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!

Concert announcement! Mohn + Thomas Koener (and more!) in Brussels

Meakusma announce an exciting night of eclectic electronica in two superb Brussels venues!

Brigittines chapel:

Mohn live
(Wolfgang Voigt & Jörg Burger – Mike Ink, Gas, The Modernist, Kompakt)

Thomas Köner live
(Touch, Mille Plateaux, Porter Ricks)

Concerts & DJ Sets at Recyclart

Damo Suzuki & Groupshow live
(Jan Jelinek, Andrew Pekler & Hanno Leichtmann – Can, Farben, Static, Faitiche)

Anthony Shake Shakir DJ Set
(Frictional, Rush Hour, 7th City)

MM/KM live
(Kassem Mosse & Mix Mup, TTT, Workshop, Mikrodisko)

Barnt DJ Set
(Magazine, Kompakt)

The Goethe-Institut Brüssel and Belgian record label meakusma once again join forces after two successful collaborations in as many years. February 16, 2013 will again see them dissolving boundaries between different musical genres and linking various musical eras.
Further claiming electronic music’s relevance outside of any club context, two audiovisual concerts in the Brigittines chapel in Brussels will be the starting point of this year’s collaborative effort, followed by an eclectic club night at Recyclart.

Thomas Köner, born in 1965 and a pioneering multimedia artist, will open the festivities at the Brigittines chapel. Having been involved in numerous experimental film projects, sound installations and given his experience as a producer in the experimental Techno project Porter Ricks, he has an incredible ability to subtly connect sound and image, be it suggestively rather than explicitly. His most recent solo album, Novaya Zemlya, was released in 2012 on Touch.

Equally groundbreaking is the new collaboration between Wolfgang Voigt and Jörg Burger, Mohn. Voigt and Burger have long been the masterminds of what is commonly described as the sound of Cologne. Voigt’s Gas and Mike Ink projects are amongst the most revered electronic music projects of the last two decades and Burger’s The Modernist alter ego has seen him developing his own humorous version of minimal Techno music. Mohn encompasses pop music and experimental music into a highly charged, sometimes dissonant, sometimes soothing type of ambient music. They call it opium for the people and by lack of a better description, that is exactly what it is.

After these two concerts, the night continues in Recyclart, the old train station that is still the most exciting venue in Brussels, right next door to Brigittines. The musical focus will shift towards more club-oriented music. Without losing its informed eclecticism, the club part of the night promises to be a subtly anarchic overview of some of the most relevant DJ’s and producers working in contemporary club music.

Barnt, responsible for the revered Magazine label, is the appropriate DJ to warm-up and make a link between Brigittines and Recyclart. A musical freethinker, equipped with a seldom seen diversity, Barnt focuses on experiment and emotion. His take on music is utterly unique, even stubborn, but seems to reach people, a rare feat for someone not interested in hiding his experimental interests.
Groupshow is a collaboration between Jan Jelinek, Andrew Pekler and Hanno Leichtmann, for this occasion accompanied by legendary Can vocalist turned drummer Damo Suzuki. Their performance is about improvised music and not about presentation, in an effort to avoid any distance with the audience. The result is a direct, almost unfiltered music, highly dependent on the chemistry between the musicians and its openness towards the audience.
Having gained notoriety for their uncompromising analogue sound, the MM/KM project of Kassem Mosse and Mix-Up from Leipzig is heavily based on improvisation, but combines this with skill and a relaxed ease. Their fleet of vintage synthesizers and drum machines produces a raw, in your face yet beautiful musical aesthetic that seemingly goes against its own roots.
Closing the night will be the legendary, yet still underrated Anthony Shake Skakir. His adventurous take on Detroit Techno and House music has made him one of the most important producers of club music of the last 25 years. He has worked as a producer or engineer with people like Derrick May, Carl Craig, Moodyman and many others. His own own Frictional and Puzzlebox labels have brought his own productions to a much wider audience. Not interested in flawless DJ mixing, Shake’s choices as a DJ are eclectic, making Anthony Shakir one of the most genuine and open-minded people in the music business of today.

