Sunday 30 December 2012


”Another New Year and too much beer
And a puke into the sea...”

It was the early hours of New Year's Day 1984, and a somewhat sozzled John Baine was walking home from a night's celebrating in Shoreham. On arriving home, he turned into his alter ego, the punk poet and musician Attila the Stockbroker, picked up his mandola and wrote the song 'Down On Airstrip One'.

“Going on about Orwell” was indeed something of a national pastime at that point. Michael Radford made a bad film version of '1984', while the Eurythmics stripped it for buzzwords and turned them into a rubbish dance number. As already mentioned on this blog, the sheer dreadness of the date was enough for the anarcho-punk band band Crass to split up. It all felt like something of a media frenzy. (Which is, you know, different to a lucid frenzy.) After all, it was common knowledge that Orwell hadn't picked the date out of some prophetic vision but as an anagram of 1948, the year he'd written the book.

But mostly it felt like misdirection. Perhaps there was no point looking for 1984 on the horizon, perhaps it had already arrived. Since the time of Orwell's writing, the world had been locked into a war between superpowers. It was just a cold war, and when it was fought it was by proxy. 'Cruise' (read nuclear) missiles had arrived at the American base on Berkshire's Greenham Common two months earlier. Many felt that Britain was already Airstrip One, America's Cuba. A handy platform on which to park it's battle gear, and a handy fall guy to take the hit should it's enemies start firing back.

Those nuclear warheads overshadowed everything, to a degree that's hard to imagine now. For all our watching apocalyptic faux-documentaries such as 'Threads' or 'The War Game' I doubt anyone could actually envisage so much destruction, it was simply too big an idea to truly hold in your head. But it became a totemic issue for all that was wrong with the world – people at the top willing to risk the end of it. I constantly wore an anti-nuclear badge through those years, which led to a fair few... ahem!... heated debates.

Yet, however prevalent the blather about Orwell, neither was there much of a shortage of songs about nuclear war. In the spirit of the times, Crass had taken to releasing compilation albums of tapes sent in to them. After listening to the slush pile for these Steve Ignorant emerged muttering “if I hear one more bastard song about Cruise missiles”, before wandering off into the night. Truth to tell, most of these songs were so turgid and worthy you started to wish for the onset of mutually assured destruction just so you didn't have to hear another one.

(Some even came to see them as a reactionary pursuit, suggesting problems didn't riddle our divided society but were confined to a few loose screws at the top. But that's a question for another time...)

Attila's number immediately outpaces the pack by not trying to sound as much like the Subhumans as possible. Those kind of pleasures were scant back then. But there's more...

On first listen, the New Year setting and the Sussex landmarks seem mere scene-setting, incidental to the main thrust of the song. In fact they're what lifts it from it's sorry company. Attila smartly roots things in the everyday, one minute singing about the over-familiar lights of Shoreham harbour, the next the end of everything.

But mostly the song works, and rather brilliantly epitomises it's era, through juxtaposing the New Year's jollity with the threat of annihilation. He sings the word “fun” more sardonically than at any other point in British history. Given the times, getting wrecked seemed simultaneously an act of bravado and the only option left, in a world so intent on wrecking itself. (In that way it's a kind of second cousin to the Specials' 'Ghost Town.') This has an extra piquancy in my case. I first heard this song live, at some Sussex University benefit gig Attila had agreed to play. And yes, at that moment I really was too wrecked to care.

Attila's posted the lyrics and some details of the song here. Though oddly, he hasn't mentioned what might be the most obscure reference for modern ears:

“And if you think your Kentish prayers
Are mightier than the gun
I'll tell you that you're dreaming
Cause the countdown's just begun”

This recounts a 1982 meeting of South Coast Against the Bomb, where the Kent contingent baulked at Sussex's insistence on more radical direct action. Some have compared this to the historic split in the First International...

...okay I made that bit up! It's really a reference to Bruce Kent, Catholic priest and then General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament - a group who emphasised political lobbying and electoral support for Labour. Attila, it seems, was unimpressed.

“There's some choose civilisation
And a promise unfulfilled
And there's some choose extermination
When it's someone else who gets killed
A gesture of insanity
And a world left to the crabs
Five thousand years of history
And now they're up for grabs”

At a time when the Tories are trying to throw cash at a replacement to the Trident submarine programme just as they slash benefits for disabled people, I'd sing along with those words today. Come to think of it, I just did.

Tuesday 25 December 2012


A very merry Christmas to all our readers!

In the spirit of this festive season, here's some more photos taken in Sicily at the height of the summer. (Flickr set here.)

Sunday 23 December 2012


Brighton Dome, Tues 11th Dec

Named after London's ring road, where those rave parties happened back in the day, Orbital were part of a triumvirate of Nineties acts rooted in dance music. Along with Leftfield and the Chemical Brothers, they made music you could listen to as easily as dance, and won fans in the world outside the party scene. (One of which was me.) Yet it seemed vital the way each managed to stay rooted in dance while bringing in things from outside. (I mean, I like the Prodigy as much as the next man, but they essentially swapped being a dance act for being a rock band.)

However, Orbital seemed unique even in that triumvirate. Both Leftield and the Chemical Brothers moved further into rock modes and song structures, often working with guest vocalists like speed dating to stay fresh. Orbital had precisely one guest vocalist, Alison Goldfrapp, who would more commonly chant or babble nonsense words than sing.

And instead of song structures tracks would stretch into phases and movements. Mark Riley once remarked that Television were like a string quartet who just happened to use rock instruments. Bass and drums wouldn't just provide a backdrop for some guitar fretboard stretching, every instrument would contribute to a string of overlapping, interlocking lines. Similarly, Orbital were like a string quartet with electronic instruments. Even though there was only two of them. More than anyone else, they were dance music's grown-up children.

