MILTON COURT, THE BARBICAN, LONDON | OCTOBER 23, 2016
First broadcast by Channel 4 in 1985, Robert Ashley’s landmark television opera Perfect Lives stumbles through bank robberies, cocktail bars, hotel rooms and starlit plains to create a fragmentary exploration of the Midwestern American experience. Pondering mortality, banality, chintz and selfhood, the seven-act work proffers a peppered snapshot, humorously bound by Ashley’s self-delivered libretti. Through whistled purrs Ashley gives a wry and tangential performance, flitting equally between sassy satire and unassuming tenderness. Halving the original runtime, Matmos’ stage adaptation cuts four of the original seven acts to run at a digestible 90 minutes. Skilfully condensed, the work sacrifices plot for stylistic fidelity, artfully presenting Ashley at his wicked, ruminative best.
“To perform Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives you need to be respectful to a score that is precise about cadence and the tempo of delivery, but is also very open and non-traditional,” says Matmos’ Drew Daniel in the programme notes. Six years before his death in March 2014, Ashley bore witness to Matmos’ version of Act VII of Perfect Lives, ‘The Backyard’, during a performance in New York. Their interpretation was met with his approval, and the duo “ended with a feeling of legitimation; that he thought our interpretation was valid, even though we had broken with some of the basic rules.”
Today’s expanded performance adds two acts – I. ‘The Park’ and IV. ‘The Bar’ – with Matmos’ other half, M.C. Schmidt, starring as narrator. Daniel mans the electronics, whilst a string trio, flautist, two female backing vocalists and a pianist also feature at various other moments. Behind them all a screen shows visuals mixed in real time by Max Eilbacher, which incorporates snippets of John Sanborn’s original material for TV, as well as other vintage footage not used in the original production. The visuals play their part effectively, but it’s Schmidt’s incorrigibly theatrical performance that truly brings the opera to the stage. His finest hour comes during the sleazy boogie-woogie of ‘The Bar’. Regaling incessant Martini-fuelled small-talk with a half-measure of cabaret croon, he captures the rhinestone chintz of the original in a manner that is arguably more convincing than Ashley’s soft prairie lisp.
It’s a touch of flair you sense that Ashley would appreciate. Indeed, before deciding to recite the monologue himself, Ashley had initially bookmarked David Byrne to take on the opera’s sprawling libretti. But Schmidt’s isn’t the only voice that brings Perfect Lives to the stage in such successful fashion. Backing vocals from Caroline Marcantoni and Jennifer Kirby add a doubting deadpan to ‘The Park’’s Motel Lynch claustrophobia. Though largely confined to textual displays in the original broadcast, the vocalists’ blurted exclamations of “No doubt,” “A fact,” and “Of course” imply a sarcastic inner critique from the corners of the narrator’s psyche that heightens the air of emptiness and alienation. Daniel’s decision to replace the soft toms of the original with an Arthur Russell-tinged tabla drone adds a finger-tapping restlessness to the moment – further proof that this is not merely an adaptation, but a progression of Ashley’s original.
With clarity and imagination, Matmos have neatly repackaged Perfect Lives from a three hour TV broadcast into a 90 minute stage production. Respectfully devout yet courageously original, it’s a sublime reworking.
New River Studios, London | September 25, 2016
“Upset, angered and terrified” by the influx of racial assaults that have continued to trail June 23rd’s divisive Brexit vote, Teeth of the Sea’s Sam Barton refuses to wallow in helplessness. Determined to counter the political apathy that sparked the whole brouhaha, Barton and his TotS bandmates responded with Unity, a day of live music to raise some cash for anti-hatred organisation Hope Not Hate. Dave Brooks made his way down to Stamford Hill’s New River Studios to check out their headline set.
It’s almost a year since Teeth of the Sea released their galloping fourth installment Highly Deadly Black Tarantula. Plating together a snarling combo of sinister Kraut disco, blaring post-industrial electronics, and itchy-fingered Morricone brass, HDBT had all the makings of a Coil-penned Tekken soundtrack. But there’s no disputing that there’s more to this four-piece than mere button-bashing.
