Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Falmer, Wed 11th-Sun 15th May
If you wanted a soundbite description for Complicite's new show – a one-man performance with binaural sound and minimal staging – try 'Brechtian radio done as theatre'. Simon McBurney smartly starts this long and often intense performance with an on-stage announcement to turn off our mobile phones, which segues into some apparently spontaneous chat which precis many of the themes. Yet he's up to something else too...
Michael Billington's Guardian review comments “shut your eyes at any point and you feel... that you are in the Amazonian jungle”. And McBurney does ask us to do precisely that - but briefly and before the show's headed off for the Amazon. Precisely, I think, to get it out of the way and have us open our eyes again.
He demonstrates many of the devices he'll use, including two microphones – one for his and one for his protagonists's voice – even though it turns out he doesn't need them in order to switch. Many of his sound sources are old-fashionedly direct, from the grand old days of radio, such as crumpling a bottle of water to convey a water sound or – quite gloriously reductively - crunching recording tape beneath his feet to evoke tramping.
All this is foregrounded for two reasons. First, the soundbite description above does mean “as theatre”. The bare stage and the demonstrated sound sources keep us reminded that this is a story we're being told. But at the same time, if paradoxically, it gives them an element of magic. Electroacoustic music sometimes verges on the animist, the assumption that not only do objects possess spirits but have a 'voice' which can be unlocked. And as we follow his protagonist, the photographer Loren McIntyre as he gets lost among an Amazonian tribe, we get reacquainted with such animist ways of thinking.
And like McIntyre get lost is what we do. A dense work two hours long, with lines sometimes literally laid over one another, it's quite hard to parse in a single viewing. This is the best route map I could manage...
It's clear enough that as McIntyre loses his old Western possessions he goes through a symbolic death and rebirth, he goes through a shamanic journey. In fact, as he both joins in a tribal rite and is given his own to embark on (acting something like the play-within-a-play in 'Hamlet'), this is fairly literally what happens.
The tribe could be read as externalised aspects of his psyche, those antagonistic to his presence representing his own sublimated wish to get back home, and so on. This is most clearly suggested by the way the Chief, nicknamed Barnacle, can communicate with him psychically, a voice inside his head. Just as the binaural headsets are ensuring most of he play happens inside our heads. Notably, McBurney has described McIntyre's journey as “an inner one”.
It might be telling that Barnacle dies, yet we're told he is always “with” McIntyre. You can probably see the problem coming. It suggests he's not really a character in his own right, and that once he's fulfilled his role of passing on his validation he can be extinguished. An Amazonian tribe aren't there to represent another culture but map out the inside of a white Westerner's head. Barnacle is the South American cousin of the magic negro.
But when McIntyre undergoes that solo shamanic journey he sees himself as “the crack” in the fabric of the universe. Barnacle leads the tribe as they enact a ritual, burning all their belongings to get back to the beginning. The implication is that we're all lost, we've gone down the wrong path and need to retrace our steps. Yet McIntyre, who after getting lost in the forest is there for literally that reason, cannot commit to the ritual. Steeped in linear time he can only interpret “the beginning” as death, the extinguishing of everything as the end. McBurney acts out the destruction in an onstage rampage, but fails to see it through.
Rather than McIntyre taking back home some of that good-home-cooking simple tribal wisdom, gleaning new feelgood phrases to stick beneath his e-mail signature, he disrupts their lives. The storm that besets them represents his failure to commit to them, the flood relating to his earlier vision of the crack “from which our time might flood”. And this then segues into a Fall story. This is an Eden story in which our narrator discovers too late the snake is himself.
For all his protestations to not be like the other whites, the profiteers who come to burn down the forest, ultimately he's irredeemably from the same world as them. And if he, a clued-up guy and seasoned traveller to such far-flung places, is irredeemable then what chance do we have? Complicte make us complicit.
Perhaps the idea was to set up a more standard Western-guy-burns-his-sneakers-to-become-tribal-shaman story, and pull a bait and switch. He just ends up a Western guy without his sneakers, duh. Yet that feels like a post-hoc rationalisation. The noble savage stuff is too indulged to just jettison like that. What actually happened on stage was something more volatile, vying between the two notions.
And in a way this is played up. Early on, McBurney played a gag of claiming an old video cassette contained all the images of his dead Father, only for it to fall and smash on the floor. And the spool of cassette tape which messily pours out is an image which recurs later, when McIntyre finds the film from his camera wrapped danglingly round a tree. This is the messy reality, the truth against which the cassette box was the tidy mechanism we use to 'storify' our lives.
Yet neither am I sure the point was for us to not get the point. Certainly part of the piece was the necessity of our telling ourselves stories, despite their fallibility. But much like McIntyre, I was led entranced through two hours but found myself lost amid the spool of cassette tape on the floor.
