Saturday, 7 April 2018


Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Falmer, Brighton, Thurs 29th March

Onetime member of acerbic electronica post-punks Cabaret Voltaire, Chris Watson has embarked on a solo career you could never have predicted but still seems entirely fitting. He captures the sounds for David Attenborough and other nature docs, while releasing his field recordings in his own right. (If anyone from Kajagoogoo is now doing something so cool, I wait to be told about it.) He’s now providing a “spatialised audio journey of the imagination”, where you hear one of his sound art creations in sensurround. (And still on until Sunday the 8th!)

Sight seems very much the dominants sense in our culture, we casually use phrases such as “I see what you mean”. Sound is very often reduced to signifiers – car horns, alarms, you’ve got mail – the merely incidental or even the intrusive. The sound of the town gets treated as just noise pollution, which means we conceive of nature as effective silence, the “peace and quiet” of the countryside.

But consign sound to the edge and it becomes associated with that edge, with the liminal and uncanny. Soundtracks become more significant for horror or science fiction flicks than any other kind of film, more necessary for the atmosphere they’re evoking. Cabaret Voltaire, I’m afraid, are another subject I know little of. But what I’ve heard doesn't depart from post-punk’s Dadaism, a wrench thrown in the mechanism of music. Whereas his field recordings are more similar to Surrealism, which treated art as a springboard for a voyage of personal discovery. Surrealists were always collecting found objects, such as strangely shaped pebbles, for that reason.

The event’s title effectively references all that. As we sat or lay in the centre of a near-dark room surrounded by speakers, it became almost like that scene in jungle films, where the white expeditionary force sit around the campfire, hearing the strange cries all around them.

Smartly, Watson starts his sound journey on Brighton beach, where it’s easy enough to attach images to the sounds (I can never feel too far from home if I can hear a seagull.) But he soon dispenses with those handy tags and departs for shores unknown. The blurb explains the journey “takes the listener from the edge of Brighton’s beach and out with the ebbing tide… on a trackless voyage around the planet from the ocean floor.” Which I’d read but happily then forgotten, so discovered in real time that this trip would be taking us beneath the waves.

Someone watching our reaction, with most people sprawled out on the floor, might have thought this was no more than a bliss-out exercise, a sonic massage. But it actuality illustrated the distinction between atmospheric and evocative. Even though I knew Watson’s only contribution to the sounds was to edit them, it was impossible not to hear what happened as a composition. While, much as you listen to music more closely when the words are taken away, there in the dark you listened to the strange sounds quite intently indeed. (And in their own right. A sign on the wall chronologically listed the sources, but I think most attendees didn’t consult it until afterwards.)

I’d watched a section of a filmed conversation between Watson and Attenborough before the show, and by chance they’d talked about the effect of sound on the pre-born. And aquatic sounds similarly seem to trigger some buried memory of womb states, with the sounds you hear simultaneously entirely unfamiliar and comforting.

Music… sound art, whichever you prefer to call it… always seems at its most effective when it doesn’t just change the way you hear music but they way you hear the world around you. And waiting before the bus home by the busy A23, I realised I was hearing the whirr of each passing car as a phased note in some industrial symphony. Once you’re tuned in, it takes a lot longer to tune out...

Watson interviewed by the irrepressible Graham Duff on Totally Radio here.

From an earlier, different version of ’No Man’s Land’...

The Haunt, Brighton, Sun 25th March

Alas, fate may have pinned A Certain Ratio to the mast of a misjudged but brief fashion statement. In the (unashamedly mythologised) history of the Factory records scene, ’24 Hour Party People’, their only appearance is in order for them to sport some khaki shorts on stage. Notably, they’re not in such attire today.

Let’s jump to the first encore track. A slow, sparse keyboard motif launched the number, which was then not replaced by but combined with a frenetic, pummelling groove. Notably, the main singer has the same dry, intonatory tones of New Order’s Bernie Sumner. While the second main singer (well, she’s more than a backing vocalist) emits rich, soulful tones. And when the band are working is when they manage to make those two things interlock.

