Friday, 24 June 2016

BREXIT ONLY?


Okay, after the Leave vote – what happens now? Assuming for a minute we’re not told to have the vote again until it goes the correct way. (Despite that being precisely what happened to both Ireland and Denmark.)

Another way of asking the same question – why did Boris Johnson decide at the last minute to join Brexit? Not only is there little previous evidence of Euroscepticism on his part, he used to say he wanted Turkey to become a member. Precisely what he's now baselessly accusing others of. And the answer to that is obvious, he thinks it will hand him the keys to Downing Street. His arguments – a combination of outright lies, slander, bluster and suggestion – are essentially interchangeable to Farage’s. Why bother with good arguments? They just need to work.

The British Right has long had a particularly distorted view of the EU, compressing it into a caricature to best fit their agenda. In times past, the Soviet Union provided the always useful bad counter-example. We just needed to do the opposite to their moribund bureaucracy, eschewing planned economies for deregulation and ‘free markets’. Once a guy has the right to open up a corner shop, everything else will fall into place. Now that has gone, they are stuck with painting the EU in the same colours of “stifling” regulation. And the colours don’t apply at all. They raise an austerity-imposing, neoliberal flag to rail against an austerity-imposing neoliberal body. Just ask the Greeks about the gifts they got...

They were aided and abetted on this by a Left who largely preferred to pretend the EU was all about benevolent regulation. Most absurdly, during the referendum they continued to argue the EU was a safeguard of worker’s rights just as French workers were having to fight tooth and nail to keep theirrights.

But mostly it was fortune who handed Leave a hostage. Or more accurately, two hostages they claimed as one. A combination of EU enlargement and the refugee crisis, separate events they shamelessly spliced together, allowed them to fight this campaign on a basis of immigration, immigration, immigration. As RationalWiki has pointed out “The UK is only admitting a tiny fraction of the migrants which are seeking asylum in Europe. The 'take back control of our borders' argument is a false argument being used to justify a false argument.”

While the influx of EU migrants was already past it's peak. In 2004 ten new countries joined, including the sizeable Poland. As the majority of member states promptly got cold feet and delayed their right of free movement, a disproportionate number came to Britain. (Their only other choices being Sweden and Ireland.) There's no realistic prospect of another country joining in the near future. Even if we were to see immigration as some kind of problem in itself, which there's no reason to whatsoever, to act now would be the classic slamming the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Who voted leave? They were mostly skewed along two axes – older, and more likely to be from working class backgrounds. Look at a map of the results, and overall Out was strongest in the poorest areas. The people who had lost out most to neoliberalism were handed their target. Which wasn’t multimillionaires like Philip Green, the man who took the BHS pension fund to buy himself an extra yacht. The poor’s true enemy was the even poorer.

Johnson has cynically talked the turkeys into voting for Christmas.

Which leads us back to the question – what happens when it gets to Christmas? Not only will Johnson’s promises not bring about what Brexit voters are hoping for, he will not even be able to bring about those promises. Asked in one of those interminable TV debates whether he was actually saying Brexit would bring down immigration, he evaded the question in a blur of blondness. Of course he did.

My guess would be that, should he succeed in becoming Prime Minister, Johnson will do nothing to stop the free movement of labour whatsoever. Yes, he could in theory impose quotas. But then the affected countries would just respond in kind. Which would damage the economy he's always going on about protecting. Free market anti-globalisation is a nonsense, a chocolate teapot of a policy. It can only be promised while keeping your fingers crossed behind your back. Britain will almost certainly either stay in the European Economic Area (like Norway) or do that in effect while pretending not to (like Switzerland). ‘Leaving’ the EU will mean nothing of the kind.

But what he will do is further erode worker's rights within the UK. Some of this might actually be directed at migrant workers, such as lengthening the already discriminatory delay before they can claim benefits here. But most of it will be aimed at all British workers, if dressed up in terms of keeping migrant workers in line.

So will people then see through his flim flam? Or, noticing the promised drop in the number of immigrants hasn’t happened while neither have their wages improved, will they go on to blame the migrants and Johnson? And who might come along to capitalise on that?

However far right, however stuffed with fruit loops and racists UKIP might have been, Britain has not yet had the pleasure of an actual fascist movement as have so many neighbouring countries. (The nearest we've had, the English Defence League, has imploded. Britain First talk themselves up on-line, but barely exist in the real world. And being associated with the murder of an MP will scarcely do them any favours.) But opportunity may soon be knocking...

Things might not stay this bad. They may get even worse…

Saturday, 18 June 2016

TELEVISION/ PUBLIC IMAGE LIMITED/ LIFT TO EXPERIENCE (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

TELEVISION
De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, Tues 14th June


Television came from the Seventies New York punk scene, with guitarist/vocalist Tom Verlaine frequently playing with Patti Smith. And indeed it's that thar punk music played on the PA before they emerge. But they were always a strange fit even for that strange scene, misfits among the misfits, a chess move from their surroundings. Much like the Velvet Underground before them, it's much easier to see their influence on what followed (Talking Heads, the less noise-based end of Sonic Youth, British post-punk bands such as Wire) than anything before or around them. I always liked the idea they were named after the term 'far seeing' rather than the goggle box. (Though admittedly I've no idea whether that's true or not.)

It was Mark Radcliffe who commented they were like a string quartet who happenedto use rock instruments. Rather than ploughing the familiar furrows of lead guitar/ rhythm section, the players intersect in ever-shifting combinations. With guitar solos I normally only want to know when they're over. But Television's extended instrumental breaks are so interactive they become the main draw.

Of course they don't conform to the cartoon punk image, as taken up by the Ramones. But neither do they sound much like friend or collaborator Patti Smith. Her music's convulsive, orgiastic. While with Television there's no power chords, no fuzz, echo or distortion, the overall sound is clean.

