Sunday 1 April 2012


The Haunt, Brighton, 12th March

Lately we at Lucid Frenzy have been insistent that slow is the new fast, and there’s no better poster band for that philosophy than Earth. At one point main man Dylan Carson announces a track to be “the fastest and the shortest we’ll ever do”, and it still lumbers along for over ten minutes, single bass notes seemingly lasting longer than some powerpop numbers.

The band took their name from an early version of Black Sabbath, and appropriately so. Significantly, much of the imagery that surrounds them (in titles and artwork) portrays them as a force of nature. But while pop songs fritter with birds and flowers, Earth are about what’s underneath all that. Earth tracks are pretty much that – tracks. Like winding country tracks, you may have to follow the dirt road a while before you get to the mountain views. But once you reach the views, you know the walk’s been worth it.

However, the Sabbath reference has led to a few misconceptions about the band’s sound. Others have taken the Sabbath template and launched themselves into the outer limits. But Earth remain quite rooted in rock – just the substructure of rock, the rhythm tracks usually buried under something else, played out until they can be played no more. A number of tracks seem hewn from country rock, only slowed down, stretched and bent into a less rigid shape. There’s melodic lines aplenty inside the soundscapes, like the sap in a tree branch. They sound heavy, certainly, but there’s nothing oppressive or ponderous about them – it’s more warm and comforting. They sound, come to think of it, something like the earth.

They’re like the anti-Napalm Death, in the sense of opposite but complementary. One band’s tracks are wound tight like coiled springs, then fired out over the audience. The others are stretched to infinity and beyond. But both have pursued their sound to devotion. (Earth formed in 1989, with this very gig the occasion of Carlson’s Fiftieth birthday.) And in a sense you want them to keep going forever. Earth are like a rolling river you know of. Every so often you want to trek there, dive in and immerse yourself. You may not need to do that every day. But you want to think the river is rolling every day.

A few souls expressed some disappointment with this gig. (And Alexis Petrdis’ Guardian review is correct to say it should have been louder.) But theirs is a sound which doesn’t come out at you so much as draw you in. Don’t expect slo-mo stage diving and plectrums thrown into the audience. As Petridis goes on to say of Carlson, “his rules clearly different to anyone else.” I’d have followed him to the ends of the pier.

Barbican Hall, London, 20th March

“Hip-hop culture democratised sampling, popular music today is a form of music concrete, the voices and rhythms of the past mixing with the sound of machinery and electronics.” runs part of the manifesto for this contemporary music ensemble’s night of Field Recordings. Which is a cool concept for a number of reasons. For one thing, we live in a very sight-based culture, blithely using expressions like “I see what you mean”. While we’re triggered to spot sights, when sound doesn’t contain speech we assume it lacks information and take it in only subliminally. This makes it more of a Proustian cake. Show us a photo of a place we’ve been and we peer into it. Play us the sounds of it and we’re back there.

Hence guest star Mira Calix played some recordings of flight announcements in a plane cabin (in French to dispel any language familiarity). Something about their cadence and echoey sound was indeed evocative. Yet I’m not sure what they had to do with the music which followed. Indeed I might well have preferred the recordings to the ensuing playing, something which would recur for other pieces.

At other times it was like both sides were talking at once, like an irresolvable argument. Christian Marclay, another guest star, provided ’Fade to Slide’, a collage of ‘sound points’ from film clips (carrots being chopped, clogs on the ground etc), “which the musicians use as a structure for their performance.” The musicians filling in for silent visual clues might have worked, or the soundtrack playing alone. (As was done at Marclay’s solo exhibition, at the Barbican a few years ago.) As it was I was reminded of Tom Waits’ adage “if two people are doing the same thing, one of them is unnecessary.”

As I found myself often favouring the concrete over the music, I wondered if they’d had more confidence in the recordings they would have let them speak more. I would have liked to have heard many of the recordings unadorned, preferably in darkness, and in sensurround so each came at you from a different direction. (I was probably getting carried away at this point.)

