Scanner / Zombie Zombie / Roy Book Binder – various venues, Jersey

It’s been two weeks since I posted but I’ve not been totally idle. I returned yesterday from a week in Jersey – a welcome break from distinctly autumnal Glasgow.

My visit coincided with the third annual Branchage Film Festival, a three day bash that encompasses not only cinema but also other visual and sound media events. On Saturday, Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner played three short afternoon shows accompanying Magic Lantern slides of the island, mainly dating from the late Victorian and Edwardian era. These slides are 10x10cm photographic plates printed on glass and often hand-tinted. Rather having their showing accompanied by a commentary, Scanner provided a mainly ambient soundtrack. The result was a bit like seeing your great grandparents’ holiday snaps whilst listening to some cool electronica on the stereo – ie not really in synch, but interesting all the same. With an audience that was definitely not a collection of Wire readers and electronica geeks, Rimbaud shied away from his more esoteric and experimental ouevre (no intercepted phone calls here) but still managed to do something that was far more interesting than bland background tinkling without doing anything to frighten the horses.

The festival closer was a screening of Sergei Eisenstein’s classic Soviet agitprop piece Battleship Potemkin shown on the back of a tug in the harbour and accompanied by a live soundtrack by Paris’s Zombie Zombie duo (best known for their interpretations of John Carpenter’s fim music). The idea of showing a film about a ship on the back of a boat was genius in its simplicity and it worked really well, with maybe a couple of hundred souls gathered around the harbour’s edge to watch. Like The Man With a Movie Camera and Metropolis, Potemkin is one of a handful of classic silents that seems to have a real pull for musicians. The Pet Shop Boys did a fairly spectacular rendition a few years back. That was more like Socialist Realism meets disco. Zombie Zombie opted for a much more organic and subtle accompaniment that encompassed acoustic, electronic and musique concrète elements. They were especially good with the climactic final reel when the tension ratchets up as the battleship under its crew of mutinous revolutionaries encounters the Imperial Navy.

Roy Book Binder is a veteran blues guitarist and singer who continues to fly the flag for the pre-electric country bluesmen. Although he’s hardly a household name, his CV is mightily impressive. He was among the second wave of singer/guitarists who arrived in Greenwich Village after the initial brouhaha had died down and the likes of Dylan had moved on, but where Dave Van Ronk and others continued the tradition of old time American folk and blues. He played extensively with legends such as the Rev. Gary Davis and Pink Anderson, and continues to this day as a proselytizer for the music of folk such as Blind Blake, Mississippi John Hurt and many others of that era, some of whom are largely forgotten now. His show in an old church hall in St Helier was an informal affair of songs and stories both fascinating and funny, with a mix of original tunes in the old style and dusty classics both familiar and forgotten. His singing is functional and his playing a little rough round the edges, but this was a hugely entertaining portal into a forgotten world. He made the telling comment that him and guys like John Hammond Jr and Jorma Kaukonen are older now than most of the grizzled old country-blues veterans were when they were rediscovered in the sixties. It was a privilege and a pleasure to see this link to a long lost world.

Gig: TINDERSTICKS (Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh 22/3/10)

Nearly eighteen months on from a superlative show at Glasgow’s City Halls, Tindersticks were back in Scotland, albeit at the other end of the M8. It’s been years since I’ve been at the Queen’s Hall. It’s smaller than I remembered, and a little on the shabby side, but has a good reputation for acoustics, one that’s deserved.

At the Glasgow show, the front end of the set was loaded with selections from the (then) new album, The Hungry Saw. What had at first seemed a collection of a handful of great songs and its fair share of filler came to life in spectacular fashion. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Falling Down a Mountain, and the weakness of the material just couldn’t be covered up, no matter how much heart and soul the band put into it. A glistening Marbles stood out head and shoulders above the rest in a first half dominated by new songs.

The older stuff was superb. City Sickness was dusted off, and Can We Start Again was transformed into something akin to Gospel. It was good that the band revisited different material from their past to the stuff they showcased at Glasgow – in fact, with the near absence of anything from The Hungry Saw, there can’t have been more than a couple of songs at the most (possibly none) that they played at both shows.

