Sunday, 14 September 2014


Barbican Theatre, London, Sat 13th Sept

The selling point of this gig was that John Cale, pioneer of drone music from his early days in the Theatre of Eternal Music, would be playing alongside actual drones - buzzing round the auditorium. Something like Stockhausen's 'Helicopter Quartet', where a string quartet played inside four helicopters, and alongside their whirring rotors. Only with scaled-down helicopters.

My natural assumption that he was returning to those drone roots seemed confirmed by speed-reading the programme beforehand. The piece was titled the catchy 'LOOP>>60Hz: Transmissions from The Drone Orchestra', while Cale's sojourn in the legendary Velvet Underground somewhat downplayed. Liam Young it seemed was not a musician but “a speculative architect who operates in the spaces between design, fiction and futures”, in charge of the overall concept.

And indeed things started with Cale strumming an acoustic guitar as a lead-in to a mounting drone-fest. Stage lights stabbed straight upwards, like London was expecting another Blitz. The promised drones then took off, their rotor blades adding to the sound but ebbing and flowing in and out of your ears as they traversed the auditorium. As a drone aficionado, I settled warmly into my seat.

Yet after that initial track, things turned into a much more conventional set-list gig. Ah well, let's focus on what we got rather than what we didn't...

As the set focused heavily on Cale's more recent albums, I kept mentally comparing it to the last time I'd seen him. So surprised I was to get home, read that previous write-up and find that in my ways my reaction was the polar opposite of before.

Cale chose to stack the ballads early. Now my two favourite albums of his are both effectively ballad-led, 'Paris 1919' and 'Music For A New Society'. Yet I found this a bit of a formatting error, with the result something of a slog. They songs were also mixed in quality, with a rather lacklustre version of 'Half Past France'. If buses are supposed to all come at once, this became like all your waiting-for-a-buses at once, and I started to yearn for some scrapes of the viola.

Plus, though the drones kept diligently taking off and landing again, they added little to this more song-based material. They were superfluous or at times actively intrusive, like an over-sized mosquito had buzzed in the window and now couldn't get out. It might have been wiser to hold them in reserve until that section was over.

Later, things picked up and we were treated to a set quite similarly sourced to the earlier one from Brighton. Though many of the newer songs were quite splendid, best of all were the radical reworkings of classic old tracks – a distorted 'Mercenaries' and 'Sanities' set to a lurching heigh-ho Tom Waits beat. Several tracks I only recognised some way in, 'Sanities' I only picked up through the words. Then, after not having played a single Velvets song all night, he closed with an extended 'Sister Ray', as if rewritten for a disco in hell which neither closed nor played any other number.

Despite the common assumption that we fans like to hear old albums intact and in full, what we actually want is something we couldn't have heard by simply staying home. It's more interesting to hear their creators come at them from some new angle.

Though of course too young for their actual era, I first got into the Velvets before they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – when they were still a cult act. I can remember when putting on one of their records was a guaranteed way to clear the room. And 'Sister Ray' seemed the most extreme track by the most extreme of bands. It seemed less challenging than disruptive, it seemed to melt down every assumption you had made about music in order to re-use the materials in something new.

But of course it can't keep that shock in perpetuity. It's only by reworking it, by making it simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, that it can reignite. It reminds you of the stunning moment when you first heard it, while at the same time it's something totally new. That's what we want. More stuff like that.

So... the drone-fest didn't happen and the drones themselves were ultimately not much more than a gimmick. And the gig was uneven. Well, Cale's career has been uneven. (It's only comparison to Lou Reed's wildly oscillating musical fortunes which obscures that.) But the high points flew higher than those drones. If now in his Seventies, Cale isn't content to lay on his laurels. His brain seems as active as ever at trying out new things and at reworking old.

The Haunt, Brighton, Sat 30th Aug

No, your eyes do not deceive you. That is an acoustic guitar. And it is in the hands of one of the most recognisable haircuts this side of Sid Vicious – Buzz Osborne of the Melvins. (As enthused over here, after their earlier visit to Brighton.) In a not altogether expected development, the man whose spent the last thirty years presiding over a shotgun marriage between punk and metal has undertaken a solo acoustic tour.

However, don't go getting any notions he's decided to show us his sensitive side. Nick Drake this isn't. He's titled the new album 'This Machine Kills Artists', in a twist on the Woody Guthrie quote. And the twist is important. He strikes chords rather than plucks melodies, while vocals are fulsome and full-throated – often quite theatrically delivered. There can be quite long instrumental sections. You could call it 'mighty acoustic' if you had a mind to.

If anything, it seems more rooted in rock history than the parent band which spawned it. I took to thinking about how the Black Sabbath/ Led Zeppelin influence is more apparant on these new songs, just as he back-announces the last tracks as Melvins numbers. Maybe it's the new sound which more greatly exposes those influences, like different chassis being placed over the same engine. It reminds you how all that music was rooted in the acoustic to start with, though not always through a chronological journey back to the acoustic blues. There's all the bombast and swagger here too, and that can be a good thing. A large part of the appeal of rock music, when you first start listening to it in your teenage bedroom, is that it seems a means to finally get the world listening to you.

It's ambiguous which is in the driving seat - necessity or invention? Did Buzzo hit upon this new sound and run with it, or was the most cost-effective way to set up a solo vehicle to make the new combo a one-man band? He often employs a technique of playing overlaid bass and lead parts, and a habit of striding the stage like he's trying to fill the boots of a band. Which might suggest the latter. Then again, this is a guy whose collaborated at one time or another with pretty much everybody from the heavier end of music, so volunteers shouldn't have been that hard to come by.

The Melvins are of course a band known for their sound. Its like they built that sound up thirty years ago and have been inhabiting it ever since. But this new mighty acoustic business, that might be a narrower base. If the Melvins were a fortress this is more a bedsit. It works well for each and every track. No numbers come across as filler. But as the gig goes on it lacks for something in sonic variety, and each new number starts to feel like another slice of the same. Its a bit like visiting an art exhibition to find its all of pencil drawings. You can admire each and every drawing, but part-way through start to long for the odd splash of colour. In many ways it marks an adventurous break from business as usual. But maybe its a sound to visit rather than move into.

Some edited-together clips, with much audience chat about his wife for some reason...

Just while we're on this sort of subject... this is a pretty awesome full-length clip of the Melvins/Fantomas Big Band in full assault mode. See how long it takes you to recognise the opening number. I swear I didn't get it until the first line (which happens some way in), whereupon a great big “of course” expression filled my face…

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