Sunday 21 December 2014


St. Bartholomew's Church, Brighton, Sat Dec 6th

Disclaimer!Dario Argento's 1977 shocker 'Suspiria' may be genuinely deranged but its also literally depraved. It follows the standard slasher film conventions, which includes repeated scenes of semi-dressed women getting penetrated by knives and meeting other grisly deaths. If given this description you're not interested in being told such a film has other merits, or want to know about its soundtrack, please skip this section now.

If after Pere Ubu's 'Man With the X-Ray Eyes' I'd rushed to proclaim underscores as the way to create a film soundtrack, what should come along a couple of weeks later but a classic example of an overscore?

But then a conventional score would never have worked for a film such as 'Suspiria'. There's not so much a subtext that needs drawing out. Just like the supernatural events that take over the characters' lives, everything pretty much explodes over the surface of the film. Argento realised that the horror of horror films comes from the triumph of the irrational, and simply went with that. Mysteries stay unexplained, plot threads are dropped with impunity - your mind would break before it made any sense of this. 

Instead it lives in the mise-en-scene, the lurid colours and Art Nouveau flourishes of the Dance Academy (which must count as one of the main characters in its own right), and in the succession of dramatic set-piece events. Everything becomes suffused in the atmosphere of a lurid, surrealist dream. And it lives in the soundtrack which, rather than illustrating the film, was composed before shooting began. And music, inherently irrational in the way it runs a short-circuit to your brain, is vital in achieving this effect.

Watching sections of it performed during Goblin's solo gig earlier this year, I wrote “it just keeps going, permeating the whole film – marinading in its mood”. Yet, watching the whole thing through, rather than listening to live highlights or the soundtrack album you realise that however over-the-top it sounds its actually quite a skilled accomplishment. For an overscore, there's a whole lot of underscore to it – semi-subliminal embellishment of the events. And the grand themes have a habit of suddenly cutting straight out, leaving us hanging. The band are clearly aware how loud silence can sound.

And while its famous for being a rock score, repeating phrases and riffs until insanity takes hold, it uses quite a few classical devices. The main theme recurs again and again but in different variants, like motifs in a symphony. The psychological effect is of relentlessness, but without the ear ever getting the chance to become used to what its hearing.

Perhaps the most bizarre and effective thing about the soundtrack is that it sounds simultaneously so fitting for the film and like some alien force that is infecting it – like the sinister witch lurking at the heart of the Dance Academy orchestrating the deaths. The celebrated main theme, with those malevolently chanted vocals like a twisted lullaby, simultaneously sinister and seductive, fits superbly with Argento's directoral motifs – such as filming scenes from an elevated perspective, as if under the spying eye of evil spirits.

The 'rock' nature of the soundtrack is similarly bizarre and disruptive in the way it works. The film is at root a supernaturalised analogy for the generation gap – an ode to getting out of school and going your own way. The witch at the heart of it all, Helena Markos, is not just ancient but supposed to be dead - she has prolonged her life by supernatural means. (Whether she is sustained by the frequent blood sacrifices of the young, like Countess Dracula, is one of the many things which remain unexplained.) The heroine Suzy (played by Jessica Harper) can't trust anyone much over thirty and only seems to gain safe haven outside of the Academy - in more modern settings, such as the glass-and-steel citadel of the conference centre. The Academy often seems designed around infantalising it's young adult charges. (Argento designed the sets so, for example, door handles were raised to the height they would normally be for children.)

But the rock soundtrack, which would have sounded so modern to a contemporary audience at a time when they were only starting to move from classical instrumentation, isn't the stereotypical sound of youth or freedom. It very much belongs with the Dance Academy, like an aural iteration of the witch's spells. While, in a break with one of the more fundamental rules of soundtracks, Suzy isn't given her own theme. If anything it is playing with the notion more commonly held by older generations, that rock is the “devil's music”.

I also wrote after last time “the best way to experience their music is still through watching those Argento films”. And I was right. Cutting out the proggier solo-band stuff, and showing their music against the film it was always meant to accompany, this was Goblin in their element. And the grandeur of St. Barts church made for the perfect venue. “I hope God forgives us”, front-man Claudio Simonetti commented at the end. I reckon he will.

From their earlier performance in Islington:

The Haunt, Brighton, Tues 9th Dec

After an eight-year break, it would almost be tempting to talk about Godflesh being resurrected. I loved the legendary Eighties noise band enough to name one of my old comic strips after them. (Though if anyone else remembers that I'll be astonished.) And now they're not just back but back the way they were – the classic two-man line-up of guitarist Justin Broadrick and bassist GC Green.

Though just looking at the musicians on stage perhaps overlooks the key ingredient to their distinctive sound. By then many bands employed a drum machine, but tended to use it as a click track. After all, if the drums are important then you invest in a real drummer, right? Whereas Godflesh took the drum machine and utilised it. At times it became the dominant instrument, providing an onslaught of inhumanly pounding beats, relentless as rows of space invaders, with guitar and bass throwing up dissonances.

It was a sound which gave the band the best of both worlds – the frenzied energy of punk combined with the pulverising force of metal. Plus, in an echo of something I once said about Wolf Eyes, the way you couldn't understand a word of those screamed or guttural vocals just added to the sense they were speaking to you. They seemed to tap into some feeling beyond words, something purely existential – the glossolalia of angst. (I manage to make out precisely three words all night long - “towers of emptiness.”)

As ever its more evocative to let the music do the talking, stirring moods and conjuring up images in your mind. Wikipedia tags the band with the terms 'industrial metal', 'experimental metal' and post-metal'. And taking that first suggestion it's music which could be taken to follow the industrial template – a response to the urban environment, to tower blocks, traffic jams and tasting smog for air. As Dom Lawson said in the Guardian of their sound: “monochrome riffs and dehumanised drums collide, conjuring a disorientating fog of urban desperation and fury… a cracked prism of post-Thatcher social alienation.”

