The Haunt, Brighton, Sat 13th April
Even more than Julian Cope, Pere Ubu are the walking, talking definition of a cult act. David Thomas, front man, arch-contrarian and only surviving original member, has described them as “the longest-lasting, most disastrous commercial outfit to ever appear in rock 'n' roll. No one can come close to matching our loss to longevity ratio.”
Named after a notorious proto-surrealist play, they function as a kind of missing link between the bohemian art-rock side of American punk (think Patti Smith or Television) and the Dadadistic, playfully destructive anti-music of British post-punk (think Josef K or Scritti Politti). They even embodied this link by moving from their native Cleveland to London, the better to hook up with Rough Trade records. Thomas now resides as one of the fair citizens of Hove, and was last seen on these shores providing a woozy film noir soundtrack to 'Carnival of Souls'.
Their sound is described by their promoter as “a disorienting mix of midwestern groove rock, 'found' sound, analog synthesizers, falling-apart song structures and careening vocals.” Their one constant is that listed last. Thomas' cartoony, whinneying vocals are perhaps the band's signature sound, simultaneously zany and macabre. Their first album, 'Modern Dance', surely remains one of the finest and most original albums released.
Though they don't place much reliance on back catalogue, and though they cover a fair amount of musical ground, that's pretty much their sound tonight. The keyboards are matched by a theramin player, who at one point brings out a toy plastic ray gun. A clarinettist turns up unexpectedly, adding what are quite often exquisite melodies.
The very first thing Thomas tells us is that we have in fact been dreaming these past years, with only the band to represent the real world. Which is kind of fitting. They are to rock music like that dream where you go back to your old school, and it all seems so familiar and yet not. They're simultaneously a parody of how rock music should sound and an escape route from it. They do the wrong things so wrongly that everything becomes right again.
Thomas is sharp-witted but prickly, and something during the encore flips his mood. He stops one song early, announcing he doesn't feel like playing it, then abandons singing the next one mid-way. Mumbling a taciturn goodbye, he stalks off. An awkward end to what was otherwise a great set.
Not from Brighton, but from
New York slightly later...
Concorde 2, Brighton, Tues 2nd April
“They are always different, they are always the same.”
As any music obsessive knows, John Peel said that about the mighty Fall. But he could easily have meant Swans. They always hold true to their path, while never ever standing still.
Last time I saw them, about two-and-a-half years ago, they were on the back of their first reunion album 'My Father Will Guide Me On a Rope to the Sky.' Their style was more ceremonial, with occasional outbreaks of... yes, really... actual songs, more reminiscent of main man Michael Gira's solo incarnation as Angels of Light. Exhilarated by the experience, I likened it to being clubbed to death inside a cathedral.
This time, accompanying new release 'The Seer' they seem to have decided all that was a little lightweight. It's much more a return to the unrelenting sonic brutalism of their early years. Pounding in it's onslaught, deafeningly loud, it's music as a means to whack punters in the solar plexus without that time-consuming business of first having to walk up to them. Last time I even speculated that years of musically exorcising demons had left Gira 'happier now.' This time he was much like when I first saw Swans back in the Eighties. I was seriously considering the possibility that he was having some kind of psychotic episode on stage, which everyone else was mistaking for a show.
However there's none of the patented descending chords of times past, guaranteed to leave you feel like you were being buried alive by riffs. Instead things shift between pounding metronomic beats, with the bassist at one point literally thumping the strings with his fist, and lengthy drone-outs – pitched somewhere between ethereal and edgy.
Swans had their roots in New York's No Wave scene, which as Simon Reynolds commented employed standard rock instruments but in the most non-standard way. This is never truer than with the steel guitar, which sounds alternately like a theramin, an oscillator and an instrument of torture... in fact, pretty much anything except for a steel guitar. The second drummer/ percussionist is the one who actually smuggles in the undercurrents of melody, bringing in tubular bells or even trumpets which merge with the resonances from the guitars.
Yet No Wave was a musical short, sharp shock. Only two bands really came out of it of any longevity. Sonic Youth burst head-first from the top. Even during their most wig-out free-noise outbursts there was always the sense that these were aesthetes assaulting their fretboards; noise, yes, but noise as a contribution to an ongoing history of noise. Swans, conversely were born in the breach – kicking and screaming their way out of the bottom of the scene. And yet, in interviews, Gira is often as erudite and articulate as any Sonic Youther. All of which is there in the music if you know where to look.