As a live act, Tindersticks are a band at the top of their game. As far as new material goes, though, they seem to be in a bit of a dry patch. But they have a rich back catalogue that would be the envy of most bands.

Gig: THEE SILVER MT ZION MEMORIAL ORCHESTRA (Glasgow School of Art 19/3/2010)

With Becky, Eric and Ian gone, the new slimline Silver Mt Zion quintet may appear on paper to be a thinner beast. In the flesh, though, this is far from the case. Tonight at the Art School the beast roared.

There is definitely a good balance in the new set up. Sophie Trudeau and Jessica Moss have contrasting styles in both the way they play the violin and the way they sing, but there’s an almost telepathic understanding between the two. Sophie is sweeter and Jessica more strident, but at times they sound like an entire string section. Efrim seems freer as the sole guitarist. Thierry’s role hasn’t changed much, but his bass playing seems more prominent. New drummer David Payant is an absolute star. He looks like he’s mistakenly wandered on stage from a chemistry lecture. He plays like he was raised by Art Blakey and John Bonham.

This was the fifth time I’ve seen the band, and they’ve never been less than excellent. Tonight, though, they just seemed to be in the zone throughout, especially during the main set closer 1,000,000 Died to Make This Sound. It sounded like there were thirty of them up there, with David’s drumming redolent of Bonham’s greatest nine minutes, Kashmir. Props to the crowd, too, who unusually for a Glasgow audience kept schtumm during the quiet bits.

Just six songs, all but one drawn from the last two albums. Still a good 90 minute set, though. Averaging fifteen minutes a piece, somehow none of the songs came across as self-consciously ‘epic’. There was none of the quiet-loud clichés that plague most post-rock. Not that I’d call SMZ’s fare post-rock. It’s as indebted to Crass, the Watersons and Mahler as it is to Godspeed and its myriad acolytes.

In short, this was an outstanding gig. One that will linger in the memory for a long, long time.

Set list
I Built Myself A Metal Bird / I Fed My Metal Bird The Wings Of Other Metal Birds
There Is a Light
God Bless Our Dead Marines
‘Piphany Rambler
1,000,000 Died To Make This Sound
13 Blues For Thirteen Moons

Gig: MONO (Glasgow Stereo, 23/3/09)

Okay, so it’s a formula – but then so were the classic songs of Holland/Dozier/Holland. Japanese quartet Mono do adhere to a rough template. Start gently, contemplative; build gracefully (or sometimes explode unexpectedly); and climax in a crescendo of noise. They’re not alone in doing so, either – it’s become a guitar-based, instrumental post-rock cliché. What they do have that sets them apart is a strong gift for melody. This never deserts them, even when they are in the heart of the maelstrom. As sheets of white noise engulf everything, there is always some gorgeous tune at its centre.

The last time I saw the band was at ATP in Minehead last year. They had the unenviable task of playing the first afternoon, when everybody was settling in, reacquainting themselves with old friends and generally jabbering away excitedly. In the cavernous upper bar, they got somewhat lost in all the hubbub. Playing a club like Stereo, packed to the rafters and with an atmosphere akin to a steam room, they were in their element. Even if the quiet sections were often almost overwhelmed by the venue’s noisy air con.

The new album, Hymn to the Immortal Wind, is a work on a huge scale. It’s fully orchestrated and has a tendency towards bombast. When I reviewed it, I thought it huge fun, but possibly not the sort of record that would continue to reward repeated plays. A month or so on, it still sounds exhilarating. I did wonder, though, how it would translate live, sans orchestra. As it turned out, exceptionally well.

Tonight’s set began with the first four tracks of the record and ended with its closer, with just a couple of old tunes chucked in for good measure. It sounded absolutely brilliant. The quiet bits lost none of their grace and subtlety, and the climaxes were colossal. They played for ninety minutes, but it seemed like half that. Wearing a critical hat, it could be argued that every tune signposted its direction, but I tossed my critical hat away about five minutes in and surrendered myself gleefully to the feast of aural delights. This was a band who were absolutely at ease with what they do best and who were in stunning form. The Lionel Messi’s of post-rock, perhaps.

