Monday, 28 September 2009

(Almost) a year in concerts

Pain Jerk + Emeralds - The Luminaire, London, January 24th 2009

I walked into this one more than a little bit innocently, having never heard anything by either band. But I'm a lover of drone and noise, and The Luminaire is in my neighbourhood, so it seemed like an opportunity worth seizing.

I wasn't disappointed by Pain Jerk. You have to hand it to them - the Japanese are masters of noise! From Les Rallizes Denudes to Merzbow, Fushitsusha to Mainliner, they have become experts at distilling ferocious guitar and computer saturation and vicious sound patterns. Pain Jerk, a forty-something longhair who uses a weird metal plate and his laptop to create a massive wall of unfettered, brutal noise, deserves his place alongside these greats. I have never been so grateful for ear plugs, and I'm pretty sure this was the loudest gig I'd ever been to. Bludgeoning, unrelenting, vicious - and only one sodding track! It all seemed a mess at first, but by letting the noise roll over me, I became aware of shifts and tempos in the miasma, and I am pretty sure that Pain Jerk's compositions require as much skill and expertise as the most virtuoso free-jazz.

As such, the more tranquil ambient-drone of Emeralds seemed a bit tame by comparison. They only had 40 minutes or so, and decided to dedicate them to one track as well, one that built up wave-upon-wave of keyboard drones and synth washes, punctuated by some rather ill-fitting guitar noodlings. Sadly, just as they seemed to get locked into some sort of Tim Hecker-ish groove, the track was over, leaving me, and my friend John Paul, feeling a bit deflated. After the sheer brutal power of Pain Jerk, Emeralds felt like an anti-climax. Not bad, per se (though, seriously guys, lose the Santana guitar), just a bit generic.

Still, the experience of Pain Jerk left me buzzing, and the Luminaire is a fantastic location, one of the best joints in London, despite an apparent curfew. Makes me proud to live in Kilburn.

The Equinox Festival - Conway Hall, London, June 13th 2009

A serendipitous find this, as I'd never heard of this festival until I perused a copy of The Wire magazine in Sister Ray (one of the best record stores in London, by the way). Discovering that a very recently-reformed Comus were going to headline the saturday, I immediately grabbed a ticket, although could only push to the one day, meaning I sadly missed John Zorn, Aethenor and Arktau Eos. Dammit!!

The Equinox Festival is a weird one. As well as music, there are screenings of bonkers movies, and talks given by people well-versed in subjects like magic, the occult, alternative sciences and heathen cultures. It's all very long-haired, platform-booted and chant-y, with some very curious characters, including real-life druids and "sorcerers". I even saw a guy with feathers in his hair wandering around barefoot clutchin an ornate walking stick. All very intriguing, but I did feel a tad out-of-place.

After the disappointment of not being able to watch Alejandro Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain due to a DVD failure, I got my first blast of heathen magic through a performance art, um, performance by Equinox organiser Raymond Salvatore Harmon, who improvised weird multi-coloured video projections whilst a buddy blasted out distorted free-jazz trumpet solos. A real first in my live music experiences, the closest being the afore-mentioned wild noise gig by Japanese freak Pain Jerk in January.

But the music remained the highlight of the day. First up was Italian noise/drone artist K11 (aka Pietro Riparbelli) who uses radio signals to create drawn-out drone opuses that seemed to seep out over the audience like black sludge. His distorted vocals and weird sounds were meant to evoke the ghosts of Alistair Crawley (K11's -excellent- album was recorded in the famous "satanist"'s former house in Italy) and it was a deeply fascinating and unnerving performance. Sadly for him, though, he was outdone by Jex Thoth's occasional backing musician Burial Hex, who came over from his native Wisconsin to saturate our senses with heathen noise and warped vocals. His use of upright piano added a sense of melancholy to his unholy screams and fucked up computer sounds, making him one of the highlights of the whole evening. A nice change after the unmemorable Yan-gant-y-tan who preceded him. Shame he wasn't given more time, as he was replaced after 30 minutes or so by the slightly peculiar, and ultimately unsatisfying Kinit Her, who had some good ideas, and a decent mix of dark folk and angular rock, but ultimately failed to capture an audience by now crying out for Comus.

And the veterans didn't disappoint! It helps that chanteuse Bobbie Watson's looks and voice are still impeccable, even at 50+. And their sound is still as vital and arresting as ever, as they blasted their way through a complete rendition of seminal album First Utterance. All were in fine voice, their twisted, evil psych-folk songs sending the audience into raptures, despite the occasional sound problems.
Lead singer Roger Wootton howled away like a man possessed, whilst guitarist Glenn Goring showed he has lost none of his virtuoso touch. The stand-outs were the heavily percussive freak-out "Drip Drip", "Diana" wherein Wootton and Watson's voices blended to tunning effect, and the desperately beautiful "The Herald" that showcased Bobbie Watson's uniquely ethereal voice. It was all over too soon, and I have never seen a bad so delighted -and surprised!- by an applause than these guys were as they basked in the rapturous adulation of a packed Conway Hall.