Mike Bourne’s theremin conjurings kick off proceedings, quickly floating en arrière scène to underpin Jimmy Martin’s squalled distortion. Barton interjects with lustily garbled trumpet, before the intrusive clang of HDBT’s splintered opener ‘All My Venom’ slams into recognition. Barton switches to a lusty South American battle call, defiantly navigating Martin’s stray twangs as drummer and vocalist Mat Colegate prepares to enter the fray. Unleashing a pummelling drum sequence and spitting out demonic glottal rattles, Colegate rallies an architectural crescendo that pairs a 28 Days Later paranoia with pure amphetamine fury.
As ‘All My Venom’ builds to a climax, it becomes clear that something’s wrong. Sound levels go awry, beats are missed and hands wave frantically to the sound desk. A busted band-facing PA is promptly replaced, and Bourne and Colegate take to the toms to usher in ‘Animal Manservant’’s retching clop. As Barton riffs on hard disco voluntaries, Bourne’s Tangerine Dream synths bleed into violent modular glitches. A charged, confrontational ferocity builds; the preceding technical shortcomings a catalyst for greater fury, sinew, and violence.
Fortune didn’t favour Teeth of the Sea today. But when presented with unwarranted adversity, they came out snarling and harnessed the room. As Unity has acknowledged, society as a whole is facing far greater hurdles than a busted PA. Ever the iconoclasts, Teeth of the Sea remain ahead of the curve.
To help Hope Not Hate continue to provide a positive antidote to the politics of hate, please donate here.
Coronet Theatre, London | August 18, 2016
In a fashion befitting post-rock’s leading name, Godspeed You! Black Emperor make to the Coronet Theatre stage in their own good time. The 2,500-strong crowd have filled the venue to capacity, and on one of the hottest nights of the year even the lofty art deco ceiling offers little respite. With Godspeed some 20 minutes late, the crowd’s attention is drawn to the sound desk, where a sweltering camera crew meticulously loads film reels onto four blazing projectors. An ebbing drone begins. Underneath the illuminated screen, the Quebecois eight-piece slip through the shadows to slink on-stage one-by-one. A cello groans; a double bass growls; a fishbowl rolls across the projectionist’s glaring beam. Over the next ten minutes a great oaken drone builds. Distorted and all-consuming, it engulfs three solipsistic guitars before the drums signal the start of a crashing apocalyptic clamour. Sweaty brows make way for goosebumps. Lift your skinny fists like antennas to heaven: Godspeed have arrived.
The band squeeze just eight expansive tracks into their two hour set, including their 2015 album Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress in its entirety. First up is ‘Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!”, whose monolithic eastern swing sounds like Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir blasted through tar. Its weighty riff sparks mesmeric movement through the heavy air; onlookers sway transfixed as Super-8 roadtrip visuals cruise ever onwards. Powerfully minimalist, the footage, like the music is all about the journey.
Godspeed’s visual-audio interplay is no finer than in ‘Dead Metheny’, from their 1997 debut F# A# ∞. As its off-beat guitar loop begins, the hand-operated film reel flickers into life. Bruised strings throb as monochrome box cars pump through frozen industrial towns. A glockenspiel rings, freight trains accelerate, drums clatter as Morricone trumpets sound, harking the arrival of grainy scrub prairie, solitary onlookers and black outhouses. It’s bleak, charged, expansive and inconclusive, the unforgiving crescendo rumbling ever louder as their freight wagons pass on.
For a band whose catalogue is largely instrumental Godspeed have never been afraid to voice their political views through their music. Until footage of the Eric Garner protests shows during set closer ‘BBF3′, the band’s set tonight largely shies away from such societal criticisms. Instead, Godspeed proffer an audio-visual trip of psychoacoustic exploration, melding blistering cacophony with derelict abandonment to unsettling yet hypnotic effect. It’s a masterful performance: captivating, intoxicating, and frankly unmissable.
Battersea Arts Centre, London | August 3, 2016
Long exiled to the Mancunian night, Jamie Lee – lead singer of lit-pop darlings MONEY – returns to his native South London in high spirits. A poet as well as a musician, he prefaces tonight’s performance with a trademark novel skit, tonight referencing the likes of F Scott Fitzgerald and former American Poet Laureate Billy Collins. Pulling out a crumpled edition from his anorak pocket, Lee rifles through its yellowed pages, struggling to find his marker. Muttering “This is just so me: winging it all the way to the end,” he opens proceedings on a performance that dextrously ties humour, fury, self-awareness and self-parody.
