Friday 29 June 2012


"I am being told... that I am not being given copies of the statements and evidence [the 'Independent' Police Complaints Commission] have gathered until they choose to give it. I find this extraordinary. My statutory obligation is being undermined, is that not a contempt of court?"
- Andrew Walker, Coroner of the inquiry into the killing of Mark Duggan by cops

The same Guardian article goes on to state:

“The CO19 [firearms squad] officers who shot Duggan have refused to be interviewed and have instead provided statements about the killing.”


“You do not have to say anything. But it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence."

- The Police caution, as amended by the Tories in the Nineties, in order to erode people's right to silence under the slogan "the innocent have nothing to fear."

Monday 25 June 2012


Radical DIY film-maker, maverick artist and Brighton cultural institution Jeff Keen died on 21st June.

To be honest there isn't much to add to the Guardian obituary by William Fowler, who apparently collaborated with him.
“Keen's interest in myth, surrealism and romantic painting complemented his love of movies and comics, and he continually absorbed new references into his work... [which] was often more appreciated by skaters and punks than followers of the canonical avant garde. The extreme, short edits in his playful, visceral films have helped to keep his work fresh and alive; they still zap with energy decades later.”
It's not pop art in the Lichtenstein sense of isolating images from pop culture and making them contemplative... there's an engagement with pop culture, even if sometimes a critical one. There's probably a parallel between his work and William Burroughs, or for that matter noise bands such as Lightning Bolt.

Fowler's also correct to explain Keen's work as “expanded cinema”, with multiple projections fusing with live performance or, in one memorable performance at the Phoenix gallery, drawing on the screen while the film was still being shown, like he couldn't keep his hands still any longer. As only said recently of a Sunn 0))) gig, the experience is unYoutubeable. Though even seeing one of his films you feel like the images are bursting through, not trapped within the frame.
As is said in a thought balloon clipped from a comic which adorns the home page of his website “I... I feel like I'm surging with power!”

Saturday 23 June 2012


The Melvins and Sunn 0))) were two of many cult bands I have always intended to get obsessed by, without ever quite getting round to it. But more than that, their sounds seemed to have something of an overlap – not just slow is the new fast, but also heavy is the new loud. So bliss it was in that dawn, for everyone and everything except for eardrums, when they played Brighton within a couple of weeks of each other. (Actually Earth, who played earlier in the year, made something of a trilogy of it, but I couldn't wait to write something about them.)

Concorde 2, Mon 28th May

“What's the most horrible way to die?”
To have a nail banged through the back of my neck. Slowly.”

That quote, from Lindsey Anderson's 'If', sums up the sound of the Melvins better than anything I could imagine. Often described as Black Flag meeting Black Sabbath, they've been at their distillation of hardcore punk and pounding metal for nearly three decades now. Which is more than long enough to get good at this.

The twin drummers don't just keep time, like an onstage click track, but make up much of the body of the sound. You feel the set as much as you hear it. The room vibrates. People headbang. Not just nod merrily along, but proper actual headbanging. I can't remember when I last saw that at a gig!

There's a virtuous combination to them. With their Simpsons-style look, they seem like four crazy guys found in some nearby alley were thrust on stage after the actual band failed to show. But they also put on the smartest, tightest, kick-ass show you will ever see. They push one riff to the very limit of endurance, then seamlessly break off into something else. Though (whatever naysayers claim) you can perfectly easy tell their tracks apart, they pretty much run them together live, sensing their sound's about relentless intensity. We cram in cheering when we can, like an upstaged understudy.

There's a clear 'take it or leave it' attitude from the band, like they're long-used to polarising audiences and there's precious use talking about it. But let's make some attempt...

Actually, there's a double virtuous combination to them. They don't have a fusion sound, stirring elements of hardcore and metal into a concoction, they fuse them together into a single sonic assault. They're a malt not a blend! They unceremoniously jettison the downside of metal, the uber-theatrical stageyness, the chest-puffing frontman, the overlong screechy guitar solos. But they also play the same trick on hardcore...

The best hardcore bands (Bad Brains, Fugazi, the Minutemen) were wild but disciplined, with a surprising but distinct undertone of restraint. The worst hardcore bands were wild and undisciplined; listening to them was like thumbing a lift with an inexperienced joyrider, one big jolt and it was all over. The Melvins took Bad Brains' discipline and combined it with the lumbering force of metal.

The worst hardcore bands were like one of those latter-day zombies who move fast, they'd constantly jump up only to get dispatched. The Melvins are like the true, original zombies. They're slow, but you just know they're going to get you.

