs backing up Justin Bieber, that doesn’t mean he deserved the abuse he got. And those of us curious enough to give him a fair hearing deserved the chance to do so.

Still, the gormless gang were at least much more enthused by Iancu Dumitrescu, although I imagine even they were a bit thrown as technical issues initially interrupted the first piece, ‘Tectonics’ just as it got started. Dumitrescu and Avram each premiered a new composition, but both of them suffered due to overbearing use of laptops. Dumitrescu’s, the aforementioned ‘Tectonics’, was built around the tense interplay between the laptop’s caustic drones and the Hyperion Ensemble, made up tonight of former Henry Cow members Ian Hodgkinson on bass clarinet and Chris Cutler on percussion, with Stephen O’Malley on guitar. The computer, featuring a pre-recorded track, dominated the early stages, with Hodgkinson uttering gentle notes and Cutler pattering, brushing and bowing quietly on contact mic-ed cymbals and drums. O’Malley’s contributions were rumbling low notes serving to accentuate the laptop’s spacious, industrial noise. For all the processing involved, the music felt as organic and body-centred as Dumitrescu classics such as ‘Pierres Sacrees’, and the sudden emergence of crunching sounds that ebbed and flowed over the audience between passages of near-silence evoked the “blocks of sound” on Scott Walker’s recent The Drift and Bish Bosch albums, only more single-minded and minimal. As ‘Tectonics’ built to a close in a maelstrom of O’Malley’s doom-like riffs, consumptive bleats from Hodgkinson and almost imperceptible percussive scrapes from Cutler, the spirit of Dumitrescu had effectively taken up residence inside Cafe Oto. Almost. The laptop was, however, so high up in the mix that it often masked a lot of the other sounds, robbing the piece of the kind of dynamics that characterise Dumitrescu’s best works. It certainly shared the kind of spectral power of ‘Pierres Sacrees’ and ‘Grande Ourse’, but perhaps not their deceptive grace.

“Spectral” or “haunting” are apt terms to refer to Ana-Maria Avram’s first piece, ‘Nouvelle Axe’, in which she filtered her voice through a variety of effects on her laptop: loops, delays, choruses and reverb were all layered on her bizarre series of utterances, moans, wails and chants, but in a way that never at any point became intrusive or distracting. Instead, what caught the attention was Avram’s remarkable range, her progressions from low moans to impassioned cries demonstrating remarkable dexterity, with the various loops and delays combining to produce a creepy phantom chorus. At times, she veered into clever borborygmi and percussive bleats, Phil Minton-style, but it was clear that she stems from a very different tradition to the Briton, her ululations imbued with the kind of primordial, shamanic mysticism I have only ever encountered in Eastern European and Asian vocal music. For anyone who has ever marvelled at the beautifully austere landscapes in films such as Katalin Varga or Mayak, Ana-Maria Avram’s singular vocalisations represent the perfect soundtrack to such captivating vistas.

For his second piece, Iancu Dumitrescu stepped to the front of the stage (after spending the first monitoring the sound levels) to conduct the Hyperion Ensemble, with Avram taking a seat at the piano. Dumitrescu is an imposing figure, and his presence immediately gave impetus to the proceedings before a note had even been sounded. There was a palpable tension as Dumitrescu led the musicians – all eyes fixed on the Romanian’s black-clad frame – through fitful bursts of discordant noise that bordered on rambunctious rock. Dumitrescu’s music works with sustain and release: distorted bowed guitar notes, scatter-shot drum fills, cavernous manipulations of the piano strings and fluttering clarinet parps all piled up, to be followed, with one sweep of the conductor’s arm, by heavy near-silence punctuated by the omnipresent digital rustles from the laptop. Despite not playing, Dumitrescu remained the focal point, his twisted, rapt facial expression the mark of a man inhabited by his music.

The last performance was the world première of Avram’s ‘Metal Storm’ and, like with ‘Tectonics’, I was again put off by the bludgeoning volume of the laptop’s pre-recorded track. Hodgkinson was the brightest spot, his tone here more strident, even free-jazzy, in the style of a Jimmy Giuffre or a Perry Robinson, which was mirrored nicely by Cutler’s sporadic percussion and occasional Haino-esque blasts from O’Malley. Sadly, the chunks of computer noise often obscured much of what the musicians were playing, to the point that they seemed a bit confused by what was being asked of them by Avram’s flurry of gestures. It took until the final stages for the ensemble to build a righteous head of steam that matched the laptop noise for energy, if not volume, with pleasing weeps on the clarinet, gong-like guitar eruptions and schizophrenically unpredictable percussion. It all came a bit too late, but it was a fittingly stirring end to a fascinating and unusual evening that even the five twats couldn’t ruin, despite their best attempts.

A Quietus Live Report: David Toop’s Star-Shaped Biscuit (September 24th, 2012)

Under a clear night sky, with bats flapping overhead and stars glinting in the firmament, surrounded by the ruins of a derelict building in Snape’s famous Maltings, a handful of hardy but lucky souls are treated to an “opera” of such mysterious proportions it seems reductive to name it as such. Indeed, composer David Toop says as much in his pre-show chat, and Star-Shaped Biscuit clearly eschews the archetypes of traditional opera, not just in its instrumentation and performance space, but via its very construction as a piece of music.

The story behind Star-Shaped Biscuit, such as it is, is appropriately and typically oblique: Dora Maar, photographer, poet and once Picasso’s lover, is possibly the last human left living on a dying planet. From a drowning island, she contemplates her past, transported back in time in a Proustian fashion when she discovers an old star-shaped biscuit in her case. Meanwhile, two ghosts – 1920s explorer/adventurer Seabrook and a Vernon Lee character, Euphrosine – emerge from the shadows of her home to harangue, chat and comment on Dora’s life, seeing it as a means to understand their own listless scheintot.

To represent this isolated world-between-worlds, Toop and the people at Aldeburgh Music selected one of the abandoned, derelict and soon-to-be-renovated buildings at the edge of the Maltings, and have done an amazing job of converting it into a space where Toop’s excellent collection of musicians and singers can elegantly recreate the haunted island of faded memories occupied by Dora Maar and her phantomatic companions. For long passages during Star-Shaped Biscuit, it feels like audience and performers are alone in the world, except for the bats, the bugs and the endless black sky. In terms of its set-up, doggedly away from conventional “musical theatre” or opera, Star-Shaped Biscuit is a triumph.

At times, however, Star-Shaped Biscuit is frustratingly abstract, especially as the lyrics are not always easily discernible. Musically, the compositions highlight Toop’s love of improvisation, with a hugely talented quintet of musicians producing unpredictable sonic shapes with an array of percussion, strings and wind instruments. They’re situated beneath layers of digital noise, elusive sound effects, sampled voices and the kind of hauntological haze found on albums by The Caretaker and Grouper, which only serves to highlight the piece’s underlying theme of memory, as triggered in Dora by not just the biscuit but also her notebooks and a painting of her by her former lover, Picasso.

