Saturday 9 April 2016


Barbican, London, Wed 30th March

In an earlier review of Michael Gira's main band, Swans, I compared them to Sonic Youth. Or rather contrasted them, as two bands who burst from the same New York noise scene but from there travelled in two different directions. So what could be both stranger and more opportune to see guys from both bands on the same bill? And, for people most associated with noisy punk music, both playing solo guitar.

I've always imagine Thurston Moore as someone working within a band structure, someone to whom music was a sum of its parts. (Sonic Youth weren't someone's band, in the way Swans are Gira's.) And yet he works surprisingly well as a solo guiatrist, rather than reducing his tracks into songs he's happy to drift off into long instrumental sections. (In fact clocking up only three numbers in a half-hour set.) I didn't know the album the tracks are from (2013's 'The Best Day' apaprantently) but I could believe they don't sound vastly different played as a band. Perhaps that's not altogether surprising, though known for detuned noise guitar there's always been something serene, something transcendent about him waiting to be let loose.

If Moore had become a one-man band, by way of complete contrasts Michael Gira stripped all his usual accoutrements away until he was only left with himself. Then, as if not having his usual gang around to back him up was audacious enough, he then elected to perform with the house lights up. I don't know well his Nineties/Noughties anti-rock-band outfit Angels of Light, but had expected the set to naturally gravitate towards then. As things turned out it was dominated by Swans songs, old and new. He insistently strummed his guitar, hand moving only minimally on the fretboard, letting his voice and the songs themselves do the work.

It's not a move to everyone's taste, it seems, and a small but noticeable section of the audience grumbled their way towards the door. Maybe it was a Marmite manouvere, because those of us who remained seemed to take to it. At times Gira's music has seemed built to invoke the complaint of parents everywhere, “it's just a noise”. Well now we've heard it without the noise and it just exposes how well written the songs are. Stripping the band away, throwing the emphasis on the songs, makes the thing less forceful but more intense. If Swans were a raging fire this was a white-hot coal. It may not be the way I'd introduce a newbie to Gira. But it's an effective way to hear him.

As the reformed Swans have departed further and further from song structure, perhaps he'd circumnavigated music and was coming back to it from the other direction. If so, then oddly it was the newer – as yet unreleased – songs which worked the least well. One was an account of a sexual assault based on a real incident. (Which I think you'd have guessed even if he hadn't announced it as such.) Gira's songs not normally straying to the sunny side of the street, that might seem standard subject matter. But Swans have always operated in a less literal way, their style taking the metaphysical and rendering it visceral. (Perhaps that could be their strap line, “Rendering the metaphysical visceral since 1982”.) And some of that is lost.

The songs are so back he even closes with 'God Damn the Sun', from an album he's long-repudiated - 'Burning World'. It's an album I love, even if its own author often disagrees, so was to hear a track from it live was a rare bonus.

Not from London...

Green Door Store, Brighton, Fri 1st April

Having already given Acid Mothers Temple the soundbite description “the Japanese Hawkwind”, I suppose I now need to tag Liverpool space rockers Mugstar as “the Scouse Hawkwind”. Whether there's a Flemish Hawkwind or a Geordie Gong is not as yet a matter of record.

Of course it gets bit catch-all to lazily label a genre after one of its best-known proponents, and can override important differences between the bands. (Though Mugstar were fans enough to release a record of Hawkwind covers, split with Mudhoney.)

Acid Mothers Temple, who are perhaps best seen as a collective, do a whole lot of floating in space. Whereas Mugstar are much more a band, a power trio pressed into the role of sonic cosmonauts. Which kind of makes sense. In those days of yore, when they were sailing off for shores unknown, what's the first thing they did? Get a tight working crew, of course. And the drummer and bassist, bonding over their facial hair, maintain an incredibly tight rhythm section. As Krautrocky as they are Hawkwindy, they'll shift between tribal pounding and laconic riffs with ease, but rarely go in for free form.

The guitarist, sometimes doubling as keyboard player and space chanter, supplies more of the transcendent stuff. Which does at times make him something like the gaffer, delivering the presentation while others are doing the hard work. But the guitar solos never last too long, and for the most part the players pull together.

