Saturday, 4 January 2014


Brighton (various venues), 8-10 November 2013

Yes, the welcome return of the International Experimental Sound Festival, now for the sixth time. I slackly made none of the week-long warm-up events, and missed some of the day-time stuff, but still by my reckoning saw some forty-four acts and one talk. Which is kind of hard to sum up, especially when it spans so vast a musical range. A problem I intend to solve by avoiding it. Here's just some random snapshots of stuff that went on, which doubtless misses out much that really should get mentioned...

Primate Arena, one of my personal highlights, were inexplicably thrown on first on the Friday night – before most punters had even arrived. Had they travelled from Tel Aviv just for this? They proved themselves well named, like they'd set themselves the constraining rule to work only with the rudiments of music. Impro music has a tendency to the full-on, to beset the listener with squally showers - which can have its place but sometimes seems to me a symptom of failure. Not sure what else to do, the players max up the volume and slam down the accelerator. The faster we travel the more likely we are to pass some sights. Whereas Primate Arena seemed to bode well for the festival ahead, by demonstrating just what subtlety can exist in this music.

The sax player blew gently, with just enough breath for sound to emit, not venturing so far as to play a single thing which might credibly be called a note. But perhaps they were most summed up by the singer, who sat less unmoving than comatose, barely parting her lips, seemingly too far away from the mike for any sound to transmit. The result was like a butterfly's wings causing some great chain reaction in your ears, like a few rough pencil marks which still serve to map out some vast edifice - even more gargantuan for just being hinted at.

Woven Skull, performing later in the evening with Core of the Coal Man, took a different tack to volume and tempo. They were perhaps just taking the old Jesus and Mary Chain trick, of turning Phil Spector's wall of sound into a wall of noise. But, unconstrained by song structures, they could push things so much further. Three drummers drumming, with screeching viola and guitar thrown on top, built in intensity until I feared both for their sanity and mine.

Perhaps they had pulled a reversed reversal. The first thing you notice with this music is the way rhythm and melody are summarily dispensed with. In such a context, to bring rhythm back in overwhelming force is like when a storm strikes in midsummer – nothing is nailed down in expectation of it.

Roman Nose found rhythm in more unexpected sources. It's a simple trick, loop the most unlikely sound source and you have a de facto rhythm. But they took it for all it was worth, throwing more and more elements in the sonic whirlpool, while throwing the strangest ethnic sounds on top like the folk music of the end of time.

There's a tendency, particularly within this scene, to go as far out on a limb as possible in terms of sound. Someone doesn't just want to be a circuit bender, but the bendiest of circuit benders. Which often ends up with you waving to them for a distance. The best stuff comes not from excess but from the unexpected juxtaposition.

Take for example the Y Band's use of vocals. Of course I get the reason why vocals so often tend to the scream, moan or guttural intonation – it's the stuff which can't be transcribed or otherwise reduced to language. But, somewhat marvellously, the Y-vocalist started off almost like a crooner singer. Perhaps the ghost of a crooner, cursed to haunt popular venues in perpetuity – but still a crooner. (Admittedly you don't have to come very close to conventional singing here to sound like conventional singing.) He even came on stage last, like Frank Sinatra after his band.

The juxtaposition with the strange, surreal music produced something almost Lynchian. There's the sense of being lulled into a dream and disturbed by a nightmare simultaneously. As so often they used a mixture of conventional instruments and impro devices, guitars accompanied by bicycle pumps. But the stranger sounds didn't come across as ostentatious or gimmicky, they just stirred themselves into the stew of strangeness. (Vidclip at end.)

The Y Band, I am not making this up, are some offshoot of the A Band. (Whether there's twenty-four other alphabetical splinters doing the rounds I couldn't tell you.) Yet the one time I saw the A Band I took against them, while the Y Band I'd put in the A list. It makes no sense. But then nothing does around here...

Disbelievers and nay-sayers tend to imagine us adherents to be gullible sorts, wanna-be hipsters praising with equal relish each display of the emperor's new clothes. In fact the Marmite reactions come like nowhere else. (With the sole exception of Rat Bastard, who seems to show up every year having not even changed his T-shirt. His 'confrontational' noise-guitar antics I have genuinely not heard described by anyone as anything better than tedious. Can't we just lie to him about the venue next time?)

In my case, there's whole genres, such as free jazz, which pass straight by me. And some might even have taken to the Gwilly Edmondez and THF Drenching's vocal malarkey, but I just used it as an opportunity to nip out for a Grubbs burger. After another act, which I'd much enjoyed, I came back into the bar to find a group of mates obliviously playing 'Operation'.