As Dora Maar, Lore Lixenberg brings suitable amounts of anguished pathos to the fore, especially when remembering the great painter’s cruelty. Her voice traverses an impressive range, including, during the “opera”‘s central moment that sees her relive a nervous breakdown and the ensuing shock treatment, a series of howls and cries that could make Diamanda Galas seem restrained. At other times, her moody moan seems lifted from the tradition of unexpectedly sinister and deceptively melancholic female vocalisation favoured by horror film directors when wanting to suggest haunted, threatening territory (see Coppola’s otherwise useless version of Dracula), which again fits acutely with Toop’s intangible, ectoplasmic scenario.

More interesting are the two ghosts, Seabrook and Euphrosine, who stand on the first floor of the derelict building, the exposed space transformed into a balcony from which they contemplate Dora Maar. Euphrosine, portrayed by Elaine Mitchener, is the more thoughtful and compassionate ghost, apparently seeing in Dora something of a mirror image of herself. Brash and belligerent, Seabrook is in defiance of death, something reflected in the music during his solo parts by fractured post-techno beats and edgy post-rock atmospherics, the closest Star-Shaped Biscuit comes to any real driving force. Jamie McDermott possesses one of the most incredible voices I’ve ever heard, one that rises from low-end moan to operatic wail in seconds, like a more dexterous Antony Hegarty.

The two ghosts’ musings are alternately unsettling and pensive, but again the difficulty in deciphering the lyrics can be a problem. However, all three singers are wonderfully talented, and through their emotive delivery and the recurrence of words like “loss”, “loneliness” and “memory”, succeed in creating an atmosphere so palpable that direct comprehension is almost superfluous. As the piece winds down to its close, the two ghosts disappear and Dora remains to contemplate whether to join them. After all, as the hesitant, whispery music suggests, ghosts are all around us and, if she is indeed the last human, her memories and the phantoms of past individuals suggest she will never be alone. And, surrounded by the sounds of disembodied voices and music, lost under a sea of stars across which dance nature’s quiet fliers, neither will Toop’s audience.

Star-Shaped Biscuit will not be to everyone’s taste, for it is elusive and oblique almost to the point of becoming hard to grasp, whilst the mixture of improvised and electro-acoustic music is anything but demonstrative in the manner of “traditional” opera. The real triumph behind Toop’s work is the way it incorporates its very performance space into the piece’s spectrum, transforming what is little more than a ruin into a realm in which dreams and illusions, memories and phantoms, become a nebulous form of musical reality.

A Quietus Live Report – Poles Vaulting: The Quietus Salutes Katowice’s OFF Festival (August 8th, 2012)

The Quietus kindly sent me to OFF Festival in Katowice, Poland last Summer, for three days of righteous music. My contributions, alongside Julian Marszalek’s, are below. Just to blow my own trumpet, Swans’ Michael Gira said my review of their set was “one of the best live reviews ever written”! Not sure he’s right, but it’s nice to hear.

The realisation that Poland’s OFF Festival is going to be something special occurs about an hour before the alcoholic tipping point that sends your correspondents into an inebriated spiral so severe that hotel carpets are used for falling and crawling on rather than walking. Having arrived in the Silesian city of Katowice – a grim industrial centre that’s the butt of so many jokes across the nation that it could easily be Poland’s answer to Slough – and partaken of zurek (sour rye soup with ham and potatoes) and bigos (a hunter’s stew made of cabbage, sauerkraut and pork), The Quietus finds itself in Club 54, an unassuming bar located almost underneath the railways tracks leading into Katowice’s main train station.

“Ah,” smiles Quietus scribe Joseph Burnett as the wobbly bass lines penetrate our ears and we raise our shot glasses in a toast. “Dubstep and Zubrowka! This is going to work…”

And boy, does it work this weekend…

The OFF Festival, now in its seventh year, is doing much to counter this as it brings together the cream of domestic acts and the very best in diverse international musical entertainment. Located in the gorgeous surroundings of Dolina Trzech Stawow by the Muchowiec airport, OFF Festival is one that many UK festival promoters would do well to learn from. With the emphasis on music spread across four stages and with only two of them in action at any one time – that’ll be one outdoor stage and one tent – this ensures that bands are guaranteed an audience while fans have the chance to either see what they’re after or encounter something new. Crucially for the audience, OFF Festival isn’t hampered by the ridiculous sound limitations that have dampened a number of UK gigs set in urban outdoor environments.

More than anything, the abiding memory of the OFF Festival is of a friendly crowd that’s totally into their music. They sing, they dance, they move from stage to stage hungry for new sounds and bands and the impression is given that there’s probably never been a better time to be a young person and / or music fan in Poland than right now. Devoid of cynicism, bursting with enthusiasm and fuelled by a genuine love of music in all its forms, OFF 2012 has been one of the best festivals these writers have experienced in recent years.

FRIDAY

16.10 – Nerwowe Wakacje (Scena Trójki)/Snowman (Scena mBank)

The dilemma of clashing domestic is soon made easier for this second generation Pole. Nerwowe Wakacje (that’s the Nervous Vacations to you, sir) is a band very much reared on British alternative rock and it shows. Not that they’re terribly bad but their workman-like indie is as dressed down as the sounds that they make.

However, on the mBank Stage, Poznan’s Snowman is gearing up to be a far more interesting proposition. Fronted by the charismatic figure of Michał Kowalonek, Snowman veer effortlessly from psyche rock to jazz wigouts, and go some way to making the Polish music scene an alluring territory for virgin ears. JM

15.35 – kIRk (Experimental Stage)

As stated, we’d discovered during the aforementioned vodka crawl on the Thursday night that the Poles like and know their dubstep, and home trio kIRk have put a wild spin on the genre’s conventions by incorporating a trumpet into their collections of electro beats and heavy bass. It works better than one might expect! The tunes are all very solid, with the requisite amount of throbbing rhythms and glacial synth tones, but the soaring and spinning horn solos really flesh out the pieces, bringing an elegance that is not that common to most dubstep. Imagine Ennio Morricone soundtracking a club night at Corsica Studios and you might vaguely be close, but kIRk are experimental (in the loosest sense of the word) enough to dodge categorisation, and there is something of the great film composer’s expansiveness in their sound. More importantly, with their novel take on this much-abused genre being more upbeat than the likes of Kode9 or Burial, kIRk are a good introduction to the fun and spirit of OFF. JB

17.00 Colin Stetson (Experimental Stage)

Friday at the Experimental stage is curated by The Quietus, so it seems a good place to spend most of the day, especially with a fabulous line-up including some of the premier acts in alternative music, of all styles. Colin Stetson received rapturous praise for his New History of Warfare albums and, despite appearing solo with just a pair of saxophones (one bass, one alto), cuts an impressive figure, partly because he’s built like brick shithouse, but mainly because the bass sax he flourishes is about a foot taller than him. Melodically, his music, a series of intricate sketches, perhaps owes more to electronic music than jazz, with his looped finger tapping lending a minimal percussive drive to underpin his constant blowing (emphasised by his touching rendition of a track recorded with Laurie Anderson, minus the great woman herself). JB

17.50 – Savages (Scena Trójki)

Given the level of hosannas meted out to Savages in the few months since their formation, it’s not surprising that cynical voices have been raised in their wake. Indeed, here’s a confession: this writer would’ve loved to have hated them but it becomes apparent within the opening few bars of ‘No Face’ that usher in their stunning set that we’re all about to bear witness to something truly special.