MONEY’s set tonight draws largely from their second album Suicide Songs, released earlier this year on Bella Union. Foregoing the expansive choral indie of 2013’s The Shadow of Heaven, Suicide Songs offered up 43 minutes of much-matured songwriting: each squalid, saintly, savant verse offered with a beatified ale-slurred dexterity. Channelling his finest Shane MacGowan on ‘I’ll Be The Night’, Lee mumbles “No one owes you any favours” with world-weary abandon, before stepping away from the mic to blurt “They only owe you wine.”Later on he recoils from a particularly strong bout of reverb, dashing a look of incredulity to the audience with pure charlatan charm. MONEY’s transition from barstool balladeers to the grand stage is all the more successful for these pub-wrought moments.
Elsewhere MONEY’s performance nods to their savant influences, whilst maintaining a commanding hold over the Battersea Arts Centre’s sold-out crowd. On ‘Hopeless World’ Lee throws in a few giddy Dylan whoops, whilst ‘Letter To Yesterday’ descends into gutsy echoes of “Oh there’s blo-od;” a rousing reminder of the conviction and fervour U2 held before ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Beautiful Day’ and Match of the Day and all that garbage.
Lee’s continuing vocal improvement is particularly clear during breakthrough single ‘Bluebell Fields’. It’s a bizarre rendition – vocally ambitious, his virtuoso risks overreaching so as to clash with his bandmates’ woozy indie patter. It’s an anachronism that marks MONEY’s progress since 2013, though future performances would benefit from toning it down a little, if only to keep the fans happy.
Fusing Britpop strings, lofty background chants and drums that could have come off a Brian Jonestown Massacre record, ‘I’m Not Here’ is unmistakeably the set highlight. Underpinned by Lee’s dogged acoustic strum, the band and accompanying string section build into a jubilant and stirring crescendo, soaring triumphantly until Lee finally pulls the plug. The audience are left with little more than dogged strums and prolonged cries of anguished self-abandonment. For such a melancholic ending, it’s stunningly cathartic.
Increasingly a vessel for Lee’s poetic performance, MONEY’s set ends without bandmates Charlie Cocksedge and Billy Byron. Accompanied by cello and viola, Lee strums a meandering encore of pastoral sketches, that are in all honesty a little too unrehearsed. Still, given the progress he’s made as a vocalist and songwriter over the past few years, he’s probably earned the right to wing it a little every now and then.
MONEY play End of the Road Festival on 4th September. For full details and further dates check here.
Islington Metal Works, London | July 4, 2016
Kid A got me into Autechre. Amnesiac pushed me more towards Miles. Jeff Buckley was next after hearing The Bends, whereas King of Limbs was the Dutch courage needed for Zomby’s Where Were You in ‘92. For so many twenty-somethings Radiohead have eclipsed the competition as the tastemakers-in-chief, consistently releasing records that point to the outer edges; gateways to something less chart. Thom Yorke’s Ableton frotting may be a Pitchforker’s wet dream, but in recent years the true torchbearer has been Jonny Greenwood. By penning critically-acclaimed soundtracks for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, The Master and Inherent Vice, and touring with the London Contemporary Orchestra, Greenwood has chaperoned a listenership more In Rainbows than into Reich towards the world of contemporary classical music.
Tonight’s performance at the Islington Metal Works showcases the influence that the Radiohead guitarist’s pilotage has had upon his followers. Launching their debut album Oil, London-based saxophone quartet Kaleidoscope have paid reverence to the master, prying three of his compositions into a set list that also includes works by Gavin Bryars, Oliver Christophe Leith, Steve Martland, Jenni Watson, and Kaleidoscope’s own John Rittipo-Moore.
Leith’s ‘A Day at the Spa I’ springs into life with flurried slews of shell-shocked soprano, before Greenwood’s ‘Iron Swallow’bounds into play, Sally MacTaggart’s wry lead hovering elegantly above a mischievous succession of taut orchestral stabs. Another Greenwood creation follows – this time it’s (deep breath) ‘Toki no Senrei wo Uketeinai mono wo Yomuna’ from 2010’s soundtrack to Tran Anh Hung’s Norwegian Wood – before Leith’s ‘A Day at the Spa II’ bleeds into focus.