All in all, The Equinox Festival was an odd experience, one I'll definitely repeat and one that more people such as Julian Cope need to tune in to and promote. It stands as a real alternative to the morass of crappy mainstream junk out there.

Hard Rock Calling - Hyde Park, London, June 27th 2009

Of course, I was there for Neil Young. The great man was appearing in London yet again, and there was no chance I would miss it, despite a raging hangover and no-one to go with. I don't need to go on about how much I love Neil Young. I've already waxed lyrical about his Hop Farm Festival gig (still the best one I've ever seen) and lauded his underrated Year of the Horse album. And if I'm honest, the rest of this day of Hard Rock Calling was a bit, well, shit.

The Pretenders, led by the ever-sexy Chrissie Hynde tried their best with their souped-up boogie, but it was too early in the afternoon and my head felt like my eyeballs were trying to force their way out of their sockets. A big yawn for Ben Harper, who was energetic but really needs someone to tell him his songs are forgettable. And fuck off with the Jesus bollocks! Fleet Foxes were cruelly unsuited to the venue. I can't say I've been swayed by the hysteria surrounding these guys, but even I could tell that their mostly-acoustic folk-rock was never going to be pacy or energetic enough to capture an audience of what? 10000? So they tanked. Aside from Neil, in fact, only The Magic Numbers, headlining the second stage, really shone thanks to an honest and high-energy set that was as endearing as it was fun.

So, mildly nonplussed, I pressed my way towards the main stage, constantly reminded via shoves, insults and flying beer that mainstream London audiences are basically made up of cunts. But Neil didn't disappoint. Part of me thinks this gig may even have been better than the Hop Farm one, and that I just couldn't properly appreciate due to the dickheads that were bulldozing their way through the crowd (almost causing a riot) and the fact that I was still suffering from my self-inflicted ailment.

But Young balefully smashed through his set, blasting out all the greats: "Cinnamon Girl", "Down By The River" (yet another monstrously long version - I never get tired of it), "Hey Hey, My My", "Fuckin' Up" and more. I felt for the people staying in the numerous adjacent hotels, as surely the wailing and screaming of The Loner's faithful Old Black must have had their rooms shaking. The band was as tight as ever, the acoustic interlude mercifully brief (in my condition, I needed NOISE!) and his transcendent riffs and liquid solos made my irritation towards my fellow festival-goers seem miles away.

And, after pummeling a molten version of "Rockin' In the Free World" into the ground (you had to be there, it was hilarious - every time we thought the song was up, he'd launch right back into the chorus like a belligerent child), he was off. But not for long. He came back on, talked mysteriously to someone in the wings, then launched into current favourite encore song "A Day In The Life" (by the Beatles, for all the morons out there). And mid-way through, who the fuck should bound on-stage? Of course, his royal tweeness himself, Paul McCartney! I've been a big fan of Beatle Paul, but his appearance sent the audience into raptures and I have to admit I was one of them. It was a delirious moment, made even more so when Neil started wigging out on guitar and Macca himself prosternated himself before the Great Canadian. Seems everyone that night was aware who is the greatest singer in the world. And no, it wasn't Beatle Paul!

Oneida + Teeth of the Sea + Mugstar - The Garage, London, August 18th 2009

OK, admission time. I didn't fork out my £10 to go and see the headliners on August 18. I went for Teeth of the Sea, whose debut album, Orphaned by the Ocean, may just be the best album of 2009. I'd already seen them once, in January, when they'd be waaaay down the billing at The Hoxton Square Bar and Kitchen behind some crappy Horrors wannabes and shitty indy-pop bands. TOTS had blown me away to the point that I was booing the other acts who had forced these minor geniuses off after just twenty minutes.

So there was no way I was going to miss the chance to see a bit of a longer gig. Their appearances are too seldom to justify that. And they would be opening for Oneida, a band I knew little about and couldn't wait to discover.

Both were awesome. My friends and I did have to sit through the tiresome metal-psych wobblings of Mugstar, distracting ourselves with lashes of beer at the bar, but once TOTS came on, I was running straight down to the front to take in their sound.

It's a hard sound to describe. Taking their cues from Fuck Buttons, TOTS are great at creating mind-numbingly loud noise-fests, the kind that batter you to the ground and warp your senses. But they're also subtle and emotional, with jittery, nervously angular guitar, washes of synth, krautrocky percussion and, weirdest of all, trumpet all bursting through the noise to take the listener into some sort of weird modern psych or prog, the true definition of modern music!

Again, the performance was awesome, all four guys standing in a line bashing out the most outlandish art-punk-prog heard since the heyday of Krautrock. But again - too short! They were off after only 4 (admittedly amazing) songs! I know good things are supposed to come in small doses, but come on!