Their hunger is palpable throughout this fantastically assertive performance. Their touchstones of gothic drama, chiming guitars and a murderously-locked rhythm section echo the years of the Cold War showdown when mutually assured destruction seemed just a heartbeat away, but there’s more than enough spirit, desire and drive to ensure that the noise Savages make is entirely their own.

Battling and convincingly beating a nasty cough that threatens to derail proceedings, crop haired vocalist Jehnny Beth cuts a compelling figure as her soaring voice is given a dramatic visual accompaniment as she contorts and twists her body in time to the music. Behind her sits the perma-grinning figure of drummer Fay Milton. Looking for all the world as if sharing a private joke with herself, her propulsive drumming is in tandem with Ayse Hassan’s rumbling low end and together they underpin Gemma Thompson’s six string echoes, scrapes and effects.

By the time they reach ‘Shut Up’ the crowd has been in their control for some time. This is material that people are hearing for the first time and it’s a testament to Savages’ vision and charisma that they’ve seduced so many in such a short space of time. Dissenters may tag them as Goths but really, they’re ladies who dress in black and like it or not, they’re going to colour your world. JM

18.45 Demdike Stare (Experimental Stage)

The excellent organisation meana that there are decent spells between sets, allowing for food and drink breaks. Demdike Stare are on after Colin Stetson, a vodka and Red Bull and a burger, and are probably vaguely let down by not appearing later, as their music is so shadowy it seems best suited to night. However, the tightly-packed experimental tent does at least provide decent sound and a closeness that brings Miles Whittaker and Sean Canty’s sheets of noise, reverberating bass and industrial-strength percussion to the fore, the intense volume adding to the way the music fills space and ears.

As ever, their perverse take on dance music is dominated by atmospheres of tense unease and subliminal horror, the fractured beats dislodging any sense of peace whilst abstract visuals play behind them, unnerving by being merely suggestive of something nasty – the Val Lewton school of horror expression. However, to narrow them down to simply being a “horror” band would be to miss the subtle melodicism that worms its way around these grim tableaux, with each piece enhanced by rhythmic flourishes and hypnotic tunes descended from club music, centred on bass and percussion. It may be a sort of dubstep from beyond the grave, but who’s to say ghosts don’t like to dance too?

20.45 -anbb (Experimental Stage)

The Quietus team touched down too late in Katowice to catch Alvo Noto’s Thursday night club set, but he teams up on Friday with Einsturzende Neubauten singer Blixa Bargeld for a live outing of their formidable anbb project. Carsten Nicolai’s take on electronica is instantly familiar, distilling a form of austere minimal techno that causes the room to shake to the tune of bleak austerity. Bargeld is initially restrained, his singing surprisingly soulful, before unleashing that savage snarl all industrial music fans worth their salt know and love. As the tracks progress, his vocals build over themselves, transmogrifying into unsettling futuristic mantras. Compared to the music of Alva Noto, meanwhile, Nicolai’s work in anbb is more anchored in pop music formats, albeit of the coldest variety. There are even moments of pure lyricism, such as when Bargeld moans “One is the loneliest number” over and over on one track, coming on like a cross between Genesis P-Orridge and Bryan Ferry. Does harsh lounge music exist? If not, anbb may have invented it. JB

23.05 – Mazzy Star

The thought of spending a Friday night with Mazzy Star out in the woods is a divisive one. Hardier souls will doubtless be seeking out thrills of a more banging nature but for those of for whom pacing is crucial to lasting the distance of a festival, Mazzy Star provide the perfect soundtrack.

Their opiated cover of Slapp Happy’s ‘Blue Flower’ makes for their opening salvo and it’s a bold move knowing that things are going to be getting considerably more mellow from here on in. ‘Halah’ is a delight but there’s evidence on show that some sections of the crowd have decided to make their own entertainment by the time a stretched out and languid reading of ‘She Hangs Brightly’ is reached. Raising their hands in front of the projector that throws the visual backdrop of Victoriana behind the band, shadow puppets of bats and birds are a constant throughout the remainder of the set. Cheeky buggers, but even they concede a modicum of respect when the hazy beauty of ‘Fade Into You’ has the couples in the crowd getting up close and personal. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that! JM

0.10 – Bardo Pond

As the evening wears on, and blazing sunshine is replaced first by rain, then muggy clear skies, Bardo Pond at the Trójka stage feels like an uplifting option after anbb’s terror noise-dance, despite my misgivings in the wake of a poor concert at Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s ATP a couple of years ago. I shouldn’t have fretted, for they are truly outstanding in Poland, the best I’ve ever seen them. Where that previous show had appeared to see them edging towards glossy (for them) MOR rock, this is like walking through a portal back to 1996 at the height of their Amanita-era freakouts. The riffs are gnarly and fuzzed-out, the drums and bass chunter along at a dirge-like pace and Isobel Sollengerber moans and mutters over the top like a wounded spaniel. In the hands of these masters, such weirdo elements are coalesced into a blissful whole, with an excellent sound system boosting the noise levels into the heavens. It may be obvious to say that the music of Bardo Pond is psychedelic, but that doesn’t make it any less true, or the results any less potent when they’re truly on song.

1.10 – Shabazz Palaces

Back at the experimental stage, Shabazz Palaces deliver one of the best hip-hop sets I’ve ever seen. The fact that Ishmael Butler released Black Up last year on Sub Pop surprised a few, with a lot of the credit seeming to go to the label, but I think it says more about ‘Butterfly”s dauntless confidence and ambition. His flow is elegant and muscular, while on stage he and his percussionist acolyte combine cool street attitude with a certain amount of theatricality, as if they’ve spent as much time listening to Bowie-esque Glam rock as they have Nas and Run DMC – which wouldn’t come as a surprise, in truth. And most importantly, Butler’s got the tunes, with slinky keyboard lines dancing over deep bass and scattered percussion, bringing together a dash of funk, the occasional burst of atonal digital noise and the innate melodicism of Motown soul. No-one will ever equal Miles Davis’ On The Corner as the ultimate distillation of the far-reaching scope of ‘black’ music, and I could never compare Shabazz Palaces to Davis, but I think that spirit is very much alive in a lot of modern hip-hop. Butler, like Flying Lotus, is a perfect reminder that there’s more to the genre than Jay-Z and 50 Cent. JB

Saturday

17.50 – Apteka

Though regarded as old-school in certain quarters, Polish music veterans Apteka (Pharmacy) are just the kind of punk rock band that’s need to fire a rocket up the arse of a baking and hazy Saturday afternoon. Frontman and guitarist Kodym Kodymowski is a man on more than nodding terms with a meaty riff while his left foot is irresistibly drawn to his wah-wah pedal, and the daggers glared at his drummer throughout go some way to suggesting why this band has had over 15 members during its three-decade lifetime. JM

18.45 – Pissed Jeans

Pissed Jeans’ frontman Matt Korvette has a question to ask the sweltering tent that houses the Experimental Stage: “What do Pissed Jeans, The Simpsons and Seinfeld all have in common?” A collective shake of the head soon has him providing the answer: “We all put on a fucking great show at 7pm!” and with that, the Pennsylvanian punks don’t just start, they combust.