However, if all that makes them sound like pointy heads making music with set squares and protractors, they're as equally possessed of a keen melodic sense. Like Verlaine's voice the music's sharp but lilting, lively and spacious. A track like 'Marquee Moon' is a catchy pop number and free-form space-out at one and the same time.

It's slightly hard to tell whether the band's a going concern or not. But then it always has been. After a lengthy pre-history, they peaked with their debut – the celebrated 'Marquee Moon' - in 1977, and since then have been waiting for everyone else to catch up. They've only released two studio albums since then.

Live there's no backdrop or rock and roll theatrics. Belying the notion New Yorkers are natural showmen Verlaine's an unassuming figure, most of what he does say lost to audience cheer. Following Radcliffe's string quartet comparison, it wasn't entirely dissimilar to seeing the Kronos Quartet. They're so adept at playing together, it makes for an enthralling live experience. I found I could only focus on each player's individual contribution by framing my vision on the player, otherwise all the ingredients go into a greater whole.

It was perhaps an eccentric set list, in both good ways and bad. We heard no 'See No Evil', while there was a track or two which didn't really make up for its absence. But for forty year old band with no new record, there were a surprising number of surprises. There was a long, slightly psychedelic piece in the middle of the show, which I'd gather is called 'Persia', which while appearing on none of their albums (not even live releases) audaciously stretched to twenty minutes as Verlane bowed his guitar. Tracks would often build from scratchy, freeform intros, and rarely be performed just the way they did on record. You left thinking that forty years later they still sounded unique...

You'll know what this is. From San Francisco...


...then the next night...


PUBLIC IMAGE LIMITED
Concorde 2, Brighton, Wed 15th June


Three years ago, in this very venue I saw the recently reincarnated Public Image Limited. And predicted the new line-up wouldn't last long under the weight of John Lydon's ego. Yet Lydon seems constantly able to surprise you, sometimes even pleasantly, that new line-ups still here and I am glad to be proven wrong.

With more new material under their belt, they're noticeably including less old stuff than ever. Jah Wobble must have played more numbers, despite only being in the band for two albums. And much of what they do play is quite radically reworked. 'Open Up', the track Lydon made with Leftfield, is all but transformed. While another uses the Swan Lake guitar part from 'Death Disco', but is to all intents and purposes a whole new song.

One old number which is retained is 'Albatross'. That the opening track from the seminal 'Metal Box' has been used as the opener both time I've seen the new PiL sounds like a statement of intent. The first time around, the references to “getting rid of the albatross” and “I know you very well”,delivered like the most withering put-down, sounded like a refusal to conform to anyone's post-Pistols expectations. Repeated it becomes like a credo, an avowal to never sit still but continue pressing forward. And the set end, morphing from 'Open Up', into the Tourette's syndrome abuse attack of 'Shoom' - suggesting age hasn't mellowed the man much.

It also suggests that Lydon's a keen judge of his own back catalogue, at least when looking at it in retrospect. In his time he's fostered as much shit on the gullible public as Lou Reed. Yet like Lou Reed, ultimately he knew when he was swinging it and winging it. Whole swathes of band history are eliminated, and while there's things you'd have liked to have heard nothing is included you wish hadn't. 'This Is Not a Love Song', though not from a favoured era, is a justifiably classic track.

And it all works because the band work as a band. Lydon often gesticulates at the musicians behind him, like some slightly demented conductor. But while in times past he's been content to hire a backing band for the Face of Punk, this lot are clearly a functioning unit.

It does at times feel a little less savage, a little more showy, than last time. Like they've got better in the un-punk sense of more accomplished and professional, and less edgy. Certainly 'Religion', which had previously reached white-heat intensity, becomes a black-comedy number with stream-of-consciousness rants. But the band still being here, still pressing forward, counts as an achievement.

Speaking of 'Albatross', slooow moootiooon from Sheffield...


LIFT TO EXPERIENCE
Royal Festival Hall, London, Fri 10th June


When main main Josh T Pearson emerges clutching an electric guitar someone shouts “Judas!” at him. “You're a liar,” he quickly quips back.

The point being... Lift to Experience released the seminal 'Texas Jerusalem Crossroads' fifteen years ago. But their debut turned out to be their only release, Pearson swapped it's amped-up noise for acoustic music and was last seen around these parts playing country gospel at a church inBrighton. That gig came with gags about how broke he was, so reasons for the reformation may not be entirely uneconomic. But it's a rare chance to hear these classic tracks live, and the Royal Festival Hall is nigh-on full.

The electricity is not only back, the music packs such a punch you can feel it on your chest, the drummer often striking the skins with full arm strokes. But a better term than loud or heavy would be expansive. Texas-based and keen to tell you, they make music the size of their home state. Plus there's something of a psychedelic undercurrent. In their own way they're as sense-deranging as early Pink Floyd. When I first heard the band, inevitably enough for the era on the John Peel show, he compared them a spatial disorientation technique.

Yet combined with post-rock workouts and free noise there's classic songwriting. (Things often thought to be mutually exclusive.) Music and lyrics may both be summed up by the reference on 'These Are the Days' to “that great trumpet sound”. (Even though there's not a trumpet, great or small, to be found.) It draws on the wild apocalyptic imagery of American Christianity. Some songs even sound like they may be based on Pentecostal hymns.

It's a tradition which seems so foreign to us English it might as well come from a different religion, fiery revelation replacing announcements about village fates. But rather than the nihilism, darkness or derangement religious themes usually bring out in bands, for example Swans, it's – pun intended – elevating. Contrary to Hank Williams, perhaps we will be getting out of this world alive.

