Sunday, 6 June 2010

GIG-GOING ADVENTURES 1: WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM/ TIM HECKER/ WOLF EYES

I seem to have been attending a surfeit of gigs lately, at a rate too fast to write them all up – and now there’s a bit of a backlog. Looking back at this list, I seem to have perversely decided to ignore chronology and post them in pairings which just seem to suggest themselves. This also means posting two of the most recent outings first...

(At least this proves I don’t only stay in and watch ’Doctor Who.’)

WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM
(The Engine Rooms, Fri 21st May)


A band composed of radical environmentalists from Washington state, were even formed at an Earth First gathering and live together in a rural commune outside of Olympia. The track title ‘I Will Lay Down My Bones Among the Rocks and Roots’ might suggest their sound, which tends to longish soundscapes based in doom drone and even black metal. Partly, I was interested in the idea of political opinions being expressed through the music, rather than channelled into words shouted over some generic backbeat (aka the anarcho-punk trap).

You could certainly see their music as reflecting a view of nature apart from the pop music view, where it’s mostly held to be a twee place to snog in. Yet, though it would be true enough to say their sound reflects the elemental wildness of nature, there’s more to it than that. If you were in a fanciful mood, you could even describe it as having an ecology!

What really compels is the harmonics between the guitars, which bisect and throw up patterns which are so much more than the sum of their parts. You could try and reduce the resultant sound back to the constituent instruments, but it would be like reducing a forest back into the trees, birds and animals. The wood is more than the trees, and all that.

But for all the fantastic guitar harmonics my ears hit a huge stumbling block in the growelly grindcore vocals. (You know, the stuff that goes ‘MWUUUUUURGH! URRRRRGH!” a lot.) Though the set had long instrumental passages, whenever those vocals recurred I found it hard to do much except for wait for them to stop again. Yes I know they’re supposed to sound unmediated and irrecuperable, but by this point they actually sound about as generic as a Ritchie Blackmore guitar solo.

Ultimately I found myself wanting something more to happen. This may have partly been due to it being something of a short set, lasting an hour at most. Though it wasn’t just one-note heavy, their first album (available on Spotify) branches further into ambient and even folk passages. (Plus has a second, more folky vocal to counteract the grunting.) I’ve no idea whether they’ve now nixed those elements from their sound, or whether they just prefer doing the louder stuff live. Legend has it they prefer playing outdoors, so maybe it all works better in that setting.


TIM HECKER
(The Free Butt, Mon 17th May)


I did, at first, have my doubts. We’re past the era where rock music is the default mode of music expression, but most venues are still set up like it’s the Seventies and Nine Below Zero are in town. This problem is actually more manifest in smaller venues, for larger ones often double as arts centres and the like. An intimate space like the Free Butt is a great place to see a band. But Tim Hecker’s an electronica artist. You don’t want to feel like you’re part of a sweaty, heaving crowd. Because you won’t be, for one thing...

As it happens, things worked out well. This was probably in no small part down to the venue judiciously dimming the lights, as if tipping us off to focus on the mind’s eye.

Everything that was good about this set simultaneously makes it difficult to write about. It worked precisely as a soundscape, to envelop and transport you. It didn’t raise any issues, coin any concepts or do anything that might be rationalised into words. Some prefer to see that as a limitation, as art for art’s sake. But art isn’t a newspaper, it doesn’t always have to be telling us something. I see it more as music doing something only music can do. A song can tell a story, but so can many other mediums.

It reminds me of a panel transcript from an old ’Comics Journal.’ Complaining about that newfangled abstract art, some curmudgeon grumbled he’d once asked a painter what his work was about – “and he couldn’t answer me.” A slightly wiser soul pointed out “well that’s why he painted it.”

Here’s a video of Hecker not doing very much...


WOLF EYES
(The Engine Rooms, Tues 1st June)


Wolf Eyes, conversely, worked precisely because of what they were able to do with a rock format. It felt right seeing them in so ‘rocky’ a venue as the Engine Rooms, for they walk and talk (well, swagger) as much like a rock band as a noise outfit. They strike up a deranged cacophony which feels as elemental as being caught in a wildstorm. Yet at the very same time they’ll lay down what’s hazily recognisable as rhythm tracks over which the vocalist will intone - the CD I bought even came with a lyric sheet! By the very act of disdaining the strictures of rock music they feel just the way such music used to feel in days of yore – full of attitude, abandon and unconstrained by tradition, able to make up its own rules as it goes along.

