THIS IS NOT THIS HEAT
Barbican, London, Sat 4th March
This Heat were a legendary post-punk band, operating under the mission statement “all possible processes, all channels open”. Legendary in the sense that they had an influence in inverse proportion to record sales, and consequently I know the band almost entirely by reputation only. In fact their only track I could claim to know well, 'Not Waving But Drowning', is over and done with by the second number. (Though I was lucky enough to see drummer Charles Hayward play with the superb Uneven Eleven.)
They're This is not This Heat here because original member Gareth Williams unfortunately died back in 2001. But also due to a stated insistence they won't just play the old songs the old way. Instead of substituting Williams, they bring on a large ensemble – with at times fourteen people on stage. (Including Thurston Moore and, though almost entirely obscured from my view, Chris Cutler.)
There was always something poker faced about the post-punk sound, a refusal of flamboyance for a quiet insistence there's no point doing the same thing over and over. Which seems to give them a remarkable ability to make whatever they play sound like This Heat. With quite a few numbers it would only strike me mid-way how compositionally difference they were from the piece before.
There was, however, a notable tendency for the guitars not to lead but make up the body of the song, essentially strumming tones, while the drums and percussion do the legwork. Vocals tend to be intonatory, not upfront but part of the musical mix. Tapes are played underneath them as they perform, which may well add to the 'below the waterline' feeling of their sound.
If it's music with an edgy, unsettling effect, that may be because it's not rock songs laced with some more unusual element - the sound's strange to the marrow. Numbers seem to be in some nebulous state, never quite coalescing into song structures but neither out-there freeformness.
Though surprising (to me at least) was the long instrumental sections, including the opening and closing numbers. In fact the closer was one of the most metronomic pieces of music I've heard lately, if it had gone on any longer I fear my brain might have melted. I'd guess, as a trio, the original outfit didn't so much try such things, that they're more suited to the large ensemble. (And the programme notably talks about a “fuller orchestration”.)
“Rock and roll at the Barbican!” comments Hayward, though not as we know it. A stellar reputation can sometimes saddle a band, leave them unable to compete with themselves. This Heat, it seems, deserve theirs.
A snatch of an earlier reformation gig at Cafe Oto...
KING CHAMPION SOUNDS
Prince Albert, Brighton, Tues 28th Feb
When singer GW Sok first left legendary post-punk band the Ex, the initial announcement was that he'd concentrate on his writing and design work. But happily, the music bug must have rebitten, and here he is back. Which means we can legitimately use the “ex of the Ex” line.
This band initially came together for a one-off show, supporting Mike Watt in Amsterdam, but pleased with the results they were inspired to continue. Sock smilingly announces their origins as “from the Netherlands and Middlesbrough”.
Their sound's bass-driven, twin guitars not playing atop but effectively around it, creating a composite sound which isn’t just deep but wide. Claiming “a rhythm section that Mark E. Smith would be proud of” might sound a rash boast, but the band are as good as their word. Riffs are rumbling and propulsive. Interviewed here, band founder Ajay Sagger confirms that after Sok it was the bass player and drummer he respectively recruited.
Two brass players then don’t just front but rise above the amassed guitars. It's at once alike and totally different to the Ex's own gig playing alongside a brass section.
One track effectively derailed itself, for a long section staggering as if lurching along by forward momentum only, Sok intoning repeated phrases about the world going to crap (no argument there), before bursting back into life.
It may be as a live force the band most excel. Certainly while I listened to some music on-line before heading out, their live sound was more effective that I was expecting.
The only weakness to the whol enetrprise may be the band name, which is not only less than memorable but makes them sound like a reggae sound system. (Nothing wrong with such a thing of course, except that they’re not one.) When their effective predecessor were trading as the Bent Moustaches, you wish they’d just stuck with that.
Not from Brighton...
JOHN ADAMS AT 70: GRAND PIANOLA MUSIC
Performed by the Britten Sinfonia
Barbican, London, Sat 25th February
After seeing in Steve Reich's Seventieth at the Barbican, I couldn't really not do the same for John Adams. Of course this means it's not just the Minimalist but Post-Minimalist generation of composers who are starting to weather, but birthdays are a time for celebration.
As the title of Philip Glass' 'Music In Similar Motion' might suggest, this was from the great era of high Minimalism. What at first appears a calm, placid surface sets off sonic ripples between instruments until nothing is as it first sounded, without ever seeming to move much.
Originally written in 1969 for Glass' own ensemble, he later orchestrated the piece and it's that version performed tonight. (By the secondary school pupils of the Britten Sinfonia Academy.) Which might sound counter-intuitive. Though much of Minimalism’s penchant for small ensembles was doubtless a financial necessity, it still had an effect. Minimalism isn’t much like rock music, but their focus on small units is similar - it suggests an agile guerrilla force operating in places where the lumbering army of the symphony orchestra couldn't go. However Glass doesn’t transpose the piece so much as simply scale it up, like a photograph blown up to cinema screen size, and your ear becomes more attuned to the variations between units.
'Grand Pianola Music' (1982) seems to be more one of the more post of Adams' post-minimalist works, and with that has a reputation. It's premiere was apparently met by boos, and Adams has declared it '“not for those burdened by good taste”.
The piece actually starts out quite standarly Minimalist, with it's patented de-de-de-de rhythms, before going all Romantic. There's not just dynamics but even euphoric outbursts. (Adams cites the “warm bath” of Beethoven and Rachmaninov in the programme.) Typically Minimalist, the first part goes un-named. Whereas the second is dubbed 'On the Dominant Divide'. Though you only really know how far you've traversed that divide until the ending. With Minimalist pieces, you normally don't know they're about to stop until they've done it. Here Adams goes for the classic crescendo, with bombastic brass fanfares filled in by piano flurries and a soaring chorus.
And what do you get when you blend the serene cool of Minimalism with the rhapsodies of Romanticism? The clue might come via Adams' dream which inspired the piece. Driving down the interstate, he was overtaken by two stretch limos who as they passed turned into extended Steinway pianos. And indeed two grand pianos dominate the stage, playing a fraction out from each other to cause a sonic “shimmer”.
But the music's not just a hybrid creature like a Steinway limo. It's exuberant, stepping boldly forward, simultaneously sprightly and elegant. It suggests glidingly traversing the avenues of some glimmering city, though I think I imagine a classic limo rather than some blinging stretch-mobile. If there's European Romanticism in the mix, there's also American music from earlier in the century.
Minimalism was music which got you to focus on where you were and listen, really listen. By the second part this has become music with momentum, music which takes you for a whirling ride. Notably, in the programme, among his somewhat eccentric list of influences, Adams cites “the soundscape of contemporary city life”.
There's a Guardian guide to Adams' music here.
Radio 3 broadcast this concert so, depending on where and when you are, you may be able to listen to it here.