But it also morphs readily into visions of some science fiction apocalypse. Early albums tended to credit the drums to the 'Terminator'-like tag “machines”. Bu they're less man vs. machine wars and more the cyborg-as-inner-conflict of 'Tetsuo' - man becoming machine even as he fights it, and vice versa. But the real appeal is the way one slips so easily into the other, as if the dystopian future is already here and just getting warmed up. (Think of that last 'Terminator' film taking place almost entirely inside some future apocalypse. What made it more epic also made it more removed, less involving. What's powerful is the sense of an elision between the two.)

In some ways they're the Black Flag of metal, and not just through being influential. There's the same sense of stripping down beyond the point a sane mind would stop, reducing music to a brutal and brutalising force. But there's the equal yet contradictory sense that it's all a brilliant art project, devised by some very smart people indeed. The slide show that accompanies the gig includes raging flames and venomous snakes, but also such arty fayre as Church carvings and details from Bosch paintings.

There's that wish fulfilment conceit common in comics, where the nerdy kid gains super powers and no-one can pick on him any more. With Godflesh there's the sense that their outsiderness is their superpower, the quality that enables them to unleash such sonic blasts, that everything that's pushing down on them is made into their weapon back against it. Ultimately, for all it's savagery, there's something not nihilistic but liberating about their music. It's like facing off the world and winning.

They only play for about an hour, which might seem on the short side. But the experience is of such an intensity you're not really sure if you could have taken much more. As it ends someone sticks on a Christmas jingle single, so we exit to the echoes of blistering beats and service-encounter session singers wishing us a merry festive season.

They really are just as good now as they were back in the day.

Their classic 'Streetcleaner' from Maryland...

Sticky Mike's Frog Bar, Brighton, Wed 10th Dec

“I have satellite maps of near destinations
So why take a risk when you can take a vacation?”

Much like Swans, I've already written about Dutch post-punkers the Ex not once but twice (actually sort of three times) so will only add stuff here which I haven't said before.

One cool thing about this gig, a warm-up for a two-night residency in London's Cafe Oto, was that it featured such a wealth of support acts it almost became a mini-festival. These included (and I may well have missed something)...

  • A Dutch singer-songwriter who gave us precisely one song in English
  • Afework Nigussie, a traditional Ethiopian musician playing what appeared to be a bedpost with a single string attached (and later joined the band for a few numbers)
  • Terrie from the Ex playing freeform impro guitar (which alas only really got good towards the end)
  • Trash Kit, a Slits-style girl group playing offbeat in about every available sense of the word. When I say girl group they looked like their collective ages might have got them served at the bar. The singer dedicates one song to her mum, who turns out to be in the audience.

As befits a band not knowing for resting on their laurels, the Ex provide several new tracks which would bode well for the future. Katherina's skittering drumming provided a fine contrasts to Godflesh's machine beats a few nights before, in that it couldn't sound any more human. While the guitars are taunt and sharp, she provides rolling polyrhthms which, as I've said before rarely march in the lockstep of punk orthodoxy.”

Gigs, even good gigs, fall too easily into a formula. While this was a night which felt full of of possibility. The main set ended with a version of ‘That’s Not A Virus’ which reached such an intensity, de Boers spitting doggerel number codes like they were the most important information ever imparted, that I expected cracks to start appearing in the walls and ceiling and Sticky Mike's Frog Bar to be no more. After which the band were clapped back on for no less than three encores.

The Ex are neither stuck in some fundamentalist punk furrow, struggling to retain the way everything sounded in 1979, nor have they bought into music biz shenanigans. They simply play the music it occurs to them to play. They're stuck to their roots, but they've also grown from them. If they didn't exist we'd probably have to make them up.

'Four Billion Tulip Bulbs',a subject close to every Dutch person's heart, from Copenhagen...

Dome Studio Theatre, Brighton, Sat 13th Dec

Emptyset, it says here, “examine the physical properties of sound through electromagnetism, architecture and process-based image-making in a live event that encompasses performance, installation work and audio-visuals.”
People often perceive electronica as a remote, austere and and cerebral affair. But Emptyset are a long way from Morton Subotnik's 'music of the spheres', their spectral sounds are actually quite rooted in the earth. I once commented how psychedelia “worked best when stuffed inside actual songs. It's the way it then fights to get out, makes the song strange, misshapen and unpredictable. Like one of those giant bubbles which stop being perfectly round but undulate weirdly and throw up loads of odd reflections.”
And Emptyset do a similar thing with the rhythms of dance music. As the visuals play with geometric shapes and with distortions, so their music plays with the even-ness of beats. And strange, distorted beats are still beats, dance music from Mars is still dance music. There were sections the audience could easily have danced to, were we not so chinstrokey. And in fact I read later they “have backgrounds within Bristol's club music scene.”

The A/V in their name and in their performance suggests the appeal of synaesthesia. See a live band and you may enjoy the interplay between, say, the bassist and the drummer. But when that jumps across media barriers it becomes environmental. It was reminiscent less of other gigs that I've been to than Lis Rhodes' Tate installation 'Light Music'. At times the bass notes rumbled so low they made the floor vibrate and tickle my feet.

Both electronica and dance music become more immersive the longer they continue, and the same was true here. Not because things developed. Though they performed one long piece, it was pretty much neatly divided into sections. But because its immersive. You settle into it like a bath.

From Paris:

Coming soon! Short of Led Zeppelin staging a surprise reunion on the seafront on Xmas Day, no more gig-going adventures for a little while. Still, it's been a good year for it...

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