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Saturday, 21 July 2018

THE COSMIC DEAD/ PREOCCUPATIONS/ STEVE EARLE/ FORT PROCESS DISPERSION/ RADIO 3 EXPOSURE (SUMMERTIME GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

THE COSMIC DEAD
Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar, Thurs 12th July




On my second sighting of the Cosmic Dead, 
I remain as convinced as ever of the virtue of their collision of space rock with noise. (And before anyone starts, I know officially space has no sound to make noise in.)

Among the many reasons to despise New Age music is it’s fondness for star field backdrops, like they see the universe as some giant chill-out room complete with twinkly little lights. The cosmos… the actual cosmos is vast, unknowable, full of convulsive forces which would tear us apart in an instant. The drummer’s T-shirt promises “the light will devour us all”, which seems to sum the whole thing up quite nicely.

In fact since last time the band have had their own upheavals, and now sport both a new drummer and keyboard player. They start, perhaps unexpectedly, by singing and playing along to the pre-show Abba track over the PA. They then launch into a full-on noise number, with just a repeatedly chanted mantra vocal at the centre of the primordial chaos. This proved a baptism of fire for some, and numbers had thinned out before that track was done. Each to their own, I suppose.

Things coalesce a little more after that initial big bang. The penultimate track even has something of a groove, with the singer spinning seemingly spontaneous words about seagulls. (After someone in the audience kept shouting about them.)

Then the final number is lumbering, monstrous and very definitely riff-led. As if the sonic assault wasn’t enough on it’s own the band, while playing, dismantle the crowd barriers and venture out into the audience. As they handed out mikes to budding primal screamers, I assumed things would only degenerate, plunging into ear-shredding chaos until the plug was pulled. But they somehow managed to regroup back on stage and hammer that riff back into shape.

Which seemed to sum up the whole thing. They’re illustrating very much the opposite of the steady stake theory of the universe. Creation and destruction not as opposing poles but ebbing and flowing tides of energy. You’re probably wondering if I’m going to go on and say it was both lucid and frenzied. The answer is yes. Yes I am.

Lo-fi but from yer actual gig! Watch out for your lugholes…



PREOCCUPATIONS
The Haunt, Brighton, Sat 14th July



Preoccupations channel the music of the post-punk era, to the point be they could be a Factory signing who somehow fell through a time vortex and found themselves in contemporary Canada. There’s the freak disco of A Certain Ratio (as sighted only recently and in this very venue), 
to the point that when they spot a mirror ball aloft they ask for it to be lit up. But there’s also the haunted spaces of Joy Division and the “raining shards of glass” guitar sound of Keith Levene.

The guitarists often swap over to keyboards, though you’d often not know which was chosen sight unseen. Band member Scott Munro has commented “my ultimate goal would be to make a record where nobody knows what instrument is playing ever.”

They use cross-rhythms, the drummer in particularly could often be playing in the opposite direction to the rest of the band. (In, you know, a good way.) But the rhythms are themselves often pretty off-kilter, which makes for music weird down to it’s very marrow. The result sounds spectral and visceral at the same time, like a hand passing through a wall that still punches you in the chest.

Most people will know about the controversy over the band’s original name. Now they are no longer trading at Viet Cong, there doesn’t seem much reason to still bring the thing up. But in a way it shows how dodginess differs through the generations. Sixties anti-war activists would often uncritically champion the Viet Cong, in order to neatly divide the world into Yankee Imperialists and freedom fighters. Whereas now the term’s just become a sign, detached from any context and interchangeable with other signs - the way the coins in your pocket are interchangeable. And the only thing worse than bad politics is no politics.

Different venue but same tour…



STEVE EARLE + THE DUKES
The Dome, Brighton, Tues 17th July



Despite his high reputation and multiple years of service, I wasn’t previously very up on American country artist Steve Earle. In fact the catch-up nature of the experience reminded me of seeing Richard Thompson in this venue seven years ago.

