Posts Tagged ‘avant-garde’

Brighton Beat: Thurston Moore and friends live

January 27, 2013

Thurston Moore at Green Door Store

Thurston Moore, the Green Door Store Brighton, 26th January 2013. Photo by Melita Dennett

 It’s not every day you get to see an old friend play an improvised musical face-off with an alt-rock legend, and it’s even more gratifying when said friend- Brighton drummer extraordinaire Andy Pyne, AKA Puffinboy, Foolproof Projects, and one-third of Medicine and Duty- more than holds his own against said legend, guitar hero to a (Daydream) generation, Thurston Moore.

I, by the way, hate the term ‘alt-rock’ as much as you do, but it’s a fair bet that whatever college radio jock or Spin magazine subeditor came up with the term, he (gotta be he) immediately defined it as “you know, stuff like Sonic Youth.” Moore’s former (?) band pretty much embodied that whole early nineties alternative music crossover; their pals Nirvana may have been more iconic, but they were too narrow, too specifically grunge where SY seemed to encompass and represent the whole diaspora of weird-ass music that was starting to filter through into the mainstream. Their story even sums up the whole era in microcosm: smart-ass post-punkers turned early ’80s NYC No Wave brats, gradually tuning their noise over the course of a half-dozen albums until they reached their decade-straddling imperial peak- the hugely influential 1988 double Daydream Nation, major label debut Goo and opinion-dividing, glam-pop-grunge classic / sellout Dirty (which I love)- then arguably moving gradually back towards their experimental improv roots over the course of the eight albums that followed (2006’s rock-recapitulating Rather Ripped perhaps excepted), not to mention the more consciously avant-garde side releases on their own SYR label.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that while Thurston Moore is a genuine icon and big deal rock star, it’s also no surprise to see him mingling so easily with the sellout crowd at this still intimate club matinee show; joining in with the improv event spirit of no barriers between performer and audience, no expectations, open minds and open boundaries. Because this is where Thurston came from and where, really, his heart and musical soul have always remained. He doesn’t exactly blend in- his tall, gangly frame is immediately recognisable and he hasn’t aged much in the 20 years since he was a regular fixture on MTV’s 120 Minutes– just a bit more pouchy- but he’s quiet, casual, approachable, and genuinely interested in the day’s supporting performers.

This is of course a benefit show to raise funds for this year’s Colour Out of Space festival. This important annual event, since 2006 Brighton’s more low-key, more artistically and experimentally oriented answer to Birmingham’s Supersonic, or an indoor, condensed forerunner of the mighty Supernormal, was sorely missed last year when it lost out on funding. So embodying the DIY ethos it celebrates, Colour Out of Space is Doing It itself, and will return in November, thanks to the support of artists like Thurston (who performed at the 2008 event) and everybody here.

Occult Hand are presumably named for the game played by a group of American newspaper journalists to see who could sneak the phrase “it was as if an occult hand…” into the most unlikely reports between 1965 and 2004. Dressed in natty hooded robes with a groovy cultish backprint, Isa Brooks and Henry Holmes crouched on the floor manipulating found sounds- eerie wails, what sounded like a demonic voice conjured in a seance- over the Kenneth Anger-esque film of some kind of Satanic ritual being projected behind them. It was an appropriate and evocative scene to walk in on, leaving the afternoon sunshine behind and passing through the black curtain into the Green Door Store’s dank and stonewalled back room.

In complete contrast, Lizzy Carey’s “Bag Lady Pot Pourri” was a warmly engaging performance based around at least two random elements; one being a bag of items bought from the closing down sale at the Hove charity shop Lizzy was a volunteer at (“fill a bag for a fiver” being the clearout offer), and the other a plastic pint glass of sticks she’d shake up to select which item would be pulled from the bag and made to contribute in some way. The result was an entertainingly chaotic cacophony: while the DJ span the 7″ singles she’d procured in the background, Lizzy played recorded interviews she’d conducted with her fellow charity shop staff, then over this read excerpts from tattered paperbacks, “played” a sheeps skull and a toy Thomas the Tank Engine, pressed old talking book cassettes into service, wrapped herself in a silk headscarf and a snake-buckle belt, and made imaginative use of a Connect 4 game.

Next up were the vocal duo Here Hare Here. Theres was a truly astonishing Dadaist sound performance using only mouths and diaphragms; ullulating, grunting, whimpering, screaming, chanting, humming, muttering, howling glossolia, the one random intelligible phrase “No Raymond, I’m a pearl diver” making me think of the similar fragment “not now Geoffrey, I’m amphibious,” from Alan Moore’s D.R. and Quinch comic strip. Visceral and cathartic, what was surprising was how unpretentious this short performance seemed; stood facing us straight on, the pair were focussed and disciplined but unrestrained, metaphorically naked in their raw self-expression.

