Saturday, 18 December 2010

Seeing sounds and hearing thunder: All Tomorrow's Parties curated by Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Minehead, Somerset - 03 to 05/12/2010

For Pitchfork-reading hipsters, the return of Godspeed You! Black Emperor to the live stage after nearly nine years of silence must have seemed like the second coming and the Montreal-based band duly delivered with a performance on each of the three days. 

There can be no denying the draw of GY!BE. "Post-rock" is essentially a non-genre, a meaningless term in 99.99% of cases (I can only really think of Talk Talk and, possibly, Tortoise, as being bands thus-defined who actually deserve the tag). Even GY!BE are anchored in "rock" music, both conceptually and instrumentally.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor
But where Godspeed stand head-and-shoulders over the liked of Yndi Halda, Explosions in the Sky or Mono, is that their clarity of vision, and strength of composition is, at times (notably on their seminal masterpiece from 2000 Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven), unparalleled in modern popular rock music. In the two sets I caught over the course of the weekend, their vision was perfectly -if a little heavy-handedly- encapsulated by the stirring 16mm film footage played out behind the band during every song, the soaring violin lines and walls of gorgeous guitar melodies gaining extra potency through the abstract images of fires, ruined cities and blurry landscapes enfolding in the background. And there are few bands out there who can draw emotion out like Godspeed. Their music is sad, mournful, powerful and dramatic in equal measure, raging squalls offset by gentle acoustic passages, sampled voices and that omnipresent violin. During the Saturday set, I sat down on the floor, surrounded by similarly prostrate people, drinking in the musical fountain. At times, it was stunning.

You know what's coming though - a "but". Unfortunately, for all the beauty and emotion, there is something I find very irritating and contrived about Godspeed You! Black Emperor, at least live. For a band that's so static, there's a lot of posturing involved, and a sort of "look-at-us-we're-so-emotional-and-musically-adventurous" vibe reeks from them like methane. In many ways, this is similar in its contrivance to the worst of seventies prog (such as Yes or ELP), but I feel that for some reason, rock's self-appointed arbiters of taste are remarkably more forgiving of GY!BE's excesses and pretension. Such is life, I guess. So, two remarkable and moving sets but, if I'm honest, Godspeed's best contribution was the line-up they assembled for the weekend rather than their own weighted contributions.

But what a line-up! Possibly the best I've ever seen at a (relatively) mainstream UK festival, with a remarkable array of forward-thinking music, from free jazz to modern composition via noise, drone and experimental rock. Such an overload of talent meant I missed Neurosis (not that fussed, really), Tim Hecker, Josephine Foster (gutted) and Wolves in the Throne Room, yet still caught some of the most exciting and breath-taking live shows I've ever seen.

But before any of the pleasure could be taken in, before we could even set out for Minehead, we were hit with the tragic news of the death of Throbbing Gristle's Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson, meaning Friday's set by X-TG had to be canceled, a minor loss when compared to how bereft the musical and artistic world has been left by this dreadful passing. Having been blessed with the chance to see Sleazy live in what turned out to be the last-ever TG gig in London back in October, I can testify to his genius, and it was a real shame to not get to see what X-TG could have achieved as a trio. RIP Sleazy.

But, sometimes painfully, life goes on, and those acts that remained did a good job of (almost) putting my sadness at Sleazy's passing to the back of my mind. Obviously, not all was perfect (as you've probably already gathered), and I was a tad disappointed in both Black Dice and Bardo Pond. The former were the first band I caught on the Friday, and I had high hopes, probably somewhat stupidly given they were based on my love for their Beaches and Canyons album, which came out way back in 2002. Obviously, their style has evolved enormously since then, and they come across as an American answer to Bristol's Fuck Buttons, in that they may have a grounding in noise music, but they have long since moved into more electronic areas, sometimes to the detriment of their harsher edges. Having said that, their incorporation of frenetic Detroit beats and traces of Brooklyn hip-hop were expertly managed, much in the way Fuck Buttons did a solid job a taking harsh noise and trance and somehow making them fit together. However, unlike the two Briton's, I didn't feel that Black Dice had the tunes to really back up their obvious musical knowledge, and most of their set is now a bit fuzzy to me, something I swear has sweet f.a. to do with all the vodka I drank! Good sounds, but nowhere near as memorable as the seminal Beaches and Canyons.