Music histories, when they mention the band at all, pair them with Flipper as an influence on grunge. Which is an influence that can't be denied. First drummer (they now have two) Dale Crover played on Nirvana's 'Bleach' while their original bassist, Matt Lukin, formed Mudhoney. But this rather limits their influence to a single direction. The doom drone band Boris named themselves after a Melvins song, while there's an obvious overlap between their sound and noise rock bands such as Live Skull. Wikipedia claims they pioneered a whole genre of 'sludge metal.' (No, I've not heard of any of the bands either.)

But beyond that pairing them with Flipper blunts the unique appeal of both bands. There's no real metal element to Flipper's sound. Unusually for a West Coast hardcore band, their music was made by bohemians - languid, arch and disdainful. A huge part of their appeal was the combination of overwhelming force with the sense they could barely be bothered to play. Perhaps relatedly they were a volatile element, which burnt brightly but briefly. No wonder they weren't heavy metal, they were actually something more sparky - maybe magnesium.

The Melvins are much more like a bluecollar band, they play a gig like they're working it. 'The Water Glass' is almost their anthem, their equivalent to the Ramones' 'Blitzkrieg Bop', or perhaps even the Seven Dwarves 'Heigh Ho': “Here we go/Everyday/Here we go/All the way/In the groove/On the move... Pain!/In my head/Pain!/In my back/We don't care/We like it there.”

But worse this influence business makes the band a mere linking device, a component, not a thing in their own right. If they were a huge influence on others, that's hardly their story spent. There were many bands in that era who were influential without being particularly good. (Have you listened much to MDC in recent years?) Yet I saw Mudhoney in this self-same venue a couple of years ago, and as the record shows I thought them awesome. But the Melvins were better still - more out there, more relentless, more doing their own thing.

They're are a classic band who's stayed cultish, filling the venue with a clearly devoted following but without a 'Nevermind' to their name. We might wonder why not. Perhaps the greater success of Mudhoney, let alone Nirvana, stems not just from them sounding more accessible but also being more personalised. See them live and Mark Arm comes out at you, confrontational and engaging. The two drummers and two guitarists of the Melvins are arranged symmetrically, with a distinct centre-stage gap where Arm had stood. Vocals sit inside the general mix, rather than riding on the top. Audience banter is not prevalent. (Disclaimer: they made two albums with Jello Biafra, one of the great frontmen of punk if not of music. But that's the exception, not the rule.)

But if the game is getting down to the essence of rock and roll, isn't this nearer to it? Adolescence isn't challenging and articulate, it's sullen and noisily introspective, disdainful of communication. This sound channels the black cloud of adolescence much better.

Before the gig, I get drawn into a conversation on how it took American bands to marry metal to punk. On first sight it's odd. People argue about who pioneered heavy riffing (early Kinks or Black Sabbath), but either way it's a British band. And at the height of British punk came the perfect crossover invite, Motorhead, a metal band loved by punks to a man. Why no British punk band who completed the circle by appealing to the metal heads? (The one exception to this rule, Discharge, I confess have never appealed to me as much as to others.)

Perhaps coming from Britain was the very problem. Only when seen from outside did it become clear how well the pieces could join together. And in Britain music was notoriously tribal. In America, Talking Heads could play bills with the Ramones without comment. In fact, greater geographical distances instead made for city tribalism within music scenes, as evidenced by the notoriously titled Boston hardcore compilation 'This is Boston Not LA.' Joining sounds was easier, joining people was harder.

As I suspect you need to hear a few tracks to get the band, I'm posting longer links than usual. If you like this (the first of two twelve-minute clips from Brighton)...

...then I think you'll love this. (Over an hour live at Hellfest, from last year. Sit back. Enjoy.)

My Spotify playlist for American hardcore and punk...

Brighton Coalition, Sun 10th June

You could probably spend all night playing compare and contrast between the Melvins and doom drone outfit Sunn 0))). Both do slow/heavy like you've never heard it before. But against those double drummers Sunn 0))) have little if any percussion. And if the Melvins eschew metal's theatricality, this lot actively play it up. They poured so much dry ice over us I swear at times I had trouble seeing the person standing next to me. Combined with the feedback, reverb and delay which characterises their sound, there were times where the band could have left the stage ten minutes ago and we would be yet to notice. When a passing break in the clouds allows you to see the band, they're cowelled like monks. They go in for upraised fists and held-aloft guitars.

It helps that we're in a venue hollowed out from the seafront arches, which is essentially a cave. But that image of monks with guitars before a wall of speakers, like some Seventies SF-on-drugs film, will stay with me a while. Yes it was ritualised. But in the good sense of the word. What might sound gimmicky or just plain daft, works so well with the music you wouldn't wish it any other way.

