Friday, 17 January 2014

HAAS: 'IN VAIN'/ MIRA CALIX: 'QUEEN OF TORCHES' (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)


HAAS: 'IN VAIN'
Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London, Fri 6th Dec
Performed by the London Sinfonietta

Though a mere seventy minutes long, this work by contemporary composer Georg Friedrich Haas carries such a dramatic and tonal range that it's hard to frame, let alone analyse. No less a fellow than Simon Rattle, writing in the programme, asks not at all rhetorically “how to describe it?” In short, there's not much chance of comparing this one to Question Mark and the Mysterions. I am doubtless setting myself up to fail. But let's push on regardless...

Hass is often described as a Spectralist. Like all genres of music, people argue over what precisely it might mean. But a working definition for me would be blending the sonic adventurousness of Modernism with the emotional heft of Romanticism. Which seems pretty much win/win. Though this work apparently never succumbs to such a thing a conventional tuning, it at no point feels challenging or difficult, like being set a mental exercise. Many times it feels richly melodic. In the same programme Jo Kirkbride find it “grounded in a deeply Romantic tradition of swirling sentiments and long, languorous lines.”

It's chiefly famed for two things. First, written back in the millennium, it was a riposte to the election of far-right politician Jorg Haider in Haas' native Austria. (Which, alas, turned out to be a toehold for his fellows boots to return to Europe.) And, perhaps not unrelatedly, its known for the way sections are performed in total darkness. (Where the musicians must surely play by feel alone.)




Absolute music is the general term for music which is non-representational, the equivalent of abstract art. When such music comes appended with a political message, we might want to ask where it isn't just one big Rorschach blot? If we were told the message was that New England is lovely this time of year, that the rate of profit has a tendency to fall or that Everton have been playing rubbish all season – would our brains reorient and our ears just start to hear that?

Perhaps not, because despite knowing the anti-Haider stuff my ears still picked up quite a different sense from the piece. Rattle says “this piece is all about opposition of all types, about light and darkness.” Most obviously manifest in the literal light and darkness, of course. (One of Haas' other pieces is performed under constant darkness. Here the light is as much a symbol as its absence.) My simple ears may merely have been reductive but what I heard was an inherent dualism – the mournful, trailing fanfares of the brass against the low murmurations of the strings, made up not of individual notes but something closer to sound fields - something almost on the edge of hearing.

The structure of the piece also seemed to bear this out – which is actually a kind of anti-structure. Despite the great musical variety there's no division into movements, everything ultimately flows into something else. Rattle's take seems to be that it visits the primordial roots of music and climbs out again. Perhaps, but it worked best for me not pinned to any particular dualism (the seasons?, life and death?, creation and entropy?) but as more of a universal statement. It's black and white is like the shifting black-and-white of a yin/yang symbol.



Now Haas, present in the audience, rose to take applause at the end. And he seemed a most sensible chap. And I doubt he wants Haider and his noxious xenophobe cronies to be part of some endlessly recurring dynamic. He'd probably rather they were consigned to the dustbin of history, just like the rest of us do. The political statement, thereby, kind of went by the wayside for me.

But then, does that matter? Beethoven's third symphony was originally written about Napoleon, but we don't let that dominate our thinking when we listen to it now. Hass may simply be more absolute in his music than he knows. You're better off listening to it in the metaphoric dark, letting your senses pick up on what they will. Haider and his ilk will hopefully become a footnote of history, while people still listen to this work.

You can hear the whole thing on YouTube should you so wish. But let's link to a sampler for now...



MIRA CALIX: 'THE SUN IS THE QUEEN OF TORCHES'
Dome Studio Theatre, Tues 10th Dec


I first saw Mira Calix in this very venue several years ago, as part of the sadly-defunct Loop festival. Her unorthodox approach to electronics was almost indescribable and simply awesome. I later took in the 'Brainwaves' piece, inspired by her taking an MRI scan. Which was intriguing and highly inventive, but left me mildly agnostic.