If you have read my blog before, you will know the esteem that I hold Bardo Pond in. I consider their 1996 opus Amanita to be nothing short of a masterpiece, as well as the debut album of side-project Baikal. So I was excited to be catching them again at ATP, albeit rather early on the Saturday. Their heady drones and trippy melodies will always to me be better suited to late-night gigs. And, loud and fuzzy, they delivered as promised, at least at first, as old faves snaked out of the speakers early on to subsume my senses in psychedelic mulch. Sadly, the second half of their set was given over to their new material, and honestly, it does not hold up to what they have done before. The main cause seems to be a clearer, cleaner sound, apparently geared towards promoting Isobel Sollenberger's voice, but which basically caused their songs to drift out of the grunge-meets-Hawkwind vibe of their earlier material, and into something more mainstream and, sadly, forgettable. The tunes simply did not live up to the ambitions they may have, and without the Gibbons' brothers messed-up guitar feedback placed front-and-centre, the whole thing felt a bit by-the-ropes. A shame (especially as they are all lovely people - yes, I got to meet them), and here's hoping they return soon to the vibrant mix of drifting psych and fuzzed-out bile that made them so compelling in the first place. Meanwhile, I'm gonna listen to "Limerick" and down a bottle of absinthe, for the memories!

Chris Corsano
In fact, rock, for me, took a bit of a back-seat, at least initially, during a festival marked by the delirious joys of sonic improvisation. Given the negative perception improv in rock had obtained by the end of the seventies (thanks, Prog, or should that be an invective against the narrow-mindedness of Punk?), it's great to see it back at the forefront of underground rock expression, and the Flower/Corsano Duo, made up of prolific drummer Chris Corsano, and Vibracathedral Orchestra's Mike Flower on a weird mixture of lap steel guitar and sitar, demonstrated this expertly. What a lot of critics, both of improv (those from a rock purist background) and rock (those from a jazz/improv purist background), seem to forget, or not note, is how vibrant the mixture of unpredictability and uncertainty that improv brings to rock can be, in the right hands. Corsano has drummed in noise and free jazz acts, and his rhythms were alternately hard-hitting and subtle, crushing Flower's mystical avalanche of notes under waves of thrashing cymbals and toms, before suddenly pulling back to create space and time for the music to breathe and grow. The result was a summation of the best of Vibracathedral's oddball drone and the unfettered violence of free-jazz noise, as if both were being sublimated by the association of such disparate approaches. An unlikely, and most welcome surprise, early on in the festival.

The Dead C would elevate matters to another level altogether on Saturday. The veteran New Zealanders' sense of improvisation is far-removed from the dexterous, virtuoso approach of many free-jazz/avant-garde musicians or wannabes. The Dead C unleashed a bloody-minded mixture of drone and pure rock that came on like Neil Young, only stripped of even that most obtuse of rock star's sense of commercial nous. But just as with Crazy Horse there was a sense that, even as these three living legends strained towards the stratosphere on wings of distorted guitar noise, moaned vocals and scattered drumming, there was the perpetual risk the whole thing could fall apart and collapse into a seething miasma of ruined, atonal mulch. This lingering feeling of chaos gave their set an undercurrent of dread, tension and edge, something accentuated by the crushing volume and the vicious undertones of Michael Morley's deadpan voice. Far from the intricacies and cleanliness of a lot of jazz or post-rock improvisation, this was a pure sonic overload, as easily indebted to punk as it was to Miles Davis.

A completely different form of avant-garde music came on the Friday night, in the form of veteran turntablist/hauntology pioneer Philip Jeck, long a personal idol of mine, and whose appearance became a quasi-spiritual event for me, and even my friend James, who was unfamiliar with the great Liverpudlian's work. Jeck's method is singular, using broken or aging vinyls and filtering them through a gaggle of effects machines to create haunting and unusual drone/electronic pieces of remarkable simplicity and subtle elegance. Live, his constantly-shifting sounds filled the room with an ethereal haze as he stood hunched over his compact set-up, looking more like a tired accountant pondering some complicated figures. Pieces would start out seeming fragile and intricate, before impromptu blasts of hissing drone would interrupt the flow, dragging the audience into new and unexpected environments, never allowing us to settle into a sonic comfort zone. It was a deeply moving and hypnotic set, one of the best of the weekend by far.

Philip Jeck

Indeed, Jeck set the tone, really. Whilst younger or more frivolous acts left me nonplussed, once again it was the elder statesmen who demonstrated just how to communicate on both intellectual and emotional levels with their audiences. On Saturday we were treated to an exceptional solo performance by highly-regarded saxophonist John Butcher, who must have felt a bit odd to be blasting out his adventurous jazz improvisations to such a distinctly "rock" audience. Butcher's work is astounding: he not only assails you with a wondrous torrent of sparkling, strident or melodic sax notes, in the grandest tradition of Brotzmann and Evan Parker, but he completely reworks the concept of playing the saxophone altogether, going so far as to use his saliva and breathing as new ways of creating and exploring sound, with startling results that transcended free jazz as a genre. His short, beautiful, set was the most unlikely of the festival, and a welcome foray into more subtle and challenging realms of musical art.