And yet at the same time they slam you in the gut the tracks have a twinkle in their eye. Borrowinga phrase previously used for Goat, it's bironic, the references to six-shootin' angels and promises of the promised land delivered with with tongue-in-cheek sincerity it's impossible to parse. (Pearson has said his Father was a Baptist preacher.)

But his greatest talent may well be compositional dynamics. The standard problem with the end of the world is that it doesn't leave you many places to go. (Creatively speaking, though I guess the problem applies in general.) If you come in with a big bang, what are you going to go out with? Yet Pearson can shift expertly between humungous soundscapes, shimmeringly beautiful ballads and aural-assualt noise, making you feel at every turn that the end of all things is just getting started.

I never saw the band back in the day, so don't have anything to compare them to, but they seem able to put the numbers over with full force and conviction. Backing vocals, sounding on record like they've been recorded by Pearson himself then overdubbed, disappear – and you kind of miss them. Plus there could have been space for another number with less banter, something Pearson confessed was down to lack of rehearsal time. But those are minor quibbles. Like the man says, it's never too late for the end of the world.

'These Are the Days' from their home turf of Denton, Texas, with that awesome ascending opening...


...plus the opening from the RFH (yes, the actual gig!) complete with "Judas!" exchange...

MY REVIEW OF 'X-MEN APOCALYPSE'...


...is now up at Comiczine FA.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

THE LENS OF LUCID FRENZY VISITS STAFFA AND LUNGA...

... two Scottish islands west of Mull. Nature reserves uninhabited by humans, Lunga in particular teems with natural life while Staffs's geology makes it look like it's from some fantasy movie. As ever, full set on Flickr.







Friday, 3 June 2016

'THE ENCOUNTER'/ PIKACYU MAKOTO + ADRENA ADRENA/ CAVERN OF ANTI-MATTER/ FOLLAKZOID/ THE TIGER LILLIES (GIG - AND THEATRE - GOING ADVENTURES)

'THE ENCOUNTER'
Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Falmer, Wed 11th-Sun 15th May


If you wanted a soundbite description for Complicite's new show – a one-man performance with binaural sound and minimal staging – try 'Brechtian radio done as theatre'. Simon McBurney smartly starts this long and often intense performance with an on-stage announcement to turn off our mobile phones, which segues into some apparently spontaneous chat which precis many of the themes. Yet he's up to something else too...

Michael Billington's Guardian review comments “shut your eyes at any point and you feel... that you are in the Amazonian jungle”. And McBurney does ask us to do precisely that - but briefly and before the show's headed off for the Amazon. Precisely, I think, to get it out of the way and have us open our eyes again.

He demonstrates many of the devices he'll use, including two microphones – one for his and one for his protagonists's voice – even though it turns out he doesn't need them in order to switch. Many of his sound sources are old-fashionedly direct, from the grand old days of radio, such as crumpling a bottle of water to convey a water sound or – quite gloriously reductively - crunching recording tape beneath his feet to evoke tramping.

All this is foregrounded for two reasons. First, the soundbite description above does mean “as theatre”. The bare stage and the demonstrated sound sources keep us reminded that this is a story we're being told. But at the same time, if paradoxically, it gives them an element of magic. Electroacoustic music sometimes verges on the animist, the assumption that not only do objects possess spirits but have a 'voice' which can be unlocked. And as we follow his protagonist, the photographer Loren McIntyre as he gets lost among an Amazonian tribe, we get reacquainted with such animist ways of thinking.

And like McIntyre get lost is what we do. A dense work two hours long, with lines sometimes literally laid over one another, it's quite hard to parse in a single viewing. This is the best route map I could manage...

It's clear enough that as McIntyre loses his old Western possessions he goes through a symbolic death and rebirth, he goes through a shamanic journey. In fact, as he both joins in a tribal rite and is given his own to embark on (acting something like the play-within-a-play in 'Hamlet'), this is fairly literally what happens.

The tribe could be read as externalised aspects of his psyche, those antagonistic to his presence representing his own sublimated wish to get back home, and so on. This is most clearly suggested by the way the Chief, nicknamed Barnacle, can communicate with him psychically, a voice inside his head. Just as the binaural headsets are ensuring most of he play happens inside our heads. Notably, McBurney has described McIntyre's journey as “an inner one”.

It might be telling that Barnacle dies, yet we're told he is always “with” McIntyre. You can probably see the problem coming. It suggests he's not really a character in his own right, and that once he's fulfilled his role of passing on his validation he can be extinguished. An Amazonian tribe aren't there to represent another culture but map out the inside of a white Westerner's head. Barnacle is the South American cousin of the magic negro.

But when McIntyre undergoes that solo shamanic journey he sees himself as “the crack” in the fabric of the universe. Barnacle leads the tribe as they enact a ritual, burning all their belongings to get back to the beginning. The implication is that we're all lost, we've gone down the wrong path and need to retrace our steps. Yet McIntyre, who after getting lost in the forest is there for literally that reason, cannot commit to the ritual. Steeped in linear time he can only interpret “the beginning” as death, the extinguishing of everything as the end. McBurney acts out the destruction in an onstage rampage, but fails to see it through.

Rather than McIntyre taking back home some of that good-home-cooking simple tribal wisdom, gleaning new feelgood phrases to stick beneath his e-mail signature, he disrupts their lives. The storm that besets them represents his failure to commit to them, the flood relating to his earlier vision of the crack “from which our time might flood”. And this then segues into a Fall story. This is an Eden story in which our narrator discovers too late the snake is himself.

For all his protestations to not be like the other whites, the profiteers who come to burn down the forest, ultimately he's irredeemably from the same world as them. And if he, a clued-up guy and seasoned traveller to such far-flung places, is irredeemable then what chance do we have? Complicte make us complicit.