If with the Melvins you felt the music almost as much as you heard it, here you hear it almost as much as you feel it. It wasn't (no small boast) just one of the loudest gigs I've attended. The music was omnipotent and all-embracing, as if it was a physical object, filling the room as much as the dry ice. You don't stand outside listening to it, like the audial equivalent of looking at a picture, you're in it.

...which means the way you need to hear them is live. The Melvins may be primarily a live band, but Sunn O))) are a live experience. There's recordings of them in the same way there's fuzzy photos of the Loch Ness Monster, that's just after-the-fact documentation.

It's certainly an approach that splits reaction. As soon as you agree some music has to be loud, some get dismissive. Just like your parents used to cluelessly complain, they repeat the mantra “it's just a noise.” But it's like saying the pyramids have to be big. That doesn't mean they're just big, just that the bigness is an essential component. And if they seem to sound like thrash slooooooowed doooooooown, you're not the first to say that. And besides, that's a good thing.

And being somewhere where you had to be there, having an experience that isn't YouTubeable in our streaming, twittering age... that's appealing in and of itself. (I don't bother reading YouTube comments much, but it's notable how negative a reaction Sunn O))) clips tend to invoke. One clip poster was driven to mention “Drone metal, if you don't like it, don't listen to it.”)

...which isn't to say that the band have assembled some cross between a wind tunnel and a travelling fairground ride. At first their resounding drone sound hits you so hard it might appear merely a sound. But as it progresses and your ears become more accustomed to it, more and more variety within it opens up. The gig posters and tickets were in sheer black, which on closer inspection turned out to be slightly different shades of off-black. (Leading me to wonder if there had been a brisk trade in counterfeit tickets cut from black card.) Which seems a pretty good metaphor for their music. It's like going into a dark room where all seems indistinguishable, but the longer you stay there the more objects take form. (Disclaimer, I did previously use this metaphor for Mechanical Children. But if the shoe fits...)

In fact, conversely to such expectations, the whole set was one long piece which seemed closer in structure to classical music than to rock songs - not just composed of movements but reliant on you discerning the overall shape of it.

Andrew Rilstone (aka World's Smartest Fan) once said of fantasy fans: “This is the key to why Tolkien became so very important to me... What I wanted was the idea-of-elves, the idea-of-orcs, the idea-of-caves and the idea-of-dwarves. I read Tolkien because it was the only place I knew where I could get them... If you could find a way of separating the archetypes from the boring business of having to read then that would do the trick.”
It seems to me there's something very similar for us out-there music fans, except with us we found a way to make it happen. Take a classic rock song like the Stones''Satisfaction.' The words are sharp, witty and at times eminently quotable. But they're entirely secondary. Their job is to hang out with the music, complementing it where necessary. It's the music that lets us plug into that yearning, burning feeling.
Haven't you at some point found yourself obsessively playing one track over and over? By ceaselessly pressing the replay button you can almost put it on a loop. But what you really want is to dispense with the intro, the guitar solo in the middle, the verse/chorus structure, all the intrusive paraphernalia that turn the track into a song. You want the audial equivalent of an art installation, something you can step inside and stay there as long as you want.
Not that adolescent angst of 'Satisfaction' is necessarily the emotional experience on offer here. In a music scene dogged by accusations of Satanism since the Black Sabbath days, all that religious imagery may seem a hostage to fortune. (Though 'Satanism' strikes me as tedious rather than threatening, quite frankly.) But, having only recently questioned the quasi-religious iconography of 'Live_Transmission', this time I found it the thing to do. (Perhaps partly because it wasn't focused on an individual.) The amps as altars, the guitars as crucifixes... they're intended not to wind up Moral Majority types so much as celebrate the transforming power of sound.
That name conveys our solar system's most powerful force, the band's preferred supplier of amps and a pictogram of the waves of force emanating from both. (You're not expected, incidentally, to try and pronounce the 0))) part.) One day I will post something which just lists the axioms of Lucid Frenzy. (We had “beware all projects” only recently.) This time let's go with the one about art being at root a shamanic process, a ritual event aimed at inducing altered states of consciousness. It feels entirely appropriate for Sunn 0))) to be playing on a Sunday. It really does.
The assembled crowd are part of the sense of the event but, especially when the dry ice settles around you, the experience is very individualised. If headbanging was the audience response of choice to the Melvins, many in the crowd here keep their eyes closed. You're aware of the mass of people, but the focus is the effect upon you. It's individualised and collective. You couldn't get more shamanic than that.
Only recently I was arguing that folk music combines a sense of the strange with one of the strangely familiar. Something similar seems true of this seemingly quite different style of music. Just as it initially appears an overwhelming monolithic force which later reveals subtleties, similarly the sonic assault appears dark and menacing but inexplicably shifts into something warm and even peaceful. As one (unusually articulate) YouTube poster puts it, “it sounds like heaven and hell have just come together, that's the only way I can explain this song.” And yes. Yes it does.
Seeing gigs... even good gigs... starts out as a thrillingly unpredictable venture but becomes like seeing films after a while. It stops feeling like a physical, interactive experience, it becomes safe and measured. You know what time you'll be in and out, and pretty much what will happen inbetween. Then sometimes you go to a gig which seems so strange and other-worldly, it's like you need a whole new set of words to describe it.
Go and see Sunn O))) if you ever get the chance. It's beyond description. It really is.
After telling you the whole thing was non-YouTubeable, I am inevitably about to post a YouTube clip. Particularly with a set that's one long track this snippet is woefully inadequacy, but might serve to give you some flavour...
There's plenty other tracks and live clips on YouTube (if bugger all on Spotify), but this one was my favourite, 'Orthodox Caveman' playing (in a stroke of genius) over a video of the critical point of water.
My YouTube playlist for 'Slow is the New Fast' (Suggestions for additions gratefully received.)

