Monday, 26 November 2018


LSO, St. Lukes, London, Sun 18th Nov

The fiendish Fantomas was a French pulp villain, scheming enough to even usurp the title of his series. His fantastical and not always entirely credible exploits were not just beloved of the Surrealists, his tales have themselves been described as Pulp Surrealism: “not a story about deduction and detection but one of action and horror—a series of exploits, elaborate crimes, and daredevil antics featuring indeterminate identities, technological gadgetry and gruesome violence.”

Amiina are an Icelandic quartet, who sometimes double as the string section for Sigur Ros. The two meet over the second Fantamos film, ’Juve Contre Fantamos’ (1913), where the law enforcer finally got a look-in on the title. Perpetually swapping instruments, Amiina play such a wide variety of sounds that they virtually match the master of disguise for changes - taking in laptop electronics, plucking, bowing and some Godspeed-like tremolo guitar. As much as it has a dominant mood, it’s a combination of serene and eerie.

The only musical weakness is the tendency for the laptop to insert diegetic sound effects, whistles for trains and so on. What I want from a live soundtrack is for it to project a kind of musical filter over the film, not fill in the gaps. And besides, sound isn’t missing from silent films just because it’s absent. They’re semiotic in the way comic strips are. If someone fires a gun, expect a plume of smoke to alert you to the fact.

In two early surprises, after Factory Floor’s ‘Metropolis’ here’s another foreign film without subtitles. While - sacre bleu - my French is even more merde than my German is scheise. Still, it matters less here. Following the plot would be something of a fool’s errand. As Geoffrey O’Brien wisely points out “Fantomas is not a puzzle but an intoxicant.”

As surprising but more happily, after I’d assumed it would be all interiors the early part of the film has multiple location shoots on the streets of Paris. These put you half in mind of Impressionist painting, and would have been involving to watch all on their own.

My favourite scene was in fact the opening, a montage through some of his many disguises. Amiina use a variant for the CD cover. But while it’s tempting to describe Fantomas as having many identities, it’s truer to say beneath those stage whiskers he has none. Certainly, one was never revealed. So he becomes a perpetual, irrefutable antagonist force, the ghost who never gets turned back into the Caretaker. When not in any specific disguise he dons head-to-toe black.

And if that makes him a malevolent shadow, then that fits perfectly. Chesterton famously described the criminal as the creative artist and the detective only the critic. And there’s a scene here where Juve eavesdrops on the plotting Fantomas through a vent, suggesting Confession. But this series takes it up a step from there. I always imagine the flat-footed, rule-bound Juve is chasing his own shadow, the creative but unbridled part of himself. But, failing to understand the id needs reconciling with the ego, even when he catches his foe he’s unable to keep hold of him. Reconciliation impossible, the chase becomes perpetual. And indeed, in the last of the original novels just as they drown together Fantomas tells Juve they are twin brothers.

On the downside… silent films are inevitably slower, scenes taking longer as actors try to convey their lines through the power of gesticulation. But this film seems particularly beset by that. It’s often structured like a series of magic tricks, with the props demonstrated to the viewer before proceedings can actually begin. Imran Kahn at Pop Matters describes this second instalment as a ”caper-esque narrative… at the expense of the moody atmosphere that made the first instalment an engaging experience.”)

Perhaps the problem is that what we want from a film like this should come fast, a succession of crazy concepts and images flashing before our eyes. A better idea might have been embracing the surreal dream logic and going for a kind of ‘best of’ showreel. After all, what we see isn’t a complete work anyway but merely one segment in an ongoing serial, complete with cliffhanger. A serial which, while it might at some point finish, could never really conclude. Fantomas is a classic example of buffet not meal, an assortment of enticing morsels.

And that seems to me the thing comic fans and collectors never really got. A character like Fantomas is iconic, so any iteration of him is never going to be as strong as the idea of him. Getting closer to the text, or gathering more of the text, never really does it. Any actual appearances should be used as a stimulus for the mind, the way a fetish stands for the spirit.

