GANNETS + PHIL WASCHMANN/ CHRIS STUBBS
Folly Bridge Inn, Oxford, Tuesday 29th September 2009
The duo of Phil Wachsmann (violin, with electronics) and Chris Stubbs (percussion, also with electronics) took a while to hit its stride (though stride isn’t really the appropriate metaphor, given the particular logic of incident which was in play). Wachsmann bowed violin lines in ‘modern classical’ vein, often repeating one note with bowing variations, playing rather piquant, attractive melodies, then scraping the bow below the bridge or dissonantly plucking: a succession of sound techniques in which flow wasn’t quite adjusted, as yet. That said, what the set revealed as it went on was that flow was often not the order of the game; incidents followed one another in blocks rather than lines, though single areas would frequently be examined at length, especially by Wachsmann.
Things were settling in by the time the first piece reached its latter stages, and Stubbs’ percussion in particular was really coming into its own. Rather than a ‘kit’, he utilised a ‘junk’ set-up: tubs, household implements, and a sheet of metal with stones and coils attached, connected to a small amp and an electronic device which was hidden away behind the upside-down box on which the metal had been placed. His playing was busy, clanging, clattery: a delectable kitchen-pan style approach sure to break things up and keep them moving, though the amplified metal elicited more drawn-out variations, arising no doubt from a delight in the sonorities which were being lovingly drawn from the scrape of a knife or the rattle of a stone.
Waschmann took a closing violin solo (something that he had been building towards for a while, it seemed), and after brief applause, it was Stubbs who went solo, to his surprise as much as anyone else’s – it just felt right, and Wachsmann, eyes closed as ever, concentrated hard, soaking it all up and waiting for the right moment to enter. It came, and soon, with the aid of pedals and resultant effects, he was creating the effect of an entire string section, without this sounding gimmicky – in fact, it was texturally quite delightful, thick and crumbly but with a tautness to it that seemed as though it could break at any point. He even got into some Henry Flynt/ Tony Conrad-style folk-tinged melodic drone, in a section lasting minutes which was really quite pretty, almost pastoral, until Stubbs’ stormclouds of foghorn electronics pushed him into engine effects, bowing up and down the string, and thence to texturally sparser but more actively eventful extrapolations.
Gannets played LOUD from the off, and didn’t stop: the sheer force of their entry took me by surprise, as Steve Noble’s drums and Fyfe Dangerfield’s massively amped-up and distorted keyboard vibrated the floor. It’s impossible really to describe the whole performance (which I guess must have lasted around forty minutes) step by step: though there were definite narrative segments, the overwhelming power and loudness made it hard to remember what had gone before. Paying attention to particular lines or areas or segments would be like concentrating on the individual bricks which made up this monstrous wall of sound. I say ‘wall of sound’, but, on reflection, that well-travelled metaphor seems inappropriate given the relentless propulsion of the thing. This was not a solid construction that sat still on solid foundations; rather something had somehow been set in motion that just would not stop. Indeed, it was almost as if the music had moved beyond the conscious control of the players. I don’t mean that they weren’t in control of what they were playing, but that what and when they chose to play (mostly, sounds full of timbral harshness and buoyant, abrasive energy, all the time) were decisions into which they were pushed by force of circumstance, being made to think and to act simultaneously, to play something before they’d caught up with what was involved. It’s an approach which, of necessity, skimps on detail, or seems to do so, though the make-up of this sound mass is clearly very complex (anyone attempting to analyse the minutiae of what was going on would find enough material to keep them occupied in a research hole for months).
When things threatened to quieten or turn more melodic, one player would be sure to squall or bang or pluck away and up the ante once more, compensating for any drop in volume and tempo. Thus, a slamming riff section or a burst of ‘fake jazz’ from Dangerfield’s suddenly tinny keyboard would soon be dropped for more collective lung-busting, even if Noble did often keep up a fairly pronounced beat, as well as making his customary journeys round his kit with sticks and with various percussive accessories.
Despite the emphasis played on the band as a band rather than as a grouping of showy individuals, each musician’s approach had something distinctively out-standing about it. Dominic Lash’s amplified bass, even with one broken string, gave a real deep end to the band’s sound. Alex Ward’s shards of altissimo wail on saxophone and clarinet were Marshall Allen-like in their scrawly magnificence, and his melodic leaps, as ever, were endlessly fascinating in their absurdly quick-thinking, mellifluous flow. And Chris Cundy played a mean free jazz bass clarinet, alternating low honks, growls and parps with high yawps and cries, and leaping up the registers even more with piercing soprano sax – though his playing on that instrument was often more melodic, if you were able to pick it out of the collective ferment.
