Saturday, 22 April 2017

CHELSEA WOLFE (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

The Haunt, Brighton, Wed 19th April


Looking back at what I wrote after first seeing Chelsea Wolfe, at the Mutations festival, I find I was much taken by her music. While taking some exception to her Gothy, too-much-mascara look. 

Which in retrospect seems too much like reviewing a book by the shade of it's cover. True, I tend to react to the trappings of Goth the way they do to sunlight. The main problem with it is that too often it's just the dressing up, just empty theatrics and painted dark. But then your actual dark is plentiful enough with Wolfe. (Quite literally so. It's one of the most underlit gigs I've been to in recent years.) Enough to convince you she's yer actual creature of the night.

There's a cool quote from her on Wikipedia: “"I do have a hard time sticking to one genre, and honestly I prefer it that way. I'd rather be free to experiment and make the kind of art I want to make than be easy to define." It the goes on to list her influences as “doom metal, drone metal, black metal, gothic rock, folk and dark ambient”. 

Bar folk, none of which are sounds which you associate with songwriting, yet she seems continually able to pack them into songs. In fact, by 'folk' I suspect people mean that packing - the means by which she binds those sounds together - rather than any kind of Sandy Denny vibe. (Though at the same time it can sometimes sound like later, louder Portishead. Wolfe's tremulous voice in particular can channel Beth Gibbons.)

Guitar lines can be distorted to the point where there's really only the distortion. Yet their scrunchy metallic rhythms don't collide with melodies so much as co-exist. Songs don't progress so much as deepen, like storm clouds thickening. And the sound is so expansive it's great to hear in a live setting.

If I say there's something underlyingly adolescent about it all, I mean it in a positive sense. In the sense of feeling that immensities are contained within you, which you're compelled to find a way to release. And in our nostalgist, classic rock magazine era, we probably need to cling on to the sense that it's music about stopping you getting old and accepting.

An old-ish clip but a track from the current album... (And like I say, underlit.)


Saturday, 15 April 2017

'INTRIGUE: JAMES ENSOR'

(The latest in a long line of art exhibitions reviewed after they close)


“Ensor was a scenographer, depicting a strange world that was neither tangible nor imaginary, populated by inscrutable beings”
- Curator Luc Tymans

The Sunless Seaside

I first saw the work of the Belgian artist James Ensor in an exhibition devoted to Carnival - 'Carnivalesque' at Brighton Museum, back in 2000. Fittingly enough, for as we'll come onto, Carnival was prevalent in his work, almost always at least implicit. Now any Carnival buff knows the festival to be inextricably connected to it's ostensible opposite - Lent. And so Ensor starts with Lent. Officially that's the wrong way round, for Carnival was supposed to yield to Lent. But then he was a somewhat contrary character, so let's follow his lead.


Take for example 'Afternoon in Ostend' (1881), where figures sit primly at afternoon tea, or the murky oil of 'The Bourgeois Salon' (1880, above). The light at the window is able to strike up some white echoes straight in front of it, but the single figure is determinedly turned away. And the exteriors were little less oppressive. In 'Large View of Ostend (Rooftops of Ostend)' (1884, below) those titular rooftops are crammed into the lower fifth of the canvas, huddled below a tempestuous sky. Not unlike Sickert's Dieppe, there's a sense of unease to Ensor's Ostend, made stronger for never being quite identifiable.


It's not an approach Ensor ever entirely abandons. 'Flowers and Vegetables' (below), dating from 1891, is that rare thing – a still life which virtually leers out at you. The ruddy reds and lurid greens must make for the most feral-looking vegetables in art history, as throbbing with life as any Van Gogh nature scene. Set against that those delicate blue bits of porcelain, it looks like the crusties have taken over the garden suburb. You can uproot nature and even fetch bits of it indoors, but it remains untameable.


But the underlying unease becomes more palpable and more fantastical as Ensor went on. For in a remarkable sea change, almost all of the successive works are devoted to what 'The Bourgeois Salon' shutters out. What is repressed is shown as returning, quite frequently erupting. In 'The Haunted Furniture' (1880), an early example, spirits rise from the sides of a great heavy wardrobe.

