Saturday 7 December 2019


Chalk, Brighton, Thurs 28th Nov

Blanck Mass is the solo project of Benjamin John Power, one half of the inimitable Fuck ButtonsWikipedia describes his “musical style… as drone music, post-rock, electronic and experimental." While I caught him at the Mutations festival four years ago, this was the first time I’ve been immersed in the full-length gig.

The backdrop filmshow dropped out a couple of minutes in, leaving him looking a little nonplussed. After some backstage shenanigans, it resumed. And proved a perfect complement to the music, flickering rapidly between abstract coloured shapes which may once have been distortions of images, abstract coloured shapes which just looked like abstract coloured shapes, animal scenes and advertising images. (Disclaimer: this list should not be seen as exhaustive.)

Like the filmshow it was often hard to tell where the musical elements came from. There were pure electronic sounds, what sounded like treated samples, distorted voices (sometimes supplied live) and what may have been machine parts. (Disclaimer: this list should not be seen as exhaustive.) All hurtling past your ears at far too fast a rate for you to stop and analyse.

Or, for those who haven’t seen the backdrop filmshow, it also reminded me of the surrealist collages of Eduardo Paolozzi. (In fact the cover art to the most recent release ’Animated Violence Mild’, a bitten and bleeding apple, is itself something of a Surrealist collage.) Mid-set, he went into the most abstract noise, sounding almost like a field recording of continental drift in action. Which he them followed by the most straightforwardly dancey section of the whole thing. But more often he’d overlay such elements, piled teeteringly over one another with cavalier disregard for musical norms. Like Paolozzi, his aim was to bombard you into a point past processing

Also, Paolozzi frequently used commercial advertising images - but not necessarily in an ironic or adversarial way, more like his eye was genuinely drawn to those bright shiny colours. As I said after an exhibition of his: “Instead of elitist disdain, we should revel in the situation, bathe in the cathode ray bombardment.” Similarly, Power can bring in dance tunes… at times quite regular party-time dance tunes, as if he simply loves the way they get people dancing. At the very same time he mixes them in with the most incongruous elements.

Then at other times he’d go into full-on power electronics mode, proving the point that this is the real punk music of today. The set finished in a sheer screamathon. It hadn’t lasted for much more than an hour but felt like two or three hours of music input had been compressed into one. Had it gone on any longer, I think my receptors may well have burnt out. With gigs finishing so early these days, it was bizarre to emerge from so different a reality system and be back on the sofa to watch ’Question Time’.

Right tour, but Madrid not Brighton…

Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London, Thurs 5th Dec

Regular readers of Lucid Frenzy… that gag never gets old… will know I’m a fan of Spectralist music, and in particular the Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas. And the programme to this event quotes him to give perhaps the best summation of its twin tenets I’ve heard:

“Twelve tones… per octave are too few for me. I need smaller intervals, finer nuances. And I want to compose expressive, emotional music which moves and takes hold of people.”

After seeing his classic ‘In Vain’ five years back, I commented how his music is often “made up not of individual notes but something closer to sound fields”. Here this proved most true of the strings. A ten-strong string section dominates, playing minimal agitated strokes, with much more variation in the bow-wieding left hand than in the neck-holding right. But even when they all do the same thing they rarely do it at the same time, constantly slipping out of step with one another.

The composite effect is that of a swarm, buzzing like a flurry of disturbed bees. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever heard instruments swarm so much before! This would repeatedly stir itself into motion, grow bigger and more agitated, and then subside. The piano and percussion worked as a kind of counter-weight, much slower, much more assured, possibly even melodic.

I’ve said before that Spectralist music shouldn’t be assumed to be difficult, that it really is expressive, emotional music which takes hold of people. This, however, was perhaps on the more difficult end of the Spectralist spectrum. It lasts only forty minutes, but makes you work for each one of them. It’s formula, something very much like repetition but which isn’t actually repetition, presents something of a challenge to the listener. Do you chew on it, or just let it wash over you? But the results are worth the effort.

As the name might suggest the composition was a tribute to the acclaimed Op artist Bridget Riley, currently on show at the nearby Hayward gallery. (A show, alas, I’m unlikely to make.) After ’In Vain’, I commented how I loved the piece but didn’t think I’d have got the theme (opposition to fascism) unaided. And I’m probably the same here.

But then that’s not really the point. There was a brief pre-concert filmshow which ended on one of her paintings. This led me to briefly fear they’d slideshow her works through the piece. Happily they left comparisons more open and associative, less deterministic.

On the other hand, once you were tipped off it did provide a particular perspective on her. Haas finds the basis of her art not in the repetition or patterning but in the dynamism. As the programme puts it “they are crowding in some direction, cohering in some larger design, impelled by some force.” And this piece portrays her almost as a sorceress, evoking some inexorable force of nature which couldn’t be constrained.

Coming soon (ish)! More Spectralism!
Coming sooner than that! Back to the classic ’Doctor Who’ posts.

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