The merest snippet…

Cafe Oto, London, Mon 19th Nov

Sometimes associated with the genre free folk, the core of Charalambides (and the only people present here) are Tom and Christina Carter. The interweb describes them as a couple who started making music at home, purely for themselves, who gradually evolved into a group. (They’re since separated, if more recently reunited musically, perhaps explaining that otherwise odd publicity photo.)

And indeed their music does sound remarkably like it sprang from the same source, not a combination of efforts but a meeting of minds. Christina has one of those trilling, tremulous, clear-cold-water folk voices. But rather than find a musical counterpart for her, Tom’s guitar complements, playing high-register and with reverb. At times you stop hearing the two separately.

The set was all long tacks, some building up and falling back more than once. Christina would sometimes step right away from the microphone, to make her voice distant. Her vocals were mostly glossolalia, never using more than individual words.

With the duo barely speaking to the audience and a low performance element, the gig head a seance-like feeling, as if it was just opening a channel and there was no telling what would come through. It could seem enchantingly beautiful yet also agonised. There’s something siren-like to it, as if you’re being drawn into something there’s no returning from. Is it ecstatic and transcendent or spectral or perhaps both at once? The point, I think, is the lack of distinction between those things.

With all this talk of transcendence it’s bizarre that Cafe Oto quote the Wire over the duo having “emerged from the American desert”, when they were actually founded in downtown Houston. Bizarre but appealing. Sometimes the only inspiration you need is on the inside.

Two surprise elements seem even odder in combination. Tom’s guitar was the only instrument, while there were no real song elements. (From what little I know of their recorded output, this is unusual.) These were bold steps but also somewhat limiting. It became like various iterations of the ‘free’ end of their spectrum, with little of the ‘folk’.

It’s perhaps important to say the songs aren’t required for the free-form sections to wrap round. On record songs pass in the way clouds might form recognisable shapes, only for them to soon break up and disappear again. In fact much of Charalambides’ appeal lies in the way they can slip between music genres like a spirit. It’s less ostentatiously presented fusion food and more like some supernatural version of natural, like they don’t even see the walls as they pass through them and can’t see why everyone else is stopping. The band’s name, borrowed from a customer of the record store where they worked, evokes this aspect of their sound – undulatingly elegant.

Without these key elements, the gig was interesting and often involving - but you felt what was missing.

Same tour, ‘nother night…

The Haunt, Brighton, Tues 20th Nov

It might not seem so long ago that a Canadian post-punk bad was playing the Haunt. Except, had they been back in the day, Preoccupations would have signed to Factory Records. Whereas Ought are more Rough Trade material. They’re less romantically alienated and more archly disdainful. Every band member looks born to wear a thin tie, even though no-one’s actually wearing a thin tie.

This gig, however, started with quite a New Wave sound. After a few numbers which might have won minor chart placements in 1979, I was starting to fear the worst. Whereupon they suddenly switched gears. Even Tim Darcy’s voice switched, from sweet to sour.

The propulsive guitars set themselves against the drag of a metronomic keyboard riff. As a general guide, imagine a cross between the jittery agitated outsiderness of early Talking Heads and the aloof art pop of Magazine. Preppy yet sassy, Tim Darcy is like someone sneering from the audience had been shoved on stage to see if he could do better. Only to find he could.

Typically sardonic line would be “tell me what the weather’s like so I don’t have to go outside” or “I am no longer afraid to die/ Cause that is all I have left”. (Ironically, the band were formed against a backdrop of the Quebec student protests.)

You could read endlessly on the web that punk’s an attitude, that it shouldn’t be reduced to a style of music. Yet the same thing’s true, perhaps truer, of post-punk, which sought not to make but to take over music like a virus does a host. At their best Ought do seem to have kept some of that bad attitude. And I love, perhaps above all things, disdain. To the point I can get gushingly enthusiastic on the subject. Which might be one of those post-ironic things.

As it all turned out discordantly in the end, I went home with something of spring in my step. Unfortunately, there’s a lack of sting in the tale. I later discovered the band’s history works in reverse order to this gig. It’s the earlier, lesser songs which are from the new album, ’Room Inside The World’, suggesting sour has yielded to bland. Ought, you shouldn’t oughta. Ah well. The sour stuff was sweet while it lasted.

Also right tour, ‘nother gig…

Coming soon! Still more gig-going adventures...

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