Skeletons At Work and Play


'The Skeleton Painter' (1896, above) is one of many images using the skull or full skeleton. The title is most likely some double-edged self-referential joke, the skeleton who painted skeletons. We don't see the figure's hands, so can't ascertain whether this is an animate skeleton or just someone in a skull mask. Skulls and masks are placed around the studio, suggesting either is possible. Though the eyeballed skull atop the easel seems more animate than the figure. It's widely seen as a kind of self-portrait, which would make that easel skull a kind of totem. (He'd also create the etching 'My Portrait as a Skeleton', 1889.)

Notably, there's no attempt to give the skeleton any shock appeal. It's entirely unlike covers to Gothic novels, with their long bone fingers stretching towards shrieking maidens. For one thing, sunlight pours in the room. In fact it's the 'natural' 'Bourgeois Salon' which takes place in the gloom, rather than this 'fantastical' work. And skeletons are always painted naturalistically, or even casually, like they belong to their environments. (See for example 'Skeleton Looking at Chinoiseries', c. 1888/90.) TJ Clarke of the London Review of Books commended Ensor's “ability to convince us that horror and absurdity are familiar events, behaviours we all recognise from our daily round… Garishness and matter-of-factness were faces of the same coin.”

The show suggests a local origin for this imagery. The ongoing development of Ostend had disinterred mass graves, the residue of the Eighty Years War, reminding us that the past is rarely actually past. Remember the old Fall song lyric where unearthed graves are found to be “disease ridden, dusty, organic - and psychic”?

But it does also seem to be tapping into the same themes as Mexican popular art. As I said of the British Museum's 'Revolution on Paper' exhibition of Mexican prints:
“The skeleton figure acts paradoxically, throwing emphasis onto the figures’ accoutrements (bosses’ top hats versus peasant caps), whilst confirming that these are only accoutrements for almost identical figures…. reducing us to the skeletons we all are underneath.” The face is just mask for the skull, which less represents death than the inescapable baseness of life.


Which is possibly most visible in 'Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring' (1891, above). What's striking isn't the armless war between jaws, like the figures are squabbling birds. Or even the way their tugging is emphasised by the angle of the clouds. It's the fine-looking clothes, the bizarre busby hat perched on the bone head. A human in a hat like that might even seem deserving of our respect. Whereas a skeleton is a ghoul, a savage mockery of status.

Masks Alive

Following an an 1908 description of him by Emile Verhearen, Ensor has become known as “the painter of masks”. To the degree where the show insists this is too limited a frame, which needs busting open. Nevertheless, the motif is recurrent in his work.

As already seen in 'The Skeleton Painter' Ensor would casually mix his skull and mask motifs up. And we perhaps shouldn't try too hard to disentangle them. An artists' work rarely reduces to a neat set of symbols, which you can come along and fix a key to. Nevertheless, while Ensor is able to convey different expressions through skulls, the mask inherently gives greater variety and so becomes a broader symbol.

And as with the skull, the mask had a local connection for him. Ostend was home to the annual Ball of the Dead Rat, a carnivalesque masked ball. He even grew up, and later made his studio, above a shop where his mother sold carnival masks and similar goods.

And what did the mask mean in Carnival? Not merely the way we see them now, as a form of disguise. The masks were often associated with characters, and to don one was to effectively become that character. And if anything Ensor pushes that concept further. The masks often appears as the embodiments of spirits, as if they were themselves animate. As Laura Cumming wrote in the Guardian, Ensor's work is “a theatre where the masks can live their own existence.”


'Intrigue' (1890, above) is so famous a work it's not just the poster image but has the show named after it. (The last time I can think of that happening was Fuseli and the Tate's 'Gothic Nightmares' exhibition, back in 2006.) And here the figures seem not just living their own existence but pressing into ours, massing at the front of the work like they're about to erupt into our space. In particular the red coated woman with the baby seems to be projecting out of the frame, while the black slitted eyes of the main figure seem to be not even looking out as us but on a point beyond us. The figures are less alive than charged, animate energy virtually seething with malevolence. The work almost literally exudes menace.