So much so, in fact, I’d be tempted to call Earle the Richard Thompson of country. Both have been making music since the late Sixties (’68 and ’67 respectively). Both gigs focused on recent material but kept up a high hit rate, despite Earle playing the best part of two hours. Both gigs focused on roots music, but weren’t so exclusive as not to pull on several roots. Earle took in rock’n’roll and blues, including a cover of ‘Hey Joe’.

Earle is regarded as a more political songwriter than Thompson, something that comes up in his choice of emblem (a skull combined with a hammer and sickle) and his ’tween-song chat. (He is, it transpires, not the greatest fan of his current President. Can’t imagine why.) But rather than polemics he mostly writes character songs, which is often the best way into politics anyway, so even there the difference isn’t so great.

There was a strangely familiar deja vu effect where I’d keep imagining I’d heard songs before. Even if I have heard more Earle than I remember, it couldn’t have been in those numbers. I suspect it’s more a mark of their rootsiness, they work in so well they feel like they’re already in your blood on first hearing.

I may be remiss not just on Earle but Country in general. After the Thompson gig, I did manage to catch up on him at least a little. Whereas, several years back, after seeing Emmylou Harris (again in this venue) I vowed to start digging into her catalogue. But alas life intervened. There’s neither enough hours in the day, nor days in the week. Hopefully, I’ll have more luck in Earle’s case. If anyone has a favourite album to recommend…

From the gig! Yes, really, from the gig…



FORT PROCESS DISPERSION
De-la-Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, Sun 15th July



This “dispersion” was described by organisers Lost Property 
as “an all day building takeover at the historic and magnificent De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill”, as a warm-up for the full-on Fort Process in September.

Among all the noise assaults and musical experimentalism, The Legend of St. Winiborde was something of a surprise - though a welcome one. It was effectively a throwback to 1972, when folk music, left field strangeness and children’s TV didn’t seem like exclusive categories. It was a part sung part narrated fable, somewhat in the tradition of Oliver Postgate. The music went from charming naive melodies, illustrated by both the calm measured-voiced narration and the slideshow of simple lino cut drawings, to stranger instrumental sections.

Ostensibly it was quite a conservative story, how the natural harmony of a society is disrupted by someone who dares question things. Yet the evil apprentice figure became semi-sympathetic, perhaps even the protagonist. In other words, even his disruption became part of the natural order.

Whereas Plurals most definitely were leaving behind standard instrumentation. Two of the trio had guitars, but used them sparingly and as input devices, rather than as primary instruments. They also utilised radio voices, though I’m not sure whether they were recorded or plundered live from the airwaves.

The most common complaint about this sort of music is that it doesn’t go anywhere. But that’s just imposing rules on it from other genres, which don’t apply. First, it did develop, in the sense of shifting gears, building sounds up until they mulched into a drone, they graffiti-ing noise guitar on that wall of sound, before returning to the more ambient beginning.

But more importantly, it’s not intending to go anywhere so much as open up a space for you to get lost in. The band’s name surely comes from adding things together, not taking them forward. But there’s more to it than that…

Recently deceased Steve Ditko, genius comics creator (hurrah!) and Objectivist tub-thumper (boo!) took as his credo the phrase “a thing is what it is”. And if that sounds confining then fortunately its not even true on it’s own terms. Metamorphosis happens in nature all the time, and failure to notice it is Cro Magnon thinking calling itself common sense.

And a great appeal of this type of music is that a thing doesn’t have to be what it is, that it can’t be broken back down into notes like a sentence into syllables. Particularly with the addition of the radio voices, it had a liminal ‘between stations’ feel. Even what you hear you only semi-discern, like spying the shapes of objects in the fog.

Pursuing the radio metaphors, Johanna Bramli was less on my wavelength. Her set had its moments but was marred for me by some saccharine la-la vocals, which I just found New Agey.

The visuals, on the other hand… There’s no absolute need for a visual element to this type of music. The only thing I’d say is when there isn’t, arranging things in a traditional audience/ performer face-off becomes a bit redundant. But when there is, it should be done like this. Anything suggesting the tropes of rock videos or even any kind of narrative is clearly out.