I will be in Brussels to review what promises to be a truly exciting event. See you there!

You can find more information on meakusma’s website: http://www.meakusma.org/

Liminal Concert Review – Praise for Jonny: Andy Stott, Cut Hands, Dalglish and Ship Canal at The Vortex, London (April 3rd, 2012)

Cut HandsThis 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

Londonears Live Report: Peter Brötzmann, Cafe Oto (February 19th, 2012)

It’s always the same: before, during and after just about any gig at Cafe Oto, I find myself wanting to salute the place and its organisers for the way they bring together the best and the brilliant in modern music, sometimes in unexpected and exciting ways. I honestly doubt that any venue in London, maybe even the UK, could put on so many outstanding shows.

And regular Oto-goers such as myself have, over the last year or two, been gifted with numerous appearances by the godfather of European free jazz himself, Peter Brötzmann. Since his Machine Gun album erupted into the world in 1968, few saxophonists can claim to hold his aura, especially to those who worship at the altar of raucous, noisy improvisation. And yet, whenever I see a review of his work, be it live or on record, there is always a hint of surprise in the writer’s praise that Brötzmann is able to display as much subtlety as he does vehemence. So let’s get this straight: you don’t get to be a musician of Brötzmann’s caliber and reputation on sheer assault alone. Peter Brötzmann is a first class musician, and all you have to do is glimpse him in the flesh to witness this for yourself. As I did on this particular, spectacular February evening.

On this occasion, the septuagenarian (that in itself is astounding) was joined by renowned Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and American cellist/bassist Fred Lonberg-Holm, for a night, split over two sets, that initially seemed to be anchored in the free improv cannon. Indeed, the opening was fierce and typically disjointed, with Brötzmann’s soulful sax motif was offset by Lonberg-Holm’s excoriating cello drones. Before long, Nilssen-Love kicked in with a hefty avalanche of muscular tom pounding. But this only served to pitch the piece into intense jazz territory, as a tornado of sax and drums collided and swirled into the air. Navel-gazing improv this was not, in fact I swear the spirit of Machine Gun was alive and kicking. There was even time for a heavy, Ginger Baker-esque drum solo. This was free jazz at its most primordially physical.

However, perhaps understandably given his choice of instrument, Fred Lonberg-Holm was often drowned out by his two compadres. He resorted to a lot of fiddling with effects pedals, and grateful head-bopping to their grooves, but more often than not his contributions were reduced to an intense, but at times inaudible, drone backing. Even when he switched to electric bass guitar, his notes were quickly drowned out by the shit-storm kicked up by the European pair by his side. In fact, for all my admiration for Brötzmann (seriously, I got a thrill just from hearing him warm up), the first set was dominated by Nilssen-Love. The Norwegian played with his gaze fixed to one side, away from his companions, yet his sensitivity to their every note was palpable. I have a list of drummers I love that could stretch out a mile, and Paal Nilssen-Love would surely be near the top. Fierce but elegant: the perfect drummer.

But if the first set was good (and Lonberg-Holm had a fantastic cello solo at the end of the second piece), what came after the interval was nothing short of amazing. The trio was joined by pianist Pat Thomas, and what followed simply leaped for the stars and came close to touching them. Thomas’ insistent, elegant tinklings of the ivories gave room for the other three to relax and expand, whilst anchoring proceedings definitively in free jazz. Lonberg-Holm underscored the melodies with loping, plucked bass notes, Nilssen-Love jumped from subtle gong play to barnstorming rhythmic thunder, and Brötzmann showed the full range of his blowing, wrenching high squeals and deep rumbles from his saxes. Perhaps the highlight was an extended duet between Brötzmann and Pat Thomas, which lingered over the cool jazz of, say, Bill Evans, before pitching back into full-blown sturm-und-drang, leading Lonberg-Holm and Nilssen-Love into a grand-slam free-jazz/funk finale. Each musician had his chance to shine -this was musical democracy at its best- but above all everything came together as one thunderous, unrelenting whole. When the quartet came back on for a brief “encore”, I wasn’t sure I had the energy to take much more bliss.

