Saturday, 31 December 2016


De La Warr Pavilon, Bexhill, Wed 14th Dec

As an avowed fan of both Philip Glass and David Bowie, this looked likely to appeal to me.

Admittedly symphonic reworkings of popular songs don't always have the greatest track record. However, as mentioned after Steve Reich reworked Radiohead numbers three years ago, minimalism from the start saw the divide between 'serious' and 'popular' music as an encumbrance, a barrier that needed breaking down. True, in it's heyday this was more by implication. It was only with post-minimalism, when it became less bound by it's own structures, where it was able to formally deliver on it's promise.

And even here Glass effectively meets Bowie half-way. 'Low' and 'Heroes' were two of his least poppy albums. As the venue's website puts it: “During that period David and Brian [Eno] were attempting to extend the normal definition of pop and rock and roll. In a series of innovative recordings in which influences of world music, experimental ‘avant-garde’ are felt, they were re-defining the language of music in ways that can be heard even today.” (Asked on the release of 'Low' whether it might have less chart potential than earlier releases, he replied cheerily “no shit, Sherlock”.)

Plus, all but three of the nine tracks Glass uses are Krautrock-inspired instrumentals, with two choices rather audaciously not even on the original albums. ('Some Are' and 'Abdulmajid' respectively.) It's quite a different prospect to Stravinski filching folk tunes.

Though the De La Warr's stage isn't small, it still has trouble encompassing the forty-two piece orchestra. I could only see the front end of the piano, so had to assume there was a player attached to it somewhere. Most instruments come in duos, trios or even quartets. (Except for the violins who are arranged in two quartets.) And each mini-ensemble plays the same line in unision, resulting in a rich and vibrant sound.

For the most part the brass take on the bass role, underpinning the strings. At points the two get uncoupled, and the brass players murmer to one another in the background, like the below-water section of an elegant liner. The result of all of which is pretty much win-win-win. It's as tuneful as pop music, as hypnotic as minimalism and as dynamic as classical music.

It perhaps should be noted that this era marked Bowie at his most sombre. Whereas, once transformed into Glass's mini-symphonies, it becomes rhapsodic. (And, for two albums from the acclaimed Berlin trilogy, quite American-sounding, at points almost bordering on Aaron Copland.) Some I suppose might not take to that.

However, for fairly obvious reasons, now seems a good time to celebrate Bowie's music. Plus the downbeat nature of those albums is often overstated, and was already being worked out by the second one. The song 'Heroes' is in itself triumphalist in it's will to overcome adversity. And as conductor Charles Hazelwood says “it makes perfect sense” to play them back-to-back as “one great symphonic journey. From the Low symphony's dark beginnings to the white-hot finale of Heroes.” This hadn't been Glass' original intention, having written his 'Low' four years before 'Heroes', in 1992. But then Bowie hadn't been planning out a trilogy either. It works perfectly, however accidentally.

Performed and partly televised at this summer's Glastonbury festival, the symphonies became a bit of a media event. Which is again fitting. Bowie had a talent for bringing fringe things to the mainstream. And while some purists deride him for that, he mostly managed to keep the essence of the original in place. So a tribute which doesn't consist of some 'X Factor' historically warbling their way through 'Heroes' seems fitting indeed.

Some snippets from Glastonbury...

The Haunt, Brighton, Tues 20th Dec

Now coming up to their quarter-decade, Boris have taken on a bewildering range of sounds from sludge metal to J-pop, and collaborated with everyone from fellow Japanese noisemonger Merzbow to (yes, really) Ian Astbury.

This time round they're revisiting 'Pink', an album a mere eleven years old. From what little I know of the band's extensive and confusing history, this was seen at the time as something of a breakthrough. While extensive research reveals it wasn't their first release to be divided into individual tracks, rather than expansive side-spanning dronefests, earlier albums had tended to be called things like 'Amplifier Worship' and 'Feedbacker'.

From reputation I'd thought it's sound to be a combination of hardcore punk, metal and noise rock – all short, sharp shocks. And indeed there are tracks with piledriver drums and soaring guitars. But there's many other pieces which belong to their more commonly employed heavy riffing/ doom drone sound, reminding us they took their name from a Melvins song.

In fact these tracks are so different I first imagined they must be bringing in extra material from different eras. But it seems almost everything did come from 'Pink'. Yet the feeling of watching two different bands is enhanced by on-stage behaviour. For the punkier songs they start to move around and engage with the audience, even encouraging a clapalong. (Well, if Low can have one...) While for the longer numbers they lapse into the standard shoegazer stance, even wrapped in dry ice.

But then they play the whole thing as one long set. Rather than pause between tracks they'd link them with instrumental interludes. (Sometimes quite abstract, sometimes even ambient.) Which made the set one ever-morphing organism. Rather than act as a human jukebox serving up a known album, the gig became something almost impossible to predict.

In fact, for all my normal complaints about gigs dedicated to albums, I may have even preferred this to the previous time I saw them, some four years ago. Then there was something of the sense they'd settled into a sound they'd grown comfortable with. Here they were more volatile, like they were willing themselves do everything at once and refusing all parameters.

At one point, to a wall of feedback guitar, drummer Atuso stepped forward, crowdsurfed the length of the venue, got carried all the way back and placed back on stage to an uproarious cheer. Only for us to discover, that wasn't even the finale!

This tour, it seems, had a trailer. (Do tours have trailers now?)

...while this is from Glasgow, but the same tour...

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