Sunday 17 June 2012


A Brighton Festival event by DreamThinkSpeak
Malthouse Estate Warehouse, Shoreham, 2nd May to 8th June

The Chekov commentary 'Before I Sleep', which two Festivals ago played to record-breaking audiences and great acclaim (including around here) finally receives it's follow-up. This time the subject is 'Hamlet'. Then they'd asked audiences not to give away the “secrets” of the show. Judging by other reviews, they seem to have accepted the inevitable this time around. (Though the programmes are notably not handed out till the end, and contain no images from the production.) However, being obsessive about spoilers I've saved writing about it until it ended its run. (And not out of my normal tardiness. Honest, guv.)

That venue name above, that's not some trendy monicker dreamed up by some Factory records fan. This really was staged not just in a disused warehouse, but one which required Festival-goers to trek out to Shoreham. However, unlike it's predecessor, it's not actually a site-specific work. If it couldn't be reproduced in a conventional theatre, it could be done anywhere with a square space large enough. In fact it seems it will shortly be reproduced in Newcastle. (Hence my post label 'Site-specific promenade performance', coined especially for 'Before I Sleep', remains without a second outing.)

We enter a room surrounded by mirrors on four sides. At first we see only ourselves. Projected images then appear. But as things progress more and more of the spaces become backlit, revealing 'cells' or 'pods' inhabited by the actors, like the units of a corporate office block, only horizontalised. As one scene ends the lights dim, for others to take up elsewhere. We see the characters through these patinas throughout. These shallow pods become like a series of reliefs, where they encounter each other but with a virtual formal bar on interaction. Being upstaged in this performance would have been almost literally impossible. Within this, they sometimes film each other, and we see the image projected live as they talk.

Many spaces are private rooms, like cloistered worlds, someone's boudoir, someone's office, even someone's bathroom. They share a minimalist, modern sheen - silver lamps and iMacs. It looks like the sort of stuff people buy to represent themselves, which never really gets past looking just like stuff they've bought.

This time round, the play's much more the thing. In sharp contrast to 'Before I Sleep', this is less a commentary upon a play and more a reworking of it. We start somewhere near the start of the play and end at the end of it. The simple structural change of having a single audience who turn up at the same time to see the performance once, rather than a series of groups exploring an environment in different speeds and at different orders, virtually insists on this.

However, we should stop to consider how radical a reworking this would seem if not seen in the shadow of its predecessor. Many of the best-known elements are ruthlessly expunged (including “alas Yorick”), others rearranged and speeches swap character's mouths. Dialogue sometimes continues across pods, overlaps between scenes and sometimes degenerates into babble.

When watching a familiar play like this, it is hard to avoid thinking “this is their take on the suicide soliloquy”, “this is their take on the climactic duel” and so on. Many reworkings seem chiefly aimed at defamiliarising the audience from the material, to stop them thinking like this. This is the first production I have seen which effectively says “this is our take on the suicide soliloquy”, “this is our take on the climactic duel.” Many people commented that 'Before I Sleep' needed only the most cursory knowledge of 'The Cherry Orchard.' Not so here. Paradoxically, through being given more of your actual 'Hamlet' we're expected to know more of your actual 'Hamlet.'

There's one other notable formal device. Characters will usually fall into darkness when their pod is unused. But at various points Hamlet remains - staring morbidly ahead from his own cell while others discuss him and repeat his words. Partly this fits the theme of spying and observation. But there's more. His signature “to be or not to be” speech is read by other characters in staggered, overlapping fashion, he only joining in near the end. Why might this be?