When all is said and done, this was just one of many examples of free jazz/improv between a bunch of gifted musicians. Such collaborations are a dime a dozen. But when you’re there, in the thick of it, witnessing the heady magic, it truly is something else. Again, thanks need to go to Cafe Oto for continuing to fly that flag.

Londonears Live Report: Richard youngs at Cafe Oto (January 21st, 2012)

In a recent review of Richard Youngs’ Amaranthine, released this month on MIE Music, I noted that, for all the emphasis therein on disjointed percussion and ragged guitar, the element that shone out the most was Youngs singular and affecting voice.

If ever an argument was needed to underline the fact that the Glasgow-based maverick possesses such a distinctive and powerful set of pipes, you could look no further than this live performance at London’s respected Cafe Oto to underline it emphatically. Billed as “An Evening with Richard Youngs”, it was suitably intimate, but most arrestingly, it was made up two sets, with the first only featuring Youngs on vocals. With such a sparse treatment, the songs took on surprisingly fresh potency, Youngs’ voice flying out on wings of cavernous reverb, settling over the audience with heightened vigour as his cryptic lyrics were brought into sharp relief. It felt like an avant-garde answer to the coffee shop solo sets of the early sixties Greenwich Village folk scene, for, as a listener, you were forced to latch onto each word, and open your emotions to those transmitted to you by Youngs’ soulful, mournful and affecting tones.

“Fenflowers” was the first set’s arresting track, mainly because Youngs humourously reprised it several times throughout the gig, but he also brought fresh perspective on little-known gems from his past, such as “No Longer in this Perdition” and “Life on a Beam”. Shorn of the loop effects that pepper more recent albums like Autumn Response and Amplifying Host, the vocals-only tracks honed in on the essence of his songs and his voice, as he rocked himself back-and-forth like a man possessed and peppered the interludes with jocular asides. Again, it felt like sitting in on a quiet session by a revered folk performer in a smoky bar, although I could have done without the sound of the coffee machine punctuating the bliss of “This Life Gives No Force”. Naughty Oto!

 

The second set saw the addition of electric guitar and harmonica. A track off his upcoming Core to the Brave album, “We are the Messengers” launched proceedings with grungy riffs and ramshackle solos all wound around each other, to delirious effect. Meanwhile, on “Mountain of Doom” (apparently co-written by his five-year-old son, who has obviously inherited his father’s creative genes) the spaces between verses were inundated with a guitar sound like molten lava and hysterical blasts of harmonica. Yet despite this ramshackle post-Blues music, it was still the voice that dominated: high, keening and impossibly affecting. Despite a rather abrupt end to the set, which saw him abandon a song midway through, that irresistible voice snatched victory from the jaws of defeat (thanks to yet another reprisal of “Fenflowers” that brought delighted laughter from the audience). Indeed, when he reprised the solo vocal approach for the encore, “Summer’s Edge”, I closed my eyes and felt his words wash over me. Despite his oblique lyrics and idiosyncratic style, there is a strange mixture of sensuality and melancholy to his delivery that is almost certainly unique.
Typically for Richard Youngs, this gig was untidy, unpredictable, experimental and instantly familiar all in one. For all those there, it must have simply served as a reminder that he is one of Britain’s most unpredictable and endearing artists. And one blessed with an awe-inspiring voice.
– Joseph Burnett (text)
– Andy Newcombe (images)

A Quietus Feature – Total Sensory Embrace: Hofesh Shechter & Antony Gormley’s Survivor (January 16th, 2012)