In short, I've liked her less each time I've seen her.

This piece chiefly involved her creating sound through what was presumably a contact mike, either striking the floor or tearing at a black curtain behind her. A violinist and dancer were also involved.

I would concede I am not the most receptive person in the world when it comes to contemporary dance. But I couldn't help but feel the other two were there not to complement the performance but act as a kind of fallback – to fill things out if the electronics didn't strike up as well as intended.

Certainly the high points were where the electronics did strike up, layers of processed noise building into a kind of wall of sound - as if Calix was playing the very building. And the violinist worked best when complementing the elecroacoustics, and least when detracting from their purity with conventional notes and melodies as if he'd ambled in from some recital.

Dubbed a “sculptural art performance” it did contain a cool visual element. As Calix tore more into the backing sheet the stage lights correspondingly dimmed, and thicker and thicker shafts of light poured in from behind. Presumably this is where the title of the piece comes in. I was reminded of the shamanic ritual where paint is blown across a hand placed on a rock, then the hand taken away to reveal the handprint as a negative image – used as a symbolic gateway to the spirit world. And at it's best the performance did have something of a shamanic feel, using as tools the very basics of sound and sight but mixing them with modern technology. (There was also a theme about the new technology of photovoltaic cells... well, there usually is with this sort of thing, isn't there?)

But overall the highpoints were not frequent, and the piece felt overlong for it's contents. It was conceptual in the wrong sense, a vaguely interesting idea rattling around in the hope it might at some point land on something. In essence, it was differently successful.

No vidclips of the night (and I doubt they'd display the better elements of it anyway). So here's something more reminiscent of the first time I saw her, 'NuNu', based around the amplified sounds of insects and (IMHO) splendid stuff...

Saturday, 11 January 2014

SIGUR ROS/THE WATERBOYS (MORE GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)


SIGUR ROS
Brighton Centre, Wed 20th Nov

Though originally claiming to be singing in their own imaginary language, Sigur Ros later confessed they'd only ever meant that as a gag. In actuality they were simply scatting. Yet ideally, not only would they never have let on, they'd have convinced every country they visited that they were singing in a native language that wasn't theirs. That way, everyone can imagine you're singing something, which they can somehow intuit, without ever knowing for sure. After all, what is glossolalia but scatting given a religious context? Nonsense can be important stuff.

However, that alone would suggest their music is merely some kind of template, a big cavernous space onto which the listener can project whatever they want to imagine. Which admittedly would explain the keen-ness of marketing types to license their music for ads and soundtracks. (Requests which normally get turned down. Frontman Jonsi has spoken of his amusement at the resulting mini-industry in Sigur-Ros-alike compositions.)

That suggestion does perhaps have advantages over the other theory they get saddled with, that their soundscapes are a kind of sound painting of the landscapes of their native Iceland. And true enough, there's great footage out there of their touring their home island. Yet their music isn't cold and glacial, like Joy Division or Echo and the Bunnymen, it's richly melodic and quite often rhapsodic. The Bunnymen shot the cover art for their third album in Iceland. Whereas the projections which accompany this live show, while frequently of nature scenes, are rarely of anywhere particular. Many, in fact, veer towards the abstract. (A sense emphasised by the overlaying of the images on the band as they play.) Joy Division's sound, at least when it had been through Martin Hannett's production, was resolutely Modernist. Sigur Ros are more resonant of the previous Romantic era. It's the difference between Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff.


Ultimately, both theories are insufficient to the point of being diminishing. A more likely means to get somewhere would be to try and fit them together. They combine into a music reflecting both the enticing beauty and overwhelming scale of nature. Tracks show a vast dynamic range, rising to thumping crescendos utilising the full eleven-piece ensemble, then falling to the merest whisper from a single voice. It's nature to simultaneously find yourself and lose yourself in.