This focused on “the brink of nature”, as the indicia said to an otherwise unremarkable exhibition elsewhere in the De La Warr. It’s the point where the natural tips into the abstract - roving close-ups of the pattern of tree bark, rock surfaces or the tide lapping on the shore. It’s not about introducing the foreign but reframing what you already see, finding the strange in the familiar.

The one thing you could say about this warm-up, without fear of contradiction, was that it was quite definitely warm. The De La Warr was essentially built for days like this, when the Channel becomes a turquoise colour field you could almost mistake for the Med, and ‘the English Riviera’ almost becomes a viable concept. (I took a few snaps, which I’ll post at some point.)

And Bolide were to conclude the afternoon playing from the outside bandstand. It would have been splendid to soak up their sounds and the sun from deckchairs, in such salubrious surroundings. Alas they were beset by sound problems, meaning half the band couldn’t hear the other half. (Something of an impediment for improvised music.) 


It concluded with someone audibly exclaiming “Thank God that’s over!”, who turned out to be a band member. Still, a grand day out overall - with the full Fort Process yet to come. It was a highlight of last year’s season, so hopes are high.

St. Winiborde and Plurals, though neither from the Dispersion…





Us true obsessives then hung around, littering up the normally neat De La Warr past sundown, awaiting...

RADIO 3 EXPOSURE
De-la-Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, Sun 15th July



Exposure 
is a series where Radio 3 tour new music venues to broadcast… well, new music. I think I have previously seen precisely two events which might be described as new music at the De La Warr, one of which was earlier that day. CafĂ© Oto it ain’t. But no matter, it’s a decent venue.

I only really took to one track from Jobina Tinnemans’ set, ’Silt’, where strummed strings were combined with some almost Goblin-like otherworldly vocals. In general, her work seems to stem from specific places and aiming to convey the weirdness of the local landscape. But that track, written about and first performed in Iceland, seemed the only one to genuinely stir up something.

Conrad Sheldrake’s shtick was to turn samples into songs - combining sound files as though they were instruments, one as the bass line, another the rhythm track and so on. He’d often run through those samples before launching into the song, foregrounding the elements which made up the collage.

His first song was dedicated to Carroll and Lear, and generally things had a comedic, absurdist edge to them. Which is something inherent in pop music anyway, waiting to be drawn out, the thin line between “Awop bop a loo bop a lop bom bom” and “Goo goo g’job.”

I kept feeling I should have liked his set more than I did. He was doing the sort of stuff I’d normally go for and was executing it effectively. The only formal drawback was his less than characterful voice. But, at least to me, he somehow failed to achieve lift-off. There was perhaps too much of an emphasis on cleverness, which can mar the bright clear pictures of pop songwriting.

It may well be that neither were natural live performers, so we were not hearing them at their best. (Rather summed up by the description of “sound artist Jobina Tinnemans performing a piano-based set”.) There’s something almost animist to electroacoustic music, as if sounds are held to embody a spirit, and so work like spells upon the listener. Whereas once the sound is detached from its source it becomes like a butterfly on a pin, something merely aesthetic.

In Sheldrake’s case, the set may have worked better had the sound files had been linked to film clips. By seeing those sounds produced (even if not live) may have linked them more with their source in our minds. But you have to take what you get.

My heart did not leap at the news Trevor Watts and Verion Weston played free jazz, a genre to which my general reaction is “respectfully disagree”. But parts of their set ventures into blues and soul, at times played surprisingly straight, at others put through some kind of organic distortion filter. True, at others, they veered back over to the other side of the highway. But I fared better than my expectation.

In the end, none of the three acts really grabbed me. Each seemed in it’s turn like the other act, the bit I was willing to sit through before my thing came on. So the night was neither a resounding success nor a crashing failure. Based on this exposure, I’d say the state of new music is fair to middling.

You can hear the whole thing on Radio 3 from Thursday.

Coming soon! After that surprise burst of music stuff in a normally relaxed July, the gig-going will now abate for more than a month. At which point the September spate will most likely arrive in earnest. Until then…

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