When popular music tries to take on a greater sophistication, it often ends up falling between stools. Those longer numbers aren't really as intricate as a string quartet, while they're no longer as appealing to dance to. Orbital's greatest triumph may lie in that never happening to them, in having enough reach to grasp at both ends. In about every sense, they seemed to know which button to press. From the peeling bells of their first release, 'Chime', they seemed able to conjure up sounds which hit you at quite a primal level. And, as fitted their raving roots, the feeling they went for was euphoria. A track like 'Way Out' has the sense of Christmas carols, without the cheesiness, while 'The Girl With The Sun In Her Hair' uses a human heartbeat for it's bass line. Those who claim electronic music to be merely cold and cerebral have simply never listened to Orbital.

Instead of vocalists they featured samples, often lengthy and from unusual sources. 'Forever', for example, featured the closing speech from Lindsey Anderson's 'Britannia Hospital'. These often suggested at social and environmental issues, but were oblique more than didactic. They worked like the blurry photos in the booklet to 'The Middle of Nowhere'. The photos themselves were often simple snapshots, but the combination of the blurry filters and the emphasis thrown on them transformed them - into something allusive and mysterious.

Yet the Nineties were now some time ago, and (as doesn't occur to me until afterwards) I haven't heard a single Orbital release since that far-flung decade. Will their edge still be cutting? Unusually for the dance genre they have a reputation for wanting to play live, rather than just employ backing tapes and projections, and certainly much of the stuff I know gets reworked and rearranged here. Yet, in what seems significant, there's a noticeable move away from off-the-wall samples into more regular dancey vocals. They're as good as ever at inducing audience frenzy. But it lacks something of the lucid frenzy of old, the audacious invention.

What they were about, if reduced to a soundbite, was dance plus. It's like that plus has been eroded over time. They're still good. They're still very, very good. If this was all you knew of them, you'd probably have raved about this gig. (In about every sense.) But I'm not sure they're still great.

Interestingly, when I saw the recent Chemical Brothers concert film 'Don't Think' I thought something similar. (Leftfield haven't had a release since the Nineties, so we can't triangulate the crossfire.) Somewhere along the way, before most of us were born, popular music got given the task of reflecting and epitomising it's era. This style of dance-plus managed to do that for the Nineties superbly. But perhaps then's gain is now's loss, and what we are left with is the style rather than the substance.

In the unlikely event you haven't heard anything by them before, here'ssome YouTube vids they selected themselves. While this is the classic 'Chime' from Brighton...

Sunday 16 December 2012


Caroline of Brunswick, Brighton, Sat 1st Dec

For anyone here who isn't a pun rock trainspotter, Jowe Head was a founder member of the legendary Swell Maps. Who, once described by Simon Reynolds as “the missing link between Neu! And Sonic Youth”, were another of the classic bands who took punk not as an excuse for the usual rants about being bored in a bus shelter but as a cue to embark on surreal low-fi adventuring. (See here for ilks of a similar nature.) Since those days, extensive research can reveal, Head has trod a fittingly wayward path and has fronted this particular outfit for the past four years. (His name, incidentally, is Brummie slang for weirdo and the band's an archaic term for bohemian.)

His attire (colourful waistcoat, feathered top hat, paisley everything else) proved a clue to what we were in for – psychedelia served with wry humour and a folkish tinge. Their website lists the influences “Sun Ra, Joe Meek, The Left Banke, Sandy Denny, Os Mutantes, The Flaming Lips, flamenco, Ali Farka Toure, Tinariwen, The Byrds, Captain Beefheart, Hildegarde von Bingen, Velvet Underground and Nico” - which sounds like music to my ears! Accompanying him are a drummer, a cellist where you might otherwise expect a bassist to be, and a woman providing everything else. Yes, everything else – backing vocals, keyboards, xylophone, theramin and at one stage a kettle. There may even have been a kitchen sink involved for all I know, missed in the general melee.

Subject matter includes Krampus (the Bad Santa of German folklore), William Blake and men turning into fish. Or fish into men. I wasn't clear which. Which was probably the point.

Though they don't sound much like the Swell Maps, there's the same sense of eccentricity, of glorified gentlemanly amateurishness, of revelling in music as a hobby. Which has all the usual advantages. Simply by playing whatever they want, they come up with a slew of playful ideas. Of course all the usual disadvantages turn up too, and not all those playful ideas actually stick to the wall. (A version of 'Nottamun Town' was actually fairly ropey, and that's not a song to spoil.) Head's stage presence seems to epitomise all that, coming across as grinningly impish but also mildly distracted. But then again, to misquote Captain Beefheart, if not everything works that's because it's really about playing.

Not as stellar a show as the Cravats, perhaps, but a drop of the good stuff all the same.

Incidentally, it wasn't actually that dark on the night...

The Swell Maps themselves at their Peel Sessions epitome...

Tues 4th Dec, Sticky Mike's Frog Bar, Brighton

Sometimes not knowing the rules is a handy short-cut route to breaking them. Take Japanese music. Forever reassembling Western influences in different combinations, like consignments of LPs were showing up at Tokyo docks shorn of labels and context, leaving the locals to make of them what they will. Like the bass sound from here but the drumming from there? Who's to stop you sticking them together?

Boris being a case in point. Named after a Melvins song, they apparently stem from the Japanese hardcore scene, though little of that sound sticks to them now. (Well they've been at it a good fifteen years!) Instead imagine an intersection of Sabbath's sludgy gut-level riffs, Sonic Youth's adventures in detuning and Mogwai's deranged dynamics and semi-symphonic noise sculptures. And probably other things as well, but that's the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties already thrown in the blender, so seems enough to be going on with.