It’s not hard to see why. Pissed Jeans are a seething rage of frustration, knock backs and too many nights spent on their own debating the merits of staring at empty pockets or the void in their pants. It doesn’t take too long before their snotty outbursts collide into each other to create one long and painfully anguished “Fuck you!” that very nearly makes the demented audience complicit in their rage. JM

19.50 – Dominique Young Unique

Equally pumped up is this American R&B singer, tipped in some quarters to be the “next Nicki Minaj”, a dubious tag if ever there was one. Once I get over the disappointment of her not being Iceage (whom she evidently switched sets with), I find myself oddly charmed by her hard-edged take on pop-inflected hip-hop and innate charisma. Ok, so the fact she only sings over pre-recorded backing tracks was unimpressive, leaving no room for her to stretch out, and her presence is oddly incongruous given her overt flirtations with dull mainstream pop, but she works the crowd well, and her raps are remarkably aggressive and fast-paced for, essentially, a pop singer. The heftiness of the bass is also striking, a sure sign that UK urban music, from grime to dubstep has percolated into the accepted pop tropes, even across the Atlantic. Nothing to write home about, but methinks she has a bright future ahead of her. JB

22.00 – Chelsea Light Moving

All power to the implausibly boyish looking Thurston Moore – not only is he here on the main Scena mBank stage with his new outfit, Chelsea Light Moving, he’s going to be playing nothing but new material. It’s a proposition that could prove daunting to the less determined fan or casual observer as they wonder whether he’ll be ploughing the more familiar furrows dug by Sonic Youth or whether patience will be stretched with music so experimental that its forgotten what the original hypothesis is.

Augmented by Hush Arbours’ Keith Wood on guitar, drummer John Maloney and Samara Lubelski alternating between bass and guitar, Moore errs more to the sound forged by his alma mater and the closing atonal notes that bring opener ‘Orchard Street’ – totally overhauled from the version that appears on Demolished Thoughts – to a close are stretched out like an elastic band as they induce an almost trance like reaction.

One of Moore’s greatest skills as a guitarist – and not for nothing is he noted as one of the finest practitioners of the instrument – is his ability to beguile and hypnotise with sounds that at first glance appear to be confrontational. The chopping riff of ‘Burroughs’ is lacerated by a deft move up the neck before going down again while ‘Empires Of The Bad’ – tonight dedicated to Roky Erickson – finds Moore moving from more atonal strumming to crunchy riffing and back again and all the while this new material keeps the audience rapt with nary a thought for Sonic Youth. Though Moore plans on releasing new material via free download, there’s more than enough on show tonight to prove that when Chelsea Light Moving’s album finally drops next year, the wait will have been worth it. JM

23.00 – Shangaan Electro

The Quietus hands over curating duties on the Experimental Stage to Jonathan Poneman of Sub Pop on Saturday, and he responds by bringing over much-hyped South African electronic act Shangaan Electro, who blazed onto the stage in a shower of blitzkrieg beats and fantastic costumes. They feature two male and two female singers kicking up a storm in front of an enthusiastic producer running through each track at the breakneck pace of 189 beats per minute. Meanwhile, the vocals seem to be lifted from traditional South African folk, a strange and wondrous collision of past and future distilled in the present with colourful afro wigs, fake bellies and outrageous dance routines. As with Retro Stefson, the crowd lap it up, bouncing around like dervishes and impersonating the quartet’s every frenetic move. In mood and style, much of Shangaan Electro evokes the Congo’s Konono No 1, but with a more polished, techno sound. And such was the delight they conjured in everyone in the tent, it barely matters that most of the tracks sound identical. Who cares, when you can dance your arse off this much? JB

00.10 – Iggy and the Stooges

It’s the end of The Stooges’ allotted time and the sinewy and leathery figure of Iggy Pop is standing alone at the lip of the stage. With his arms spread open wide and a huge smile almost carved into face, the thousands in front of him are still screaming for more.

It’s just as well they are, but whether they’ll get to witness The Stooges again is a moot point. By Iggy’s own impressive standards, this is something of a muted performance. A loss of cartilage in his right hip and numerous leg injuries have left punk rock’s godfather with a heavily pronounced limp that curtails the whirling and demented shenanigans that he’s famed for. But fuck it, this is Iggy Pop we’re talking about here, and Iggy firing on less than all cylinders is still ten times more than bands a fraction of his age can manage.

With James Williamson back in the fold, Iggy and the Stooges find themselves traversing territories that the late Ron Asheton wouldn’t have countenanced. So it is that ‘Kill City’ and ‘Beyond The Law’ make welcome appearances while Williamson’s dexterity – coupled with Steve Mackay’s mournful harmonica – makes for a poignant ‘Open and Bleed’. But it’s ‘Search and Destroy’, ‘Raw Power’ and a skull-crushing ‘No Fun’ that really deliver and the unexpected dropping of ‘The Passenger’ has the crowd going ape.

It’s a hard won but thoroughly deserved victory for this group of reprobates who make growing old disgracefully such a delicious proposition and Poland, just like Jesus back in the 70s, loves The Stooges. JM

01.00 – Spectrum

By all accounts, Spectrum’s journey to Poland from Berlin was hampered by a dead rodent in the van’s engine which subsequently led to a loss of horsepower so serious that they found themselves overtaken by not only a slow moving oil tanker on a hill but also a golf buggy. No such worries for this psychedelic delight that takes in cosmic Northern Soul in the shape of ‘How You Satisfy Me’ while the heavy-lidded are treated to a gloriously languid ‘Ode to Street Hassle’. JM

01.15 – DOOM

In contrast to my sheer delight at finally experiencing Shangaan Electro, the presence of DOOM, headlining the second stage, fills me with some trepidation, given some of the homophobic content of past lyrics. But if it is present in front of a sizeable crowd pumped up on Stooges bliss, I don’t notice. DOOM (aka Daniel Dumile) is certainly an imposing figure, heavy set and with his features hidden by his trademark iron mask, but his rhythms and melodies are initially pleasantly laid-back, with slinky beats, the – apparently – now traditional deep bass and busy samples supporting a casual, almost languid flow. And while this approach to rap tradition feels rather old school in the wake of the speedy, quasi-punk deliveries and minimal melodies of early Dizzee Rascal, Death Grips or the previous night’s Shabazz Palaces, Dumile gradually cranks up the intensity, braggadoccio and energy as the set progresses, flexing his lyrical muscles via words that alternate between honest aggression and sexual self-congratulation. It’s hard not to hear Nas and Tupac locked inside the DNA of DOOM’s tracks, but he carries an undeniable presence, one that concludes the night with considerable pomp. JB