A gigantic metal curtain towers over the audience, sealing off the stage and reflecting every light like a vertical lake of oil. In front of it, a man stands absolutely still with his back to us, looking very much like one of Survivor co-creator Antony Gormley’s minimalist statues. As the lights dim, the curtain splits in two and retracts revealing a row of dimly-lit people who stare out and hum like Buddhist monks. The man in front of them remains impassive. One by one the ‘singers’ break away and run up ladders to towering scaffolds where instruments await them. The static man starts to jerk and spasm in a terrifying parody of classical dance. The musicians begin a pounding, drum-heavy rock motif. One man remains behind. Clutching a microphone, he hisses and shouts, also contorting his body like a possessed exorcist. The stage lights come on to reveal Shechter’s outlandish orchestra: two string quartets battling with a myriad drum kits, a gigantic gong, two electric guitarists and a man cranking out drones from a laptop and synths. The musicians lock into a sweeping, majestic post-rock groove, somewhere between Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Yndi Halda (I kid you not), building and building as our two protagonists seem lost in their own physical nightmare. At one point, dancers explode out of the stage floor, twisting and twirling to the music’s furious melody. When the piece comes crashing to a halt, the lights going off suddenly and the metal barrier closing once again, I am startled to find tears running down my cheeks. This was not what I expected.

To be honest, though, I’m not sure what I expected. There was much publicity around this meeting of minds, so the fact that the music was anchored at times in the ‘rock’ tradition should perhaps not come as a surprise. Conversely, Shechter and Gormley are renowned in their fields for their boundary-pushing approaches to their art, so the minimal decor and jerky, unusual dancing also felt apt.

Hofesh Shechter’s background is as a dancer and choreographer, but he has always composed his music. This, however, was his first shot at basing a piece on music first, and dance later. As with previous work, drums were the focal point of his music, with about twenty various percussive instruments dotting the scaffolding stages. At one point, nearly 100 community drummers crowd the stage, pounding out polyrhythmic beats under the exhorting direction of longtime Shechter collaborator Yaron Engler. In contrast, the string arrangements were often muted and mournful, emphasising the darker areas of Shechter and Gormley’s vision.

There’s a narrative to Survivor, albeit one that is elusive and mostly understated. There are frequent references to the Iraq war, at times about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the gut, but mostly restricted to hints and potent symbolism. Early on, footage of explosions over Baghdad is followed by a dancer dragging a bathtub across a stage. The man crawls into it and curls up like a foetus, his harsh breathing oppressively amplified. Later, five dancers march around the stage clutching or playing with heavy metal balls and hunched over like prisoners at Guantanamo. At the end, one dancer is carried onto the stage and laid down in front of a pit of light (Heaven or Hell?), one of the string quartets surrounding him and playing a suitably funereal tune. On a giant screen we see images of flocks of birds, waterfalls, the sea: they bring a sense both of permanence and finality, being both monolithic and impossible to grasp. It’s something I felt very strongly when I entered Antony Gormley’s mist-filled White Light installation room. The mist was there, surrounding me, inevitable, but at the same time I obviously couldn’t grasp it. Such visions of the eternal – tied into the word ‘Survivor’, the individual who suffers continually but still remains – gave force to the reflections on war and death, and were beautifully underscored by the music.

The moment when the drummers fill the front of the stage and play off Engler’s inchoate ranting is perhaps the most powerful of the entire performance, as the myriad drummers pound, tap and caress their drums, or shout in one voice in response to his unhinged directions. Shechter is seemingly alluding to jihadi training camps, something made all the more eerie by the fact that many of the drummers are children. There is a distinct sense of humour underneath a lot of what is going on onstage, but more often than not this is counterbalanced by undercurrents of unease and subtle menace. In the ‘Guantanamo’ scene, a projection of the dancers filmed from above is projected onto the giant screen as they lie on the floor and twist around the metal balls. The images bring titters from the audience as the perspective is screwed around with, but I can’t help but feel that it only enhances how small and trapped these men are. At times throughout the performance, the huge black ‘curtain’ closes, trapping the audience on the outside of the events behind, its weight and immovability a constant barrier to any sort of escape and release for those on the other side.