These sounds are sometimes combined in unimagined ways, but also tracks take unexpected corners, develop at tangents, virtually ambush your ears with sonic assaults. You're never really sure when a track is over, except for the people clapping. Actually, I'm not sure that was much of a guide either. All of which is rather epitomised by band member Takeshi boldly sporting what 'The Simpsons' Otto called “a double guitar.” Apparently one bridge is strung as a guitar and the other as a bass, allowing for rapid-fire switching. Notably, even when they go in for the long ambient sections the audience stay with it. (Unlike my schooldays, when my headbanger classmates would always jump the needle whenever Led Zeppelin got acoustic.) Vocals appear more sparingly than is common in guitar rock, and rather than dominating tend to the intonatory.

My only caveat would be (perhaps unsurprisingly) the same as over Mogwai. There's an occasional tendency to get muso-ish which stopped me committing to it fully. Of course we don't want that punk fundamentalism that tries to insist everything has to sound like the first Black Flag album. And, true, it's a thin line between musicians doing things because they work and because they can, but still not one I like to see crossed. Yet that aside, overall this was a band boldly going, rather than just reheating the rock template for another TV dinner.

If you like this, a full one minute of Boris in Brighton...'ll love this. Best part of an hour from a Philadelphia set back in 2005 and probably better than their Brighton gig to be honest. It starts out with their Sabbath side very much to the fore, but starts getting really good when it starts getting spacey about half-way in...

Coming soon! More of this sort of thing...

Sunday 9 December 2012


Aural Detritus 2
Phoenix Gallery, Brighton, Fri 30th Nov

Somehow, with the previous Aural Detritus concert series I managed to attend all three “cutting-edge UK improvisation strategies”. This time round, I reverted closer to type and only made the closing night. Which, needless to say, left me pining for what I hadn't heard in the other two.

Organiser Paul Khimasia Morgan commented ”more by accident than by design, tonight's performances all have strings in common”, to which I'd add all performances were relatively restrained and sparing. Both of which are of course grist to Lucid Frenzy's mill, where all-out free-jazz blurt is not the order of the day. (I can respect Ornette Coleman as much as the next man. Just so long as I don't actually have to listen to him.)

Considering cellist Bela Emerson is a local lass who performs regularly, and considering how much I've enjoyed it whenever I have seen her, I've succeded in seeing her a stupidly short number of times. This collaboration with Adam Bushell on marimba was the first time I've seen her collaborate, and I was curious as to how it would work. After all, her practise of looping and replaying her own lines effectively makes her her own built-in rhythm track.

As if acknowledging this, while still stamping on those effects pedals with abandon, she used loops more sparingly - giving Bushell space. And perhaps by result the marimba was less a rhythm track and more an active collaborator, appealing to those of us who like the way impro eschews instrumental hierarchies. At time the respective instruments seemed to be morphing into one another, Bushell descending on his bars with bows while Emerson drummed her fingers along her cello's body.

Last time I speculated that a reference to “long duration” performances was Aural Detritus' raison d'ĂȘtre. It was certainly duration which made this – it seemed to just get better and better, the collaborators throwing up new combinations like there was no tomorrow.

We were then shepherded into a smaller, bare room where we sat at the feet of Angharad Davies as she played unamplified, unaccompanied violin. Appealingly, her performance worked down rather than up. As she moved her bow further and further up her violin's bridge, the sounds became fainter and less recognisable as notes. And the less, the quieter she played, the further she pushed things to the edge of hearing, the more our ears were pulled in to what she was doing.

At points a newcomer to the room would probably have been dumbfounded as to what could be holding our attention so raptly. While we who'd been there from the beginning were committed to the path. Quietness and even silence become part of the vocabulary of music, like the way an artist can use white space in his compositions. Enthralling!

In a scene often dominated by gimmicks and gizmos, it was impressive to hear not just new but extraordinary sounds emerging from an instrument dating back to the Renaissance. In fact, so strange seemed the sounds I realised I had not the slightest idea how technically accomplished Davies was on the instrument. They could as equally have come from a complete novice as a classical master. (Though Davies' range is actually quite wide, click on some sound clips here.)

Here's something a little similar from another performance eighteen months ago, only not from Brighton and with industrial clanks as a backing track...

Up next, Dominic Lash was like Davies in a distorting mirror, playing acoustically and unamplified but more fulsomely on a double bass. In some ways he followed the same schema as Davies' set, starting out in the safe harbour of more recognisable chords before sailing straight off the chart. But the uncharted parts seemed more rudderless to me, as if he was spending more time seeking than finding. There seemed a Goldilocks point where it worked the best, as if the most abundant discoveries were at the fringes of the known. In all, a mixed set, but with high points.

Sarah Hughes (announced as “all the way from Withdean... that's Withdean!”) played zither, bows and amplified found sounds. It was one of those sets you find yourself wanting to like more than you actually did, there seemed to be more in there than was actually coming out. Her often delicate sounds sometimes fell victim to street noise, which doubtless didn't help. I would like to see her again before saying anything further.

West Hill Hall, Brighton, 15th Sept & 24th Nov

Though I have a huge amount of time for Colour Out of Space, some strange curse seems to stop me writing about it. I greatly enjoyed last year's Festival, and assembled a huge bundle of notes, which I never seemed to write up until it all got far too late. (Even for me.) This year, alas, there was no major Festival but a mere two evenings at the West Hill Hall. Which is a quite gloriously inappropriate venue for such out-there music, a Church Hall whose idea of stage lighting is plonking down a couple of tasselled standard lamps from some Fifties front room. (And this bring-your-own-booze business makes a Saturday night almost affordable!)