SUNDAY

17.00 – Michal Jacaszek

The best stage (in terms of music, if not sound) of the entire weekend lived up to its name with the early appearance of Polish experimental composer Michal Jacaszek, who performs with a reed/horn player and someone on electric harpsichord. In comparison to the high-octane nature of much of Friday and Saturday’s music, this is patient, quiet and elaborate, the various musical elements (sax, electronics, keys) mixed together with intricate grace. Sudden surges of intense noise and crackling drones pierce the atmosphere of patient minimalism, before receding around hesitant rhythmic progressions that evoke a docile form of trip-hop, even as the saxophone in turn hints at the delicate post-rock of early A Silver Mt. Zion or HRSTA. The balance is meticulous, with each element incorporated at exactly the right moment, and when they really begin to take off, such luminaries as Philip Jeck and Hildur Guonadottir inevitably spring to mind. JB

17.50 – Ty Segall Band

“Underwear man! Underwear man!” yells Ty Segall as he points at the sweating figure of a crowd surfer wearing just his Bill Grundys to cover his modesty. “You gotta keep him up!”

And keep it up they do in this overheated tent. It takes Poland, oooh… approximately 30 seconds to fall in love with the Ty Segall Band as they explode from a howling feedback intro into the first of many fuzzed up and demented riffs. For their part, the crowd detonates into a seething mass of flailing bodies, waving limps and an orgy of crowd surfing that refuses to let up once during this hi-octane and almost impossibly exciting 40 or so minutes.

Segall and his band are wonderfully irreverent. Occasional missed cues are met with gales of unrestrained laughter from the players and the band’s joy at creating loud, fast, snotty and ridiculously melodic rock & roll is utterly infectious. ‘Muscle Man’ is a white-hot blast of garage ramalama while ‘I Bought My Eyes’ sends the whole thing sky high.

With pop at its most anodyne and mainstream stadium-filling guitar rock reaching a nadir of dancing-on-one-leg blandness, Ty Segall Band are more than nourishing a hunger for visceral thrills and illicit delinquent delights. Really, this shit could go global…

18.45 – Group Doueh

An increasingly not-so-well-kept secret, Western Sahara’s Group Doueh arrive in Katowice on the back of a reputation that might not match that of the similarly-named Group Inerane, but which continues to grow with every appearance out of their homeland. In the bright sunshine, it is the drums that first hit home, before the keyboard and guitar even become noticeable: a precise, hard-hitting pounding of the skins that nonetheless contains enough funk technique to imbue each track with insistent grooves.

Few contemporary rock bands can boast such a level of rhythmic propulsion and, despite the intrinsically “African” nature of the music, the first name that springs to mind on hearing Group Doueh’s drummer live is Jaki Liebezeit, which is saying something. Then the vocals leap to the fore, via fantastic call-and-response phrasings between the mesmerising voices of lead singer Halima and percussionist Bashiri. Throughout, keyboardist Jamai provides a solid bedrock, replacing the bass as the drums’ rhythmic companion.

Not to be outdone, leader Doueh, impassive behind his black shades, rips Hendrixian solos out of his guitar, delighting the crowd with some wonderful guitar-behind-the-head showboating without ever losing his grip on the molten notes he unleashes. With their concise tunes, driving rhythms, soaring vocals and ragged guitar, Group Doueh produce the kind of blissful-yet-heavy psychedelia that characterised the first Nuggets compilation (The Seeds, notably), mixing it with North African modal sensibility to create a strand of rock music that is almost unique. On the strength of this performance, Group Doueh are one of the most original and powerful rock bands on the planet, and they certainly constitute one of the highlights of the entire festival. JB

20.45 – Kim Gordon & Ikue Mori

Having already lapped up Thurston Moore, the crowd pack into the experimental tent to glimpse his ex-wife Kim Gordon in action with former DNA drummer Ikue Mori, and the duo duly pushed the boundaries of experimentation further than any other act of the weekend. Mori is perched calmly in front of her laptop throughout, seemingly oblivious to anyone other than Gordon, chucking out disjointed, obliquely rhythmic (she is a drummer after all) glitch techno while the Sonic Youth legend mauls an electric guitar in the spirit of the original scene that birthed the ‘Youth: you can hear No Wave, noise rock and punk within her distorted, broiling six-string attacks (it’s hard to think of them as solos).

The videos behind them feature a deranged cocktail of abstract film and Mori’s eccentric puppetry, and such is the set’s embracing of the avant-garde (I’m assuming it was mostly improvised) that it is transformed into something resembling performance art. Gordon particularly shines on vocals, her twisted moans alternating between Linda Sharrock-esque howl and the muted vocalisations of a Keiji Haino or Les Rallizes Dénudés’ Takashi Mizutani. Rock (and for all the glitchy electronics, noise and distortion, the set is rooted in rock) is so often seen as a man’s world, but here two women take it further outside its boundaries and cliches than most men ever will. JB

22.00 – Battles

Battles were forced to cancel their appearance at last year’s OFF Festival thanks to some unspecified “serious issues”. With this in mind, it’s not unfair to say that the audience gathered by the main stage is more than a little expectant while Battles themselves certainly aren’t holding back.

What we have here is something approximating a musical version of the block-building game, Jenga. Beats are built up, instruments are taken away, guitars are then precariously balanced on this seemingly teetering spire yet it all holds together as a thrilling hole.

Gary Numan’s face appears behind the band across two screens that sit on either side of Herculean drummer John Stanier as they plough through ‘My Machines’. It’s a neat touch that circumvents the lack of singer problem encountered by Death In Vegas, and Matias Aguayo’s bearded face ushers in the delightfully twisted ‘Ice Cream’.