There's not a sliver of human flesh to be found, the two hands gloved, the high collars - particularly that raised black collar on the main figure - obscuring any join at the neck. It's reminiscent of the trope in films such as 'The Invisible Man' (1933), in which a figure is unwrapped to reveal only an absence. Similarly, in 'The Astonishment of the Mask Wouse' (1889, below) some figures seem to have had their spirits desert them, leaving inert masks attached to husks of clothing on the ground. The hand of the main standing figure is upraised, as if she might magic motion back into them.


‘The Intrigue’ can also be traced back to an event in Ensor’s biography, but accurate or not that’s scarcely the point of the work – it’s source not explanation. Overall, and typically of Ensor, the painting's neither explicable as a scene nor reducible to a set of symbols. And that’s kind of the point. It presents a kind of erupting irrationality, against which we’re like the defensively doubting rationalist in the horror film, stuttering about some pat psychological explanation. Ensor himself declared “reason is the enemy of art.”

And this is not just to do with Carnival but the childhood sense of animism, the feeling every object in the world is possessed of a spirit unknowable to you. This can seem charming, as we see children form attachments to inanimate objects. But at the time, as those thoughts run through your head, it meant even a domestic scene could seem charged with danger.

The Crowd As Collage


Okay, some social levelling, masks...what else do you need to create Carnival? Of course, there has to be a crowd. A party needs invites. And as if by magic Ensor's other most famous work, 'The Entry of Christ into Brussels', foregrounds this. (Represented here not by the giant, four-metre plus painting of 1888, but an 1895 etching, above.) Though Christ can be found in there if you search, the work's more concerned with the figures which surround him. They're a motley array, a jumble of individual heads – this is crowd as collage.

The dominant notion has become that there is something reductive and deindividuating about a crowd, that being in one somehow makes you less than what you are. Yet when you’re in a crowd you’re part of it and yourself, at one and the same time. We all know this from experience. And this precisely what Ensor depicts. They're not a deindividuated swarm conjured up by popular phrases such as 'mob mentality', they're individuals amassed.

And there's a juxtaposition between the crowd and the neat military line of soldiers behind them. (A device Ensor re-employs elsewhere, for example in 'The Strike', 1886.) They're like the buckling bottle whose task it is to contain the frothing, fermenting alcohol. The crowd are shown at a physical distance. But that's not how the work feels. Ensor depicts crowds the way some artists do the sea, their teeming feels like an invitation to dive in. To quote Laura Cumming again: “Ensor is festive even when devastating or macabre”. The bawdy and the grotesque are bedfellows.

And if Ensor was the painter of anything, it wasn't masks but crowds. 'Skeleton Painter', showing his studio strewn with masks and skulls, can give rise to the notion he had a hermetic world-view - his imagery cast no wider than the room about him.
And so he comes to be depicted as some reclusive outsider artist, such as in Timothy Hyman's description of him as “working alone through long, silent days in his fifth-floor attic high above the family’s carnival shop.”

And yet, news though it may be to some, the art world is not the world. Yes, Ostend insulated Ensor from the art world, which he found confining and regulating. But that doesn't mean he hid away from Ostend, like some recluse. Let's remember his family shop was not selling antiques, but was outfitter to an ongoing carnival tradition. And you can see that in the work, a love of the crowd far too visceral to be theoretical.

There may, however, be one or two elements of truth to this. Ensor is known to have anarchist sympathies, and he went on to influence political artists, such as George Grosz. And at times these can come out in the open. (For example, the full-size version of 'Christ's Entry' contains a banner proclaiming “Vive La Sociale”.) But he was not primarily a political artist. He less saw the crowd as an instrument of social change and more loved it for it's own sake, luxuriating in it's disreputable tumultuousness. And of course these days we are more wary of making clear, causal connections between Carnival and revolt than others have been in the past. (Carnival yields to Lent, remember?)

