Saturday 1 June 2019


Black Rock, Brighton, Fri 24th May
Part of the Brighton Festival

Teatre Biuro Podrozy (aka Travel Agency Theatre) is an alternative theatre company, operating from Poland since 1988. The publicity reminded me of those Nineties-era performance outfits that came out of squat culture, such as the Mutoid Waste Company or the Dogs of Heaven, some hallucinogenic blend of Hieronymus Bosch and Mad Max set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Yet squat culture was essentially extinguished by Britain, by the simple if brutal expedient of extinguishing squatting. But the Mutoids themselves left the UK for less oppressive climes, so perhaps all that survived elsewhere…

This outdoor performance was described by the progamme as concerning “the continuing story of refugees and migrants caught up in a spiral of war and the dream of escape”. They specified this was in relation to the Middle East, but I was soon wondering whether that was being filtered through a Polish experience of history, a country in Sylvia Plath’s phrase “scraped flat by the roller of wars, wars, wars”.

The fiery wheel from the publicity image soon appears and becomes a defining metaphor for what followed, as settlers were plagued by successive waves of marauders. The first batch (seen in the illo) look Medievalist, but are soon replaced by a more modern army - as if we’re watching history on fast forward. While the settlers inhabit the stage the marauders often raise themselves off the ground, through stilts or wheels.

The performance well employs the physicality of the theatre. We’re well used to upsetting images shown via a screen, to the point they don’t upset us any more. Whereas you have quite a different reaction when the smell of real fire reaches your nostrils.

But the circularity of the fiery wheel, while driving force, also become a confine. It’s a short show, less than an hour. But to escape repetition each iteration has to add new props. Which at times make it one of those theatre shows where everything is doubtless symbolic of something or other. (Those metal poles, presented by the marauders as if a gift? Not a bleedin’ clue, mate.) Not performed with direct sound, the show had to be highly choreographed, which might well have added to this ritualised sense.

But there was an effective ending, largely through presenting so seemingly prosaic an image. The settlers, presumably realising their only choice has become to flee, made paper boats. A Council worker in high-vis then ambled on to hose the stage down. It’s an open note to end on. Was this the boats finding a tide so they might set sail, or just being washed away like street litter? Something no refugee can know before they start their journey.

It has not, to be honest, been a great Brighton Festival. I found there was less I wanted to see than normal, and from my admittedly limited perspective general attendance seemed down. It’s not that stuff was bad, so much as promising but with promises that were continually not fully fulfilled, the cumulative effect of which is frustrating.

Patterns, Brighton, Sat 25th May

Gnod are a band I’ve meant to catch live long before now. But somehow events have conspired against me, and things got to their thirteenth year before it happened.

The gig starts with the double drummers predominant, pounding a circular motif around which the rest of the band arrange themselves, almost like the Butthole Surfers. But the combined force of three… yes, three guitars soon kicks in in earnest. Gnod are, it would be quite hard to miss, a heavy riffing band. Their riffs are powerful and yet unpropulsive. They effectively hang in the air. They’re not just heavy, they’re dark and viscous. Tracks don’t progress so much as thicken.

There are vocal sections, but they don’t really seem the point of the exercise. The music itself does the talking. The set runs all the tracks together, joining them by patches of feedback, which adds to the overpowering sense. The set seems a single thing, a black monolith.

Though at times they lay on repetition to insanity and beyond, just like Sabbath back in the day they’re able to throw in unexpected changes. Guitars gang up in the onslaught but can turn against one another, less counterpoint than counter-forces in grinding tectonic plates of sound. It feels entirely unpredictable at the same time it feels unescapable.

Getting all carried away in the heady atmosphere, I came to see the set as like falling into the power of underworld demons, being smashed into pieces then reassembled in a different order. And, reading a few online reviews, I don’t seem the only one to go in for such fancy talk.

They have a (kind of) religious name. But perhaps more importantly like Swans, who they to some degree resemble, their music isn’t just powerful but overpowering, essentially oppressive. Yet, like Swans, people often talk of it in quite spiritual terms. It’s like the act of surrendering to its onslaught is in itself quite blissfull, as you trust it to take you where you need to be.

Nigh-on thirty minutes of earshred from London the following night…

Then after something that could scarcely be any more of a Saturday let-rip, along came Sunday and...

St. Luke’s Church, Brighton, Sun 26th May

If I’d not had the pleasure of knowing Gnod before now, in happier news I’ve managed to catch the Necks numerous times, stretching back to Lucid Frenzy’s Ye Olde Print Days. (Even if I missed the last show.) They come self-described as “one of the great cult bands of Australia. Not entirely avant-garde, nor minimalist, nor ambient, nor jazz, the music of The Necks is possibly unique.” As ever the trio provided two long, improvised pieces separated by an interval.

The first was perhaps the classic Necks experience, slow to find its way but progressing like a trickling stream with soon becomes a surging torrent. Lloyd Swanton’s hands on his double bass neck proved almost a timeline for the piece, initially providing brief snaps on the upper neck, slowly migrating down before finally starting with the bowing. Much of Chris Abraham’s piano was quite Minimalist in nature, short phrases played circularly.

Yet, however good it is to hear more Necks, the second piece was more unique and so the one which really made the night. It got going much more quickly, with Swanton bowing from the start. Abrahams played longer, more rolling melodic passages while Tony Buck largely kept to percussion. Combined with Swanton’s slow, measured bowing the effect was mesmerising.

Despite originating in Jazz, surely one of the more urban music forms, and in Sydney, not the smallest of towns, nature analogies do seem to lend themselves to the Necks. Partly to do with their unhurried pacing, partly to do with their music having a kind of understated might.

And the very last sighting, in fact, I was comparing their sound to wide open spaces. Which well matched the first section of this second number. But like a river the Necks can take strange curves. And from there it grew sharper and tighter, like a panorama shot across rolling hillsides which then shifts into close focus. (And if that seems a curveball, wait until you hear what happens mid-way through their latest DC, ’Body.’
There are several bands who could be said to match John Peel’s description “always different, always the same”. But the Necks must be prime among them.

A nigh-on seven minute excerpt, a mere smidgen of a track in Necksland…

… plus the trio in fine form in their home town. Forty-plus minutes duration, but worth staying for…

Coming soon! Blog hols...

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