Perhaps the idea was to set up a more standard Western-guy-burns-his-sneakers-to-become-tribal-shaman story, and pull a bait and switch. He just ends up a Western guy without his sneakers, duh. Yet that feels like a post-hoc rationalisation. The noble savage stuff is too indulged to just jettison like that. What actually happened on stage was something more volatile, vying between the two notions.

And in a way this is played up. Early on, McBurney played a gag of claiming an old video cassette contained all the images of his dead Father, only for it to fall and smash on the floor. And the spool of cassette tape which messily pours out is an image which recurs later, when McIntyre finds the film from his camera wrapped danglingly round a tree. This is the messy reality, the truth against which the cassette box was the tidy mechanism we use to 'storify' our lives.

Yet neither am I sure the point was for us to not get the point. Certainly part of the piece was the necessity of our telling ourselves stories, despite their fallibility. But much like McIntyre, I was led entranced through two hours but found myself lost amid the spool of cassette tape on the floor.



PIKACYU MAKOTO + ADRENA ADRENA
Sticky Mike's Frog Bar, Brighton, Tues 24th May


Adrena Adrena are a duo of drummer E-Da from Boredoms and Drum Eyes (both Lucid Frenzy favourites) and “performance artist” Daisy Dickinson, who plays a laptop live. And if the live drums/laptop combination sounds unlikely, she frequently provides not just washes and tones but her own rhythms for the drums to play off against. The contrast is virtuous, throwing each instrument back on itself – on what it does best.

The centre of the stage was taken up by projections which, always simple and often semi-abstract, never stole the limelight from the music. It was more like watching a trio, just one at work on different senses to the others. Pretty soon you weren't taking in the sights and sounds as separate elements at all, but hand been induced into a kind of synaesthesia.

And if that seems like we're reverting to Sixties terminology like 'trip' we might as well go with it.... it felt like a trip (man), like being taken through some other reality then dumped back in ours at the end.

Not from Brighton but the International Festival of Projections (and I'm going to pretend I know what that is)...


Pikacyu Makoto are another of the near-infinite array of side-projects undertaken by guitarist Kawabata Makoto, alongside his mothership Acid Mothers Temple. (Lucid Frenzy was lucky enough to catch Mainliner some while ago.) This one's with drummer Pikacyu from another Japanese underground band, Afrirampo. The two bands previously made a joint album, which alas I've not heard.

As things kicked off I feared we were in for the whole 'too many notes' business, common when noise music overlaps with jazz. But after starting with a burst of 11, they then turned it down just a notch...

Styles and genres were still rattled through at breakneck speed, as if music history was sighted from the window of an express train – including Sixties beat music, Beefheart, Hendrix and some I probably missed as they hurtled by. After perhaps the least successful part, where Makoto turned to squelchy keyboards, they even provided a quite serene mid-section – Pikacyu providing holding patterns beneath Makoto's sustained tones. They then ramped back up for a thumping finale, chanted vocals over a power riff.

After seeing Lightning Bolt last year, I commented they “seem to stem from the child's love of making noise. Rather than the nihilism so associated with the genre there's something joyous and uplifting about the whole thing, even as its rough and abrasive. Certainly, you can rely on a Lightning Bolt set to put a great grin on your face.” And that seems even more true of this duo. And Pikacyu I suspect has a lot to do with that.

She seemed intent to hit every drum and cymbal in turn, a style common in noise music, but with tumbling rhythms that created spaces in the sonic onslaught. Overall, its perhaps her cheerful, childlike and almost poppy vocals which gave the set it's identity and raised things from the too-common angstiness of noise music.

It sounds like hippyshit to talk of some balance between male and female energy, and of course any kind of gender essentialism is pretty dodgy stuff. But there was something about Pikacyu's performance that took things beyond the babblebashbash noise music can sometimes degrade into, like a toddler endlessly smashing a Tonka toy against a wall.

Forty minutes from London... (Three days later and it seems an almost entirely different set!)


CAVERN OF ANTI-MATTER
Patterns, Brighton, Thurs 26th May


Truth to tell, I was always a little agnostic over Stereolab. There was something slightly knowing to their retro-futurist schtick. But Tim Gane's new band Cavern of Anti-Matter mix Neu!-style Krautrock beats, trancy dance and swooshy Sixties organ. Plus they referred to 'Doctor Who' in their track 'Tardis Cymbals' and named themselves after a Situationist painting. (One large enough to cover a whole gallery which then got sold by the metre.) I mean, theoretically they could bring in some reference to Jack Kirby comics and the taste of pistachio to tick all my boxes, but that's pretty good going.

There no bassist to their three-man line up and they specialise in stretched-out instrumentals, two things I think which go together. It's spacey music which doesn't want to be grounded in any way. Drummer Joe Dilworth, also ex-Stereolab, spends as much time on cymbals as drums. (In fact I'm fairly sure half his kit went untouched.) Listen to them a little while and I swear you'll start to feel like your feet are lifting from the ground...

Some bands, such as Moon Duo, achieve mesmerism by simple repetition until trance states take hold. (Leading to my review stating “more, please, of this less business”. I was quite pleased with that one...) While others, like this lot, are able to achieve a virtuous combination. They harness the power of repetition while morphing as they move, packing in changes you're not really aware of happening until after they've happened. They move and stand still. You can listen or trance out. In fact, you can listen and trance out.