PIKACYU MAKOTO + ADRENA ADRENA
Sticky Mike's Frog Bar, Brighton, Tues 24th May
Adrena Adrena are a duo of drummer E-Da from Boredoms and Drum Eyes (both Lucid Frenzy favourites) and “performance artist” Daisy Dickinson, who plays a laptop live. And if the live drums/laptop combination sounds unlikely, she frequently provides not just washes and tones but her own rhythms for the drums to play off against. The contrast is virtuous, throwing each instrument back on itself – on what it does best.
The centre of the stage was taken up by projections which, always simple and often semi-abstract, never stole the limelight from the music. It was more like watching a trio, just one at work on different senses to the others. Pretty soon you weren't taking in the sights and sounds as separate elements at all, but hand been induced into a kind of synaesthesia.
And if that seems like we're reverting to Sixties terminology like 'trip' we might as well go with it.... it felt like a trip (man), like being taken through some other reality then dumped back in ours at the end.
Not from Brighton but the International Festival of Projections (and I'm going to pretend I know what that is)...
Pikacyu Makoto are another of the near-infinite array of side-projects undertaken by guitarist Kawabata Makoto, alongside his mothership Acid Mothers Temple. (Lucid Frenzy was lucky enough to catch Mainliner some while ago.) This one's with drummer Pikacyu from another Japanese underground band, Afrirampo. The two bands previously made a joint album, which alas I've not heard.
As things kicked off I feared we were in for the whole 'too many notes' business, common when noise music overlaps with jazz. But after starting with a burst of 11, they then turned it down just a notch...
Styles and genres were still rattled through at breakneck speed, as if music history was sighted from the window of an express train – including Sixties beat music, Beefheart, Hendrix and some I probably missed as they hurtled by. After perhaps the least successful part, where Makoto turned to squelchy keyboards, they even provided a quite serene mid-section – Pikacyu providing holding patterns beneath Makoto's sustained tones. They then ramped back up for a thumping finale, chanted vocals over a power riff.
After seeing Lightning Bolt last year, I commented they “seem to stem from the child's love of making noise. Rather than the nihilism so associated with the genre there's something joyous and uplifting about the whole thing, even as its rough and abrasive. Certainly, you can rely on a Lightning Bolt set to put a great grin on your face.” And that seems even more true of this duo. And Pikacyu I suspect has a lot to do with that.
She seemed intent to hit every drum and cymbal in turn, a style common in noise music, but with tumbling rhythms that created spaces in the sonic onslaught. Overall, its perhaps her cheerful, childlike and almost poppy vocals which gave the set it's identity and raised things from the too-common angstiness of noise music.
It sounds like hippyshit to talk of some balance between male and female energy, and of course any kind of gender essentialism is pretty dodgy stuff. But there was something about Pikacyu's performance that took things beyond the babblebashbash noise music can sometimes degrade into, like a toddler endlessly smashing a Tonka toy against a wall.
Forty minutes from London... (Three days later and it seems an almost entirely different set!)
CAVERN OF ANTI-MATTER
Patterns, Brighton, Thurs 26th May
Truth to tell, I was always a little agnostic over Stereolab. There was something slightly knowing to their retro-futurist schtick. But Tim Gane's new band Cavern of Anti-Matter mix Neu!-style Krautrock beats, trancy dance and swooshy Sixties organ. Plus they referred to 'Doctor Who' in their track 'Tardis Cymbals' and named themselves after a Situationist painting. (One large enough to cover a whole gallery which then got sold by the metre.) I mean, theoretically they could bring in some reference to Jack Kirby comics and the taste of pistachio to tick all my boxes, but that's pretty good going.
There no bassist to their three-man line up and they specialise in stretched-out instrumentals, two things I think which go together. It's spacey music which doesn't want to be grounded in any way. Drummer Joe Dilworth, also ex-Stereolab, spends as much time on cymbals as drums. (In fact I'm fairly sure half his kit went untouched.) Listen to them a little while and I swear you'll start to feel like your feet are lifting from the ground...
Some bands, such as Moon Duo, achieve mesmerism by simple repetition until trance states take hold. (Leading to my review stating “more, please, of this less business”. I was quite pleased with that one...) While others, like this lot, are able to achieve a virtuous combination. They harness the power of repetition while morphing as they move, packing in changes you're not really aware of happening until after they've happened. They move and stand still. You can listen or trance out. In fact, you can listen and trance out.