Instal 09. Day Three (Glasgow Arches, 22/3/09)

I have to admit to feeling pretty deflated on the way home on Saturday night. Was it me, or was this year’s Instal really as dreary as it seemed? I embarked on Sunday’s proceedings several rungs down on the ladder of expectation. Fortunately, the evening went some way towards redressing the inspiration / desperation balance.

Nobody made me want to throw things this evening, but neither Seymour Wright nor the duo of Sean Meehan and Taki Unami exactly set the pulse racing. Both acts definitely fell into this year’s themed trap of doing very little for a very long time. Wright is a saxophonist. In the spirit of Instal, of course, he did everything but play the damn thing. He blew whistles through the mouthpiece, rubbed it against his trousers and rattled it against a battery operated fan amongst other fairly pointless activities. I didn’t even understand what Meehan and Unami were actually doing. Meehan had a snare drum and a couple of cymbals which he seemed to barely touch. Unami had a laptop and some trays of what looked like dried rice. He clapped every now and then. The trays rattled every now and then. Er, that’s it.

To be fair, they were the low points of a night on which standards were fairly high. Rolf Julius used field recordings of crickets, birds and pond life, and then mixed them and rerecorded them and remixed them etc etc. The result was a gentle, but continually changing sound that seemed to snake around the room. Sometimes it sounded pastoral, sometimes alien – a sort of avant-garde chill out music.

Sachiko M and Otomo Yoshihide‘s set was divided into three parts. Sachiko fiddled with some contact mics for a while, gleefully creating a series of snap, crackles and pops – like an amlified bowl of Rice Krispies. Otomo played a strange looking pair of pianos, somehow hooking them up to a guitar amp, causing oscillating feedback of various pitches. It was interesting, but I’d like to have heard it used in a more musical way. The pair then played their improv piece “Filament”, a duet for turntable with no records and sampler with no samples. It was a spacious piece, full of longeurs and near silence, punctuated by static crackle, feedback squeals, and the beautiful, rhythmic sound of needle on turntable.

I ventured in the small Studio Theatre on a couple of occasions this evening. Fraser Burnett, Jean-Philippe Gross and Grant Smith created an enjoyable and rhythmic scree of noise using a trio of mixers. Neil Davidson and Hannah Eliul on guitar and clarinet respectively created some delightful improvised music, let down only by vocalist Ben Knight who seemed to be convinced he was an extra on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Back to the main hall, and possibly the best two sets of the entire festival. Gross reappeared with Jérôme Noetinger, seated at opposite sides of a table situated in the middle of the arch. It was covered in all manner of electronic gizmos with cables and wires sprouting in all directions. They proceeded to create a maelstrom of electronic noise. Sometimes it was intense and dense as Merzbow, sometimes it used extremes of pitch like Pan Sonic, and sometimes it almost purred like a contented cat – albeit one with a very short temper. It was visceral and physical and rather wonderful.

The final set of the festival brought back memories of Maryanne Amacher’s extraordinary 2006 performance, in which she produced frequencies of sound that seemed impossibly loud, and also seemed to emanate from inside your head, but yet allowed you to have normal volume conversations at the same time. This time Jean-Luc Guionnet and Taku Unami somehow tuned in to the frequencies of the actual building. Using speakers set around the room, and the sort of sub bass frequencies that would have your average dubstepper gazing slackjawed in amazement, they produced a deep, rumbling barrage of noise. It wasn’t constant in pitch and tone, but oscillated, making the very fabric of the building seem to vibrate. At one point, my skeleton seemed to be jingling around in my body! The volume was high, but not excessively so – this wasn’t a performance that left your ears ringing afterwards. It was all done using frequencies of sound. Quite an experience.

It has to be said that the highlights this year weren’t plentiful. Sunday was the best day by far. There was too much stuff that seemed to lead up blind alleys, and not a great deal that felt inspiring. When the outer limits of what could be considered music are being explored, it’s always going to be hit and miss whether the results are enervating, excruciating or exciting. It’s the possibilities that keep me coming year after year. Even when the festival is below par, there is always something magical to take away from it.