Reviews tend to focus on the futurism of the band, but I'm not sure they're picking that up so much as getting a residue from Stereolab. Unlike the 'Jetsons'-style soon -everything-will-be-silver futurism of Stereolab, COAM lean more to the end-of-'2001' cosmic side of SF. The long numbers, the repetition, the psychedelic visuals – of course it's all about sending you. You'll be part-way through a track you were previously just enjoying, and suddenly you'll find yourself through the looking glass. Sometimes you can spot the trigger, the point where the music stepped up a notch. But other times it comes almost arbitrarily, presumably because they were accumulative – the point where your doors of perception got cleansed enough for the light to break through.

Actual footage from the gig! (No, really!)


FOLLAKZOID
Bleach, Brighton, Sat 28th May


Follakzoid are apparently prime proponents of the Santiago psyche scene. (And yes, it seems there is a Santiago psyche scene...)

If their German-sounding name suggests a Krautrock influence then, much like Cavern of Anti-Matter, there's a definite Neu! Element to the sound. There's the same extended rhythmic pieces, stretching to trance-out dimensions. (The CD I bought fits only four tracks on it.) But they also reminded me of the point post-punk crossed over with dance music, bands like 23 Skidoo or A Certain Ratio. If there's not the same uptight agitation, the David Byrne jerky dancing, there is the straight-faced euphoria. Vocals, when they appear, are de-emotionalised and intonatory, while album artwork exudes that post-punk starkness.

If Cavern of Anti-Matter's dominant movement is up, Follakzoid's is forwards. If Andrena Andrena are like a trip, Follakzoid are a road trip. Their tracks are driven by propulsive riffs, other shapes forming alongside them like trees and hills, some passing by quickly, others remaining a while. Certainly their tracks are journeys rather than destinations, often ending rather than finishing – like they're run out of road.

Reviewing one of their releases, the Quietus' Joe Kennedy commented how the motorik beat “can express both the experience of automated late-industrial modernity and atavistic impulses towards the cosmic and transcendental.” And certainly they have not just the tranciness but the sheen of Neu! In fact one of the surprises of seeing them live is how much of their sound is made by 'real' instruments.

Yet particularly with those vocals, which could be either trance-like or robotic, Follakzoid feel like both experiences at once. But then isn't something like the act of dancing like that? You repeat ritual gestures until you achieve an ecstatic state. Kraftwerk unveiled the Man Machine like their creation, like something they'd devised in their secret laboratory. But in our era, when Google glass and driverless cars seem imminent, he's something we just take for granted. Perhaps that's partly why it's Neu! rather than Kraftwerk that bands today are taking up.

Also not from Brighton...


THE TIGER LIILIES
Spiegeltent, Brighton, Sun 29th May


After the theatrical shows 'Lulu' and 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner', this was the first time I'd seen the accordian-driven Brechtian street opera trio the Tiger Lillies do their actual dark cabaret set in an actual cabaret setting. And it made for a pretty good setting, laughter drifting through from the weekend revellers as they regaled us with their tales of debauchery and woe.

There's supposed to be an art exercise where you paint a painting from as many different shades of black as you can, the point being we so rarely come across 'pure' black. And they make music somewhat like that. They don't stray to the dark side of the spectrum so much as set up shop there. (Like their lyric of the woman who “always sees the black and not the gold”.) But they elbow out a range for themselves regardless. There's black humour. (A song about inserting hamsters which I won't repeat here gains fulsome belly laughs.) But there's also stuff that's pretty close to pure black, and all stations between. (I was reminded of the old Soft Boys line “And when there's no more tears to cry/There's nothing left to do but laugh.”)

Musically, they do a similar thing. Their default line-up may be accordian, double bass and drums. (Is there such a style as dark klezmer? I guess there is now.) But the drummer finds the strangest things to drum, while other instruments include piano, theramin, a “home-made ukelile” (which looks suspiciously like a chopped-off guitar neck) and a circular saw. And that last one, though sparingly used, may even be their signature sound – absurd, strangely melodic, mockingly sentimental and sinister all at once.

They smartly start the gig with the semi-diegetic song 'Roll Up' presenting a freakshow for an eagerly thrill-seeking suburban audience (“our lives a sideshow attraction, we do our best to please”), which inevitably frames everything which follows. By not being the subject of the song, we are somewhat implicated. And then comes another twist on that...

Though the Brecht and Weill influence is clear enough, there's none of Bertie's political themes. Their subject is human folly, people who became addicted to something or to someone until it finishes them. (Their universe is really a Snakes and Ladders board without the ladders.) And a song about the folly of drinking delivered to a roomfull of drinkers gains an edge. We're voyeurs, yet at any point we could find ourselves projected from out seats into one of those songs. If the musical saw signifies their sound, the default response is the uncertain belly laugh.

Not from Brighton... (But then they rarely are.)


Not sure if a theatre performance and three gigs really go together, but that's how the cookie crumbled...

Saturday, 28 May 2016

LAURIE ANDERSON'S SONG CONVERSATION/ DUKE GARWOOD/ FUGA PERPETUAL (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES AT BRIGHTON FESTIVAL)

LAURIE ANDERSON'S SONG CONVERSATION
Brighton Dome, Tues 17th May


After a couple of Festival performances based around the spoken word, this - as the name might suggest - was Laurie Anderson in music mode. Pianist Nik Bartsch and guitarist Eivind Aarset provided slow, calm, meditative lines with only Anderson's violin holding tones, one piece blending seamlessly into the next. It's music which matches what I described, after her last Festival appearance, as her “measured, melodiously deadpan delivery” – always assured, never straining for effect. It's music which doesn't see the need of playing many notes when you can just play the right ones. It's music which makes you realise you much we live our lives on 45 by playing at 33.

Though melodic it can go through some quite free-form passages, particularly in the first half of the gig - Bartsch using the piano as a string and percussion instrument like some successor to John Cage. At one point he takes to actual drums, at another manages drum and piano at the same time. It's not all that far from recently seen Australian free improvisers the Necks, only less long-form and with more of a nodding acquaintanceship to song structure.