Meanwhile, a sizeable section of the crowd seemed to bail out early on for DDAA (Deficit Des Annees Anterieures or Defecit Of Previous Years – yep, they're French). True, they did sound like repetitive beats on Mogadon, served up by some old folks who had recently taken over the asylum. (Or however that saying goes.)

Yet that was precisely what was great about them! The beats slowed to the point where they may as well have been drones. While their vocals, at first mere intonations, slowly developed into fine and fluent harmonies. It was like centuries had been chopped out of music, and we had fast-forwarded from Gregorian chants straight into electronica. It was excruciating, true, but sublimely excruciating! I am not one to make grand national generalisations, but it did seem reminiscent of those scenes in Godard films that seem to go on beyond all point, and only then does the point start to emerge. It may have moved at the pace of continental drift, but if you stayed with it the effect became mesmerising.

I was, I'll confess, initially daunted to hear Makino Takashi's 'Space Noise' film was going to be over half an hour of purely abstract images and electronic noises. And certainly it took a while to get going. But the programme had told us “Takashi treats image and sound as elements of equal importance”, and as the film and his live electronic accompaniments went on they seemed to get deeper - as if what was on the screen wasn't changing so much as enriching. Soon the sounds and visuals mixed in some synaesthesic sense, until you were no longer taking them in on separate channels. Immersive is perhaps an over-used term, but it's the most appropriate one here. After thirty minutes, I was only sorry it was over.

The tape improvisations of Dinosaurs With Horns (aka Jospeh Hammer and Rick Potts) were given something approaching pride of place for so egalitarian an environment, headlining Saturday night then being interviewed the next morning.

Tape-looping may be at base no more than the truism that the more look look into something the more you see in it. Which might make it sound like sleight of hand, magic always relies on sleight of hand in some form. Being a fanciful type, I like to imagine there's something of Blake's “infinity in a grain of sand” about it all. Watching them perform, you cannot help be struck by how ably they can weave things. But at the same time, and perhaps more importantly, they give off the sense that everything has actually been this rich and strange all along - they were just the first to notice.

The interview was interesting despite their not being the most forthcoming of types, more keen to focus on the mechanics of manipulation than any bigger picture. They came across as stoner nerds, stirring strange improvised brews in their suburban basement as an alternative to leaving the house. They spoke of how their native Los Angeles was media-saturated even in their youth, with 24 hour TV while our lives were still marked by the closedown signal.

I came to think of them as the complementary opposite of Black Flag, operating from the same town at much the same time but taking things in opposite directions. It's the difference between the urge to destroy and to repurpose. The trashiness of mass culture drove Black Flag to iconoclastic fury, yet spurred DWH to find ways to use it creatively. (It clearly gave them great glee to explain that one of their videos was actually originally a demonstration of a Disney ride.) It's like both are Dada, but one is Heartfield and the other Schwitters.

They spoke of how the viewer always creates, a truism which immediately undermines the consumerist presumptions of mass culture. It's a peculiar distinction between the mind and the body. Feed the body on a trash diet and... well, I guess we all know 'Super Size Me'. But something in the human mind is able to take popular entertainers and production-line cartoons and turn them into tapestries. This sort of music is often taken to be marginal and inward-looking. Yet Dinosaurs With Horns are not challenging the way you hear weirdo impro music so much as changing the way you take in the mass media.

And if my powers of description have seemed inadequate so far, they fail completely from this point on. Take the low drones and rumbles of Fordell Research Unit. As the players sat calmly and almost motionless, like Max von Sydow playing chess with death, what emitted seemed less human construct than force of nature. If you could somehow hear a mountain range forming, it might sound something like them. Like a lot of these monumental soundscapes it was immensely powerful yet strangely reassuring.

Equally I couldn't explain why Dan Frohberg's ambient soundscapes sounded so utterly transporting, when so much of that music just seems New Age meanderings. Even his appearance, bearded hippy barefoot on the floor, seemed a positive sign – like he was Terry Riley's honorary Godson.

The period after Colour Out Of Space is a little like coming back home after a holiday. Where all the intensity and sense of innovation is suddenly over and the regular world reasserts itself on your jet-lagged self, and seems even more slow, dreary and orthodox than when you left it. On the other hand, you welcome the chance to catch up on your sleep.

Two clips, both courtesy of Dullbedsit Blogger. Firstly some “random bite-size chunks”. Not to look a gift horse in the mouth but no outfits are identified and I'm not sure it's music where a short segment really conveys anything. Still, it does demonstrate the variety of styles...

...and that promised Y Band vidclip...

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