Instal 09. Day Two (Glasgow Arches, 21/3/09)

To the Arches then.

One thing that has struck me, having been coming to Instal since its second year in 2002, is the festival’s move away from what can broadly be described as traditional music making towards a more conceptual sound art that is more interested in process than in form. By traditional music making, I don’t mean mainstream – but certainly using accepted instrumentation to produce forms that are recognisably musical to the untutored ear. The likes of Jandek, Loren Connors, Carsten Nicolai, Keiji Haino and Ryoji Ikeda couldn’t be described as mainstream artists by any stretch of the imagination, but they use musical forms that are not so very far from more commercially minded music to twist new shapes and sounds.

Anyone with a hankering for rhythm or melody – two standard building blocks of music – would have found very little to grab hold of tonight. The themes, if there were any, were explorations of pitch, timbre and process. This is all well and good, but it makes for an intellectual experience that can be dry, lacking heart, soul and emotional connection. And frankly it can be tedious.

Two of tonight’s more successful conceptual pieces were provided Tetsuo Kogawa and Nikos Veliotis. Kogawa used four radios, three transistors, his hands and a few glass slides to manipulate radio waves. The resultant sound was a symphony of pitch and crackle. But by having a close up camera on what he was doing projected on to a screen, we could observe a fascinating process, even if the sound wasn’t particularly musical in any accepted sense. Veliotis’s “Cello Powder” consisted of the playback of a CD of looped cello drones that he’d recorded, while he and an assistant destroyed the instrument he used using an axe, electric saw, wood chipper and finally food blender to turn it into sawdust. This was then put into jars, and each CD would be sold with an accompanying jar holding part of the cello. A power failure half way through didn’t help, but although the drones were fairly captivating, the visual element of watching wood chips being ground to powder did get a bit boring after a while.

Drones are good. I like my drones. They do seem to have become totally ubiquitous in experimental music making, to the point of being about as experimental and avant-garde as a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus pop song. Used in conjunction with other elements, drones have a contemplative power. Used on their own, there has to be something other than empty pitch to make them interesting. Veliotis’s use of drone at least had other things going on, even if they were merely visual. Rad Malfatti and Klaus Filip used trombone and laptop and very low volume to produce a 40 odd minute piece that went precisely nowhere. Michael Pisaro‘s “An Unrhymed Chord” used twelve musicians, grouped in three quartets, on instruments as varied as trombone, guitar, laptop, sax, cello and piano, to produce a long, quiet drone that altered only as the various players came in and out. The piano (which obviously is incapable of producing long, sustained notes) occasionally chimed in with a single note repeated at intervals. This went on for over an hour, with a five minute pause of silence in the middle. Why oh why does everything always have to be so damn long? Is there special merits given for testing the listener’s patience? Is it some kind of statement against the attention deficient pace of modern life?

There were two vocal pieces tonight. I cannot begin to describe how much I hated Steve McCaffrey‘s “Carnival”. The concept was cut up poetry, with every symbol, punctuation mark and string of random consonants and vowels vocalised. Technically, it was good. But as a piece it just sounded like a random spiel of gutteral noises and occasional phrases (some done in ridiculous comedy accents) – like a four year old with severe Tourette’s. Horrible. I thought I would hate Joan La Barbara‘s wordless vocalising, too. I’m not a fan of vocal gymnastics, and scat singing makes me want to fill my ears with concrete. And I didn’t really enjoy her first few pieces that explored single pitch and circular singing (ie singing whilst inhaling as well as exhaling) although they were done well. Her “Conversations” used made up language but done in a sing-song conversational style in a variety of voices and accents that was both dazzlingly skillful, but also witty and charming. Her final piece “Rothko”, accompanied by a CD of droning bowed piano and multi-tracks of her own voice, was dark and mesmerising, much like the artist’s ouevre itself. It was easily the best thing on offer tonight.