Charlemagne Palestine was another wondrous veteran who lit up the festival with a set that was bizarre, unusual and beautiful. Palestine sets are renowned for their ritualistic nature, and this was no exception, with a suitcase overflowing with toys placed in front of him whilst he rubbed a glass of cognac ("the world's first synthesizer") and chanted an impregnable dirge, that seemed to owe much to Native American song. With his outlandish clothes and mannered gait, he could have been comical, but such was the intensity of his delivery that he held the room in his grasp, like Jeck resulting in something heady and spiritual. After he was done with the chanting, he returned to his laptop to unleash a room-shaking heavy drone, displaying the degree to which modern classical composers like him cast a long shadow over latter-day noise music.

Charlemagne Palestine, with cognac!
The biggest disappointment of the weekend, beyond the tragic no-show of X-TG obviously, was the inexplicably short appearance by seminal German duo Cluster. It was doubly sad, as what they did play (all of 30 minutes, tops) was even superior to the monolithic set I saw them deliver at the Royal Festival Hall last year, when they supported -and jammed with- Tortoise. Here, bolstered by an almost Chemical Brothers-like light and with sharp, pulsating beats underpinning shimmering electronics and ephemeral sound snippets, they moved far beyond the minimalist drone of their seventies output and into a hybrid form of techno, much in the manner of exciting current acts like Flying Lotus and Demdike Stare, only with a much greater emphasis on improvisation and towering walls of heavy sound. That it was so exciting only added to the frustration at the brevity of their set. 

But that was really the only real quibble of a really memorable festival. Even the by-the-ropes jamming of Oneida and bog-standard but fun post-punk of The Ex contained some great moments that made them worth catching. But, as with my visit last year, when SUNN O))) effectively annihilated everything that came before, once again my final sets would prove to be the most exhilarating, even taking into account the marvels that had come before. I guess it's as much down to fatigue after three days of constant music (after all, I'm pretty sure Jeck, Butcher and Palestine were easily as good, and at times better than what hit me on the Sunday night), but the effect that both Keiji Haino and Emeralds had on my sense and emotions was electric. 

Keiji Haino
I'd been dying to see Haino, one of avant rock's true great mavericks, and I'm pleased to say he did not disappoint. I was unsure of which Haino I'd get. Would it be the minimalist vocal experimenter? The solo guitar shredder? A Haino fiddling with electronics, inspired by his recent, excellent, collaborations with Pansonic? Ironically, it was all at once, and it was a marvel to see this diminutive Japanese veteran with his waist-length grey hair flailing around as he ripped punishing, post-metal salvos from his beleaguered six-string before leaping to one of three microphones to howl, squeak or wail away in some deranged parody of Buddhist chanting (something that, of course, hints at the spiritual -that word again!- nature of much of Haino's work). When he wasn't giving us some of the best explorations of guitar and vocals (and I could go on for ages about how this saturated, excessive approach to those two instruments is, for all its modernist bombast, a direct descendant of the acoustic Delta blues of the Thirties, but shan't), he blasted away on droning electronics, creating a vicious wall of thumping, sprawling noise. It was the loudest gig of the night, and indeed the weekend, and as I craned my head back to take in the screes, squalls and roars, I experienced true bliss. He's back in the UK in April, and all I can say is that you would be mad not to go and see him, if you can.

Emeralds could, after such a rip-roaring display, seemed pale in comparison. Indeed, when I saw them in 2008 on a double bill shared with Pain Jerk, another bonkers Japanese noisicean, they'd been rather unremarkable, and overwhelmed by Pain Jerk's raucous noise. But the American trio have come on in leaps and bounds since then, releasing a couple of excellent albums, the latest, Does It Look Like I'm Here? on esteemed avant-garde/electronic/noise label Editions Mego. In contrast to the wet new-age of the '08 gig, the sound here was fierce, impossibly loud, and propelled forwards by hard-hitting drum machine beats. Closer to noise music than before, but still anchored in the trippy "kosmische" vibe they've come to master, it was absorbing and surprising throughout, with oddly head-banging moments stirring the ethereal haze and unexpected and welcome moments. I was particularly enthused by guitarist Mark McGuire, who no longer remained seated but instead appears to have ditched the awkward surf-guitar noodlings of his earlier contributions for more, dare I say, "Haino-esque" barrages of saturation and fuzz. A wondrous send-off for a wondrous festival.

Much was made in the programme over a rebuff by ATP's head honcho of The Wire magazine's recent dismissal of the event. In fairness to the organisers, they responded in style with a varied, challenging and exciting line-up. Ironically, of course, most are bands and artists that have regularly been heralded in the pages of The Wire. But really, such quarrels seem silly when you're bathing in the blissful ocean of rapturous music. I may not go to an ATP again for a while (I honestly don't see how they could top this one), and if so, this was a wonderful way to say goodbye. 

- J, Dec 2010


Full credit for the pictures here must go to Andrew Bowman and Scott McMillan of The Liminal (link below). Guys, if you want me to take them down, I will. Great pictures, though!

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