Reviews tend to focus on the futurism of the band, but I'm not sure they're picking that up so much as getting a residue from Stereolab. Unlike the 'Jetsons'-style soon -everything-will-be-silver futurism of Stereolab, COAM lean more to the end-of-'2001' cosmic side of SF. The long numbers, the repetition, the psychedelic visuals – of course it's all about sending you. You'll be part-way through a track you were previously just enjoying, and suddenly you'll find yourself through the looking glass. Sometimes you can spot the trigger, the point where the music stepped up a notch. But other times it comes almost arbitrarily, presumably because they were accumulative – the point where your doors of perception got cleansed enough for the light to break through.
Actual footage from the gig! (No, really!)
Bleach, Brighton, Sat 28th May
Follakzoid are apparently prime proponents of the Santiago psyche scene. (And yes, it seems there is a Santiago psyche scene...)
If their German-sounding name suggests a Krautrock influence then, much like Cavern of Anti-Matter, there's a definite Neu! Element to the sound. There's the same extended rhythmic pieces, stretching to trance-out dimensions. (The CD I bought fits only four tracks on it.) But they also reminded me of the point post-punk crossed over with dance music, bands like 23 Skidoo or A Certain Ratio. If there's not the same uptight agitation, the David Byrne jerky dancing, there is the straight-faced euphoria. Vocals, when they appear, are de-emotionalised and intonatory, while album artwork exudes that post-punk starkness.
If Cavern of Anti-Matter's dominant movement is up, Follakzoid's is forwards. If Andrena Andrena are like a trip, Follakzoid are a road trip. Their tracks are driven by propulsive riffs, other shapes forming alongside them like trees and hills, some passing by quickly, others remaining a while. Certainly their tracks are journeys rather than destinations, often ending rather than finishing – like they're run out of road.
Reviewing one of their releases, the Quietus' Joe Kennedy commented how the motorik beat “can express both the experience of automated late-industrial modernity and atavistic impulses towards the cosmic and transcendental.” And certainly they have not just the tranciness but the sheen of Neu! In fact one of the surprises of seeing them live is how much of their sound is made by 'real' instruments.
Yet particularly with those vocals, which could be either trance-like or robotic, Follakzoid feel like both experiences at once. But then isn't something like the act of dancing like that? You repeat ritual gestures until you achieve an ecstatic state. Kraftwerk unveiled the Man Machine like their creation, like something they'd devised in their secret laboratory. But in our era, when Google glass and driverless cars seem imminent, he's something we just take for granted. Perhaps that's partly why it's Neu! rather than Kraftwerk that bands today are taking up.
Also not from Brighton...
THE TIGER LIILIES
Spiegeltent, Brighton, Sun 29th May
After the theatrical shows 'Lulu' and 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner', this was the first time I'd seen the accordian-driven Brechtian street opera trio the Tiger Lillies do their actual dark cabaret set in an actual cabaret setting. And it made for a pretty good setting, laughter drifting through from the weekend revellers as they regaled us with their tales of debauchery and woe.
There's supposed to be an art exercise where you paint a painting from as many different shades of black as you can, the point being we so rarely come across 'pure' black. And they make music somewhat like that. They don't stray to the dark side of the spectrum so much as set up shop there. (Like their lyric of the woman who “always sees the black and not the gold”.) But they elbow out a range for themselves regardless. There's black humour. (A song about inserting hamsters which I won't repeat here gains fulsome belly laughs.) But there's also stuff that's pretty close to pure black, and all stations between. (I was reminded of the old Soft Boys line “And when there's no more tears to cry/There's nothing left to do but laugh.”)
Musically, they do a similar thing. Their default line-up may be accordian, double bass and drums. (Is there such a style as dark klezmer? I guess there is now.) But the drummer finds the strangest things to drum, while other instruments include piano, theramin, a “home-made ukelile” (which looks suspiciously like a chopped-off guitar neck) and a circular saw. And that last one, though sparingly used, may even be their signature sound – absurd, strangely melodic, mockingly sentimental and sinister all at once.
They smartly start the gig with the semi-diegetic song 'Roll Up' presenting a freakshow for an eagerly thrill-seeking suburban audience (“our lives a sideshow attraction, we do our best to please”), which inevitably frames everything which follows. By not being the subject of the song, we are somewhat implicated. And then comes another twist on that...
Though the Brecht and Weill influence is clear enough, there's none of Bertie's political themes. Their subject is human folly, people who became addicted to something or to someone until it finishes them. (Their universe is really a Snakes and Ladders board without the ladders.) And a song about the folly of drinking delivered to a roomfull of drinkers gains an edge. We're voyeurs, yet at any point we could find ourselves projected from out seats into one of those songs. If the musical saw signifies their sound, the default response is the uncertain belly laugh.
Not from Brighton... (But then they rarely are.)
Not sure if a theatre performance and three gigs really go together, but that's how the cookie crumbled...