Things finished with Tamio Shiraishi, Mico and Fritz Welch – a trio using sax, percussion, vocal spasms and piano to create a random improv soup of noise and clatter. At least it had energy, but I can’t say I was that thrilled by it. There were also performances running in the small Studio Theatre at the venue, which often ran concurrently with the main stuff. I missed most of them – perhaps I missed some of the best stuff. I did catch five minutes of Smack Insecten – a sonic stew using a myriad of mixers to create a symphony of feedback. That sounded like it might have been fun.

So, disappointment is a fact of life with Instal. But it’s usually counterbalanced by some things that are genuinely eye-opening, and often breathtaking. Two thirds in, the disappointment / revelation scales are heavily tipped towards the former. I did leave tonight with a sense of “why did I bother?” Joan La Barbara was the only artist whom I felt widened my horizons as to what music could be, but also managed to make a connection deeper than a purely intellectual appreciation.

Instal 09. Day One (Glasgow University Chapel, 20/3/09)

Weird and wonderful, exciting and excruciating, Instal can be all of these things and more. It’s become Scotland’s premiere experimental music shindig since its inception in 2001. Each year, a bunch of musicians from various fields descend on the city to showcase their art. Nobody tries to pretend that it’s all going to be equally enjoyable. There is a Reithian spirit to the event – inform, educate and entertain – and sometimes it does feel that the third of those noble aims has been tacked on as an afterthought. The reason it’s always worth it is not just the considerable horizon-broadening that it offers, but also that there is inevitably something that absolutely takes your breath away. Last year’s three hour set by Japanese quartet Marginal Consort definitely fell into that category.

Every Instal has a slightly different format. This year, the first day of three was held, not in its usual haunt the Arches, but at the Gothic pile that is the Glasgow University Chapel. The interior of the building is like one of Britain’s great cathedrals, only in miniature. It’s a splendid mixture of towering, gabled roof, columns and arches and is dominated by a large stained glass window at the eastern end. The reason we were all there was that the night’s performances were all using the chapel’s organ. It’s a strange beast – the pipes stand out proudly on the north wall, but the actual organ is hidden away in an alcove high up on the south side – invisible to all but a few of the audience. This means that the entire evening’s visuals consisted solely of the building’s impressive architecture (I particularly liked the heavy wooden saints (disciples?) who jut out of the beams at right angles, dangling chandeliers on long chains – but would feel a bit vulnerable sat beneath one).

The first performance was by German minimalist composer Eva-Maria Houben. The description of her work as ultra-minimalist in the programme was an understatement. For 45 minutes she played a practically unwavering low volume drone – a harmonic of sorts with a low frequency rumble and a high frequency pitch. The boredom threshold was severely tested. I began to think I was back at school in Friday afternoon detention.

The duo of Jean-Luc Guionnet and Toshimaru Nakamura were much more interesting. Guionnet helmed the organ with Nakamura providing accompaniment using a mixing desk that input its own output creating feedback loops of electronic noise that he could then manipulate. The music was highly abstract, but not without concrete form. It was almost like a gallery of aural paintings evoking an industrial landscape. There were vast locomotives, steamships in fog, colossal machines and the hum and crackle of power stations – all topped off with a dash of Universal horror and Colin Clive zapping kilowatts of electricity through poor old Boris Karloff. It ranged from thunderous rumblings to delicate fizz, and restlessly moved ever forwards. Hugely impressive.

Hermann Nitsch was probably the star attraction of the evening – perhaps of the whole festival if fame is your yardstick. A founder of the post-war Aktionist movement in Austria, his art has always been confrontational and multi-disciplinary. Tonight, though, we were treated to a series of organ pieces. According to the notes, the music was designed to conjure up images of the cosmos. That was certainly true, but only in the way that it conjured up early Tangerine Dream’s attempts to do the same. The music was simply a series of sustained chords (sometimes dischords) layered and in sequence. It was interesting for about ten minutes. After an hour it just sounded tired, lazy and uninspired. Many artists in experimental music suffer from the same fault – take an idea, but then stretch it well beyond the point where it ceases to be interesting.

Tonight was an interesting experiment, but the lack of a visual element (even just being able to see what the artists were doing) and the static nature of most of the music made it a fairly dull experience – Guionnet and Nakamura excepted. To the Arches, then.