The biggest surprise – and indeed, highlight of the set – arrives in the shape of colossal ‘Atlas’. To these ears, at least, it’s the best track of the last 10 years and its re-appearance with all trace of Tyondai Braxton removed and replaced with new, child-like vocals simply increases it muscular potency. And judging by OFF’s fevered reaction, this writer isn’t alone in thinking so. JM

23.00 – Henry Rollins

Now here’s a thing: Henry Rollins’ spoken word show in a foreign country. Yet with so many English-speaking Poles here, Rollins’ brutally forthright and frequently hilarious tales of punk rock, politics and the state of the human condition are as inspirational as they are compulsive to listen to. It’s almost like listening to a motivational speaker but the crucial difference is that you aren’t being moved to make your boss richer via some misplaced sense of what you can achieve; you want your subsequent actions to make a fucking difference to the world. Henry Rollins is a fucking dude, he makes the world a better place and he wants us to do the same. And you can’t argue with that. JM

0.05 – Swans

Even Gordon and Mori’s fabulous, genre-bending set couldn’t help but become an amuse-gueule for the titan of the festival: Swans. Actually, that should probably be Swaaaaaaannnnnns!!!!, because that’s the kind of visceral effect Michael Gira and his band have on the human body and mind: they bludgeon both to a pulp, caress and slap them with noise, chew them up, spit them out, and then turn up the volume some more. Michael Gira has often said that he doesn’t look to attack his audiences, but the sheer volume of Swans live is enough to intimidate the toughest of constitutions, and Gira’s brooding, angry vocal delivery and guitar style only adds to the tension that immediately swoops out of the speakers alongside the music on this balmy Sunday night.

Amazingly, however, despite the loudness, the music remains as beautiful as it can be on record. The speakers are shaking, the ground vibrates underfoot, but Gira’s graceful melodies snake their way into the ether, as if they are air currents drifting under storm clouds. It’s a balance I’ve only ever really seen Neil Young and Crazy Horse achieve in a rock format, and even they don’t crank things up like Swans. The evolution of this unique band from industrial noisesters to their current form of heavy-metal-country-blues-folk-noise has been fascinating from musical and “rock” perspectives, and onstage they connect the dots even more emphatically than on record.

The set is dominated by the mighty long tracks from their latest opus, The Seer, with extended instrumental passages that layer up the guitar feedback, pounding drums, thundering bass and ragged slide, as if the band are constructing a cathedral of sound even as they rip at their audience’s eardrums. When he does sing, Gira somehow is able to elevate his savage roar above the music, until it almost becomes another instrument, Kraftwerk-style. I don’t know how they do it, but Swans can sound both dense and free, the rhythm section creating a wide canvas onto which sound is thrown with ferocious force.

To quote Miles Davis, this was music that got “all up in your body”, taking over every sense until one could only release oneself into what felt like an ocean. Gira directs his band (and what a fucking ace band they are) with the iron will of a dictatorial conductor, but his ability to compose tracks that bridge rock styles, suck the listener in (‘Avatar’ is sheer, over-the-top, bliss) and then deconstruct his music until it’s a raging storm of furious sound, shows the mark of a true giant. As they crank up the volume, ignore their supposed end time and turn The Seer into a molten noise-rock suite, the sky seems to ring with the sheer power of Swans. Consider Gary Mundy’s description of Pink Floyd’s early 70s music as “bleak psychedelia” – on the evidence of OFF, no band in the world right now embodies that term better than Swans. JB

1.40 – Fennesz and Lillevan

Swans’ refusal to end on time means that Fennesz and Lillevan hit the experimental stage a tad later than planned, but it is certainly worth the wait as they deliver what might be the best set of the entire three days (yes, even better than Swans, in some ways). Balancing rock and electronic archetypes has long been a fascinating adventure in modern music, and few have headed into this territory with the dedication of Christian Fennesz. On this occasion, he expertly, even perfectly, balances seething guitar noise in a rambunctious Haino/Dead C style with hypnotic beats and luscious swathes of electronic drone.

Lillevan, meanwhile, “composes” abstract video art to support the performance, taking those lucky spectators in the tent on a wildly abstract journey that, when married to Fennesz’s exquisite tones, absorbing melodies and hypnotic beats, produces a DJ set from a club night that has yet to be conceptualised, but will do so in a future either dystopian or utopian – at this stage, it’s hard to tell, but it’s reassuring to think that this music will be there when we get there. Between the harsh noise of the guitar and the soothing textures of his electronics, Fennesz achieves a form of absolute bliss, both reassuring and intense. JB

3.00 – Forest Swords

It is left to Liverpudlian producer Matthew Barnes, aka Forest Swords, to bring the curtain down on a truly inspirational festival, and, despite the late hour, his moody set is embraced by those hardy souls who’d stuck around to the death. His debut mini-album, Dagger Paths, was a minor triumph, and a positive evolution away from the increasingly stifling format of generic dubstep, especially in the way Barnes injected arch guitar lines and drifting psychedelic textures alongside the standard vibrating bass lines.

Far from resting on his laurels, he appears to have expanded his sonic palette, if this set is anything to go by, with the occasional breakbeat flourish adding a driving, danceable energy to the ghostly and fitful melodies he’s already perfected, with the addition of live bass and guitar bringing a bit of real muscle as well. Meanwhile, his use of excerpts from Maya Deren films as backing footage is a potent touch, somewhere between nightmare and homoeroticism, and it demonstrated that this is an artist worth taking seriously. Throughout the weekend, artists have vaulted over the gaps between dance and abstraction, beats and rock, and Forest Swords is the ideal way to take a bow on this fantastic trend.

As well as providing outstanding, varied musical experiences, OFF is also a hugely successful festival from a “human” perspective. The site is beautiful, and perfectly exploited by the organisers, who deserve huge praise for the seamless way the bands followed one another and benefited – mostly – from excellent sound quality.

More than that, The Quietus salutes the boundless enthusiasm, friendliness and open-mindedness of the Polish fans who fill the place, easily outnumbering any foreign visitors ten to one. Recent British coverage of Poland and its citizens has been patronisingly dominated by talk of racism and, whilst it’s undeniable that the country’s football hooligans are an unsavoury bunch, since when have hooligans been a good barometer of a nation’s population? Every black artist or band performing at OFF was greeted with cheers, celebration and affection, exactly as they would in the UK or America. As a coming together of music fans and artists from far and wide, OFF was a triumph, both musically and as an overall experience. Bring on next year!

A Liminal Live Review – A thousand dark voices: Phurpa, Colin Potter and Slomo at Cafe Oto, June 9th, 2012 (June 14th, 2012)

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.

A Liminal Live Review – Never Say When: 30 Years of Broken Flag (May 11th, 2012)

This live review first appeared on The Liminal’s site, but I have added my own photos here.

30 years ago, a tiny record label run out of Croydon resident Gary Mundy’s bedroom was launched on the world, alongside Mundy’s band Ramleh. Although it would always remain an operation ensconced in the underground of British music, it quietly helped shape the nature of that underground and gradually grew in influence until it reached the near-legendary status it holds today, some fifteen years after it was laid to rest. That label, of course, was Broken Flag, and few have defined the Power Electronics and noise scenes in this country more than it did between 1982 and 1995. Broken Flag launched Ramleh, of course, but also Consumer Electronics, The New Blockaders, Ethnic Acid and Skullflower, and, for all its perennial association with Power Electronics, its roster was remarkably diverse, bringing together artists from around the world and across the various facets of noise and electronic music. Listen to just about any modern noise/electro/industrial artist or band operating today, and you can hear something of Broken Flag’s influence amidst their drones, screes and squalls. And what better way to celebrate this astonishing legacy than by organising a three-day festival in a grungy venue in rain-battered north London?