If Here Hare Here were like Yoko Ono meeting Kurt Schwitters at an outdoor screening of Withnail & I, then the trio of Karen Constance, Duncan Harrison and Dylan Nyoukis were like a banned episode of The Goon Show written during one of Spike Milligan’s infamous nervous breakdowns. It’s not such a frivolous comparison; the 1950s radio programme was hugely influential and ahead of its time in its experimental use of cut-ups, surrealism and crazy sound effects, which included pioneering work by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Constance, Harrison and Nyoukis may have dropped the gags, but their set of sound collages included some amusing low-key physical theatre alongside the squeals, wails, grunts and tape manipulation.

I can’t comment on Lauren Naylor’s spoken word set as I didn’t catch enough of it, and I was disappointed that the veteran modernist poet Tom Raworth was a no-show- despite being listed on the initial event bill, he was apparently in Europe at the time. Brighton resident Raworth appeared alongside Moore at a sold-out show at London’s Cafe Oto last year, and I was hoping to have another chance to catch him here, but no such luck.

On then, to Pyne and Moore’s entirely spontaneous, improvised set. I can entirely believe that the first contact the duo had was an onstage handshake, before Andy passed Thurston a drumstick with which to percussively play his battered Fender Jazzmaster, the trademark screwdriver jammed beneath the strings. Cutting an unassuming figure with a grey woollen jumper still on over his shirt, Pyne began with a fast fluttering cascade of cymbals and hi-hat for Moore to warm up over, using an iron file to dance over the pick-ups. But before too long the pair had shifted dynamically into hard, droning avant-rock mode, resembling nothing so much as a primitivist, bassless Jimi Hendrix Experience; like the great Mitch Mitchell, Pyne was busy but tight, a mathematical squid behind the traps. His constant abstract expressionist splashes of percussive sound never concealed his ability to always be right behind the beat. Pausing only to- eventually- remove the jumper, he drove the set constantly forward as Moore hammered and wailed, his guitar technique at times disconcertingly phallic, but reminding us all that this was the guy we’d all first copped our avant-garde noise licks from in 1980s Snub TV bedroom mirror epiphany.

I certainly hope someone recorded this one-off, half-hour performance (varied and thrilling as it was, it didn’t need to go on longer), as it was a masterclass in improvised Rhythm and Noise (R&N?) jamming. Kudos to Andy Pyne for being in no way cowed by having to go head to head with Moore, and neither overplaying nor holding nervously back. And kudos to Thurston Moore for coming down to do the show, and for burning on all cylinders where it counted. His solo tour, including dates with cult folk guitarist MichaelChapman, continues around the UK through early February.


The Present- The Way We Are (Loaf Recordings)

June 19, 2009


The press release: “Touchstones include the music of La Monte Young, Dimitri Shostakovich, Wolfgang Voigt, Cluster, Black Dice, Claude Debussy, Aphex Twin, Can, Arthur Russell, Boredoms and Brian Eno, and yet it sounds like none of these.”

 Well, there’s a thing. Reminiscent of the then-unknown BS Johnson punting his first book to publishers with the casual claim that he’s the sole heir to Joyce and Beckett; both hugely self-aggrandising and off-putting to anyone hoping to make commercial capital from your work.

The Present’s debut album, World I See came out last year and was an interesting, intermittently engaging and admirably experimental work, mainly noted due to its Animal Collective connections. The Present is the project of NYC based Rusty Santos, producer of Panda Bear’s rightly-acclaimed Person Pitch LP as well as AC’s Sung Tongs, working in this case alongside a couple of mysterious accomplices known only as Mina (who brings the Japanese pop and folk influences), and Jesse.

With The Way We Are, Rusty, Mina and Jesse have not only followed up with an almost indecent swiftness, they’ve leapt light years ahead. If The World I See sounded pretty way out last year, now it sounds like faltering baby steps compared to The Way We Are.

The album doesn’t play all its aces at once, though it’s clear from the off that this is gonna be a heavier trip than its predeccesor. Opening track, ‘Medman’ sounds like vintage Radiophonic Workshop stuff; incidental Dr Who music soundtracking some Silurian or Sea Devil-like monster emerging threateningly from the deep… it even reprises the clunky, ominous rhythm of the classic theme tune. ‘Saltwater Trails’ is more atmospheric and subtle, but no less sinister once it catches ahold, like sirens luring you out into deadly quicksand… at first alluringly ethereal, then before you know it you’re up to your neck in musique concrete, and all kinds of degenerate spirits and marsh ghosts are being unleashed around you.  In fact, if the first track was Dr Who, this is Sapphire and Steel– voices of long-dead children echo in the distance, some spooky playground chant, the unknowingly departed mutter feebly to each other as all manner of psychic disturbances crack the ether. Do not play this with the lights out or under the influence of… well, actually, maybe do. It could be awesome. If you want your hair to turn white overnight, say.

