Saturday 1 July 2017


Barbican, London, Mon 19th June

There is perhaps an irony in seeing the diva of the anti-sunlight crowd on one of the brightest days of the year. Fortunately, most of the black-clad audience seem to have made it to the venue without withering to dust.

I’ve only seen Galas once before, before a touristy Brighton Festival audience. She opened with her most unashamedly challenging number, and had successfully driven a good third of the audience away before finishing it. She was utilising, I suspect, the old Sun Ra philosophy - get the lightweights out the way as soon as you can so you can get on with it. Here she’s playing to much more of a home crowd, is greeted with no short supply of adulation and starts with something much more easing-in.

The Barbican being an arts complex, its gigs often turn into multi-media events. I may have written about some of those here, from time to time. Whereas tonight’s concert comprises one voice, a piano and a fairly minimal light show. Yet it stays involving throughout.

Galas puts that piano through its paces, going through everything from coaxing melodies to thumping keys in freeform fashion. But of course the core of the thing is her vocals. Which don’t just have an impressively wide range, but emit sounds the like of which you’ve never heard before. There were times where I thought if she went any further, she’d be beyond human range. (A sideline to her career has been in providing overdubs to horror films.)

There’s elements of blues, gospel, chanson and at times I fancied an Arabic influence. (Though that’s probably not the sort of thing you should take my word over.) Songs are sung in multiple foreign languages, like what was being conveyed was the most universal of experiences.

Perhaps the most emblematic number was also the finest, the closer of the main set. Things started with the Gospel classic ’Oh Death’ before departing for shores unknown. And overall the set was a heady and enticing mixture of traditionalist and avant garde. I am not sure there is much to be gained in comparing Galas to other people. But in some ways she’s like Tom Waits, in that she can shred convention without leaving classic songwriting behind. (Though it seems she took the opposite trajectory to Waits, starting with lengthy sound compositions utilising tape and electronics, and slowly adopting song form.)

As said recently over Chelsea Wolfe, generally I can’t take Goth music seriously. It sounds like a Scooby Doo episode which has inexplicably become convinced it’s really ’Psycho’. Eyeliner alone does not make you angsty. But Galas eclipses this from two directions. First, her blacks are actually full. Her first album, according to its liner notes, "devotes itself to the emeraldine perversity of the life struggle in Hell”, after which she has been 
little troubled by the Trades Descriptions Act. But she also has the blues sense of resilience. It’s funereal but at the same time assertive. We may live in a world full of troubles, but singing about those troubles can in itself become an amulet against them.

The only part I was unsure of were the spoken word sections. Galas gave them such vocal distortions it was hard to hear what was actually being said. While, once divorced from the music, those dark words did start to feel melodramatic.

The Old Market, Hove, Fri 23rd June

Since Sonic Youth split and Thurston Moore relocated to London, I have got to see him much more often. (And it is, I hope you understand, all about me.) To date there’s been an impro gig with Dylan Nyoukis, a solo set supporting Michael Gira and guitar duties with both the Can Project and This Is Not This Heat. But this marks the first sighting with his actual new band in tow.

Notably, it’s precisely the same instrumentation as Sonic Youth, with twin guitars. And like Sonic Youth, songs can stretch with long instrumental sections. (The track I take to be the single, ’Cusp’, shorter and more uptempo than the rest, turns out on purchasing the CD to be six and a half minutes.) But Sonic Youth commonly operated in the intersection between punk and noise, and here there’s little to none of their classic de-tunings. 

Instead they’re freeform, subtle and even delicate. Those guitars are tapped and coaxed, rather than screwdrivered. When Terry Riley rather than the Ramones gets played over the PA before the band appear, that seems a statement of intent. And in defiance of all rock gig convention, the main set ends not with a bang by by falling to a whisper.

The songs themselves can be riff-based and assured, but tend to the unhurried. And while there are gear-changing turns, the song and instrumental elements tend to slowly morph into one another. At times it’s like watching a craft worker weave, thin threads coming together to form fuller and more colourful patterns. There’s a win-win element to this, where whichever is going on at the moment seems the real deal.

Moore sings softly throughout, with an overall sound over in the trebly. Bands tend to take positions on stage which match the music. And here he and fellow guitarist James Sedwards take the front – often the very front – of the stage. While bassist Debbie Googe (ex My Bloody Valentine) gravitates back towards drummer Steve Shelley. (Also ex of Sonic Youth, but you knew that already.) And indeed bass and drums tend to back the guitars up, rather than push them along.

I said of Moore’s solo gig: “though known for detuned noise guitar there's always been something serene, something transcendent about him waiting to be let loose.” This is, I suspect, what Moore’s detractors detect, and interpret as detatched cool. But there is, I think, more to it than that. It’s expanding beyond the usual range of guitar rock.

And that now seems well and truly let loose. Moore was probably always more of a beat, drawn to punk’s independent spirit rather than its frenzy. Perhaps significantly the new album is called ’Rock N Roll Consciousness’, which would seem an oxymoron in some circles. Imagine a Stooges album called that.

From the album launch in London…

Brighton Dome, Tues 27th June

By careful planning, a little while after seeing Diamanda Galas I came to take in her polar opposite. A large ensemble whose performance very much is a performance, and  comes complete with almost explosive visual effects. And while her songs stray to the dark side of the spectrum, the Flaming Lips couldn’t be any more about light. The words ‘Yes’ and ‘Love’ flash up on giant LED screens as the band encourage us to scream as loud as we can. Which is emphasised all the more by giving us a taste of complete blackness between numbers.

Their songs are often euphoric. I’d quote the line “feeling like a float from a Macy’s day parade”, except that’s not from a number they play so I can’t. And perhaps that mood just lends itself to the live setting. So, for example, confetti cannons becomes not just a neat gimmick but a good visual analogy for their sound. I’ve managed to see them twice now, and both times there’s been the same self-pinching feeling, where you wonder whether you’re watching this gig or dreaming it.

Plus, they did their celebrated song about Yoshimi battling pink robots, who was only recently caught fronting OOIOO.

Seeing the Flaming Lips live is often said to be one of those bucket list things. So if tomorrow a grant piano should drop on me from a snapping rope, I can shrug and say “well at least I got to see the Flaming Lips. Twice, in fact.”

The opening ’Race For the Prize’, from Paris…

...and their cover of Bowie’s ’Space Oddity’, complete with Wayne Coyne’s patented zorb ball, from Brighton. Yes, really! From Brighton…

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