The music dominates the first half, Anderson sometimes speaking but very much as voice-overs – more conversation than song. Then at about half-way the monologues start to develop and extend. Just as I'm thinking this is the closest I've seen her to an actual gig, she breaks into 'Langue D'Amour'. (You know, the one about Eve and the snake with legs.) We're so used to her making music out of gadgets and gizmos. Here, beyond the voice filters and a little looping, it's all 'natural' instruments. And it works astonishingly well, turning her into something of a surrealist chanteuse.

The only weak points are the cover versions. There's a latter-day Lou Reed song using his recorded voice, and Leonard Cohen's 'Bird On a Wire'. A classic song of course, but covers aren't really Anderson's forte and Cohen's characteristic melancholy doesn't fit her well.

It's hard to say what's the best time I've seen Anderson. In some ways her working methods stymie the question even being asked. She always conveys the sense of something being implied, while at the same time leaving that thing up to you. But this was quite possibly the most successful.

DUKE GARWOOD
Corn Exchange, Brighton, Wed 18th May


...and after a gig played at 33 what is there to do but rediscover the joys of 16?

Modern blues player Duke Garwood has a singing voice about as laconic and unassuming as his audience chat – it kind of settles back into the music around it. His guitar playing perhaps tops the mix, but only by a kind of default. His band, for the most part, look like various permutations of himself – just at different ages and with different hair and beard lengths. And they play so tightly you could almost believe that to be the case.

The music has a beguiling shuffle to it. And like a cardsharp it's able to stay deadpan while slipping jokers and aces into that shuffle at unexpected points. The twin percussionists in particular always seem to have some new sound-making contraption in hand, sometimes only for a couple of beats. It all sounds simple and straightforward but can never quite be pinned down. There's quite freeform sections which creep up on you unawares, the finale an example of that little-known genre the laid-back wig-out. I'm thinking of the old phrase “still waters run deep” even before Garwood's mumbled something about falling down a well.

It's reminiscent of Califone in the way it can be so rootsy and so out there at the same time, like it doesn't see the need to make a distinction between the two. But it's not as DIY. It's almost like a blues version of Can, it has that quiet assurance as if these are musicians so accomplished they see no reason to show off. Some talk about blues as though it's downbeat stuff, which I've never really understood. As with the great blues masters, in Garwood's hands it's something sublime.

I confess to never having heard of Garwood before his name showed up in the Festival programme. But in a way that's appropriate, it feels like music you should push open a door and stumble across rather than it appear with a splash and a viral marketing campaign. He's apparently been at this for over a decade, which is no mean feat. But shut your eyes and you could imagine it's been going on since 1972, impervious to fad and fashion.

Recent but from Cologne...


FUGA PERPETUA
Corn Exchange, Brighton, Fri 20th May


This “icon-sonic opera”, written by contemporary composer Yuval Avital and performed by Israeli Ensemble Meitar, was something of a blind date for me. I may have only decided to attend because it announced it's subject as refugees, stubbornly sticking to the word in the face of more antagonistic and less accurate terms being perpetuated by a bunch of Tories. So it was something of a plus when it turned up trumps.

Over the course of the piece, Avital's style moves freely between melodic and dissonant. At one point emitting the sort of piercing drone you most associate with the Velvet Underground at their most unfriendly. Though there are at times sustained lines, the music's mostly assembled from parts – plucked strings, tapped piano notes – which you put together inside your head. The piano was even used as a string and percussion instrument, which after Laurie Anderson makes for twice in one week!

And it was this assemblage style which allowed the music to integrate so well with the other elements – the images, and the sounds and voices of the refugees. The images were projected onto gauze screens before and behind the ensemble, a handy visual metaphor for this integration. Which means that, so soon after I was saying that multi-media had become so over-used in gigs it wasgood to get a break from it, along comes an example of it working seamlessly!

Afterseeing the anti-fascist Hass composition 'In Vain', I questioned whether absolute music is a good vehicle for political concerns or whether like a Rorschach blotter its better employed when opening up to more metaphysical themes. Aren't forms such as the song, the cartoon or the photo-montage more directly connected to the everyday world and thereby more able to comment on it? However, at least when the icon is put with the sonic, this work did succeed. Here's how (at least as I reckon it)...

The earlier images tended to be the stuff we're familiar with from news broadcasts, such as the opening shot of a boat crammed with people. In some the figures were reduced to silhouette. But these yielded to a small number of refugees, named on screen, who we see in close-up. A pretty decent start. But there's more...

When they're introduced through their 'song' you naturally assume the term's being used as a musical corollary for 'story', both being able to convey a narrative. As it is they sing only a few bars, often in their own untranslated language. 'Theme' might be a better term, if you want to be operatic 'leitmotif' or perhaps even 'timbre' – something which conveys the essence of the person rather than their situation, the way an instrument has a signature sound.

There have of course been TV documentaries which have followed refugees, asking them to explain what it is they're fleeing from, why they are going where they're going and so on – attempting to humanise their situation. But here they're asked much more general questions, written on screen, such as about their childhood. Sometimes in response they say a few words, sometimes we see only their expression. And when they're asked such a thing, we look at that expression and of course we start to think of our own childhood.

In the post-show discussion Avital was adamant he wanted to avoid “the pornography of pain”. We've grown used to saying 'people with AIDS' over 'AIDS victim'. Similarly, perhaps even to insist refugees are refugees is not enough. These are people forced into a situation. But they are not reducible to that situation. The work doesn't humanise so much as universalise, doesn't tell stories but creates musical portraits which like all portraits become points of self-comparison. When it says in the programme the work “crosses the border between 'us' and 'them'” that might sound platitudinous, but actually feels earnt once you have watched the thing.