… which, and you may well be ahead of me here, makes it ideal music to see live. Not because of the stage show. (Impressive though that is, filling the eye without distracting from the music.) Not because they improvise or add elements or do crazy stage dancing, because they don't much. The truth is something much more simple. It's perfect music to experience collectively, in a big space full of people, forests of hands flying up as one. I normally steadfastly avoid the elephantine carbuncle that is the Brighton Centre. When a gig there can still feel involving, that's the sign of a band that's on to something.

It also felt right to see them on a dark Winter's evening. For the band look on the bright side in an almost literal sense. While stage shows by necessity involve lighting in some form, this seemed unusually based around the concept. Old-fashioned light bulbs (the ones that go off over people's heads in cartoons) sat on stands adorning the stage, emitting a warm orange glow, as if Edison had gone in for forestry.

Perhaps the actual moment of truth about all that 'sound-of-Iceland' schtick isn't what you see there but the proportion of time where you can't. For their homeland infamously falls into near-complete darkness in the depths of Winter. Perhaps the perfect night to see them would have been a couple of weeks later, on the Winter Solstice itself. Certainly it started to feel like a modernisation of some ancient ritual, nourishing the light in the dark like it's performing our magic which will see it grow again. (I was probably getting carried away by that point.) In choosing a name for his non-existent imaginary language, Jonsi hit upon Hopelandic. And indeed it all seems less the sound of mighty grinding glaciers than of flickering hope.

Despite the appeal of all that dynamic range, I think I took most to the more subdued and serene tone of the encore. It may have been that we needed to the bigger, more attention-grabbing stuff to pull us in, but once we were there the band had less need to address us and could simply speak.

From Brighton (unfortunately cutting off a bit abruptly)...


...and from Brixton, earlier in the year...


And, as if all that wasn't enough, check out the “evolving” video to the track 'Stomur' from the band's website, made from ever-changing footage supplied by fans – some live footage, some everyday diary stuff.

From Iceland to... Ireland. (We don't just throw this show together, you know.)


THE WATERBOYS
De Le Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, Sat 14th Dec

This tour was announced as a celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Waterboys' most popular album, 'Fisherman's Blues.' But as Mike Scott (singer and sole constant in an ever-changing line-up) soon tells us it's actually the five-week anniversary of 'Fisherman's Box', a new collection of out-takes.

There is of course far too much of this sort of thing nowadays. Where every bump into the mike gets a retrospective release. Where editing down to get the good stuff has suddenly become a bad idea. Where our culture is so oriented around perpetual consumption we lap it all up regardless. Those CDs you buy because of all the extra material, even though you had the original LP, how often do you actually play those extra tracks? This box set, for example, runs across seven discs.

Well, most of the time that's true. But then Mike Scott's music with the Waterboys has never been constrained by such norms. He'd promised “we won't be playing the original Fisherman's Blues album in order or anything tame like that. That's not the Waterboys' style.” A full third of the set must have been taken up by these rediscovered songs. So rather than this being a retrospective affair, the night was instead filled with classic songs you'd simply never heard before. I came out feeling that 'Fisherman's Box' must be the most essential box set since 'The Can Tapes.'

Scott was always a prodigiously prolific songwriter who had the greatest difficulty in fitting his compositions into the then-constrains of two sides of vinyl. (See for example me raving about the awesomeness of 'Beverley Penn', effectively thrown away at the time.) But the trip to Ireland which launched the album seemed to spike his output still further. He'd originally intended to visit new band member Steve Wickham in Dublin for a week or two. As he later commented “100 songs and 2 years later" the album was ready for release. Apparently, he still had trouble editing things down to the seven CD limit!

While Steve (Wick) Wickham's fiddle playing had accompanied Scott on the recent 'Appointment With Mr Yeats' tour, about eighteen months ago, this gig reunites the dream team line-up by bringing in Anthony (Anto) Thistlethwaite on sax and mandolin. A Scotsman, an Englishman and an Irishman... it may sound like the start of a joke to some – but for me it was a very good reason to take the trek to Bexhill.