The use of these cameras and projections is a key element in Survivor, and one that floats on the edges of gimmick territory. At one point, a man in a boiler suit carrying a backpack made to look like a military radio, films the audience, honing in on various spectators whose discomfort or amusement is then played back on the screen for all to see. Again, this serves to make people laugh, but at the same time it feels like we were being drawn into the narrative and being implicated in the more troubling aspects of it. After all, are we not all partly responsible for allowing our politicians to wage senseless, illegal war in our names? In the last full orchestral musical movement, a tidal wave of drums bursts apart to make way for a rousing, haunting rendition on strings of ‘God Save the Queen’. But as the ‘dead’ soldier/jihadi/civilian/prisoner lies prostrate on the stage, the question remains: who really needs saving? Do we all?

It is fitting, therefore, that the last piece, featuring only acoustic guitar, vocal and choir, is subdued and despairingly melancholic, an unusual but totally apt finale. Throughout, Shechter and Gormley (and their performers) have toyed with the archetypes of performance in explosive fashion, through the lofty scaffold stages, metal barrier, trapdoors, cameras and unexpected appearances by cast members (at one point a man placed in the audience stands up and begins singing in near-hysterical fashion: facile, perhaps, but hugely effective). But at the end, when all had been expressed in joyful, exuberant, angry and despairing fashion, it is left to voices and the most common of musical instruments (and credit must go here to singer/guitarist Joel Harries, whose pristine voice and finger-picking carry more weight than their component parts suggest), to bid us farewell. At the end, all is quiet.

Survivor shows (and maybe David Cameron should pay attention to this) that there is space to balance ‘popular’ art such as rock music and dance with avant-garde tendencies and loose narratives. Huge credit must go to the creators, cast and to the Barbican, for daring to tread that line and coming away with a stirring result. In a world where ‘popular’ has come to be synonymous with ‘lowest common denominator’, this sold out work of art that transcended disciplines and genres shows just what can be achieved when you look at the familiar with new ideas.

Unpublished live review: Raime, Bass Clef and Leyland James Kirby at Bishopsgate Institute, 27/01/2012

This is a concert review intended for publication on The Quietus, but which went unused due to a lack of photos.

This concert could hardly have got off to a worse start, with news that dubstep act King Midas Sound had pulled out hours before they were supposed to be on, citing technical and sound issues. A real shame, and KMS’ Kevin Martin expressed understandable dismay and anger at not being able to perform. Huge credit therefore has to go to Exotic Pylon’s Johnny Mugwump, the show’s organiser, for pulling a rabbit out of the hat and getting Bass Clef to take their place at such short notice.

The Bishopsgate Institute may deserve a rap on the knuckles for not giving in to King Midas Sound’s sonic requirements, but their main hall was still a lovely venue, with excellent sound, given the high ceiling, and it was an aural space that fitted well with Raime’s cavernous take on dubstep. I have my reservations as to how the duo will ever manage to expand on their gloomy, heavy sound -which can get slightly repetitive (2012 note: Their 2012 debut full album has drop-kicked these doubts into the dust, as it’s excellent and a wonderful development)- but when they get into full “swing”, they can be very powerful, with kick drums like hammers shuddering across the hall over floor-shaking bass grooves laced with icy synth patterns and disconnected voice snippets. They made good use of the projector, with suitably apocalyptic videos playing out behind them, but you couldn’t help thinking they were a tantalising, appropriately dark, but rather intangible amuse-bouche for what was to follow.