Setting aside ever-present compere Daniel Spicer, there seems strangely little social overlap between the two events. (Perhaps I should start some rumour of a feud between the two, accusing one side of lacing the other's samplers with tunes.) There is perhaps a difference of emphasis, Colour Out Of Space can tend to noise music and other wilder affairs, often with a more performative or even confrontational edge, like a cross between a gig, a pagan rite and a Fluxus happening. While Aural Detritus events can feel closer to recitals.

Take for example Mik Quantius, whose roots are in the Cologne metal scene and performed a shamanic-style set of droney chanting, even entering the room playing a drum. By which token I should be a bigger devotee of COOS, right? Yet life is a perplexing beast and I found Quantius' set to exemplify the tendency of impro sets to lack structure and fail to spark interest. It seemed to go nowhere and take a terribly long time to not get there. For a self-styled shamanic journey, it never really left the Earth. Of these three nights, it was the restrictive and sparing nature of AD which I ultimately found the most evocative.

Yet of course it's not a competition and needless to say I greatly enjoyed many of the other performers, such as Dutch free-form noise-makers Dagora. I probably enjoyed the second night more, but alas rather uselessly lost track of who was what! (Well these boho types keep swapping collaborators and identities, they just won't stay still...) I am perhaps not quite the devotee of Adam Bohman's found sounds as others seem to be, I tend to prefer his cut-up readings and deadpan comedy routines. 

Closers King Alfred Man of Leisure (most likely named after a local Leisure Centre) displayed the variety on offer by, in this world of free-floating duos and trios, being quite definitely a band! A droney, trancey band who would make Kraftwerk sound like Guns and Roses, but a band nonetheless. They triangulated the place where Sixties garage beats, lo-fi and out-there coalesce, and then peppered us with crossfire. One track was a steal from Faust's 'Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl', but then what better place to steal from?

Postscript! News is that the full Festival will be back next year. (Hurrah!)

Niether from COOS, King Alfred Man of Leisure in action...

...and Dagora starting off from somewhere with a lot of vowels in it and heading straight for outer space...

Thursday 6 December 2012


As many others have already said, Tory Chancellor George Obsborne got so little right in his Autumn statement that he didn't even manage to make it in the Autumn. 

His claim that Britain has “a welfare system that supports out-of-worklessness" is about as correct as it is grammatical; though with weary familiarity he claims his benefit cuts will target 'scroungers', the majority hit will be those claiming in-work benefits. It's all part of the familiar put-on that the crisis was somehow caused by the unemployed or by excessive public sector pay, when it's clear it was actually brought on by the greed and stupidity of his cronies in the banks. They don't just live off our labour, they try to hold us responsible when they fritter away all the cash.

Which makes his further attempts to make a yard sale of worker's rights (first unleashed to the faithful at the Tory conference, now soon to be a law hitting you) nothing more than base misdirection. I'm not normally a fan of clicktivism. But in this case anyone who works for a living (like, you know, most of us) really should be signing this petition...

Disclaimer! Check Andrew Hickey's comments below about the Labour origins of this petition. Which wouldn't bother me unduly in itself. (While completely disdainful of Labour, I recognise you can't always choose your political bedfellows.) But he also warns of a high level of politically partisan spam. I haven't received anything like that yet, but shall add another update here should the situation change.

Monday 3 December 2012


...well actually I was in Sicily in September, but have only just got round to posting to Flickr some of the shots of sunny Taormina. Those who like this sort of thing can expect more of... um... this sort of thing...

Friday 30 November 2012


After running yet another sad-but-true obit the other day, I'm happy to announce an anniversary! If asked to name someone still living out the Lucid Frenzy ethos in musical form, in defiance of today's play-safe world of taste dilution and corporate sponsorship, I'd be hard pressed to come up with a better contender than The Ex. Who as it happens will shortly be celebrating 33 1/3 years of existence at London's Cafe Oto.

Alas this is just another event I have neither time or cash reserves to attend! But my spirit shall be there in my stead, and my hat doffed to their consistent refusal to accept the confines of 'punk' or any other genre, their persistent ability to survive outside the workings of the music industry and their absolute non-acknowledgement of anything resembling fashion and trend. One day all bands will work that way.

I'd prattle on further, but I'd just be repeating what I said the last time... Instead, here's some of what I'm on about, live from Moscow last year. Hoping both they make it to 45, and I that I get to go along to that one!

Sunday 25 November 2012


Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London, Sunday 14th October
For previous instalments click here and here

Given my previous Julia Wolfe reviewreaders may not be too surprised to hear that composer Michael Gordon was another founder of new music ensemble Bang On a Can. But the genesis of this film soundtrack project lay not with him, but when Bill Morrison visited a film library and came across the scene of a boxer battling an amorphous blur (see image above) - and sought out more such decaying footage. In an interesting reversal, Gordon composed the music and Morrison then edited the assembled footage to fit.

One immediate reading of that boxer image might be that it illustrates disease. When we fall ill we are attacked by ever-morphing shapeless microbes which we have to fight off. This image just evens up the scale between the two. Alternately the decaying film of earlier eras could be seen as part of post-modern condition. We've become removed from the past and it's simpler, more linear world of derring-do. That title, after all, sounds a portmanteau of 'decades' and 'decay'. By it's nature much of the footage hails from that oxymoronically titled era of classic modernism - where technology was thought to be on the point of liberating us all. Both of those views have some traction. But it's ultimately saying something more universal and more double-edged than both of them.