Further, Ensor exhibits a paradox between an artist with a highly personalised cosmology, and one influenced by folk traditions. And the two often come together in his style. His compositions are often strangely arbitrary, heads and feet lopped off by his borders like he ran out of room. Just as some artists are Just Abstract Enough, perhaps we need a name for artists who are Just Outside Enough. Artists who, like Ensor, had formal art training and could draw conventionally when they needed, but didn't feel at all beholden to it. Timothy Hyman suggests the term “exceptionals”, presumably drawing on the twin meaning of ‘outside’ and ‘beyond’.


'The Baths at Ostend'(1890, above), for example, is so crammed with comic incident it's not entirely dissimilar from children's comic artists such as Leo Baxendale. (If a more lewd variant.) In fact, particularly with it's use of coloured pencil, it might even be a child's drawing. It's noticeable how much emphasis there is on voyeurism, with gapers down virtually the whole left side and the monocled figure in the lower centre.

Not Even Past

Try again to find the actual Christ in 'Christ's Entry Into Brussels'. There's a short cut, you can track him down by his halo, it's yellow an echo of the sun. This Medieval device, which had long since passed from art's vocabulary, makes a return. Similarly, 'Adam and Eve Expelled From Paradise' (1887) uses a local Belgian landscape for this Biblical fable. It's total uninterest in fidelity to the Middle East again echoes Medieval art.


And while 'Christ's Entry' might hide the title star in a crowd, Ensor often focused upon him. For example in the late 'Christ In Agony' (1931) or 'The Man of Sorrows' (1891, above) – where he's painted as if saturated with ruddy reds, to the point where it's hard to tell head and hair from blood. In fact it wouldn't be too hard to believe the thing had actually been painted in blood. There's none of the solemn dignity we're used to seeing given to Jesus, those harshly over-exaggerated features look more savage than John the Baptist.

To Ensor as with the Medieval artist the halo's a transpiring symbol, yet the face and body of Jesus is very much a real thing. His blood is not a religious thing, it's thick red stuff. Like many Medieval religious images, it's more macabre than moral.

All of which seems very much at odds with our idea of art of this time. Tuymans comments that Carnivalesque art had originally rebelled against Classicism, conveying order through it's neat rules of composition. Whereas for Ensor the dominant culture was Modernism, most of which he volubly detested. It really comes back to the image of the disinterred skeleton. Just as reason was a thin skin over the irrational, the present was a barely coping mechanism for holding back the past. The bodies just don't stay buried.

It's hard to find a term for the art history he refers to. I guess the point was less that it was an integral era, named and scrupulously annotated, and more that his interest went to the gaps – past-Classical yet pre-Romantic. People have sometimes seen an inheritance from his geographical forebearers, the Flemish Renaissance. There's Breugel's interest in the culture of the common folk, and Bosch's phantasmagorias. When people compare Ensor to Bosch perhaps they’re seeing a similar collision between the Medieval and the contemporary, for all that the two artists were working in different eras.

Held in the Academy's upstairs Sackler gallery, this is a relatively small exhibition, comprising about eighty works. So it's strange when curator Luc Tuymans sacrifices space to works by Ensor's contemporaries, a piece by himself and at one point a pointless fake video where an actor portrays Ensor perambulating on the seafront. Tuymans is himself an artist, considered well-known enough for his name to become incorporated into the show's title. And while it is often artists who understand other artists best, perhaps this sort of indulgent decision-making comes with celebrity curators.

Conversely, the show does give space to Ensor's prints and drawings. Though paintings are often held by curators to trump other media, Ensor himself saw them as equally important. In fact he prized his prints the highest, because they were the easiest disseminated. Overall, while it would have been nice to see a few more Ensors at this Ensor show, when even today he is so often overlooked there's never any reason to knock seeing Ensors.



Coming soon! More art exhibitions reviewed after they have closed. (While stocks last.)

Sunday, 9 April 2017

THE CAN PROJECT (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

Barbican Centre, London, Sat 8th April


If pressed to name my most favourite band of all, I don't quite know who I would go for. But legendary Krautrock band Can would certainly be on the shortlist. And now they're... well, they're not exactly revived. In fact in the programme, former keyboardist Irmin Schmidt stated quite firmly “I hate revivals – revivals mean you reanimate something dead. That's not what I ever did.” Instead, there's two separate sets – each with it's own nature.