At times one wished not so much for ‘subtlety’ (what’s the point in imposing criteria on the music which it was manifestly not attempting to, and not going to fulfill?) as for a slight reduction of volume in Dangerfield’s corner. The utter loudness of his set-up could be seen to have hindered a more dialogic approach between the other musicians which would have produced some textural variety: but then again, the turbo boost of his floor-shaking rumbles and police siren whooshes isn’t something you come across in every improv band. As a whole, the group displayed a nicely collective and layered approach to noise-making: with no ‘leader’ and no ‘solos’, anyone could shape the music’s direction, though that seemed to generate itself much of the time, as an unstoppable current against which the musicians had to swim with ever more frantically powerful strokes. For a good forty minutes, then, Gannets transformed the function room of the Folly Bridge Inn into a profane temple of unholy textured noise. (DG)
SUNN O))) + BJ NILSEN
Trinity, Bristol, Wednesday 9th December 2009
45 minutes of crunching electronics with no one on stage; stacks of amps, keyboards and guitars an eerie presence, illuminated with colour lights but unmanned, occasional puffs from a smoke machine reinforcing the impression of machines somehow making their own sounds, unaided, unprompted. Echoes of FX – thunder gunshot voice elements; field recordings rendered as noise, with something of a low end (there were certainly vibrations through the floor) but, compared to the show which followed, more of an emphasis on extreme high pitches. Turns out that all this sound was coming from the laptop of support artist BJ Nilsen, at the back of the room, but with everyone crowded up to the front of the stage, craning their necks to see the main draw appear, it seemed instead like an extra-long ‘opening theme’ for the band to come out to – particularly as various hooded figures would occasionally wander out armed with a torch and a bottle of wine, stumble around, and then potter back off stage. A nice way to play with the usual conventions of support/main act relations – everyone was here for Sunn, so to stick the laptop guy in the shade, as it were, stretched the usual notions of anticipation/ tension/ expectation to breaking point, forming a comment on stage craft and performance aesthetics as well (a sort of satirical minimalism, in preparation for the tongue-in-cheek/deadly serious metal theatrics to follow).
When the mad monks finally did emerge, their down-tuned guitar feedback drone meshed with Nilsen’s electronics for a few minutes, before eventually overpowering them. Things were a little sluggish to start off with – as, of course, is the way with such music, but, though the volume certainly was there, the heaviness hadn’t quite set in, the total immersion in inexorable alternations of sound-masses (chords), in riffs rendered almost static by their slowness (but, in context, felt as relatively fast-paced dances, folk stomps, lumbering peasant celebrations). O’Malley and Anderson concentrated mainly on two chords, not clear enough to be called riffs, rendered muddy and thick by the addition of Steve Moore’s heavily processed Korg keyboards. This went for fifteen minutes or so before Attila Csihar emerged, carrying what initially appeared to be a shadowed idol, but soon turned out to be a see-through plastic head, which he proffered to each of the other band members in turn before launching into a whispered/spoken vocal which was, no doubt, a tale of dark deeds and pagan ritual (the words were pretty much inaudible in the thicket of sound; Attila’s voice was clear enough, but more as instrumental colour than anything else). Something was still missing, however; but, as the guitars dropped out, some much-needed space crept into the music, from where things could now build in a more purposeful fashion. Attila took centre-stage, alternating the swirling phaser-effects of his throat singing with death metal screams, an effect mirrored by the held drone tones and squawking flurries of Moore’s trombone (the only time he used the instrument through the whole set). Space builds tension, repetition and alternation builds ritual power; the guitars come back in and it gets heavy. Cassocked, Attila cradles the microphone, shadows his face, so that the sounds seem to emerge from the depths of his hood rather than from any human mouth. After some time, he disappears, O’ Malley and Anderson slugging it out regardless.
It’s a while before he comes back on stage, having done a costume change; his robes are now covered in what look like a kid’s attempt to make a suite of armour, his face draped in a horror-movie mask (what looks, through the smoke and the coloured lights, like melted white glue). He’s still carrying the plastic head, but now has an additional accessory– a statue of liberty style crown, which he first places on the ‘idol,’ before putting it on his own head and flashing laser-beams, which emerge from a pair of gloves, at the audience. I suppose that’s all by the by, although he does insist on playing around with the laser beams for the rest of the set. Sunn’s stage-craft always flirts with the ridiculous, but at this point it seemed that all caution had been abandoned and a full-blown relationship was being initiated. In any case, Attila’s vocals were now an indistinguishable mixture of Satanic reverses, Gregorian chant, and Eastern-European folksong; hard to get a handle on, but made easier by a guitar slugging into a riff, the guitarist lumbering from side to side in a bizarre shuffle that, though maybe too slow to be called a dance, certainly approached something of the sort. In perhaps one of the only genuine headbanging moments of the night (albeit in slo-mo), the riff came in and out of a feedback wall, which occasionally dipped as the vocal folksong took a sinister turn over Moore’s distorted, bell-like Fender Rhodes. Things built in this manner to an almighty climax, Attila obsessively shining his lasers into the crowd before eventually giving up and slowly collapsing onto the floor as O’Malley and Csihar waved their guitars like giant axes in front of the amp-stacks. And then everyone went off into the night with their ears ringing & a headache. The end. (DG)