Though there's CDs for sale, this is at heart live music. It's three guys taking off and then taking it in again. The only drawback is the same one as with Acid Mothers Temple, that modern venues aren't kitted out for this kind of sonic cosmonautery. It just takes time to reach the stratosphere! Blake wrote of seeing infinity in the palm of his hand and eternity in an hour. But he didn't have an hour to write a poem before the club night started.

Patterns, Brighton, Mon 28th March

Remember the Convertacar Professor Pat Pending used to drive in 'Wacky Races'? The Physics House Band are a musical version of that. They're able to segue swiftly within one track, say from a cruisin' saloon car to a turbo-charged racer. But very often they'll sound like the Convertacar while it's... well, converting. When it was a bewildering blur of motion lines, where it seemed it could transmogrify into anything.

And if I seem to be clutching at old Sixties cartoons as a means to describe them, then their approach to music does seem more contemporary than me. They are, I suspect, another bunch of young shavers who sound the way they do through their music history being YouTubeable. It's like a kind of anti-modernism, where rather than the past being past you have it all on speed dial. And that manifests most strongly not when they change the chassis but swap what's under the hood. As two of the trio handle both guitars and keyboards simultanbeously, tracks can be driven either by riffs or by repetitive beats. There was always a Berlin wall-like divide between those in my day.

And there's an upside to this. The set never settles, becomes a sitting target, leaving your mind free to tune out and check back in later. It's always breaking into something new. Then, when you've near forgotten about the first thing, going back to that.

Yet for all the times they segue neatly from one thing to the next, there's others where something just crashes in on what's gone before, and it seems less like eclecticism than channel-hopping. Looking back at what I wrote over when I last saw them, it seems I said “Smart people, sometimes they're allowed to be smart... Just don't go making a habit of it.” When they don't, they're exhilerating. Yet when they do, they're merely clever.

Not from Brighton either...

Upper Salon, Caroline of Brunswick, Brighton, Fri 18th March

Despite previously having found some gems amid Aural Detritus, this was the first night in their new concert series I've made. I suppose I really should get out more.

Yorgis Sakellariou took the front of the room only to announce that he wouldn't be taking to the front of the room and would be playing with the lights down. He encouraged us to keep our eyes closed. People sometimes complain about laptop sound artists being nothing to look at, so giving nothing to look at neatly circumvates the problem. No singing, no dancing – okay? The result was like some sonic version of 'Tron', as if we'd been pulled inside the sound.

He describes his practise as “founded on the digital manipulation of environmental recordings”, and notably one of his releases is titled 'Mecha Orga'. There's a recognisability to human sounds that gives them a warmth, a kind of aura, like when your eyes light on a human face. By treating and mixing those sounds Sakellariou takes you to some uncanny valley where everything is defamiliarised. It's similar to that dream where you go back to somewhere you used to know well, and yet it seems strangely different. It even became hard to tell the street noise and pub chatter beneath us from the piece, and I overheard him confessing afterwards he'd decided early to incorporate them.

Michael Fairfax, as a day job, makes sound sculptures out of trees. (Me, I process paperwork.) But he also makes his own strung-wood instruments, on which he improvises. These acoustic sounds (albeit amped up) made for a fine contrast with Sakellariou's electronics. Rather than blending the strange with the familiar, his sounds were strangely familiar – almost but not quite like sounds you're used to.

As he swapped instruments and twiddled knobs his set had a vast sonic range, from 'small' sounds blown up to some mighty thrumming. It's much like the way a film can close in on something like a paper clip, but also show a wide-angle shot of a mountain range. However he confined himself to his guitar-like instruments, leaving some still-stranger devices untouched, which restricted the range in timbre more than he might. (He said afterwards he wasn't sure why he'd done that.)

Avuncular in nature, he finished the gig by offering us all the chance to try out the instruments for ourselves. And after a little English reserve, we took him up on it. You don't get that at the Albert Hall!

Still not from Brighton, Fairfax providing a live soundtrack to the classic 'Colour of Pomegranates'...

Coming soon! More gig-going adventures...

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