Scala, London, Mon 18th April
Boredoms are not an easy band to peg to a soundbite description. People normally reach for the term Japanoise, and certainly when they choose to they can raise a right ruckus. But they present something of a moving target to description. Thrilljockey comments that “across nearly 30 years, founder and leader Eye... has taken the band on a cosmic road trip... through times of tribal frenzy, oceanic tranquility, and massive sonic constructions.... Boredoms expanded their ideal of ecstatic, thunderous, repetitive music, steeped in power rock, electronic rhythms, and psychedelic incantations.” Alas I missed last year's gig performed with eighty-eight cymbalists, and this was the first time I've seen the band in more than a decade.
The set starts with a long section where the four players stroke and tap long metal rods, conjuring sounds somewhere between chimes and temple bells which simmer in from the edge of hearing. It gives proceedings a ritual sense, like they're not concerned with playing or performing so much as getting us all in the right mental state. Think of those spacey sounds in old sci-fi films as the flying saucers land. Only this was designed around calling the flying saucers down.
Last time three drummers had pounded out Krautrock beats with compelling and almost intimidating discipline, while Eye provided keyboards, cries and wails over the top. He was effectively riding the wave powered by the other players, a centre-forward propelled by his team, a general raised above his army. Tonight he takes up the classic back-of-the-stage drummer position, even though two of the other players commonly take to drums themselves. Rhythms aren't smooth, regular and Neu!-like, but pounding and tribal, at times approaching Tom Waits troglodyte level. To add to the chaos he drops crockery and cutlery onto his bass drum, sometimes attacking them with a fish slice. (Handily projected onto a screen behind him.) The centre-forward's become the tribal shaman, guiding the ceremony.
Which makes the electronics player the devil clown. In the opening, as the sound of the struck poles mounts, you figure it will be brought to a crescendo. Instead, at an arbitrary point he wilfully disrupting everything with sudden ear-piercing screeches and slurps. And he continues to play the same role throughout, somehow participating in and disrupting proceedings simultaneously. (From my original vantage point he was obscured, making his interruptions appear out of apparent nowhere.)
As events unveil beats rise, crest and fall, often going back to the ethereal sounds of the beginning. I find I'm unable to intuit how composed or improvised it is, only that it's somewhere in the spectrum between the two. It's a study in contrasts, one of those ying/yang, frost/fire, compose/decompose things, the music in some volatile primal state where it's constantly making up to break up.
Things pull together for the finale, Eye's wails and cries becoming a steady chant over a thumping tribal beat, sounding like they're punching a hole straight through to the spirit world. You're told, when structuring novels or films, to find the end in the beginning. And this gig was remarkably similar, it's finale both the return of and the opposite bookend to the ethereal opening. A point proven when the struck rods return for a brief coda.
The balance may have swung too far to the freeform at times, like they were upending themselves almost as soon as they'd re-righted. But then Boredoms gigs aren't supposed to be tidy in that way. There's something irrepressible about them, some restless creative energy. And that force which propels and envigours them leaves little time for quality control. Besides, like the English weather, even if you don't take to what they're doing right now they'll be onto something else in a minute. Yamataka Eye is the Miles Davis of noise.
From London! But an old gig from six years ago which alas muggins here missed...
JAH WOBBLE + THE INVADERS OF THE HEART
The Haunt, Fri 15th April
It would probably seem remarkable, if we weren't so used to it, that when Jah Wobble's played bass in the legendary original line-up of Public Image Limited that was how his musical career began. That surely should be the high point, rather than the starting point. However as the Eighties and Nineties wore on his love of dub, Krautrock and world music became less marginal and more prophetic. You could play a good game of 'Where's Wobble?' in the history of that era, his trilby ever-present if rarely centre stage. This was, by reckoning, the first time I've seen him since the Nineties, after – in an already somewhat elliptical career - he effectively took a gap decade.
Things start of with... well, there's no getting round it being a lengthy jazz fusion section. Slightly perturbingly, for those of us who don't take to that sort of thing. Then just when I was starting to figure I must have imagined this guy ever having been into reggae, those bass lines begin. However it's quite roots and ska oriented, almost as if he'd assembled a set to convey the music that influenced him more than the music he makes. More contemporary sounds creep in only slowly.
The band are quite impressively tight, though at times the musoish tendencies of the opening do creep back in. Yet, and despite his description of the bass as “the king of the jungle”, his playing doesn't dominate. He's as often at the side of the stage serving up extra percussion. Expectations are often confounded. One track is based around a house beat. But rather than treat that as a substitute for a live rhythm track, the guitars play around it – adding pitch-shifting near-drones.
Famously Wobble rejected Lydon's offer to join the reformed Public Image, instead mischievously taking up with Keith Levene and the singer from a Pistols tributeband. And while, as I can attest, Lydon's set-list had focused on the better-celebrated 'Metal Box', Wobble draws more from the first album. Overall, the PiL tracks were inventively reworked but suffered from Wobble's strange insistence on reciting the vocals, particularly on 'Public Image' itself. (Perhaps he was not keen to imitate Lydon's vocal tics.)
He even revives the infamous 'Fodderstompf'. The track from that album most built around his bassline but using it as aural polyfilla, ever-repeating while in their Derek and Clive moment the band improvised words over the top. (“In order to finish the album with the minimum amount of effort”, as they gleefully admitted on the track itself.) Here that same bass line is turned from workhorse into workout. The one 'Metal Box' number is, inevitably enough, the classic 'Poptones', transformed into something glacial, as if Joy Division had ended up releasing it instead.
Wobble's 'cosmic geezer' persona is now well cemented. He is, after all, the guy who called an album 'Full Moon Over the Shopping Mall.' While other bands, concerned about keeping their cool, barely mention their merch stall Wobble waxes as lyrical as any East End trader over the “luvverly qualtertee” of his T-shirts.
My personal favourite Wobble era, at least post-PiL, is the Deep Space stuff. Because... well, it's deep and it's spacey. (Imagine Krautrock blended with dub, seasoned with some Miles Davis.) Little of which gets a look-in here. But he has too much and too varied a history to cram into one set-list, and you should probably look to what a gig is doing rather than what it isn't. Caveats aside, and ignoring the distraction of the opening, what Wobble gave us was qualertee.
And speaking of 'Poptones', from Manchester...
The Hope & Ruin, Brighton, Wed 13th April
The Ex are always awesome, of course. But having previously written about them not once but twice, I wasn't thinking of doing so again. Only to find that this is the one gig which actually has YouTube footage. So let's let that do the talking. This is the classic 'Double Order', done as the encore.