There is, of course, method in such a style of production. Just as there's a reason why 'Hamlet' is Shakespeare's best-known play, and “to be or not to be” his most-quoted phrase. More than any other of his works, it isn't about journeying to the place, getting hold of the thing or overcoming the other bloke. Commentators focus on the Prince's “delay” to the point that they may as well be talking about an effects pedal. His dilemma, his inner conflict isn't some problem to be overcome, it's the very core of the play. He doesn't exist as a plot function. Quite the reverse, the play exists first to precipitate his conflicted state of mind, then to reflect and externalise it. Beyond that, it has no further use for such things. He's effectively soliloquising even when other characters are talking to him. As he says himself, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

There's perhaps two ways to read 'Hamlet.' The other characters represent the weight of society, the world against the individual, confining and defining him, unable to accept there's a multitude going on inside his head. His 'madness' becomes his response, his means to assert his own idiosyncrasy. Or alternately they're externalisations of his thoughts, the King his sublimated desire to kill his father and shag his mother, and so on.

This production, by pruning the play back to the bones, throws this dichotomy into sharper relief. The dissembled nature of the production isn't a means, a way of arriving at the point, it's more that it is the point. The parade of windows in place of a linear narrative, suggest a fractured self. In essence, it highlights the way self-awareness becomes a poisoned chalice. As soon as we become self-aware we become an object of our own contemplation. Inevitably, we split and divide. Rather than being enabling, the expanded awareness leads to indecision, a kind of paralysis. That staple of historical fiction, the avenging hero, is replaced by a ball of confusion forever trying to be both psychiatrist and patient. The mirrors, the modernist design, the cell-like pods, the separation between characters, all underline this.

But in so doing it firmly comes down on one side. In proving this point it highlights the way the other characters are aspects of Hamlet's mind, echoes of his thoughts. He is both the King and the silent, scowling youth who would depose him. And I am not at all sure that this is the sort of question we want resolved. A good production of 'Hamlet' will let your mind wander freely between these concepts, not nail it to either pole. Take a classic quote, such as “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Is the Prince dismissing his compatriots as mere “bad dreams”, as though they were unwanted interruptions, inferior to and more trivial than his own thoughts? Or is Shakespeare suggesting they are literally bad dreams, projections of Hamlet's subconscious? We don't know, we probably never shall, and that's a sign of things working the way they should. A play about a man in conflict, it should itself be in conflict, shouldn't it?

There's also a problem in staging the play which would not have existed in Shakespeare's day, Hamlet seems the proto-Goth, the ultimate teenager in sulky self-obsessive war against his parents. He's portrayed here as black-clad, petulant and ponytailed, smashing up his bedroom in a tantrum. A similar scene shows Ophelia in her father's study, sneakily sitting in his chair like she's trying out adulthood, going through his desk drawers like they're playthings. At such times the performance seemed to be taking these aspects head-on, choosing to highlight them. Yet at others it seemed to want to retreat back into a more 'classic' Shakesperian drama, as if it was raising things it could not quite control.

Us old-timers of this town tend to talk about 'Old' and 'New' Brighton. 'Before I Sleep' felt very Old Brighton. Though I don't believe anyone involved came from squat culture, it seemed to take much of the spirit of squat events (occupying a space then  improvising from what was found there, extemporising props and themes) and make them into something more focused and polished. In fact when I first saw the redecorated windows, I assumed it was the work of 'art squatters.'

Conversely, 'The Rest is Silence' seemed new Brighton. “This stretch of coastline is set for regeneration,” comments the programme. “We are in the world of warehouse conversions and loft-house developments with minimalist interiors.” But, perhaps significantly, this environment looks not like some last hurrah of the old but as if the yuppies have already arrived. (Ironically, while this was being staged squatters did occupy the previous venue for a conference.) The work is sharp, sophisticated, inventive and thought-provoking. But 'Before I Sleep' was an assault on the senses, like entering some crazy wonderworld where imagination was untamed.

This I admired. But that I loved.

Friday 15 June 2012


Well of course every day is a good day to be a Can fan. But news that a triple box set of unreleased recordings will soon be with us... superlatives seem insufficient at this point! What's more you can listen to a sample ten tracks at the Guardian website.

How do you loose 10 hours of finished material down the back of the studio sofa over a period of 9 years without noticing!?” asks one baffled commentator, clearly unaware of their working methods. (No such thing as a rehearsal. No such thing as a gig. Just playing.)
Some are live versions of previously heard tracks. 'Midnight Sky' is a touch too close to a conventional rock'n'roll number... oh, what's the use? Quite possibly the best band in the history of everything, ever.
And only four days till the next time I see Damo Suzuki...