Perhaps inevitably (if mildly disappointingly), the pieces worked better if the recording was itself more musical. These tended to then use the recording as a backing track or as a ghosted lead vocal. (For example Evan Ziporyn’s ’Wargasari’ with it’s Balinese singer.) Pieces often developed in complexity as they went along, a quite reasonable (if standard) thing for a piece of music to do, but it did seem a way of leaving the recording behind.

Let us concede that other pieces gained mileage out of mimicry. Florant Ghys’ ’An Open Cage’ utilised the Steve Reich trick of taking the cadences of speech as musical rhythms. (From John Cage’s readings, hence the title.) And Tyondai Braxton’s ’Casino Trem’ composed around slot machine sounds until it was hard to hear the join. (I am not quite sure whether I enjoyed this piece or not. But it was arresting and original enough that I enjoyed not knowing.)

I have felt before that reviewing things can spoil them for you in some Heisenbergian sort of way, where you try to pin it to an angle rather than surrender yourself to it. But concept-driven nights can do that to themselves, they become like art projects, casting rigid parameters across everything while music is surely somewhere you want to traverse with instinct as your guide.

So in my best Obi-Wan Kenobi voice, I told myself “ditch the concept... go with the flow!” And once I’d resolved to let go of the hand-holds, the better it all seemed to work. In an endearingly eclectic programme, you weren’t going to like everything. (Nick Zammuto’s ’Real Beauty Turns’ seemed a skit on beauty ads, a pointlessly easy target with it’s irritating jingles copied rather too closely.) However, even then the highpoints seemed furthest from the concept.

Take for example ’Gene Takes a Drink’ by Michael Gordon. (One of the ensemble’s founders, though not here tonight.) That made the juncture not with the recording but between the musicians, a rolling clarinet set against a pulsing minimalist beat. (Perhaps the accompanying film clip was intended as the field recording.)

And my favourite piece of the night was the encore, by definition not part of the concept at all. ’Stroking Music’ a Thursten Moore composition especially for the group, sounded what the Velvet Underground might have been if a contemporary ensemble instead of a rock band. A ticking guitar pulse built slowly and steadily into a thumping metronomic riff, before plunging down the other side into skittering freeform jazz. (A little too much of the latter, but you can’t have everything.)

Such pieces are, for us fey arty types, the equivalent of extreme sports – the rush of a race track or a particularly vertiginous snowboard slope, a white-kunckle ride to clear out the system.

In short, a fantastic concept and (at times) some absolutely excellent music. And at points the two even met somewhere in the middle.

Neither from the Barbican show but two for your money, Ziporyn’s ’Wargasari’ followed by Moore’s ’Stroking Music.’ (You will wonder what my criticisms could possibly have been on hearing these, but they are highlights.)

Had I seen this next lot straight after Earth I could have made some clever-sounding elemental segue...

Brighton Dome, 27th March

It’s funny the way you can lose touch with bands the way you can friends. For most of the Eighties the music Mike Scott made with the Waterboys was something I held in the highest regard. And to this day I insist ’This is the Sea’ to be one of the finest albums ever. (Yes, up there with the first Velvets, ’Horses’, ‘Astral Weeks’, ‘Harvest’, ‘Blonde on Blonde,’ ‘Metal Box’ and all the rest of them.) Then they released one album I didn’t like so much, ’Room to Roam’, and somehow we parted company.

I had heard on the grapevine that at least some of the subsequent releases were better but somehow never rekindled the relationship. The recent news that a whole new album would be dedicated to Yeat’s poetry, ’An Appointment with Mr. Yeats’, led me to imagine something like the older track ’The Stolen Child’ - in which the poem is delivered quite languidly over some Celtic ambience. A good enough track, but not the sort of thing that needed promoting to LP length. Okay, it meant Scott was still holding to it, following his muse and not playing ’Whole of the Moon’ to an Eighties nostalgia night before Bananarama came on. But really, a bit of an art project. The sort of thing everyone dutifully applauds but no-one actually likes.

Then I saw this performance on the Jools Holland show...

..and, suffice to say, I was primed to purloin my ticket for this show.