Which is probably all to the good. Rob Young, who has just published a book about the band, comments on the accompanying podcast that many have tried to sound like Can, but no-one has ever managed it. And in fact many of the best bands where influenced by without being imitative of them, such as the Fall or early Public Image. So it's the best idea for prior participants to do something new, but in the spirit of what went before.

In the first half, former keyboardist Irmin Schmidt conducted a new orchestral piece, 'Can Dialog', (co-written with Gregor Schwellenbach). And in fact formally speaking Can were something of an anomaly in his career, before their formation he was conduction, and since he's mostly composed film and TV scores.

The most obvious point of comparison might seem Philip Glass' orchestral versions of Bowie. But rather than a reworking in a new musical setting it was a whole new composition which incorporated Can themes along the way. (“Weaving quotations and motifs”, as the programme put it.) It was similar to the way classical composers of old would incorporate folk tunes, even if in Schmidt's case both were his.

The Can contributions mostly appeared as melodies, floating through the work, often introduced by the wind instruments. And, for a band best known for maintaining a groove, they turn out to have quite affecting and memorable melodies. There seemed to be quite long sections which were Can-free (unless my ears missed them). But the orchestra would often play rhythmically of it's own accord, stopping their appearances as feeling merely decorative. It felt like Schmidt collaborating with himself, able to find harmonious links between his elder and junior incarnations.


Those many chairs were then cleared away and the second set given over to a rock band setting. As with This Heat recently, an enlarged ensemble (eight in all) performed amended and updated versions of Can tracks. In fact both gigs featured Thurston Moore on guitar. Perhaps he's just moved in backstage.

If you were to say Can never had to sound like Can, that might sound like an inevitable truism, applicable to any band. Yet they weren't really a band for rehearsing numbers until they were well-drilled enough to perform them. Given their own dedicated practise space (in a castle), they'd improvise freely then edit things down for release. And they rarely performed numbers the same way twice.

Except you can over-emphasise all of that. In fact the most incredulous element of the story, hanging out in a castle, is the only unarguably true part. Like the Velvets, a strong influence in the early days, they mixed free-form jams with quite strong songs, and that combination is a large part of their appeal. But it was a way of working which kept their playing organic, like it was all happening in the moment. They were agile and sinewy, not musclebound.

With Schmidt not rejoining the band for the second half, Holger Czukay too ill to travel and the sad death of Jaki Liebezeit in January, original vocalist Malcolm Mooney was left as the only actual Can member onstage. Yet ironically he sometimes felt like a weak link, the Mooney who'd repeat phrases until he'd go off into a trance state not always present. And it seemed strange to watch him reading lyrics which at the time had been arbitrarily plucked from thin air. It worked much better when, rather than providing lead vocals, he'd fall back in the mix, or when the players would take over entirely.

The twin guitars of Moore and James Seawards (who plays in Moore's current group) were definitely hypnotic and powerful. The twin drummers of Steve Shelley and Valentina Magoletti could work just as well, but were over-utilised and kept on their dual-powered, double-barelled setting too much. A track like 'Thief', requires something more intimate, not to be walked on with hobnail boots.

Were a Can tribute band to exist (and one probably does), what might they sound like? I imagine they'd learn the songs ably enough, but only manage a faux approximation of those trance-out grooves. The most essential element of any band of course being the most irreproducable – the chemistry between the players. If anything this band was the opposite, quite ready to take off and often majestic in flight, but less conversant with the songs. It was 'Deadly Doris, 'Uphill' and 'You Doo Right' which came across, rather than 'Thief' or 'Mary, Mary'. Overall it seemed the post-Velvets powerhouse Can who were being channelled. And channelled superbly. But there were so many other faces to Can...

Saturday, 1 April 2017

SUNN 0)))/ SUN RA ARKESTRA/ YAMATO DRUMMERS (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

SUNN 0)))
Barbican, London, Tues 21st March


Waiting near me outside the auditorium, two vikings in black hoodies babbled away to one another in German. Every so often one would say “Throbbing Gristle”, they'd then drop back into German. Then, a minute or so later, one would say “Throbbing Gristle” again. While a sign on the door above them warned of impending “high level sound levels and dense haze”.