Wednesday 6 June 2012


Martin: As your president, I would demand a science-fiction library, featuring an ABC of the genre. Asimov, Bester, Clarke.
Student: What about Ray Bradbury?
Martin (derisively): I'm aware of his work...
From 'Lisa's Substitute', The Simpsons

Acclaimed science fiction author Ray Bradbury died today.

Once, deep in my youth, I thought science fiction was about cowboys battling aliens, and wanted to read nothing else.

Later I decided science fiction was actually about boffins battling ignorant hordes and was written by Clarke and Asimov, and I wanted to read nothing else. I threw away the cowboys battling aliens, and never missed them.

Later still I discovered Ray Bradbury. It was insightful and imaginative and funny and satirical and horrific, it was packed with vivid images and it speculated not about rocket propulsion drives but the human condition. Above all, it was literary. Suddenly, there was no longer any reason why a science fiction writer shouldn't spend more time constructing a sentence than constructing the plans for a rocket drive. Science fiction became about widening your mental horizons, not narrowing your expectations. I threw Clarke and Asimov to the same place I had thrown the cowboys battling the aliens. I had Ray Bradbury. I wanted to read nothing else.

Unsurprisingly, I got past the age of just wanting to read Ray Bradbury. But throw him away? I have his books on my shelf to this day. Some things just stay with you...

Tuesday 5 June 2012


Old Municipal Market, 17th May

What have we here? A new production of a piece of 'music theatre' by Harrison Birtwistle and Tony Harrison, based around our old friend the murder ballad 'Cruel Sister', last seen in these parts via Julia Wolfe's musical reworking. ('Bow Down' would seem to be an alternate title from one of its many variants.)

The staging strikes you as audacious. It's put on in the disused municipal market, with minimal props, without amplification, where the only electricity is used for the quite bare lighting. The music comes from flute and oboe, more often played trillingly and screechingly than to make melodies. Percussion is more often supplied by props within the scene than by instruments, such as spades striking the concrete floor.

This could be called audacious, but it's actually quite smart.The cavernous, echoey space is functionally useful for an unamplified work. But more than that, it was fitting. I would rather have seen it here than in the Suffolk forest, which was another option on the itinerary. The simplicity of the staging isn't just about minimising distractions from the content, it's part of the piece. Despite the folk roots it's not interested in whisking us off to some pastoral otherplace where the drama takes place, with forests and rivers. It's diegetic. They the performers and we their audience remain in that stark room, they addressing us as often as each other. Quite often they talk as though addressing each other while looking out at us. There's a recurrent gag about characters prompting each other.

...then again, perhaps that line above should be ”because” of the folk roots.” For a drama it's remarkably rooted in that original folk song, not elaborating or fleshing out characters. And folk music is often diegetic, the frame becomes part of the picture. Think of the number of folk songs which start with the explanation that we're about to be sung a song.

For example, the performance kicks off with a recitation of the ballad's opening. Despite the term 'Opera Group', this is thankfully done in northern dialect, not opera's strangulated tones. And yet a recitation, even an entirely faithful one, works differently to a ballad. In the ballad's most well-known version, by Pentangle, you are aware that the line “lay the bent to the bonnie broom” is continually repeated. But you don't hear each iteration, they blend into the repetition of the music, they become punctuation, your brain starts to substitute the mental equivalent of little ditto marks.

Not so with a verbal recitation. Each instance of “there were two sisters” slaps you anew. Which is surely the point. What would seem familiar, even naturalised, in a song is reformulated and restaged to feel new, strange and arresting. It's like the folk song stretched and flattened, it's inner workings exposed. If a folk song was a picture of a scene, this was like an overlaid series of rough, diagrammatic sketches.

Visually the piece played with making and breaking symmetry, just as it did with the ballad's rhyming couplets. It's point may well have been to compare the paired lines to the two sisters, apparently harmoniously matched (“dark/fair”, “water/earth” etc.). Yet the breaking is inherent to the pairing, the lines are not equal, one must always close the other.

There is something simultaneously childlike and sinister in the ritualised performance that reminded me of the adults-playing-children scenario of Dennis Potter's 'Blue Remembered Hills.' It's a dark, almost drippingly Freudian vision of a reality predisposed to conflict and violence - “there were two sisters who will die.” (Though Freud would doubtless have insisted they missed a trick by not making the wooing knight and the “baron of power” father one and the same.) When the drowned sister is washed up, in a scene black with humour two fishermen lasciviously set about dismembering her, which certainly didn't happen in the more family-friendly Pentangle version.

It's interesting to see how much variety can be wrung from this most simple of set-ups, either visually or in terms of mood. And it's an interesting attempt to adapt from one medium to another rather than simply lift, to take creative advantage by playing up the differences between them.

Yet I felt not a little skeptical...