If Johnny Mugwump deserves credit for how he handled the KMS fall-out, so does Bass Clef (apparently fresh off a building site) for answering the call so emphatically. His fast-paced, energetic take on techno/house may have sat awkwardly with the evening’s “haunted” theme, being more designed for a gleeful rave-up than morose head-shaking, but his chattering drum beats and infectious melodies had the audience dancing fervently, whilst he occasionally dropped in random elements like a high-pitched whistle to keep us on our toes. His final piece saw him pick up a trombone and run it through several effects over shifting rhythms, for a nice dollop of the unexpected and genre-bending, the horn coming on a bit like the minimalism of Dickie Landry’s sax on Fifteen Saxophones, only with frenetic beats chuntering along underneath. Rather than being out-of-place, Bass Clef felt engaging (and above all fun), and his high-octane approach gave the evening a much-needed shot in the arm following the deflation of the King Midas Sound cancellation. I have to admit I’d never heard of Bass Clef before, but his take on techno was one of the most exciting I’ve heard in a while, sitting somewhere between The Field and Ital.

But with King Midas Sound out of the picture, there was always only going to be one piece de resistance, and that was Leyland James Kirby, making his first London appearance in several years. And, literally, what an appearance the man has. With his wild curly mane, he looks like a cross between Ian Hunter and French pop star Michel Polnareff, and he has similar charisma, joking with the audience in his Stockport drawl and opening proceedings with an hilarious lip-synced rendition of Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again”, rolling around on the floor like a parody of a demented, boozed-up rock star. If nostalgia has often been a byword for Kirby’s work, he turned the tables here in quite some style, confounding any expectations I had that this would be a restrained, overly pensive performance.

Once he had settled behind his laptop, the focus of the set switched to the screen as a vaguely narrative-driven film unfolded, one that Kirby seemed to turn to and interact with as he slouched and twisted in his seat. If Kirby’s work as The Caretaker haunts the ballrooms at the back of the minds of aged Alzheimer’s sufferers, his music under his own name feels touched by more immediate ghosts, ones that slipped and slid out of focus both onscreen and in what soon emerged musically as something very different to the material on his most recent album, Eager to Tear Apart the Stars. Dense, tortured drones and ragged percussion jostled with distorted organ noise and thudding bass, whilst scenes of Kirby himself stumbling down a flight of stairs flitted in and out of images of floating women and dark, brooding streets.

In many ways, I was reminded of the live sound of American electro-noise stalwart Keith Fullerton Whitman: Kirby whipped up a veritable electric storm that raged and seethed with the phantoms of his earlier projects V/vm and The Strangers jostling for aural space. The set felt angry and industrial, not so much focusing on memories but rather on the crumbling of the now: sodden cityscapes, uneasy machinery and highways fading into exploding galaxies. Later on, images of Thatcher, the Cold War and protesting feminists and gay rights activists would play out onscreen, dragging in the past to enmesh it with the present, heightening the sense that we were witnessing a despondent, even angry, vision of modern times in full audiovisual flight. Leyland Kirby latched onto the Throbbing Gristle side of psychedelia, and the effects bordered on the unsettling, even as his acute sense of melody crept into the sprawling mix.

And then, just as unexpectedly, the atmosphere switched. Mournful piano chords redolent of the music on Eager to Tear Apart the Stars rolled out of the speakers, underscored by heavy bass rumbles. The film switched from its apocalyptic collage to more intimate scenes of a younger Kirby enjoying himself in black-and-white Berlin. Innocence lost seemed to be the theme, and after such a raw first two-thirds, it was an emotionally charged way to end the set. At the death, a slide dedicated the final performance to us, the audience, with a message of love. Then Kirby was on his feet again, mouthing the words to Barry Manilow’s saccharine ballad “I Write the Songs”. It was both amusing and touching, and I was struck by the man’s aura of charisma and strength as he raised his arms and exhorted us to sing along like a hippy folk icon.

Leyland James Kirby’s vision is complex, its expression almost a stream of consciousness. But ultimately, what stands out is its intensity. Whether playing with basic, atmospheric piano chords on record, or unloading a blitzkrieg of noise live; whether playing with pop songs with evident joy, or playing out dreams and political points in film, he gives himself entirely. That was what was witnessed at the Bishopsgate Institute: an artist opening up completely. The result was thrilling, exhausting and unforgettable.