Which may sound like a euphemistic way of saying we’re dealing with a mixed-race band. Something which surely shouldn’t be worthy of comment in this day and age. But there is more to it than that. Formed back in ‘77, ACR are generally thought of as part of the post-punk scene. A feature of which was white folks being influenced by contemporary black music in ways which wasn’t merely imitative, after seeing earlier imitations which had ended up as watered down and second rate.

Hence we have a white-boy, suit-and-tie take on funk, dubbed “funk noir” by Simon Reynolds. It’s restrained to the point of being clipped. The band’s name even comes from a Brian Eno lyric. The clarinetist, for example, plays not at all for much of the time. And when he does play he doesn’t play much, the briefest snatches, like he’s constantly thinking where and when to make his mark. But this white-boy funk, soon as invented, is recombined with the get-down world of black funk, cool colliding with cold. If it was a foodstuff it would be a sweet’n’sour.

But often the two don’t align so much as merge, and then they get along together too well. Which ends up as... well, a funk band. A very good funk band, admittedly, but one which hints at so much more. There’s no let up in quality to speak of, but there is one in originality.

It might seem a peculiarity of music history that ACR were one of the most prescient of post-punk bands, yet not one of the best remembered. (The Haunt’s packed out, but confined to us oldsters.) They were channelling a black American influence before New Order, despite both being Factory acts. They were serving up dance music via a band format some way before the Happy Mondays. Yet while I’ve quoted Simon Reynolds’ post-punk account ’Rip It Up And Start Again’ up above, he only really mentions them in passing.

But the answer may lie less in the ill-judged shorts than in a rephrasing of the question. The point of post-punk was to be awkward, to resist categorisation, to repel pigeon-holing, to become nail that couldn’t be hammered flat into the face of musical history. There remains to this day something inscrutable about the Fall and Joy Division, which makes them endlessly fascinating. Whereas ACR worked too well, too neatly.

Or perhaps the problem’s time. I’m woefully ignorant of the band’s history, but the thought occurs they may have sorted themselves into more of a regular funk band as time went on, their edge progressively blunted. Perhaps significantly, their first release, ’The Graveyard and the Ballroom’ was divided into ’Graveyard’ and ’Ballroom’ sides, yin opposing yang yet becoming it. Those more knowledgeable than me are welcome to comment...

Not from Brighton, despite the date YouTube gives it…

Con Club, Lewes, Sun 1st April

Almost a year after last landing in Lewes, 
the longstanding space jazz ensemble return, still honouring the memory of their now departed main main.

“If we came from nowhere here, why can’t go somewhere there?” runs one of their manta-like lyrics. And over the course of a nigh-on two-and-a-half hour set, they take in nowhere here (somewhat standard loungey jazz), somewhere there (places you’d neither been nor knew existed), all points between and – perhaps most bizarrely – both at once. It frequently felt like attending a cocktail party on Mars.

Not only that, but the whole gig seems programmed on shuffle, leaving you with no idea what would happen next, or where you’d find it on the scale between banal and sublime. There were sections I essentially took as the intermission between the features. But at other points I even found myself adapting to relay soloing, something I normally find anathema.

It’s actually less maddening than that description might make it seem, not least because of the ensemble’s cheery assurance that there’s a method somewhere in all their madness. As said last time “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.” Band leader Marshall Allan, despite now being in his Nineties, really does lead, directing the ensemble and joining in himself. In their brightly coloured costumes, they even come across like some cosmic form of showbiz. Ensemble members leap into the audience from time to time, still playing, encouraging us to sing along.

In fact so strangely random was the set that with the two stand-out tracks, each came not as an opener or finale but at the mid-point in each of the two sets. One sung of angels and demons, and I would be hard pressed to describe it now. While the other was their anthem, ’Space Is the Place’. Except entirely different. 

In today’s bids for pseuds’ corner, imagine the recorded version as like being in the midst of sub-atomic particles, fragments ceaselessly turning and orbiting one another, according to some system clearly operating yet whose workings were inscrutable to you. While this version was based on a pulse. Over which the brass would at times line up and blast in unison, like birds along a telephone wire, and at others fly off in flurries.

Coming soon! Gig-going adventures will come again...

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