Perhaps ironically given Gordon's past associations with Wolfe, this work is more similar to Christian Marclay. Both not only plunder the past for collage material, but incorporate it's 'foreign country' status into their aesthetic. Yet with Marclay that aesthetic is vinyl fetishism seen through hindsight, whereas here the distressed nature of the footage is important in itself. But of things previously mentioned in these parts, it probably has a closer-still association with 'Koyaaniqatsi' or even 'The Sinking of the Titanic'.

Yet, as ever, the differences become a better guide than the similarities. While 'Titanic' was about the transience of memory, this is more concerned with the inevitability of entropy. (Or, to give it its colloquial name, decay.) However, even that's not quite it...

From Lovecraft's many-angled ones to cheesy monster flicks such as 'The Blob', (above) formlessness is forever defined as a foe while heroes are square-jawed and clean-cut. But slowly, as proceedings unfurled, I found myself leaving the boxer's side and taking more to the blur. It came to seem less representing disorder than the return of some sort of primal order on which we've superimposed ourselves - like the Wyrd-world of shamanism that follows its own rules. And of course in shamanism sickness was often a means of spiritual insight. (In my typically lowbrow fashion, it also reminded me of the time vortex during the credits of 'Doctor Who'.)

In his pre-show chat, Morrison commented that in his search for footage he homed in on figures on the brink of revelation or triumph. (He noted sagely that indexing systems don't tend to have a category for that.) If the boxer was the starting point, the film opens and closes with images of a whirling dervish. Contrast this with the sequence which concludes 'Koyaaniqatsi' - a space rocket falling back to earth. These epitomise the difference between the films. 'Koyaaniqatsi' is concerned with the modern condition, which it sees as a life thrown out of balance. 'Decasia's concerns are less contemporary, more universal and more double-edged. Our struggle is to embrace that primordial world as much as escape it.

The importance in using found footage to achieve this end couldn't be overstated. The screen isn't displaying the summation of an artist's will, a thought brought fully formed to fruition, but an interaction with the chance processes of the wider world. Seeing those glitches and mis-shapes blown up on a giant screen, like the universe of microbes revealed by a microscope, and knowing they'd evolved by pure chance just makes them more beautiful. (Disclaimer: some of the 'decay' was artificially enhanced, though none of it was faked.)

Gordon's music is similarly double-edged. At times it's tremulous to the point of being blurry - as if the scores had been left out in the rain until the notes all ran together. At other times it was as stirring and strident as anything by Tchaikovsky. Sometimes it's both at the same time, the balance between them overlaid and ceaselessly shifting.

In one sense it pulls off the seemingly irreconcilable task that post-minimalism set itself. It combines the immediacy of minimalism with the power and epic sweep of classical music - the sheer thumping force of a full orchestra in full swing. True, it abandons the meditative serenity of minimalism, its language is much more volatile. But it retains minimalism's comparative sense of scale, it's refusal to hold the big above the small. (Perhaps not too much should be made that Gordon composed this piece rather than Wolfe. Wolfe's programme jumped from minimalism to post-minimalism and back, but was composed of shorter pieces.)

Yet of course it does something better and more important than any of that - it works as the perfect accompaniment to the film! It was as if those blurry strings were symbiotically linked to the flecks and marks upon the screen, one rising and falling with the other, not the product of two separate minds at all.

This festival had a fantastic-looking programme, from which alas I could only attend these three events. But even without seeing the rest, surely with 'Decasia' I caught the highlight of the whole shebang. The thing was a triumph!

And so to sum up...

Overall, I'd emphasise that while the three pieces I saw were unconventional and adventurous, they never fell into the inaccessible. It wasn't some great challenge to get your reward, like chewing raw wholegrain. It doesn't rely on in-depth knowledge of music theory. (Of which I have scarcely any.) It's just great music, waiting to be heard by anyone whose mind is open enough to give something a try...

In one of my few complaints Queen Elizabeth Hall's conventional venue layout worked against some of the more unconventional styles of presentation these pieces have used in the past. It was only Marclay that tried anything like this. But even given those limits perhaps more could have been done to take things in that direction. Perhaps if there's another year...

I would have loved to have taken in more events from this Festival but not enough money, not enough time! Here's just a couple of random YouTube snippets...

Coming soon! Back to visual art...

Sunday 18 November 2012


Brighton Dome, Thurs 13th Nov

The fame of this bunch precedes them. Wikipedia comments the band “is particularly renowned for its energetic live performances”, while their own website claims them as “the greatest live act in Britain.” I've attempted to see them live twice before.

There's eleven of them in total, all singing, all dancing. (Well, most of them singing.) They sport fancy waistcoats. Though they come out of the folk world, they at times feel more like a big band (with brass aplenty) and at others as Brechtian cabaret. (Albeit that kind of via-Tom-Waits Brecht.) Arrangements can be intricate, tracks crammed with breaks, episodes and joined-up segments. They're like a cross between folk's answer to the Mothers of Invention and folk's answer to Madness.

The curtain pulls back to an elaborate nautically-themed stage set, which the audience applaud like a night at the theatre. At one point, someone shouts “very good”. Which seems to sum the whole thing up. It would be hard indeed to deny they're very good. But they're equally hard to love. They feel like a show with a band attached. Bellows can give vital oomph to something. But this feels not Bellowhead but All Bellows, the oomph without anything particular to be oomphed, lungs without heart.

Inevitably for me, I enjoyed the more Brechtian moments the best. While the sound and fury let loose elsewhere seemed to signify little, these had a slither of darkness to them. Lurching rhythms set to cynical lyrics, acidly disparaging everything with which they came into contact. Life as a leaky boat and then we drown.