As the launched into their Patti Smith tribute 'A Girl Called Johnny', in the venue where last I saw Smith herself, it felt like a baton being passed. I'd written of that night “there’s nothing you could possibly compare Patti Smith gigs to except each other.” Yet, while there must be few music-makers in the world of Smith's calibre, Scott is surely one of them.

'Fisherman's Blues' is of course famous for marking the point where the band (to quote Smith) “plugged into traditional music.” And notably, earlier songs tended to go through a kind of 'Fisherman's Blues' filter, such as the stripped-down three-piece version of the once-epic 'Don't Bang the Drum.' As the place names above might suggest, this mostly meant Irish tradition. Yet Scott also spoke warmly of the band's then interest in Americana, even temporarily relocating to California to be produced by the larger-than-life Bob Johnston. (One full CD from the set is apparently dedicated to this period.) They even play a Ray Charles and a Hank Williams cover. I became quite excited by this discovery, before recalling the original album had a track asking 'Has Anyone Here Seen Hank?'


All of which said, I would have to say I find some guilty of printing the legend. For example David Simpson's Guardian piece makes it appear Scott had some sort of Damascene conversion. Personally, I consider their previous album, 'This is the Sea' to be their finest. But even those who disagree would be hard pressed to describe it as a standard Eighties rock album, sharing stadium space with Simple Minds.

Simpson focuses on the track 'Fisherman's Blues' as if it was Scott's version of 'Solsbury Hill', an abrupt and deliberate volte face in musical style, a bold statement of intent. But, especially in retrospect, you can see how much of an interchange there was. Wickham had already played on the track 'The Pan Within' and the very same month (March '85) they recorded their first cover of Van Morrison's 'Sweet Thing'. 'Billy Sparks', described by Scott as “a ragggle-taggle folk romp” dated from still further back, Nov '82. (Though admittedly it's not one of their best songs.)

The references in the track to being “loosened from the bonds that held me fast” may well be about slipping music biz expectations, for it's an otherwise uncommon image from Scott. But the line he cites as marking the decisive break is “far away from dry land and its bitter memories." When the previous album was called 'This is the Sea'?!? (And in fact 'Fisherman's Blues' is the most old-style track on its album.)

Yet if the shift from the 'big music' of London to the traditions of Ireland was organic rather than calculated, it was still a smart one. 'This is the Sea' was released in '85 and Fisherman's Blues' in '88. It was after punk's Year Zero rhetoric and post-punk's futurist experimentation, where every release came on like a Modernist manifesto. By that point music had changed direction and come to re-water it's own roots. 'Has Anybody Here Seen Hank?' had become a pertinent cry once more. (Dexy's Midnight Runners had already taken the same turn into Celtic folk, albeit more cartoonishly, in '82.)

Plus, the 'big music' sound of the band's earlier albums... it was great, but big music can only get so big before it becomes a Jenga tower. There's only so much up up there. A sideways step was what was required, and Ireland provided the place to step into.

More widely, by the late eighties Thatcherism was consolidating and counter-culture seemed on the wane. (Several commentators have connected Scott's departure to Ireland with his song 'Old England', a diatribe against the ravages of her ruinous policies.) Post-punk had been based around the utopian/dystopian dialectic of science fiction, but by '88 the future no longer seemed ours. A weird switch occurred, as if the monetarists were now the modernists and we'd become the conservatives, the custodians of some cherished tradition. As in the words of the 'Likely Lads' theme tune, the only thing we had to look forward to was the past. Certainly during that era I mentally divided music into stuff with a history, which came from some longstanding tradition, from the cappuccino-less froth that was flavour of the month.

Well, the past is a nice place to visit but you wouldn't want to live there. A Scotsman, an Englishman and and Irishman – that's not the same recipe as three Irishmen. Despite Simpson, Scott never “walked away from rock music”, but took what he wanted with him. It was the marriage of his tradition, of teenage playing in punk bands, with Irish tradition which produced the flock of beautiful children. The successor album, 'Room to Roam', where they did abandon rock music in imitation of Irish tradition, was notably less successful. What the band needed then was another sideways step... 'Fisherman's Blues' was a moment in a band's musical history, not a magic escape button.