Splitting it into its two movements for the first time, today’s performance marks a fresh start for ‘A Day at the Spa’. The piece – written for the quartet by close friend and collaborator Oliver Christophe Leith – has been a staple of the quartet’s repertoire for over a year now, but today’s performance brings new light to its wealth of textural and microtonal intricacies, not always so apparent without Greenwood’s more user-friendly interlude. Ornamented by swathes of jumbled saxophone-key patter, Part Two’s anguished sopranos float arrhythmically above a cyclical baritone accompaniment unwaveringly upheld by Rittipo-Moore, who with each new breath elicits sumptuous cascades of lustrous harmonics: dust sparkling in moonlight.
A shift in dynamic comes a few songs later, when Rittipo-Moore’s gutsy baritone bombards into a dexterous re-imagining of Steve Martland’s ‘Short Story’. His bluff rasp faithfully underpins the trio of far-reaching altos; the addition of a drum kit and bass guitar adding a hip-hop marching band punch that wouldn’t sound out of place in Geoff Barrow’s Quakers – coincidently another act that has paid its dues to Greenwood & Co. Though allowing plenty of space for fleet-fingered counterpoint, Chris Brice’s drums are unfortunately a little too muted. A bold addition hesitantly executed, they’d benefit from a little extra muscle to really propel the marauding baritone backings. If Kaleidoscope can manage this whilst maintaining their vibrant alto-based counterpoint, they could even open doors to something as yet undiscovered.
‘Short Story’’s 3/4 stomp concludes assertively with two vertiginous stabs, and all that’s left is the album’s eponymous lead, Rittipo-Moore’s ‘Oil’. Moonlighting as a film-maker, Kaleidoscope’s Ian Dingle has prepared a visual accompaniment for this final track, though his sumptuous, aqueous study is largely lost on an audience craning their necks to make out the stage right screen. It’s a shame: given the right layout the footage would further heighten the impact of Aaron Burrows’ bracing modal keys cutting through ‘Oil’’s twinkling introduction, some three minutes in. There’s a distinctlyAmnesiac-era Radiohead feel to the mournful horns and distorted E-bow tremolo that ensue, and the significant restraint shown in not descending into cacophony echoes Radiohead fan favourites from that era such as ‘You and Whose Army?’ and ‘Pyramid Song’.
It’s right that Kaleidoscope’s performance gives a salutary nod to Greenwood’s work. The man has done more than any other to dispel contemporary classical’s reputation as an art form too high-brow, too pretentious and too inaccessible for your everyday six-stringer. Introducing ‘Toki no Senrei wo’, Rittipo-Moore jokes: “Unfortunately Jonny couldn’t be here tonight.” Still, Greenwood’s influence is felt. More importantly, Jenni Watson is here tonight, watching on from the audience in delight as Kaleidoscope give an emotive rendition of her composition ‘Tinged’. Oliver Christophe Leith is here too, manning the electric guitar and E-bow duties during ‘Oil’’s glimmering outro. There are a lot of good minds in and around this quartet, and Kaleidoscope could take their project in any number of directions. This one’s optimistic.
Oil is available to purchase on Kaleidoscope’s website now. You can stream Oil on Spotify and iTunes as well. You can catch them at the Buxton Festival, Derbyshire on July 16th, and at the Wallace Collection, London on 25th July. Full tour details are available here.
O2 Forum Kentish Town, London | June 24, 2016
Never one to shy away from fetish and dysfunction, there aren’t many kinks out there that can raise a finely-pencilled eyebrow from John Waters. But the transgressive filmmaker – well-earned incumbent of the title ‘Prince of Puke’ – happens to reserve a particular distaste for the adult baby community. “Lock those weirdoes up!” he gibed during 2015’s Tennessee Williams literary event in New Orleans. “Have you seen their disgusting little catalogues?” Ty Segall clearly missed the memo on his eighth full-length release, 2016’s Emotional Mugger. Donning a latex baby mask, he chose to venture into the abrasive unknown, muddling offbeat riffs with rasping Moog outbreaks to create a follow-up to the Hammond glow of 2014’s Manipulator that is undeniably cockeyed, yet menacingly funky.