But for the rest of it... well, marks for effort.

Not from Brighton, from Dartford earlier this year.

The Haunt, Brighton, Fri 16th Nov

"All we need is for something to give,
The dam bursts open, we suddenly live"

The most arresting thing about this Canadian hardcore punk outfit isn't that in-your-face expletive-undeleted monicker, but their unlikely frontman – who trades under the equally unlikely stage name of Pink Eyes. He's not in the first flush of youth, balding and overweight enough that when he tries crowd surfing he just plummets to the floor. When he swings the mike around his head, his expression is less of effortless cool and more a schoolboy with a sum to do. He's like an all-in wrestler crossed with a clown, somehow misbooked a singer slot but eager to make a go of it. He's not a great singer, even by punk's broader definitions of the term. He's not even that good at shouting, he's kind of hoarse. It's hard to work out what he can do.

But whatever it is, he's great at it. There's quite possibly more chaos here than I've seen at a gig since the classic hardcore days of yore. He spends half his time in the audience. Half of whom spend half their time on the stage. (By the end the stage is so crowded the band retreat to the drum riser.) But he ceaselessly welcomes stage invaders without ever surrendering to them. He holds our attention throughout, and never misses a beat.

Better still, perhaps there's something about his cheery clownishness, his sheer apparent wrongness for the stage, something in the music or a blend of all the above. But the set channels all of hardcore's energy and drive, while letting in none of the nihilism. It's a euphoric set to watch. Now I like negativity as much as the next man. But for those of us who finally despaired of hardcore, as it fell further and further into macho posturing and crowd violence, this is a welcome change. It's like the shot of spirits without the hangover.

The band behind him look so different, I wondered if that might be deliberate. Rather than punk attitude, they exude a kind of preppiness. Bass player Mustard Gas in particular seems to be modelling that look from old films, where the Secretary is seconds away from taking off her specs and letting down her hair. The music they're pumping out is impressively tight and surprisingly melodic, with some tuneful backing vocals. Behind that clown mask there's a sharp and focused outfit.

The word which keeps coming to mind is 'faux.' A term we often use to mean 'fake', but in a positive sense. Pink Eyes seems such an everyman it's impossible not to be engaged. His persona, as much as the music, may be the invitation for so many punters to jump on stage. But at the same time they're an invitation, the band are also giving us a watermark to live up to. As John Lydon said himself “Do it yourself. But properly.”

Ultimately, what could be more punk? A wall of muscle, blubber and attitude, veins popping, screaming in our faces - “Let's be together, let's fall in love.”

And we did.

I couldn't find any clips from the Brighton gig, so this is from London earlier this year.

(Also check out this clip for audience-interaction antics in Sydney.)

Given the way I've written about this gig, you'd be forgiven for thinking the band are a live-only affair. Which is often true of hardcore bands – but not in this case! To prove my point, I'm also linking to the video from recent single 'Queen of Hearts'. The track's from a hardcore concept album about a worker in a lightbulb factory in Thatcherite Britain, who discovers love, radical politics and metafiction in more-or-less that order. But the video's in the style of Haneke's 'White Ribbon' and instead of the singer's vocals features a chorus of children. (I am not making this up. In fact I'm impressed anyone could have made that up.)

Coming Soon! The final part of my write-ups from the Ether festival. It's underway, honest! Just knew I wouldn't be finishing it today...

Sunday 11 November 2012


Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London, Sat 13th October

Christian Marclay is a Swiss American prankster, cut-up and plunderphonics artist, chiefly famous for the video work 'The Clock.' His concept for this performance was a 'video score'. He provided a video collage, culled from a thousand films, for both us the audience and the musicians – who found in the screen images a set of instructions.

Which is of course a great concept. Why have music based on notation in a post-literate age, when music was always about going beyond what could be written down? But great concepts can sometimes turn out to be too great, and end up lacking in realisation. The actuality becomes simply illustrational, mere demonstrative busywork. The concept sometimes just works better as a concept, a suggestion implanted in your mind - leaving you free to think up your own score. (Which of course is the basis of conceptual art.) Overall, I've noticed a growing tendency to stop seeing conceptual pieces, because I'd rather read of them and imagine them.

Furthermore, I wonder if we now fixate upon mixing media to the point where we blithely expect it to come true of its own volition. Different media have different properties, and getting them to blend together can be like getting Pandas to mate in a zoo – don't expect it to just happen, even if it's going to work at all. Anyone who read my thoughts on Bang On a Can's similar field recordings night might recall my doubts over such things. (“Concept-driven nights can... become like art projects, casting rigid parameters across everything while music is surely somewhere you want to traverse with instinct as your guide.”)

As is common with Marclay the clips are banded into thematic group, such as doors being knocked. And, as is equally common with Marclay, one such sequence is based around the iconography of playing records. As Julia Wolfe did over the bagpipes in an earlier night, Marclay celebrates their imperfection - homing in on the snap, crackle and pop. The clips also play with the retro nature of vinyl fetishism, taking us back to an era when putting on an LP was this as a swish and sophisticated thing to do, as filmable as driving a car or making a phone call had been to an earlier generation.

But perhaps there's a more philosophical point. We tend to assume we are artistically freer than previous eras, able to play pick'n'mix with the past in a way not possible before. But that hand-placed stylus made records manipulable and editable, whereas the files we listen to nowadays (whether CDs or MP3s) have to be taken as sealed units, black boxes we purchase and resort, but without prising them open.