The programme was heavy on self-critique. (“Can art reflect the condition of refugees at all? Is there a danger that art reduces its human subjects to figures of the imagination?... Why risk making such an artistic work? What can artists do in such times of incredible violence and indifference?”) Yet ironically the audience response in the post-show discussion went to the other extreme of congratulatory, and ignored the fairly gargantuan elephant in the room. 

This was an audio-visual experience you really need to experience live and in total, featuring the sort of music most people claim to find 'difficult'. And at the end of the day the Daily Mail's going to have more reach than that. Some tearjerker please-think-of-the-children ballad by Adele, while the last thing I would listen to, might have more of an effect overall. This is of course an obvious point. But obviousness doesn't make things go away.

Still, let's not focus on an over-excited audience but the success of the work itself. Even if that was only an artistic success...


...all part of the Brighton Festival

Saturday, 21 May 2016

KRONOS QUARTET/ BRIGHTON SYMPHONY OF A CITY/ GHOSTFACE KILLAH (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

KRONOS QUARTET
Barbican Centre, London, Mon 9th May


It can sometimes feel like modern music is hopelessly split in twain – between that which ceaselessly coins new compound genres (death metal disco, anyone?) and music which regurgitates the past with the diligence of a re-enactment society. It can feel like the post-modernists have bewitched us into a self-fulfilling prophecy, sticking us between the rock of novelty and the hard place of nostalgia. When great music has always come partly through an engagement with it's times and partly through an inter-relationship with the music of the past.

In which case acclaimed San Francisco ensemble the Kronos Quartet are not just a longstanding exception but a kind of antidote. As I said of the last time they played the Barbican (with Laurie Anderson) “for all their commissioning of scores and ceaseless boundary-pushing, [they] are at root a string quartet whose business is to perform recitals from scores.” For the most part they play 'classical' stringed instruments, unfiltered and unprocessed. They're even named after a figure deemed archaic by the Ancient Greeks. (Okay, its more likely to be about connoting time. Just go with it, okay?) They’re like spotting a classic car still on the road, so elegant when queued up with mass-produced indentikit boxes and yet able to keep going.

With one single exception, every composer in the programme is still alive. (Two join the quartet onstage.) And only two compositions are pre-millennium. Four are part of their new 'Fifty for the Future' series, where fifty new compositions will have their scores stuck up on-line as part of a learning repertoire to enable further performances.

One notable feature of their approach is the lack of a video screen. When it works multimedia can work very well, but when it's bad its horrid. An automatic expectation of i screens means stuff gets dragged aboard by rote, and often just ends up distracting. The band onstage can't be just a band onstage but becomes like one of those overloaded commercial websites, surrounded by clickbait and dancing GIFs.

Belying the widespread notion that this music is austere and difficult, several pieces are melodic and lyrical. Fode Lassana Daibate's 'Sunjata's Time' is like one of those works based around a folk tune. In fact the problem was almost the reverse. Some pieces were too short to get a hold of and consequently felt rather ephemeral. (Including Laurie Anderson's 'Flow'.)

Kronos continued their longstanding relationship with Terry Riley with 'One Earth, One People, One Love', dating from 2002. The title springs from a 'mantra' made up by Alice Walker as an anti-bellicose response to September 11th, so the sentiment may well be welcome. But, perhaps even more than with  his own Barbican appearance, it's further evidence that the once pioneering minimalist is now little more than a New Ager. It's platitudinous quality was mirrored by some soporific music.

Alexsandra Vrebalov's 'My Desert, My Rose' (part of the Fifty for the Future series) was by contrast an indeterminate composition more akin to the Riley of old. Each player is given control of their own musical line, free to meet up with the others but also to separate off again. Think of four mountain walkers following four separate spiralling paths, criss-crossing then uniting on the speak.

Martin Green (of Lau) accompanied the band on his own home-made instruments for his 'Seiche'. Two 'Kronoscillators' were mixed-up slinkys, the other (at the back of the stage) had some strange mechanics I couldn't discern. His interest was in creating something “impure... slightly uncontrollable and unpredictable”, where even the player couldn't determine what the instrument would be doing next. Perhaps consequently, it was hard to tell how composed and how improvised it was. Perhaps the 'proper' instruments were scored, but with the capacity for the players to respond to the unpredictable. It ended up with both the ups and downs of improvisation, at points stumbling along while at others everything would come together and sound like nothing else.

Mary Kouyomdjan's 'Beiruit' provided the finale of the main set. The piece begins with recordings of her own family from Lebanon. As they start to discuss the Civil War and their emigration, the recordings start to overlap and the accompanying music becomes more agitated. (A woman's voice tells of giving birth while bombs drop.) The stage then falls into darkness as we hear actual recordings of bombing. It is somewhat chilling to read in the programme that these are not from sound library but were recorded by her family from their balcony. And yet once framed by music they take on their own musicality, like a Futurist noise symphony. The players stridently join in with the sounds before taking over from them, to subside back into quietude. The piece is so striking it's a surprise to read Kouyomdjan was only thirty when she wrote it.

The Quartet's sole concession to rock'n'roll behaviour was to be pulled back onstage for two encores.

'Bombs of Beirut', but not from the Barbican...


BRIGHTON: SYMPHONY OF A CITY
Brighton Dome, 11th May


This collaboration between film-maker Lizzie Thynne and composer Ed Hughes was a modern, home-based update of the 'city symphony' film genre “drawing on such precedents as Walter Ruttman's silent classic 'Berlin, Symphony of a Great City'.”

Hughes' music, though a series of pieces more than an actual symphony, was quite involving. It was effective the way strings and brass would effectively work as two musical channels, creatively playing off against one another.