So, I retired to the bar to drown my disappointment, and it was from this vantage point that I was able to watch Oneida blow the place away with their raucous heavy-psych. Personally, as much as I liked their drum-heavy, driving rock, I felt TOTS still had the edge in terms of inventivity and innovation. But, it's hard not to like Oneida, with their swirling light show and literally amazing drumming (think Klaus Dinger meets Bill Ward). And I've since gone out and bought their very excellent Pre-teen Weaponry album, and it's great!

But again, I cannot recommend Teeth of the Sea enough. if you have a chance to go see them, don't pass it up. I know I won't. Roll on November the 20th!

Jesu + Kayo Dot + Caina - The Luminaire, London, September 18 2009

And so, back to Kilburn's immortal Luminaire (I'm praying the rent doesn't go up on the place, especially with Grouper still to appear this year) for a concert I'd waiting seemingly years for. JESU!!! Former Godflesh overlord Justin K Broadrick has made Jesu his main platform these days, taking in heavy-metal of the doomiest kind and adding elements of ambient, psych and shoegaze for a seriously heady cocktail. His latest album, Infinity, is a 50-minute one-track opus, and I was keen to see how he would translate this very studio-minded approach to the stage, especially as he would only be joined by trusty bassist Diarmuid Dalton. What, no drums??

First up was the very forgettable Caina, who by their own admission were crap and had hardly ever played any gigs. 'Nuff said, really.

I was excited to see Kayo Dot, who have made a name for themselves as a very intelligent and well-crafted blender of post-rock and seething metal. Sadly, two out of five of them had failed to be allowed into Britain, meaning their sound was more than a little stripped down as a result. The guy from Caina helped out briefly on drums, but fans of a bit of crunch (and I could tell there were many, it's a fucking Jesu gig after all) would have been very disappointed. Kayo Dot's sound was more akin to jazz or experimental music, with snaky guitar, gentle percussion and very dominant keyboards and violin. An excellent sound, that I was enjoying mightily from my little perch at the edge of the stage, but one probably more suited to the Purcell Room or Cafe Oto than the Luminaire on a night one of modern metal's darlings is performing. The guys with their long hair, scraggly beards and Godflesh t-shirts seemed mightily bemused!

And then -bang on time- the main man was there, setting up his own gear to rapturous applause. JBK is an imposing chap, with his crew-cut hair, massive Dr Martens and baggy jeans. And that's even before he brings out his monstrous seven-string guitar and humungous pedal box!

What followed was awe-inspiring. Using a computer to generate any missing sounds, including drums, JBK stormed his way through a monumental set, lifting classics from his first two albums and lesser-known lights from his EPs. "Conqueror" and "Friends Are Evil" were my highlights, the sheer volume adding extra weight to his mournful tunes and saturated guitar. JBK proved his class on the axe all night, extricating a whirlwind of distorted solos and thundering riffs from his axe like a latter-day Jimi Hendrix, stomping back and forth on the stage and banging his head away as he mauled the strings. Even technical issues with one of the monitors didn't stop him thrashing, growling and roaring, watched by the stoical gaze of Dalton. At the end, the latter left the stage, leaving Broadrick to blast out the rippling, saturated excess that is "Infinity", in a shortened version. It's a guitar masterpiece, ever-shifting, ever-unpredictable and a great way to end a rip-roaring gig.

Thanks for reading...

What I'm currently listening to:

  • Kayo Dot: Choirs of the Eye (2003, Tzadik) - Inspired by the gig, I thought I'd give this much-lauded debut a whirl. Very experimental and wistful, I'd rate it a 4/5
  • Serpentina Satelite: Nothing to Say (2008) - Wonderfully dark and hard psychedelia. The shorter songs don't really do it for me, but the three long ones are as good as at-their-peak Ash ra Tempel, I kid you not! Surely a 5/5
  • The Wake: Here Comes Everybody (1985, Factory) Melancholy synth-post-punk that doesn't ever reach the heights of Joy Division, Section 25 or New Order, but does include the marvellous "O Pamela". 4/5
  • Kousokuya: 1st (1991, remastered 2003, PSF) Hugely underrated Japanese freak-metal, in the vein of Fushitsusha and Mainliner, and easily as good as both. A definite 5/5
  • Sergius Golowin: Lord Krishna Von Golocka (1973, Kosmische) Typically spacey, blissed-out kraut-folk with weird spoken word passage and fucking Klaus Schulze on keyboards!! 4/5
Plus: A Silver Mt Zion, Tortoise, Fuck Buttons, Ascend, CAN, AR & Machines, Kaoru Abe, Love Live Life + 1, Greymachine, Wild Beasts, The Heads, The Royal Family and The Poor, Crispy Ambulance, KTL and Oneida!! Get'em all!!!