The film clips seemed to work best when at their most anonymous. As soon as you think 'Point Blank' or 'Barton Fink' you're taken out of the moment, and find yourself accessing a memory of the film itself. In fact this may be true of any image too visually striking, whether we've previously seen it or not. The film clips are an ingredient here, not a meal in themselves. The more mundane and (to coin a phrase) everyday they are, the more open they are – the more scope there is for the musicians to respond to them, the easier it is to transform them into something new.

(Interestingly, samples don't seem to have the same problem. This may be because they don't involve marrying one medium to another in the same way, or just that we have a sight-based culture in which images naturally dominate.)

Despite Marclay's promises of no-score-but-film and the presence of arch-improvisers such as Steve Beresford and John Butcher, I couldn't help but suspect some structure - or at least the musicians having some prior knowledge of the film. At one point one player strikes up just as the screen throws a light over him, like a celluloid spotlight. But that's a minor quibble at most.

Mostly the musicians were confident enough to let film be dominant. Instruments drop out, at points all lapse into silence, like natural pauses in a conversation. The film clips sometimes came with their own sound, or provided obvious sound cues, but unlike with Bang on a Can the musicians didn't duplicate or replicate those sounds but responded to them.

Even irregular readers will be familiar with my resorting to the clichĂ© of scored music being like reciting a speech, and improvised music more a conversation. But, in response to those staccato clips, this music was more like pre-speech, embryonic lines and proto-phrases. These were described by Aqnb as “a run of splenetic, stuttering outbursts.”

My enduring image of the night will be the brass band, who marched without cue or warning through one audience door then out the next, playing the whole while, as if en route to some other gig. Though a complete band, they can't have been there for as long as five minutes, an absurdly over-the-top gesture. That spirit of deranged invention summed up the piece as a whole. Rather than attempting to bring a grand concept home to earth, the free improvisation was like free association, a garment woven from stray thoughts. Wikipedia quotes Thom Jurek on Marclay “these sound collages of his are charming, very human, and quite often intentionally hilarious.”

Overall, in what is perhaps the best compliment you can play such a piece, one element would simply not have worked so well without the other. It's like asking how well a work for string quartet would function without the viola. If it would, then what is the viola doing there? You stop seeing it as music to a film, or as illustrated music, and just go with what's happening.

On the other hand, the night's biggest weakness was running a single piece at most fifty minutes in length. However good it was in itself, at today's ticket prices it definitely needed a support act!

I couldn't find any of this gig on YouTube so instead here's something else to show the spirit of Marclay. An excerpt from 'Video Quartet', in which a soundtrack is produced by running four video screens simultaneously.

Coming soon! The last word on the Ether festival. (Well for this year, anyway.)

Monday 5 November 2012


Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London, 11th October

Regular readers, should such a thing exist, will know that Julia Wolfe was a founder member of the new music ensemble Bang on a Can, whose solo compositions finally reached my ears via Steve Reich's birthday celebrations at the Barbican in May last year.

Should you want map references as to where Wolfe stems from, such pointers are probably helpful. Certainly her work's a world away from the punk music simultaneously celebrated in the 'Someday All the Adults Will Die' exhibition, elsewhere in the South Bank complex. And yet it's in what seems a very hackneyed exhibition's nadir, that a strange point of congruence is hit on.

In a diatribe by John Holmstrom of 'Punk' magazine he claims punk was originally a celebration of American culture - until it was corrupted by the feckless and workshy Brits, which has left the States more open to the threat of communism. Which, if you're British, a communist and a punk fan, is a pretty amusing thing to come across. It's like one of those shock jock fulminations which you can only wish was right.

But there is actually a grain of truth to be found there, for in a sense punk really was a celebration of American culture. As David Thomas of Pere Ubu commented, “our ambitions were to move it forward… create something worthy of Faulkner or Melville.”

It's perhaps too easy to flip the flag, to take up a narrow anti-Americanism and overlook the amount of American art that's positively influenced you. But there's an irony and a deeper point. What we tend to hope for is dissident art which critiques America, but it's often the least mainstream aspects of American culture which tend to epitomise what's best about it.

Which Wolfe does in spades. Even when high culture does embrace the low, it too often feels like some kind of self-congratulatory eclecticism, or some philanthropic condescension - like donating money to charity while ignoring that it's those people you're feeding off. Whereas her music never starts with such separations between popular and higbrow, but seizes instead on whatever seems to her the most enticing- a bottom-line refusal to be fenced in. Wolfe will feed your head and grab you by the gut simultaneously. She writes in the programme of her desire “to bring something earthy and visceral to the orchestra – to break with formality and get down and dirty.”

As we'll see, such outside-the-box thinking leads to off-the-wall performances sporting the most unorthodox instrumentation. But it's not through any circus-act gimmickiness that this is music you just have to see live. There's a visceral force to it that you've simply got to be there for. (And I should know. A creative juxtaposition between the timetables and when the trains were actually running meant I missed the whole first half of the concert, and only heard it via the live Radio 3 broadcast on the iPlayer.)

Porceedings opened with 'Tell Me Everything' - and she's not kidding with that title. For a composer rooted in minimalism this was pretty maximalist stuff! Rather than serenely harmonious it was positively cacophonous, like the whole history of music happening at once, overlaying itself as if composed on sheets of acetate paper.

Which is of course the history of music. Whatever the books tell you, music did not develop through some neat notion of linear progress, with one formal innovation supplanting another. It was chaotic and convulsive, a flow diagram where lines fly everywhere, cross and feed back on themselves.