The first half of the set is devoted to “vintage Waterboys”, which mostly means the first two albums. The band made a good fist out of them, which unfortunately became a problem. Were I to tell you the playing was forceful, that might even sound a good thing. There are bands you’d want to sound that way. But from the first these guys danced to a different jig. Though they came after and in a sense replaced post-punk’s ‘anti-rockist’ ethos, in his own way Smith was just as keen to break down the “factory rhythm” of rock. Their music didn’t march, it swung and soared and shimmered and flew. Of course it was well-composed and well-rehearsed, but it always sounded spontaneous and flowing, like it was somehow just being unfurled. Their sound came to be dubbed the Big Music, after an early single, which I always took to mean ‘vast’ or ‘ascending’. Not bashing ahead at full tilt.

Moreover, Scott’s singing turned in places to the declammatory. Which, if you’re singing “all we’ve got to do is surrender,” suggests the real meaning is “all you’ve got to do is surrender.” His words are allusive and rich with imagery, so don’t really gain from being underlined by the singer’s intonation. Like the works of a colourful painter, they’re best displayed on more of a flat canvas.

Though these were songs from the early days they were not the recorded versions, powered by Anthony Thistlethwaite’s sax, but the later live versions, where the band came to be held aloft by Steve Wickham’s fiddle playing. (Perhaps because Mr. Wickham is here present, and Mr. Thistethwaite not.) The celebrated sax opening of ’Don’t Bang The Drum’ was even a recording, played over the PA as the band reassembled. Which, being the era I love the most, should suit me. But it’s perhaps when they were furthest from being a regular rock band.

The fewer more recent songs (little of which I knew) seemed to survive this treatment better. The hit ’Glastonbury Song’, the only track of theirs I’ve previously found risible, actually became something of a highpoint! I reasoned that the old songs might not be the new bands forte, or this finesse-free first half was down to stage nerves, and the Yeats stuff in the main section would work better.

...which it pretty much did. Rather than some well-meaning attempt to graft poems onto rock tracks, it’s a tribute that for much of the time you could cheerfully forget such origins. (Until Scott back-announced ’An Irish Airman Forsees His Death’, or similar.) But there was also a surprising variety to the sound, not just Celtic-tinged folk rock but blues piano or even the sung-spoken style of Kurt Weill. (Perhaps an unorthodox treatment for an Irish poet, but it worked.) Musicians came and went, with instruments picked up and discarded, everything always on the best setting for that poem now.

The only marring moment was when Scott mock-read ’The Second Coming’ while wearing a theatrical horror mask to a swirling organ. (Do you call it “mock-read” when someone on stage pretends to read from the prop of a huge tome, but never actually looks at it?) But that was a few minutes only of bad Genesis tribute act.

If Bang on a Can made me consider how concepts have a paradoxical effect on creativity, capable of stifling or stimulating, here Scott seemed to find Yeats an endless source of riches. From what little I know of Yeats, he probably makes a fitting subject, with a variety to his work and a language that’s not over-florid. He even wrote a volume helpfully called ’Words for Music, Perhaps.’ Wyndham Wallace’s BBC review confirms something I suspected, that Scott is “not entirely beholden to a poem’s structure.” You need to treat adaptations such as this like collaborations with someone not in the room, respectfully but not reverentially.

The band returned for an extended encore (virtually a third half). This was mostly based around the ‘raggle taggle’ era of Wickham’s playing and perhaps worked better for it, for my earlier concerns did not return. The venue had (somewhat inappropriately) imposed a no dancing policy on the night, which was soon swept asunder and Scott had those of us standing at our seats turn round on the spot. (See accompanying illustration.) They must have played for two and a half hours. Not the mark of an art project.

In total, a band who had a few hits in the Eighties and Nineties, with one original member, whose works from the last two decades I barely knew. And I went home wishing they’d played more new stuff. Not a normal reaction? Not a normal band.

Postscript: My old Mac is neither repaired nor replaced but held together by sticky tape and glue. As what it doesn’t like is powering up, I am no longer powering it down but putting it in Sleep mode when not in use. How well that works may well be measured by how often I get to post here...

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