We can of course want things both ways. Rock theatrics now feel tired, even ‘alternative’ rock may as well be Judas Priest. So we turn outside of it, only to find ourselves missing its visceral vitality. But every now and then our contradictory wishes get rewarded, with sets of such gut-punching physicality that chinstrokers would be thrown off like chaff!

Each member ‘triples up’ on stage between traditional rock tools, power electronics and home-made and extemporised instruments. (Including something which looked like a metal stool, down the legs of which they promptly started blowing!) But this didn’t come across as any kind of eclectic blend or statement about virtuosity.  Each new item, as soon as picked up, would simply shape to their hands. It was as if they were audaciously able to make their music out of anything. At times this might be something so apparently archaic as a guitar. Another, a contact mike dragged down a packing case would be all that was needed for a rhythm track.

This willful shaping of anything into their sound may sound very Faust-like, but there’s no sense of Faust’s devilish pranksterism.  Wolf Eyes seem more steeped in the in-your-face tradition of New York noise, such as Swans or Suicide, only pushed still further into the maelstrom. (At times they even blurted some Throbbing Gristle-style cornet.) While Faust provoke and antagonise their audience, New York noise would cow them into submission through the blunt instrument of their music.

But you might strike closer by calling them the Stooges of noise music. (Both band being Ann Arbor residents, after all.) Instead of adding influences, both preferred to boil (things down – only once having stripped the flesh from the ‘bones’ of chords and song structures the Stooges would stop while Wolf Eyes then boil down still further. There’s something gloriously unfinished about their raw slabs of sound, as if they’re first stirring up some blocks of noise then extemporising what to do with them. Rather than playing us their compositions, it was like they were unleashing forces they could themselves barely control.

It was like looking at some cut ‘n’ paste collage. Every element is in itself almost lumpenly simple, and the bold and jagged way they are sewn together part of the picture.

... in fact, let’s pursue that metaphor. I swear at times I felt that it was the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916, and everything I thought I knew was been remorselessly stripped away before me! This has felt like a good year for gigs already, not yet half-way through and the reformed Swans still to appear. But Wolf Eyes must surely rank high amongst them...

PS I have no idea about the sudden congruence of wolf-derived band names. Last year it seemed every other band was called Deer-something, now its all gone lupine. Psychic TV always had a thing for wolves, maybe it’s all down to them...

5 comments:

  1. "... but by this point they actually sound about as generic as a Ritchie Blackmore guitar solo."

    Oh dear, oh dear. If you'd said "as an Eric Clapton guitar solo", or even Jimmy Page, I'd have had no argument, or at least not a very strong one. But next to Hendrix, Blackmore was about the most distinctive of all the classic-era hard rock guitarists. There's just no way to mistake the solos in, say, Kentucky Woman, Child in Time, Stargazer or Spotlight Kid for any other guitarist. Which is all the more impressive when you think how very different those four songs are from one another.

    (All right, whether you like his playing is a different matter; but whatever it was, it wasn't "generic".)

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  2. I have to say I'm not a big solos fan per se. I don't even like Jimmy Page's all that much, and I'm a big Led Zeppelin fan. But Deep Purple were to me the useless third leg of the classic hard rock era. Zeppelin took it in one direction, Sabbath in another, Purple hung about uselessly in the middle. Or recorded an album called 'Concerto For Group and Orchestra'. Which was a direction, technically speaking.

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  3. PS Also, I meant what sounds generic now, not necessarily when it was first done.

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  4. *cough*

    I can't believe you are mentioning Black Sabbath in the same breath as Deep Purple and Led Zep. They contributed about 0.0053% as much creativity as the other two. I'm not saying I don't enjoy listening to a spot of Sabbath ever now and then, but only in the mindless way that I don't object to, say, a Brotherhood Of Man song being on in the background while I pick up a takeaway from McDonalds.

    And, yes, I get your point on how things sound now rather than treating historically important music with reverence for that reason -- but that wasn't what I meant. I simply meant that Blackmore's solos, now as then, sound different from everyone else's.

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  5. Sabbath's significance is mostly confined to a few songs, you don't have to bother with whole albums much even from the early years. But that's true of lots of band and ignores just how significant their significance is!

    In the music I listen to now I hear their influence so much more than Zeppelin, though I love Zeppelin.

    I have thought about doing a post about Sabbath. But I've been partly put off by the feeling that the tide is already turning my way, and people are starting to respect them for what they were.

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