Or if not music the piece could be about the way the history of America is chaotic, different groups and traditions slamming head-on into each other and throwing up something new and completely unpredictable. What if you had Superman hearing and were taking in the different neighbourhoods of New York all at once? - different strains emanating from every window, adding to the same patchwork symphony played in the key of life. Rather than the 'melting pot' of homogenous white-bread America, this was an alphabet soup of new words and phrases. It felt reminiscent, in feel more than sound, of Terry Riley's innovative 'In C', in which everyone simultaneously plays what they feel like and together.

Yet if cachophonous it's also cheerily freewheeling, like a party to which no-one is turned away. It was like George Gershwin thrown tipsy by a cocktail of drugs and post-modernity, it was like discombobulated dance music. It's the very opposite of the austere 'challenging' label that new music gets tagged with. Wolfe commented “there were so many times while writing this piece that I broke into laughter.”

Let's skip 'Cruel Sister,' which I didn't make it in time to hear and anyway wrote about last time.

Remember that old Carol where you get sent for Christmas “eleven pipers piping”? Well it wasn't Christmas and it involved a mere nine pipers, but 'LAD' still seemed in that spirit.

It was performed by the bagpipe ensemble (I am not making this up) the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, previous winners of 'When Will I Be Famous' (I am still not making this up) who have been described as “bagrock”, and include Who and AC/DC numbers in their repertoire (it's all true, honest). Though it was written with this instrumentation in mind, this is only the second-ever performance to feature all nine pipers. (Most versions have utilised the labour-saving minimalist standby of playing along to pre-recorded tapes.)

One cool thing about the piece is that much of the score is based around the incidental sounds the bagpipe makes when being prepared to play (as the bag is inflated), so ends up exploring the uniqueness of their timbre much more deeply. In this way, rather than trying to overcome the limits of the instrument it focuses in on them. Then times it by nine. If 'Tell Me Everything' made music out of pluralism, this was music which ganged up on you.

The resultant sound achieves the 'Modernist double' of sounding ancient and futuristic at the same time. It was simultaneously like being present at the dawn of time and standing before a UFO gearing up to defy gravity. The sound was simultaneously fulsome and indescribable.

This was the most classically Minimalist piece in the concert, and should put paid once and for all to the dumb prejudice that the style is about twee little twinkly sounds, the musical equivalent of Christmas lights. Wolfe herself has said “being in the same room with a bagpipe (or nine) is sonically completely overwhelming”. When those pipers get a pipin' they virtually inflated the room!It really wasn't so far away from the heavy riffing of hard rock bands. This is music not to stroke your chin but shake your tonsils.

Then for the finale came 'rISE and fLY.' (Yes, that's hOW iT'S wRITTEN, perhaps to get bloggers annoyed with their auto-correct functions.) There was only one non-wind instrument in the whole of 'LAD', one player striking the floor with his foot. This next piece built on that one element. It involved an orchestra the size of a swarm, but backing a soloist playing his own body. Before moving on to a mix of mostly extemporised percussion, including plastic buckets and – as he proudly told us - the oven tray from his flat.

...which of course immediately breaks one of Minimalism's most cardinal rules, in allowing one player to be dominant. But... you know... in a good way. In the Seventies era of uber-radicalism, leftist composers were always arguing a hierarchy between instruments represented a hierarchical society, with the second flautist and the triangle player representing a divided proletariat under the autocracy of the oboe. Like most such theories, they pushed it to a somewhat obsessive extent but (despite my jesting) there is most likely some nugget of truth at the root of it. After all, the main aim of amplification is to ensure that the very bottom of this hierarchy is you. You can tap your foot or pat your leg at a gig, and it's normally so loud you can't hear yourself. You are outmanned and outgunned.

But amplification here is used to invert the normal acoustic hierarchy, less megaphone diplomacy and more a democratising device. Some strategically placed mikes, some slider action on the mixing desk and rubbing your hands together is suddenly on a level with a kettle drum. Film can overcome the laws of scale, with 'Battleship Potemkin' at one point framing the entirety of the ship and the next blowing up some maggots to the full size of the screen. Amplification means music can do the same.

Wolfe was inspired into this piece by the old Hambone tradition of folk music played on human body, and by “New York City street beats... banging out grooves on plastic tubs and pots and pans.” She saw the piece as “its own short history”, the 'body' and 'percussion' sections compressing this shift between the two eras. (It reminds me of the segue at the end of 'How The West Was Won', as the mountain trail becomes the multi-laned highway.)

The piece worked least well when the orchestra echoed and underlined the soloist, like a kind of musical exoskeleton, and most when it treated him like any other soloist and played around him. Even a football know-nothing like me knows the team players don't run straight after the guy with the ball, but arrange themselves around him. Moreover, when playing as a team, the instruments underlined the uniqueness of the 'human sounds', the hollow slappiness of striking your chest, the sharpness of finger snaps.

But best of all, however exhilarating a sight is a grown man battering his own thighs and chest, was the way you got used to it so quickly. It went past being a clever gimmick, and soon became another way of producing music. The oven tray in your flat? An instrument, waiting to happen.

The piece was written specially for the soloist, Colin Currie, and perhaps its chief weakness was that it at times felt like that - tipping over into an excuse for virtuoso playing. (Particularly in it's second half.) Which was perhaps a step too far from Minimalism for me. However much I enjoyed it, it was my least favourite piece of the night. But then, given the inspirational audacity of the programme as a whole, perhaps that's to praise with faint damning. Four pieces, each striking off on it's own, but sharing the same underlying ethos – the future of music lies in it's roots.

Next time someone claims the Americans do nothing but steal foreign folk traditions and sell it back as packaged blandness, tell the know-nothings to listen to some Julia Wolfe.

Coming soon! More from the Ether Festival. (Yeah I know, a bit late in the day! Are you not used to that yet?)