The aim would seem to be to confront us with the corpse beneath the surface of the bucolic-looking stream, the dark content behind the pretty folk tune. But wasn't that dark content already visible for anyone who cared to go looking for it? Moreover, isn't that contrast between the dark and the fair the point of the song, the very thing which gives it bite? Doesn't the very term 'murder ballad' suggest all that is an intentional juxtaposition? The Pentangle song essentially goes “fum-diddley-i, diddley-din, then she smashed her bloody head in.”

Folk fans are often caricatured as hopeless nostalgists, cupping hands to their ears to block out the intrusive present. But it's got no more truth to it than any other caricature. Folk fans, in my experience, love nothing more than a good murder ballad. They joined the dark side some good while ago...

It seems to me that high art normally does to low art what the rich do to the poor, turn up offering to bring something then taking whatever they can get their hands on. Arguably, the performance does to the original ballad what the fisherman do to the dead sister's corpse. Admittedly, there's a limit to how far you could pin this piece to the term 'high art.' Yet there's enough truth to it to have raised my skepticism.

Moreover, composed in 1977, this piece has something of the world of Seventies experimentalism about it. You can sense that Godardian perverse glee in stripping away anything pleasurable, as if all that was inherently “bourgeois” and truth and needle-in-the-eye repetition were somehow synonymous. Here it's the folk melody that's stripped away, anything with strings to pluck tossed out for something austere to the point of confrontational. All of which is now so out of fashion that it now seems almost new again. Yet we shouldn't forget where it led last time. And last time it led nowhere very much.

Perhaps this was also why one of my favourite elements of the ballad was removed, the dead sister's corpse being made into a harp which then 'sings' an accusation of her murderer. Perhaps that was dismissed as romanticism. Instead this was replaced by a more hackneyed ghostly revenge, like something out of EC comics.

In addition, the stripped-down setting threw a great emphasis on the performers, yet they varied greatly in quality. Some were excellent but the sisters in particular were surprisingly weak. That may have marred my gruntlement as much as anything conceptual or thematic. (Interestingly, it may have worked better had they all been weak. It would have worked within the intonatory, ritualised nature of the performance. True, it would have been best if they'd all been good performers. But the problem was the mismatch.)

The result was interesting and (at least by today's standards) unusual but only fitfully successful. Like the ballad I couldn't really decide whether it was dark or fair, whether it was killing something off or giving it new life. Which was perhaps the point...

Black Rock, Brighton Seafront, 26th May

Generik Vapeur are a crazy French performance troupe who seem to specialise in the grand outdoor performances you like to imagine crazy French performance troupes get up to, but imagine you're only imagining that. They are, in brief, crazy. Crazy in a good way. But mostly crazy in a crazy way...

At last year's Festival they performed 'Droles d'Ouiseaux,' aka 'Funny Bird', which involved hanging multicoloured cars up from a washing line on the Level. (In case you don't believe me I have photographic evidence.) This year's show was if anything bigger, bolder and... well, crazier.

A bunch of upturned shipping containers had been made into a modernist wicker man. Films and graphics were projected onto him, as performers act around, upon, dangling from, and even inside him, as hatches open in the sides to reveal scenes, like a kind of surrealist advent calendar. Or they circumambulate it while hoisted by a crane. Or... look, sometimes you've just got to be there!

Through charmingly thick French accents, they claim this as their potted history of the world. The Festival blurb mentions “the pressing concerns of our age” and “the ghosts of globalisation.” Indeed, at one stage they pause to pay tribute to the popular risings round the world.

But mostly, it's not a piece of theatre which employs penetrating symbolism to invite analysis. Trying to join up those disconnected scenes would be a fool's errand. It's a show! You're better off wallowing in the spectacle of it all, drinking in the derangement. A favourite moment of mine, presumably tailored for English audiences, was when a projected clock struck four and they promptly broke for tea, waiters scurrying around the audience with cups.

This seems to have been the Festival where austerity really hit. Rumour claims that many Fringe shows were flat-out cancelled. I attended less events myself, though for me time poverty was as much a factor. The free, public stuff didn't disappear but seemed diminished. The exhibitions, with the exception of the Patrick Hamilton tribute 'Hangover Square', were a total waste of time. (Disclaimer, I didn't do on the “interactive seafront walk”, so please exclude that from my dissing.)

So this was probably just what we needed. A fantastic show, held for free on a glorious summer's evening, with an amassed crowd (some contend ten thousand strong) clapping heartily then walking home with great big grins on our collective faces.s The Festival spirit finally appears for it's final weekend.

Zee yuu next yee-arr!” they promised at the curtain call.

You never know your luck...

The same show, but not from Brighton...

Both events, as you may have surmised, part of the Brighton Festival.

Coming soon! The play's the thing...