Thynne's film contained a neat device in framing the history footage within... well, within the frame. A woman lines up a seafront photo on her phone, and we see she's somehow time-machined a picture of yesteryear. This is of course the way we do see the past, we cannot help but mentally compare it to the present. It's something which could perhaps have been played up more. The seafront facade for example could have been shown as dissolving back through time periods, until we pass before the film stock era. Brighton was a centre of the early film industry, so the footage should be available.

Overall, the emphasis seemed to be on the ordinariness of Brighton, on people doing everyday things. Which is perhaps the best approach to take. Art that manages to reframe the everyday can be more effective that art that aims at grand metaphysical statements.

But it may be harder to pull off. Perhaps the film was unlucky in that I re-watched Chris Marker's classic poetic essay film 'Sans Soliel' only a short while later. A film which states its intent near the beginning with the comment “I've been round the world several times and now only the everyday still interests me”. And Marker's film is suffused with such small everyday moments; catching the January shadows of Tokyo, or people awkwardly trying to sleep in their seats on a slow ferry. It's those intimate moments, the poetry of everyday life, which seemed absent here.

Perhaps it fell between stools, the images not striking enough to be memorable while feeling too framed and composed to truly evoke the ordinary. Perhaps it should have done something like the 2009 'All Tomorrow's Parties' documentary, which took attendees' home footage and assembled it into “a post-punk DIY bricolage”.

But perhaps the biggest failing was that the heralded collaboration between film-maker and composer didn't actually happen. They may have done their things at the same time, but there was little creative spark between the two. The musical pieces would vary in tone and tempo, but those variations were never really matched by the visuals.

And the genre took it's name for a reason. Alex Barrett defines it as “films that are influenced by the form and structure of a musical symphony.” Chris Marker, again from 'Sans Soliel', said:

“This city ought to be deciphered like a musical score; one could get lost in the great orchestral masses and the accumulation of details. And that created the cheapest image... overcrowded, megalomaniac, inhuman. He thought he saw more subtle cycles there: rhythms, clusters of faces caught sight of in passing—as different and precise as groups of instruments.”

Perhaps they worked at different scales, Ruttman's film capturing the grand sweep of a classical symphony and Marker's more modern work homing in on clusters - the difference between Beethoven and Philip Glass. Yet Thynne's effort lacked any kind of rhythm or musicality at all, just serving up shot after shot of people ambling around.

There were points when it felt like an art-house version of a tourist info film, detailing the city's attractions for the visitor. (The Sea Life Centre not only featured prominently but got their logo in the end credits, so were presumably a sponsor.) At others it seemed keen to portray a city of hipsters at play. (“Look! A young woman boarding a train carrying an acoustic guitar! That's the kind of crazy, happening place Brighton is!”) The sort of stuff which gets me muttering “one day a real rain will fall”. Though there were admittedly some counter-scenes of student demos and homelessness.

Given which, it would be neat to dismiss the film as 'neoliberal', exposing how unlike the amassed city symphonies of the past people today don't play their part or even bang their own drum – they just tap it listlessly.

But even that seems to grant the film too much. A film for example like 'Wolf of Wall Street' may in many ways be risible, but is in a sense doing it's job (at the most surface level) of capturing the era it's in. I'm not sure this achieved even that. I didn't even take against it, so much as shrugged and went home.

When Brighton was granted city status back in 2001 many of us took against the idea, feeling we were swapping our uniqueness for a non-identity as London-by-the-sea – becoming like everywhere else to make it easier for other people to come here. To this day many people I know still defiantly call their home town a town. And here we had proof of how much media froth that 'city status' really was - a non-symphony for a non-city.


GHOSTFACE KILLAH
Royal Festival Hall, London, Sat 14th May


I don't really need to tell you that Ghostface Killah was a founder member of Wu-Tang Clan, do I? Their importance not just to hip-hop but to general music history was perhaps best summed up by the posse themselves, with the track 'The Wu-Tang Clan Are Not a Bunch of Fellows to be Trifled With'. (They may have phrased that slightly differently. They are from New York.) Their ability to be streetwise and cerebral at the same time was again handily summed up by a track title - 'Da Mystery of Chessboxin'. Their edgier, more aggressive sound both galvanised hip-hop and fed into some of the excesses of gangster rap. But important artists always leave both good and bad music in their wake.

With hip—hop the rapid-fire rapping can sound stream-of-consciousness. But the music's often intricately layered, dragging sounds and samples in from different directions like Tom Cruise on those video screens in 'Minority Report'. Which reprises a question asked over the Cannibal Ox gig, is it something which can work well live?

Ghostface Killah's approach seems to be not to try to reproduce the studio but embrace the chaos. He takes to the stage with a large entourage in tow, announces mid-way he'll only perform under red lights because “red is my favourite colour”, drags audience members onstage to take the parts of absent Clan members (which works surprisingly well), brings on guests (which doesn't, one gets booed off), starts and stops tracks at seeming random.

He holds much of it together through sheer strength of personality, something he seems to have little shortage of. And you could argue that you can only get the good chaos, the unexpected event, with the bad stuff. But it seems remarkably like he'd forgotten he was in London to do a gig until five minutes beforehand, and works only fitfully. At points it starts to sound like karaoke for rabble-rousers. Notably, when stuck for something else to do, his co-vocalist breaks into a bar from 'Purple Rain'. And as a result we do get to hear a fair bit of 'Purple Rain'. It ends almost mid-song, with him transmitting the news his time is up, and the house lights switching straight on.

For once there is footage of the Brighton gig, and it's a time when I caught the London show. Figures...


Coming soon! More Brighton Festival stuff...