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Skullflower (Samantha Davies)

Let’s get the negative stuff out of the way: it had been announced that Prurient would be part of the bill, but he sadly dropped out. The doors also opened an hour late on each day. The Dome, whilst a nice room with decent enough sound, somewhat undermines itself due to unfriendly staff and ridiculously over-zealous bouncers. But those were small niggles over a weekend of simply phenomenal music. Any fears I had that things would get a bit samey (we’re talking about 3 days of noise and industrial music, after all) proved to be completely unfounded, and with so many great, and I mean truly fucking great, acts on display, I very much doubt anyone left feeling short-changed.

I have already hailed the event’s diversity of sound, but for all-out Power Electronics fans, there were several acts that would have amply satisfied their need for crackling tones and shouty vocals. Swedish duo Sewer Election and Treriksröset had the perhaps unenviable task of opening the event, and proceeded to deliver a brittle and short set full of hiss, fuzz and aggressive arm-raising, taking the novel stance of performing in the midst of the audience, hunched over their effects pedals and contact mics. Like Saturday’s second act, Lettera 22, these two were a younger act designed to showcase Broken Flag’s influence on recent generations. Italy’s Lettera 22 also performed in the midst of the audience, producing seething synth- and tape-based harsh noise that shook the hall so much they caused a pair of amps to crash to the floor. Their set was altogether more potent than Sewer Election and Treriksröset’s, with the kind of sonic construction that has characterised recent works by Mike Shiflet and Joe Colley, albeit with a constant undercurrent of noisy drone (and perhaps less subtlety than those greats). It did drag on a bit, but Lettera 22 showed that newer acts are not scared to push the boundaries of what their illustrious forbears pioneered.

Starting at 7pm (supposedly), Friday’s evening was the shortest, and it was dominated by stalwarts from Broken Flag’s past. Le Syndicat hail from France, and first appeared on the Morality compilation way back in 1985. Their set, another excessively long one, showed some exciting use of techno-ish beats and heavy bass (they’ve obviously spent some time with ears to the drum ’n’ bass ground, and it is good to highlight the sometimes unexpected lineage between early industrial and d’n’b), but mostly lacked focus and direction. Con-Dom, in contrast, was gruelling and confrontational, with Mike Dando stripped to the waist as he hurled scabrous lyrics at the audience and kicked over any beverages on the stage’s edge, backed by brittle old skool power electronics and gruesome film footage. Very much a per se Power Electronics gig, then, and one that showcased the genre’s uneasy balance of pure menace and over-the-top silliness, something that was also the case with the balaclava-clad Grunt, who were beyond cliche with their ugly shouted vocals and stereotypical blasts of uninspired greasy noise. Meanwhile, young Finn Tommi Keränen, who appeared on Sunday, was more sedate, but failed to distinguish his sound from every “pure Power Electronics” act that preceded him, his scraped tones sounding like a carbon copy of Grey Wolves circa 1992.

Consumer Electronics

Consumer Electronics

Of course, the need to provoke and enrage has been intrinsic to a lot of Power Electronics from the genre’s inception in the form of Whitehouse. Whitehouse’s Phillip Best was a key player in the Broken Flag story, as a member of Male Rape Group and Ramleh and as leader of his own project, Consumer Electronics, who headlined on Saturday and who, like Con-Dom, embodied the spirit of shock noise. This was the mosh-pit moment of the weekend, with Best (very much a noise celebrity) striding around with his shirt open, kicking over beer and spitting water as he screamed typically obscene lyrics (though, to be honest, all I could hear was the word “fuck” – it could have been “I fucking love everyone in the world”, in fairness, though I doubt it) and rubbed his body, tongue protruding. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Sarah Freilich and Gary Mundy produced screaming, overloaded machine noise and Anthony diFranco pummeled his bass guitar, the whole lot building into an ear-bashing wall of angry noise. Sure, the theatrics, which even involved holding up pictures of what appeared to be murder victims, were beyond camp, but like his erstwhile Whitehouse colleague William Bennett, Best somehow manages to balance his silliness with an intense aura of acute menace and fierce intelligence; and the music was simply overpowering. The only thing that prevented the set from being a true reincarnation of the mid-eighties Power Electronics scene at its height was the fact that this audience was full of adoration for the people onstage, rather than being on the brink of a riot.

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JFK

As much as I enjoyed Consumer Electronics and even, somewhat against my better judgment, Con-Dom, the most musically interesting acts on show were often those who went beyond noise and industrial and explored different styles. M.T.T., who appeared on Saturday, was a good example, his grimy set featuring delicate interludes and some subtle plucking of what looked like an electric dulcimer, with the ensuing spaces bristling with poised tension and unexpected melodies. In many ways, it reminded me of the recent works by Cindytalk or even BJ Nilsen, who was, coincidentally, in the audience (yes, shameless name-drop there). JFK, a side-project by Ethnic Acid and Ramleh’s Anthony diFranco, featured twin bass and electric guitar, bridging the gap between Broken Flag’s electro-noise origins and the thunderous industrial metal of Godflesh or Ministry. The riffs were heavy and sludgy, the basses rumbled like earthquakes, a drum machine spat out mean beats, and for all of a moment it felt like Laibach and Justin K Broadrick had joined in the fun, albeit drunkenly and with no interest in any concept of song.

Kleistwahr

Kleistwahr

Several artists resolutely anchored in noise also displayed a fearlessness in taking things into new zones, not least of all Gary Mundy’s solo project Kleistwahr. Using basic loops and his inimitable voice (I swear there are few in noise who can hold a candle to him in terms of how he uses vocals), Mundy unleashed a veritable storm of sonic nails, an avalanche of brittle, savage electronic mess that seethed and surged rhythmically with the inhalations and expirations of the breath from his lungs. Somewhere inside the morass, Mundy expelled angry, anguished lyrics that seeped into focus only to disappear as quickly as they appeared. It was a short, fierce set that opened the Saturday in full force, eradicating the hangover that clung to my brain more effectively than a hundred aspirin pills. On Sunday, Putrefier used a mighty-looking modular synthesizer to craft intricate noisescapes in the manner of Keith Fullerton Whitman, as individual sub-melodies were seized upon, enhanced, exploded and then discarded with effortless, near-scientific, skill. The resemblance to KFW is interesting: was this a case of a veteran taking on new ideas, or a sign that Putrefier’s influence has, like Broken Flag itself, transcended the ages? Sigillum S, meanwhile, delivered a remarkably elaborate set, melding synth patterns over a persistent, throbbing bass drone in front of unnerving video footage. With a density of sound almost akin to progressive rock and enthusiastically menacing vocals, Sigillum S were almost “cinematic”, as if they were soundtracking the grim imagery behind them rather than just using it as a tool, again joining the dots with modern “horror” acts like Raime or Failing Lights. They also highlighted modern noise’s intrinsic link to the late-seventies and early-eighties industrial scene, as incarnated by Throbbing Gristle and SPK. Equally close to those highly conceptual roots was Italian legend Giancarlo Toniutti, who took the novel approach of performing next to the PA. His sound was dominated by metallic rumbles, elastic vocal snippets and claustrophobically compressed drone. Above all, like Sigillum S, a relentless deep drone guided his sound, and Toniutti built his screes and squalls around this immobile metronome, until the resulting chaos came close to the implacable, all-consuming and monolithic beauty of Harsh Wall Noise. What a way to connect the past and the present states of noise. 