I figured I was in the right place.

This marked my second chance to see legendary drone metal band Sunn 0))), and while they inevitably don't have quite the same impact when not filling a small seafront club with their sonic force, so powerful as to be physical, they remain an unmissable live experience.

Vocalist Attila Csuhar opened the gig with some liturgical chanting, which he'd then mix in with more guttural tones - part-way to throat singing. This section did, if truth be told, go on a bit. In fact a fairly sizeable segment of the audience didn't show up until it was ending, presumably forewarned and forearmed.

But as that was the gig's only weak point, let's focus on another aspect. Despite the band's signature uniform of monk habits and customary banks of dry ice, I don't think the intent here is really sacrilegious – like the sonic equivalent of an inverted crucifix. In fact it's nearer to... well religious, those mixed-chant vocals more intended to compare than contrast. 

Despite the band having arisen from the black metal scene, despite their almost fearsome reputation as the heaviest of them all, their sound isn't really oppressive. Like a lot of religious music, it's actually elevating. Rather than relying on any kind of shock effect, it's involving and even contemplative. To the point where even us non-religious types find it takes us out of ourselves. It induces a kind of aum state without any of the dippy New Age shit.

For one thing, they don't let that heavy tag hold them down and are quite happy to break with expectation. In a lengthy mid-section the wall-of-noise guitars walk right offstage and a quite plaintive trombone starts up. And if sludge metal has already been made a genre, I suppose there's no reason why we can't also have sludge jazz.

Also, and more importantly, there's a solidity – a kind of one-ness - to their sound. It's pretty much pitched at the point where black metal becomes drone. It's difficult and at times impossible to pick out individual instruments. Even the keyboards, which are sometimes prominent, play neither above or along to the guitars – they more play along to the resonances between them.

While heavy rock tends to be blues music with added volume Sun 0))) seem unrooted in rock tradition. In fact in the programme they complain of how once-normal listening practices have been undermined in the past forty years, like a near-half century is just a bump in the road. Most noticeable by it's absence, with neither bass nor drums there's none of the release of rock music, none of the sense that music's a means to let it all out.

In fact, despite their strong overlaps with noise music, they demonstrate how rockist the noise scene can be. They don't just dress like monks, they're as disciplined as them. Though the singer stands to the front, neither he nor the others gives off any impression of individual personality. Even when they sup a beer on stage, a single bottle is passed between the lot of them like a sacrament.

Founder member Stephen O’Malley has described their sound as “more raga than … rock. And despite the fact that the walls were literally shaking from volume, it was actually quite a blissed out, psychedelic session.” (Though speaking of a particular album.) While in the programme Csihar compares it to “the music of the plants, and that's why it's so slow and enormous”. Which seems reminiscent of Andrew Marvell's old poem “My vegetable love should grow/ Vaster than empires and more slow”.

Let's jump from Marvell to Elvis Costello, who once sang “The truth can't hurt you, it's just like the dark/ It scares you witless, then in time you see things clear and stark”. He could have been thinking of Sunn 0))). There's a kind of double trajectory afoot. What might originally hit the listener as a sonic onslaught slowly transforms itself into something serene, pummelling fists morphing into massaging hands. 

Moreover, from what I know of the earlier albums, that also fits the history of the band - they were more abrasive and discordant at the beginning. Which also fits the history of Earth, enough of an influence for Sunn 0))) to name themselves in a kind of paralleling tribute. Or the way the doom metal of Sleep transformed into the trance of Om. To get to the light, it seems you need to go through the dark tunnel.

And that half-transfer, half-dichotomy is something you often see in art evoking the sublime. What first appears to you as an overwhelming, pulverising force soon comes to feel like rejoining where you really belong. Perhaps, were Turner alive today, he'd have ditched his oils and joined a drone metal band.