But of course they didn't get trapped in the past forever. The band proved last year there's more life left in them, that when they raid their back catalogue it's for something extra, not a consolation prize for the lack of something new. Scott chose the name to suggest something ever-fluid, ever-changing. It looks like he's sticking to that.

The classic 'We Will Not Be Lovers.' I love the opening section with Scott, Anto and Wick grouped together...


...and the band and audience singing happy birthday to Scott, who turned fifty-five that very day. (My voice is in there somewhere. Thankfully inaudible.)


Recognise that backdrop? I didn't till the very end, when they reassembled themselves into the cover of 'Fisherman's Blues' (albeit with a couple of stand-ins). Which does serve to sum up the album quite well. The very fact they go to such effort emphasises what a classic it is. The only other cover I can remember having been reassembled in such a way is 'Sgt. Pepper'. But 'Pepper's cover is so composed, a statement that popular music had become something important. Whereas this is as casual as it is classic, a quick line-up of the musicians, as if done hastily between takes. And the fact that it is a line-up, in old-time black-and-white even, makes it feel traditional – as if from before the days cameras were quick enough to snapshot moments. As if they were itinerant players, showing up at the mansion house to play the wedding dance. And indeed, the album is all those things...

Monday, 6 January 2014

SPOT THE DIFFERENCE


For beginners only... One of these two men actually fought in the First World War. Can any boy or girl guess which?

“The conflict has, for many, been seen... as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are leftwing academics all too happy to feed those myths."

“Politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder".

First quote: Michael Gove, Tory Secretary State of Education who was not born until 1967. He has now stuck his foot in his mouth so many times it must imagine it lives there.

Second quote: Harry Patch, last British survivor of that War

Slightly harder question – how much baseless jingoistic crap will we hear the Tories spew out over the 'Great' War in the next few months?

Saturday, 4 January 2014

COLOUR OUT OF SPACE

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...

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

SO LAST YEAR


New Year is of course a time to reflect and take stock. Which for me normally means totting up everything I've got behind on here. Frankly the picture is worse than ever, but I will try to catch up over the next couple of months. Mostly visual arts posts, which take the longest to write. But initially the catch-up over gigs will continue. (Which is the one thing I'm normally most on top of. That pesky fiftieth anniversary of 'Doctor Who'!) If, on that basis, you don't feel like checking back here for the next while, I don't suppose anybody would blame you.

If I don’t seem to have covered films much this year, that’s because I haven't seen them much either. This has been the official year of the missed film. Which is probably less to do with losing interest, and more to do with repeatedly coming home from work completely knackered.

Films I should doubtless have written something enthusiastic about include ‘The Spirit of 45’, ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’, ‘The World’s End’, ‘Prisoners’, ‘The Selfish Giant’ and ‘Gravity’. To my shame, I also failed to cover Cine-City’s welcome and fulsome Jan Svankmajer retrospective 'The Inner Life of Objects'. Alas, all I managed was some comments on 'Conspirators of Pleasure' over at 'I Munch Movies'. (Who generally did the thorough job I didn't.)

If pressed, I’d give a slightly softer thumbs-up to ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ and ‘The Wolverine’. (Though it galls me to type that bolt-on pronoun. When was he ever called that in the comics? And are ‘Casper the Friendly Ghost’ and ‘Muffin the Mule’ also now supposed to be the mature and sophisticated?)

‘Man of Steel’ and ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ seemed to belong together as (respectively) a re-imagining and an adaptation completely uninterested in their source material. So gaining any enjoyment from either became predicated on ignoring what was actually promised on the film poster. 'Man of Steel' in particular seemed keen to throw out anything but the most formal elements of Superman.

It seems a further step down. For the last few years you haven't been able to make a film that wasn't made already in some other form. Now it seems you also need to ignore what’s been made already, in case it’s not contemporary enough. It’s the inevitable result of any feedback loop – degeneration of sound into noise.