Belgian duo Club Moral equally mastered the old and new in their brutal take on what could literally be described as musique concrete. They also were one of only a quartet of acts to feature a woman, and noise’s domination by straight, white, men is something that both intrigues and confuses me, and not just because I was almost certainly the only gay person in the audience for the duration of the festival. But that’s a consideration for another day, so back to Club Moral! From a live stand-point, they were extraordinary: Danny Devos jumped into the audience, rolled around on the floor and dunked his head into a contact-miked bucket of water whilst Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven chucked out 80s-style electro bleeps and zaps and churned out moody, static noise. Once again throwing back to the golden era of Throbbing Gristle, this performance owed as much to performance art as it did to noise or Power Electronics.

Taking a completely different approach were Esplendor Geometrico, a Spanish duo who made an only very brief appearance on Broken Flag back in the day, and one that Gary Mundy highlighted as being very different to the rest of what the label was putting out at the time. This was their first ever live performance in the UK, so their set was predictably long, and, actually, very different from everything else on show. Of course, there was the requisite harsh noise, complete with grinding bass tones and hissing static, but every track was dominated by insistent, driving beats, evidence that noise can quite comfortably process techno and house without losing its darkened soul. Coming on like Pete Swanson’s excellent Man With Potential album, only with more angst and aggression, Esplendor Geometrico’s set felt like club music beamed in from the dystopian future of Blade Runner. Vortex Campaign, meanwhile, combined pulsating, beat-driven noise with fuzzed-out riffs on electric guitar. Dodging around the crackles and hiss generated from a laptop, the guitarist toyed with staples of the blues and garage rock, giving the entire performance the sort of rootsy edge of Wolf Eyes offshoot Stare Case, emphasising Industrial music’s natural, but often overlooked, roots in rock tradition.

Ramleh

Ramleh

Such a diverse line-up was testament to both the good taste of the organisers (again, massive thanks to the great people at Second Layer records and Harbinger Sound) and the genre-pushing nature of Broken Flag. But few bands could ever hope to encapsulate the spirit of the label in the way that Skullflower and Ramleh do. After all, they are probably the two bands that first spring to mind when one evokes Broken Flag. Skullflower were the penultimate act on the Friday, and with their dense clusters of extended guitar noise over monolithic rhythm section pounding, they elevated proceedings into new areas of sonic bliss. Matt Bower, the mainstay of Skullflower, has long abstracted himself from the gristle and grind of basic noise, focusing instead on hypnotic repetition and transcendent drone. His guitar playing, allied to that of his partner Samantha Davies, owes as much to LaMonte Young and Tony Conrad’s minimalist drone as it does to anything linked to noise or even rock, and, to cop a phrase of his, being caught up in the sound of Skullflower live is like sitting under a waterfall. With so much of the weekend’s music focusing on machines and electronics, it was a beautiful escape to be absorbed by the primeval post-rock of Skullflower. On Saturday, Davies and Bower teamed up with Gordon Sharpe, aka Cindytalk, as Black Sunroof!, although what resulted felt more like Sharpe fronting Bower and Davies’ Voltigeurs than anything tied to the original Sunroof! Of course, Sharpe’s presence was a stunning glitch in the uber-macho ambiance of the weekend, the exquisite, ambiguous transgender singer contorting and swaying as he belted out mournful, arresting singing over a blanket of ear-shattering violin and guitar drone provided by Davies and Bower. Black Sunroof! brought a touch of the sensual, the elegiac and -dare I say it?- the queer to proceedings, and were one of the most unexpected acts on display all weekend.

Black Sunroof!

Black Sunroof!

Ramleh, as befits the band that, essentially, made it all, played two sets: one “Power Electronics” version (although I prefer to think of it as “noise drone”) and one full rock band. The former concluded the Friday night, and showcased the intense sound Gary Mundy and Anthony diFranco perfected on their superlative Valediction album: intense, all-encompassing machine noise that enveloped the audience, creating a drifting platform for Mundy to howl, moan and growl into the microphone, his distorted voice (and I’ll say it again – man, what a voice!) lifting what would be intensely beautiful, but near-static, noise into blissful heavens of transformative drone. diFranco did hit the bass at one point, but it only served to add an extra layer to the impregnable wall of sound. On Sunday, they were joined by drummer Martyn Watts and Phillip Best on vocals, although the latter surrendered much of the singing to Mundy, and quite rightly so. Best’s presence seemed to serve as a bit of nostalgia (he was a driving force behind Ramleh from the mid-eighties until the late nineties, and crucial to great albums such as Be Careful What You Wish For), but with Mundy unleashing earthy, ragged guitar solos over diFranco’s hallucinatory bass (I’ve previously compared him to Jack Casady and Billy Talbot), the set felt like a flight of fancy over and away from pure noise and into the sort of realms most notably explored by Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Butthole Surfers, Black Sabbath or the Stooges. Of course, as on the Friday, this was loud, mean and noisy, but it was just as potently psychedelic, and truly dominated by Mundy and diFranco’s intense conception of “song”. In a recent interview I did with diFranco and Mundy, they talked at length about how they like to take a melody (normally such an unused word at a noise event!), build it up and then destroy it, only to build it back up… and destroy it all over again. That was evident on their Power Electronics set, but even more so in the heart of their rock maelstrom on Sunday.

The New Blockaders

The New Blockaders

And so, after Ramleh’s ecstatic second set, it was left to everyone’s favourite crass noise band, The New Blockaders, to conclude what had been an exhilarating weekend that took noise back in time before projecting it into the future. Fittingly, it was a conclusion of pure noise, a tidal wave of nasty, enervated saturation delivered by three weirdos in balaclavas. With the way they bang tin drums and other weird objects, The New Blockaders go beyond pure noise and into something approaching, but resolutely sneering at, the avant garde. The best moment was when one of them suddenly materialised in the audience, banging his slab of metal as he marched through the mass of people. Ultimately, with their ferocity and nihilism, the New Blockaders brought matters full circle, back to the roots of Broken Flag’s underground spirit, but without ever dispelling the magic that had gone before, as Ramleh, Kleistwahr, Skullflower, JFK, Club Moral, Esplendor Geometrico and all those others had transcended noise in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible and remained lodged in my mind even as The New Blockaders went about their madcap theatrics. What a weekend. What a fantastic thirty years. What a label. Thank you Broken Flag!