Creepy though it may appear, Segall’s new look is gaining traction. A recent slot on Conan exhibited the sort of technical virtuoso that only comes with releasing eight albums in seven years, whilst a spectacularly raucous KEXP session added a conceptual shot of juvenile mischief-making. All in all the baby formula is a pretty intriguing mix, as the busy confines of Kentish Town’s Forum can attest. The 2,300 capacity venue is more than a baby step above his previous cameos in the capital, with appearances at the Electric Ballroom in November 2014 and Scala in December 2013 both only just peaking the 1,000 mark. When Segall’s troupe of Muggers takes to the Forum’s stage with a multitude of anguished “Wahhhs,” the tone is set for a night of post-natal pandemonium. Or so you’d think…
Devoid of his infantile guise, Ty Segall enters in a trademark grey boiler suit. It’s an apt uniform for what’s to follow: an industrious gallop through Emotional Mugger, track by track, start to finish. Launching into the choppy jaunt of ‘Squealer’, guitarist Kyle Thomas and drummer Evan Burrows establish a jerked platform, tight and brawny enough to allow Emmet Kelly’s boisterous lead and Cory Hanson’s Moog diddling to really cut loose.
When ‘Californian Hills’ follows, the latter duo hit an early zenith, urgently marauding the breaks left open to them with fervent bleeping and scrambling shreds. ‘Mandy Cream’ unzips a poppy Them Crooked Vultures thrust before ‘Candy Sam’ rolls on out, igniting the mosh pit into full frenzy. Bodies barrel overhead as Thomas tears J. Mascis-style into the evening’s most frenetic guitar solo yet, whist nursery rhyme backings amp up the urgency again and again and again.
Overseeing affairs is Ty Segall himself. Scrapping his guitar to focus on his vocals, he combines brash gesticulation with thousand yard stares: the perfect mouthpiece for his Muggers’ focused rabble. Having released a succession of surprisingly entertaining T Rex cover albums under the moniker Ty Rex, Segall’s Bolan sneer is well practised. Echoed drawls ooze like hot wax over his band’s barbed riffs to create a powerful sonic bludgeon, and when Segall finally picks up a guitar to tear into the explosive final refrain of ‘Feel’, there’s a palpable sense that the Forum’s lofty ceiling must be straining at the trusses.
Ty Segall may have lured in the armchair surfpunks with his juvenile frolics, but it’s his prodigal talent that’ll keep ‘em coming back for years to come. Brixton awaits.
Ty Segall and the Muggers play The Echo, LA on 14/07. Buy tickets here.
“There’s too much monkey business,” slurs frontman Tres Warren on ‘Mixed Up Mind’, “and I can’t keep it away from me.” With their fifth EP Inner Journey Out, Brooklyn’s Psychic Ills have delved deep into the record rack, pulling out a narcoleptic mix of Americana, blues and gospel to repackage it all in a well-worn psych-pop shrink wrap.
Eagle-eyed shoegazers will have noticed the presence of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval on the album’s debut single ‘I Don’t Mind.’ “Mazzy Star are a great band,” Warren nods, ahead of the Ills’ recent show at London’s Lexington pub. “Hope’s got such a one of a kind voice. After opening for them a couple years ago we decided to do something together.” Opting for a yearning croon over his usual strung-out snarl, Warren’s vocals entwine wistfully with Sandoval’s languid whispers, narrating a pastoral chug that goes full Harvest when the swooping pedal steel guitar shimmys into gleaming centre-stage. Still, the album’s finest guest appearance comes on ‘Another Change’: the gospel backings adding a driving Primal Scream spirit which does a good job of detracting from Elizabeth Hart’s frustratingly anaemic bass line.
With its Stooges pulse and peripheral Wurlitzer drone, ‘Confusion (I’m Alright)’ is perhaps the album’s most atmospheric song. Song with a capital S, that is, because Inner Journey Out’s instrumental compositions are the only moments in which the album’s decidedly introspective title really seems justified. In ‘Ra Wah Wah’, Warren’s fluttering guitar lick oscillates in and out of focus under the weight of Brent Cordero’s Farfisa organ, chimes guiding you into an alto sax solo that echoes Zero 7 at their most Café del Mar. The foggy meander of ‘Hazel Green’ also foregoes conventional structure in favour of nuanced variation; its sloping bass and hot, boxy drums a fitting soundtrack for hazy couch-locked evenings.