The band are especially adept at cornering, one section of music segueing quite seamlessly into the next. Which gives them the power of duration; tracks feel compellingly metronomic, building the intensity up to fever pitch, while never actually getting repetitive enough to sacrifice your interest. Their other great weapon is a stalking tempo, a seething unhurriedness that makes the music less the temper tantrum of teen angst and more a journey to the dark side. It's like that horror movie trope when you hear the clack of the stalker's shoes, walking yet inexorably gaining on his running victim. They played for well over two hours, tracks getting time to stew, handing misery on to man by deepening like a coastal shelf.
Swans gigs are perhaps not for the faint of heart. But the valiant will find themselves richly rewarded. Really, the time I pass up a chance to see this band in action – check me for a pulse. Swans and Pere Ubu within one week...now that's shaking sixes!
The Haunt, Brighton, Thurs 28th March
Mention psychedelic music and people tend to think of blissed-out pastoralism, the soundtrack for long-haired sons of stockbrokers to recline in meadows. You know, the stuff punk swept away.
Which may not be entirely fair. Firstly, while it mostly struggles to become anything more than aural joss sticks, there can be good pastoral psychedelic as well as bad. I bow to no arbiter of taste in my appreciation of Caravan.
But more to the point, what about the other stuff? The brown acid stuff, the psychedelia that led to long-haired sons of stockbrokers losing their minds and being unable to take up the family business. Bo Ningen, for example, are a young band who trade in what's quite definitely psychedelic rock. Think Jimi Hendrix multiplied by Sonic Youth.
I thought that might make a recipe for a good live band...
...and I was proved right.
It's remarkable how much they look like they must have beamed in from 1972, though the most robust teleporter might strain to shift all that hair. All Japanese by birth and Londoners by origin, they kick off by announcing they're back from a tour of Japan. Is that meta, or just confusing?
The singer... who in police parlance I now know to be called Taipan, has a habit of throwing shapes with his hands, something which might seem familiar to any reader of 'Dr. Strange' comics. Which actually seems quite a good metaphor for the music. While the rest of the band throw up a wall of sound, the second guitarist plays not rhythms but creates musical shapes. The sonic equivalent of when perspective lines come out at you.
My one complaint would be the brevity of it all. Okay, they're more rocky than spacey, than someone like Acid Mothers Temple, their tracks bounce rather than glide along so there's not the same need for duration. And proceedings finished, as these things should, with a crazy wig-out. But it all still came in at under an hour. With two albums under their belt, they can't be that short of material.
More! But next time, more of the more.
From their previous visit to Brighton (missed by me), at the Green Door Store...
COLOUR OUT OF SPACE WARM-UP
West Hill Hall, Brighton, Sat 6th April
Another warm-up for the celebrated experimental and improvised music festival, currently pencilled in for a return in November. (hurrah!) This time the emphasis was on sound poets and vocal improvisers promising “accidental objects” and “surprise correlations.”
The headline was a kind of supergroup from that world, featuring Jaap Blonk, Phil Minton, Luke Poot and scene organiser Dylan Nyoukis. People often seem to assume this type of music is extremely challenging and in deadly earnest, met only by respectfully baffled audiences and EU Arts grants. And yet there's so much humour, something particularly evident with the sound poetry. Blonk (above) has spoken of his “penchent for activities in a Dada vein,” after “several unsuccessful jobs in offices and other well-run systems.”
Though I enjoyed the main act, perhaps this isn't the scene for supergroups and I leaned more to the main support Dogeeseseegod, with their gutteral wails, deranged cries and use of found objects – if 'Blue Peter' had formed a band, and they'd all been psychiatric patients. I was laughing out loud almost the whole way through. (but not quite as much as when I just clicked on their MySpace link and saw the advert for “other similar acts including Nickleback.”)
There were several more acts, but I had an overdue appointment with my sofa and some sleep. Maybe next time.
MY BLOODY VALENTINE
Hammersmith Apollo, London, Mon 12th March
I've left it too late to write something properly about this gig, to be honest. Of course the band are legendary, and of course it's fantastic that I got a chance to see them again. Whenever I finally get round to my Top 50 albums series of posts, I'm giving nothing away by saying 'Loveless' will take it's place among them. The image of their now-ritualised free-noise set closer, with the majority of the seated ranks with their hands over their ears while still nodding along, will stay with me a long time.
...but I wasn't sure about the sound. Okay, a typical track is like a duet between a pop song and a passanger jet taking off – hardly the easiest set of sounds to mix. Even so, all too often the melodic elements were so far back I realised I was hearing them more through memory than the PA. There was a keyboard player on stage who I'm not sure I heard at all.
One of the comments from this web-link says “they've been having problems with mixing”, so perhaps I shouldn't blame the venue. Anyone seen them anywhere else, who can comment?