Friday 1 June 2012


Green Room Cafe, Phoenix Gallery, 4th, 11th + 25th May

Even fringes have fringes, it would seem. For this “micro festival” of improvised music set out it's stall as picking up where Colour Out of Space left off. That event gives acts a democratising set dose of twenty to thirty minutes, eschewing any notion of support slots and headlining. Which, while part of the spirit of the thing, can become something of a meaningless mean. Some acts, particularly of the novelty or comedy ilk, seem spent after ten minutes. While others can feel like they were just getting going after thirty.

But here we're specifically promised “long duration live performances”. Which makes a kind of sense. Impro is the 'slow food' of the music world, it takes time to simmer and stew and develop it's flavours, it doesn't just ping out ready for action. (When one of the performers shouts “one, two, three, four” at the start of his set, we all get the joke.) Making the performances longer makes the highs higher...

...and highs there were. Remember when your school teachers would tell you to think of sex as “a kind of beautiful conversation between two people”? And you'd snigger because you knew it was actually about Barbara Windsor's bra flying off in 'Carry On Camping.' Well, they were wrong. Because it's actually improvised music which is a kind of beautiful conversation between two people.

Actually, the crazy hipsters also experimented with solo stuff and even threesomes. But blush not gentle reader, for it tended to be the duos who impressed the best, and who we shall focus on here. For example the opening act, Gimlet-Eyed Mariners came with a mesmerising array of bows and strings, which they employed with alacrity. But I was most keen to see Mystery Dick, aka Ed Pinsent and Harley Richardson. I knew these gentlemen from their fine work in alternative comics and music fanzines, stretching right back to the Eighties. (Ed continues to run the mighty 'Sound Projector', “better listening through imagination since 1996”.) But not only had I never seen them live before, I'd not even heard their music. (I confessed this to Ed on the night, who commented “we're more under than underground.” I later read from their website the last time they performed in public was a decade ago!)

They started off with swirling organ and twangy feedback guitar, like a lost soundtrack to 'Carnival of Souls', before heading off into something more minimalist and droney. It felt like the longer they played the less they played, in terms of chords and notes, and the harder it was to tell one's contribution from the other. In other words, the better they played, as duration worked its magic. But by that point they'd left my meagre powers of description behind, which is probably best for all concerned.

...yet tribal loyalties were to be rent asunder because my favourite act were the Static Memories, who I could easily believe had been playing together since they were embryos. Their set was forever stuttering, building up and breaking apart again, but in a way that somehow sounded part of the plan. (Even though, clearly, there was no plan!) Even in it's quietest, most fractured-sounding moments it held the room, pulling at our attention like a super-magnet in a room of steel screws. It seemed the very opposite of virtuoso show-off music, where all egos were subsumed and creativity made a force for the common good. (I was probably getting carried away by that point.)

Yet what makes the highs higher inevitably makes the lows lower. The middle night in particular seemed like the 'Empire Strikes Back' of the trilogy. Of course you have to accept improvised music isn't going to serve up the hits every time. But I became reminded of the famous George Clinton line, “freedom is free of the need to be free.” There's times when this music sounds so unfree of the need to be free, furiously squarking and hitting hubcaps ever-harder when it doesn't seem to be working like it should. The noise can come to feel busy, like a stand-in for motion.

If I seem to have a love/hate relationship with the impro scene... well I probably have a love/hate relationship with everything I don't have a hate/hate relationship with. And I see scenes as by their nature defined by the contradictions, not as unified groups. Furthermore, there's something in the nature of impro music which, by removing the confines of song structures and scale systems, pulls away the safety net and throws things to the extremes.

But, perhaps notably, the only scene I have as much a love/hate relationship with is the hardcore punk scene. On the face of it the two styles couldn't be more different. The better hardcore bands tended to rehearse like mad things, streamlining their sound, and didn't improvise much on stage. But both scenes promise music as a means to break free.

Yet of course, ultimately I try to focus on the half-full side of the glass and am glad such scenes survive in corporate modern Brighton. Even if the main challenge seems to be finding a room small enough to fit us all in...

Not from any of the nights, but of similar ilk...

Not coming soon! I was really quite keen to get down something about the last Colour Out of Space. Particularly the series of performances I dubbed Deranged Projectionists, who mixed up and intervened with filmshows live in front of us, as if the projector was an instrument. Dirk de Bruyn remains the only cinema projectionist I have seen to fall into a shamanic trance and chant loudly while repeatedly putting his hand in front of the lens. (Though I for one would like the Odeon to adopt similar tactics.) But alas I have really left it too late even for me. Please content yourself with previous years (2009, 2008 and 2007 respectively) and the above...

(Hopefully) coming soon! The second part of the Brighton Festival write-ups...