Fading imperceptibly into ‘Space Meadow,’ we’re suddenly in smoother climes, three-and-a-half minutes of retro sci-fi ambience, inside the head of a valium and synthi-martini dosed 24th Century housewife awaiting her space pilot hubby’s re-entry to their satellite dream home, blissfully orbiting a cold dead planet. But ‘Shapeshifter’ marks the moment when she realises that someone’s spiked her drink: time speeds up and slows down in jerky bursts, her spatial perception starts strobing erratically, and all her digital labour-saving gadgets are malfunctioning and bursting into disobedient half-life at once. Is that the sound of an oxygen leak? Is that hubby knocking at the window, floating lifelessly asphxyated in space?

 ‘Press Play’ finds us back where we started, in vintage Dr Who territory: some hallucinatory March Of The Cybermen, intense, claustrophobic and quasi-operatic. It’s another mini-masterpiece of wordless electronic dread, but all of this is merely an overture for the album’s epic, 32-minute title track: the main act, the thing itself.

Solid clusters of sound dominate the first two minutes, like pressurised steam hissing from between solid metal plates. But then a distant, almost tribal rhythm emerges from behind the lonely singing of satellites, the ancient ghost of earth mysteries and rituals bleeding through into the modern machine age of digital communication and virtual language. After about five minutes this phases into an almost random confluence of urban noise, like jumbled radio waves passing through space, industrial vibrations with still the hint of the natural underneath it all and, for all the confusion, a sense of order, of directedness, even of a serenity beneath the chaos, just waiting to be tuned into. Indeed, as we approach the ten minute mark the chatter falls away and only a profound drone remains, like a mighty ray of light or some universal omnichord. Delicate piano melodies dance around an ineffable alien core that is still somehow warmly familiar. The planet breathing? There is something of Gaia theory to all this, of an alternative Koyaanisquatsi for the more complex, digitally-rerouted 21st Century.    

At the fifteen minute mark, nothing and everything is happening: in the new age minimalist stakes we’re nearer to Steve Reich than Phillip Glass. Gradually, more thin sonic layers are slipped in, one on top of the other, building up the levels of sound almost imperceptibly until, another ten minutes on, you realise you’re dealing with a veritable cacophony: still Reichian, but Richard James and Boards of Canada have dropped in for tea, and Eye from Boredoms is banging at the door. And after half an hour has passed, you realise it’s not a tea party at all, but a seance: calling up all the brutal, unquiet spirits of our age. And then, with an unsettling suddenness, it’s over. And silence doesn’t sound the same as it used to anymore.

The press release: “A kaleidoscopic trip influenced by New York City, The Ocean, Mountains, The Sun and the Trees, Andy Warhol, Yukio Mishima, David Lynch, Friedrich Nietzche, Buddhist Mantra, Mass Transit, Cats, Birds and life. Life in all its myriad complexity and confusions, in all its transcendent beauty and its horrendous brutality.” Which normally I would dismiss as pretentious twaddle. But in this case, one feels they might actually be understating things.

The Way We Are is an ambitious, breathtaking, resolutely forward-looking record. Not for the faint-hearted, nor the jaded thrillseeker. But for those interested in the serious and thoughtful avant-garde of digital music, look no further.  

  The Present? Sounds like the future to me.

Medicine and Duty- Don’t Use ‘a’ (Foolproof Projects)

May 27, 2009



Nothing is certain. This is the latest album from  Brighton’s premiere live experimentalists, Medicine and Duty, but even that should be qualified: it’s not ‘new’ anymore, as it came out at the end of last year, and to be honest I don’t know if it’s still their latest. Technically, too, it should probably be called a mini-album, being just seven songs long and less than half an hour in duration. Nothing is certain. And I’m not even certain of that.

The first thing that strikes the listener is that this is a far more mechanically-generated record than their previous releases, or indeed the band’s usual live shows. Matt Colegate and Jack Cooper have left their guitars at home and are credited instead with ‘electronics,’ but they are electronics of a particularly dense and fearsome nature. You could dance to this, but it’s not a ‘Dance’ record.  Andy Pyne’s drumming heads boldly out on open-ended expeditions into overgrown and rarely-trod rhythmic territory, where robotic birds fall keening from dark skies and ancient humming force fields wait to trap the unwary. Holy Fuck are another band who started out along a similar path recently, but after the primitive rave-inflected wave oscillations of the album’s opening track Medicine and Duty leave them far behind,  exchanging nods with Sunburned Hand of the Man instead as they pass each other further into the wilderness.     

The album’s title seems like an injunction never to take the obvious, easy option; Eno’s oblique strategies reduced down to one basic principle. The individual track titles give little away, but point to a general aesthetic: ‘Jury Rigged,’ ‘Maths on Fire,’ ‘The Blind Toolmakers,’ ‘Horizontal Tracking,’ etc. Although all three band members are credited with vocals, the tracks are essentially instrumentals, with any lyrics rendered either inaudible or incomprehensible, chanting, wailing and speaking in tongues: the ghosts in the machine, making their presence felt. Meanwhile, the music moves from claustrophobic industrial noise to oddly beautiful echoes of crystalline jungles, from surreal semi-oriental landscapes to the abstract language of mechanised desire, much like a slim volume of short stories by the late JG Ballard.

Listen: the machines are singing.   

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