But the point that Psychic Ills have missed is that when it comes to song-writing and ambiance, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Take the candlelit free-psyche of Talk Talk’s ‘I Believe in You’, seductively hypnotic in its resolute aimlessness. The main reason Inner Journey Out fails is because it’s aimlessly resolute. Determined to tip cap to the luminaries, it falls short on both intrigue and assertion.
KOKO, London | May 31, 2016
“In this beautiful place, illuminated with sparkles of light and you beautiful sexy people, there’s nowhere I’d rather be.” Steve Albini’s caustic lyrical sardonicism has captured the ears of bruised bedroom thrashers since the early-Eighties, but tonight, gazing adoringly over KOKO’s glitterball-dusted ballroom, his sentiments are calmly professed and sincerely offered. Cutting a relaxed (and slightly portlier) profile on their first UK tour since 2014’s Dude Incredible, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Shellac have grown cuddly in their middle age. But lurching into Prayer to God’s cleaving homicidal refrain – “Fucking kill him. Kill him already, kill him” – it’s clear to see that the Chicagoan minimalists haven’t lost an ounce of their perverse anti-populist clout.
Before Shellac make to the stage, we’re treated to a solo performance from Albini’s friend and long-time collaboratorHelen Money. The experimental cellist announces herself with a looming feedback-driven ache; an anguished outcry that soon flourishes into a looped frenzy of swampy riffs, gnarled drone and apocalyptic strikes. Underpinned by drum-machine and piano samples, Money’s intricately-layered constructions provide a strong platform from which to exhibit her extensive toolbox of unorthodox instrumental techniques. During ‘Every Confidence’ she intrepidly plunders her cello’s tonal potential to cinematic effect, her tumultuous beehive tremolo accelerating into a fevered boiling point before crumbling into languished monastic stasis. There’s little here in terms of lip service, but Helen Money’s tortured, distorted expansions prove infinitely more expressive than any fleeting moments of mumbled discourse.
Shellac’s introduction is equally as industrious. Barrelling straight and true into the retching stabs of ‘Canada’, their notes serve only to punctuate the perfect stage silence between each murderous chug. ‘Watch Song’ quickly follows; Albini’s irascible posturing – “Hey man, I wanna have a fight with you” – savagely cut down by his guitar’s antagonistic sneer. Hammering his snare with lips curled, Todd Trainer provides a forceful yet impressively restrained metronome for Albini’s schizophrenic foreplay. Once Albini’s guitar has had its last laugh, Trainer goes to town, his virtuoso outro prompting Albini and bassist Bob Weston to pick up sticks and smash cymbals in accompaniment.
Tonally-speaking, it’s striking how faithful Shellac’s live show is to the band’s studio sound. During ‘My Black Ass’, Weston’s corrosive Ampeg growl is just as perfect a counterpoint to Albini’s bolting angle grinder chug as it is in At Action Park, and Trainer’s acidic rhythm continues to cut through this abrasion with surgical dexterity. There’s no lack of improvisation – the transformation of ‘Wingwalker’ into a tender spoken-word break vastly heightens the excitement of its gurgling feedback-heavy reprise – but on-stage the bands taut, economic execution is every bit as dry, spacious and finely-tuned as Albini’s studio mastery suggests.
Still, Shellac’s live show is about much more than just a blistering set. Alongside his prolific work rate, it’s Albini’s ideological purism that has justified his saintly status amongst alternative rock’s liberal elite. Generous with time as well as talent, Shellac intersperse their set with a handful of black-humoured Q&A sessions, covering anything from the upcoming EU Referendum to the likelihood of them ever playing Plymouth – Bob: “Never!” But the greatest treat of all comes a little after the garbled screaming of set-closer ‘Spoke’ subsides. Having packed up their gear, Albini, Trainer and Weston head to the front to speak with fans, pose for pictures and hand out the odd splintered drumstick or two. As I make my exit, I’m reminded of one of Albini’s most telling earlier responses. “What’s your favourite film?” someone asks. “I don’t have one,” he quips. “I don’t rate films as an art form. It’s about being there.”