SUN RA ARKESTRA
Con Club, Lewes, Wed 29th March


”They say history repeats itself. But that's his story. My story doesn't repeat itself. Why should it? My story is endless”

Last time I was at this venue, to see Jah Wobble, I was committing myself to print in saying I am no fan of jazz. So what do I do but head back for what's unambiguously a jazz gig?

But then of course this is no regular gig. It's not a matter of public record how Herman Poole Blount's parents reacted when he told them he'd teleported to Saturn to commune with the spirits there, and been told to devote himself to music as a means to solve the problems of the Earth. They most probably thought it was an elaborate excuse to drop out of college, which was the first thing he was insisting on doing. But he went through with it, changing his name to Sun Ra in the process, and throughout his life stuck to that story and to his guns. (His discography is this big.) He was more or less to jazz what Lee Perry was to reggae, where there's no point trying to separate what was genius from what was lunacy.

And if Sun Ra himself ceased having even a tangential connection to this Earth back in '93, the Arkestra continues under the direction of Marshall Allan. (Who is himself 92, having played with the Arkestra for 57 years.) After two successive sell-outs, they ended up playing a three-night residency, of which I caught the middle event. Living up to their “my story is endless” promise they played for over two and a half hours, a completely different set from the first night, and cheerily announced at the end the third night would be something different again.

Those freak free impro days now seem done and dusted, with band members even sporting music stands. The set most matched Wikipedia's' Philadelphia period, a kind of cosmic jazz to match the cosmic soul of the times. (The era the classic 'Space is the Place' album came from.)

And in fact the downside of the gig wasn't it falling into indigestible squonk but becoming tasteful enough to have safely ported onto an episode of Jools Holland. There were, I confess, points where it lost my interest.

But the highlights were... well, befitting Sun Ra's cosmic aspirations I'd have to say higher than sky high. Despite their daunting reputation, the Arkestra have a strong melodic sense and the ability to form into a powerful rhythm section. For a jazz band, they sure are funky! The brass in particular seemed able to play along with the line, then each instrument find a way to veer off into it's own thing while still holding that line aloft. (And to think I once found Led Zeppelin tight but loose!)

The best tracks, for me at least, started off with a vocal – somewhere between a repeated spoken phrase and a chant. These were often cosmic aphorisms which would probably seem platitudinously New Agey out of context, but in context were like a foot sliding into a slipper. (And besides, the one quoted up top does have it's appeal.) The ensemble would then work around them, in a manner not entirely unlike Steve Reich's penchant for finding music phrases in the cadences of the spoken word.

Perhaps the main thing is convey is that it's not chin-stroking music to chew on, it's joyous, exuberant and energising. If it doesn't quite teleport you to Saturn you can almost feel your feet lifting from the ground. Space really is the place.

This was from the first night...


And after seeing Sunn 0))) and Sun Ra, of course I then went to see Sun Kil Moon again. No, actually it was...

YAMATO: THE DRUMMERS OF JAPAN
Brighton Dome, Thurs 30th March


After seeing the Kodo drummers some three years ago, I am it seems becoming something of a regular for Japanese drum ensembles at the Dome. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were many similarities between the two, above all the same combination of absolute discipline and unleashed frenzy. And it demonstrates what a timbral range can exist just from different varieties of drum.

But Kodo's art had been very much a martial one. You could imagine them arising as one at six AM on their South Pacific island, and starting their morning practice by twenty past. They were intent on what they were doing, single-minded to the point of being cult-like.

Yamato are much more showbizzy, sporting bright costumes over uniform black vests. There's stage antics, visual gags, acrobatic playing, ample audience participation and even individual personalities emerging from the players. At times it did become so circusy I half expected a guy with a moustache to come on, and hold a chair up to a mangy old lion.

But we're probably best taking that as description rather than criticism. Being structured unashamedly like a show gives things an ever-relentless dynamic. They barely stopped even for applause. Perhaps they had less musicality than Kodo, but they so successfully keep you watching you don't particularly notice at the time.

My favourite moment was when the drummers were joined by the Japanese banjo. (Which probably has some special name, which probably isn't “the Japanese banjo”.) It was an unusual pairing, which they were really able to make work.

This TV appearance is from some while back, but gives a good flavour for what they do...