Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Jeff Mangum's ATP Festival 2012


A Hawk and a Hacksaw were playing a live soundtrack to Armenian director Sergei Parajanov’s wonderful debut film from 1964, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. It’s a poetic, dreamlike take on Georgian folk tales, full of expressionistic colour and primal emotion, and shot in a constantly inventive style. It’s also a film with its own music, dialogue and sound, and so perhaps an odd choice for accompaniment. It’s more common, and makes better sense, for silent movies to be revived with alternative live soundtracks performances. The images of Parajanov’s film are strong enough to float free of the anchor of narrative logic, however. Which was a good thing in this context, since it was very difficult to gain a vantage point from which subtitles were visible. Indeed, it was very difficult to find a vantage point from which much of the screen in general was visible, hung as it was at the back of the low stage, with pillars or the stacks of the mixing desks blocking most angles of vision. The music was good, A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s usual blend of Eastern European folk styles filtered through New Mexican ears and played on accordions, fiddles and brass instruments. But I soon tired of craning over people’s necks to glimpse even a tiny fraction of the unfolding film, and people were undoubtedly tiring of me stumbling into their seated forms in the pitch darkness on the periphery of the room, so I left for the bright sunshine outside. The soundtrack is to be released in the near future, and I’ll listen to it and watch the film in more comfortable surroundings then.

Bore conduction
Later in the afternoon, the massed forces of The Boredoms took up their assigned positions on the Centre Stage in preparation for their latest musical and theatrical spectacular. The extended Boredoms family were visible around the site in various groupings throughout the weekend, and I’d seen them along the seafront the previous day, Yamatsuke Eye, Yoshimi P-We and others messing about on the machines outside the arcade and sitting for photo’s on the colourful children’s rides. They somehow seemed to fit in perfectly with the whole surreal atmosphere of the out of season and somewhat shabby English seaside town. The configuration for this performance took the shape of a double circle. In the inner ring were six drummers, including core Bores Yoshimi and Yojiro Tatekawa, who looked neat and mild-mannered, his smart casual clothing topped with a crisp new baseball cap – the Dave Mattacks of the group, his calmness offsetting Yamatsuke Eye’s more wild-eyed, hairy demeanour. Both Tatekawa and Yoshimi sat self-effacingly in the curve of the circle arcing across the stage front, facing inwards and therefore with their backs to the audience. In a concentric, containing outer ring were 10 seated guitarists, amps rising behind them like a stacked circle of technological megaliths within which the ritual would take place. A further guitarist stood beside these ten, and the circle was completed by Yamatsuke’s grafted 12 (or so) necked guitar sculpture, laddered fretboards ranked in rows of three and connected to a central megabody; Mahavishnu10. Chief Bore Eye stood inside the magic circles and conducted the unwieldy ensemble with movement of his body and loud, exclamatory vocalisations. His conduction approached the condition of dance, in contrast to the curtly imperious gestures with which Frank Zappa used to cue his band. He slowly crouched down, and the volume fell, then rose up and lifted his arms in invocation, and the surrounding sound built to a correspondingly ecstatic crescendo. The piece started with splashing cymbal taps and atonally plucked, arrhythmic guitar notes, clearly spaced apart – the pointillistic sounds of the first drops of a rain shower falling onto the surface of a lake or river. The singular cymbal splashes and guitar notes gradually coalesced into a shimmering veil of percussive rain and co-ordinated chordal thrum, swelling and dying as Eye stretched upwards and crouched down.

Superprog guitar sculpture
All this acted as a prelude to the main body of the piece, which began on Eye’s cue, the drummers launching into a thunderous, propulsive and highly disciplined rhythmic torrent. The guitars produced chordal clouds which hung in the air above, sometimes echoing back and forth in antiphonal response to Eye’s gestures. An initial climax was reached when he took up his staff (a section of curtain pole, by the looks of it) and struck massive chordal clusters from his guitar sculpture, three pre-tuned necks at a time. I can’t imagine a denser sound than that produced at these moments. It was a fairly lengthy performance of one and a half hours, and like all rituals, there were periods of lesser intensity, a marking of time building up to the moments of transcendence. But when they broke through, they were truly stratospheric. The music was unbroken but multi-sectioned, with each part evidently fully and thoroughly worked out (sounds of rehearsals could be heard as we came in on Friday, and on Saturday morning). Eye introduced a playful, childlike electronic arpeggio, to which he happily capered, and he and Yoshimi enjoyed a passage of call and response vocalisation, throwing words and sounds between each other across the circle. He also blew a whistle for a while, partly as a means of cuing the ensemble, and partly to create a startlingly loud blast of high-pitched noise. Its piercing, amplified shriek was almost unbearably shrill, leading someone to my side to stick his fingers in his ears. Luckily, having previously experienced a Boredoms performance (at Matt Groening’s ATP in 2010), I knew to wear earplugs if I wanted to hear anything else during the weekend. The whole thing was brought to a final climax with the ultra heavy riff which they’d used for their more drum-based shows at the 2010 ATP, with Eye leaping in the air to strike the guitar necks with greater force. Then the circle was completed, everything returned to the calm of the opening section, the thunderstorm dying down to individual raindrops once more. Once the last drop had fallen, a brief silence was observed before wild cheering and applause. Everyone should experience a Boredoms ritual at least once in their lives. There’s nothing else quite like it.

I caught the end of The Apple’s In Stereo’s set later on the Centre Stage, a cheerful piece of singalong pop psych, in which the Elephant 6 mob were once more invited onto the stage, along with anyone from the audience who wanted to join in. The orange-jacketed security, who were friendly, relaxed and helpful throughout the festival, were clearly not inclined to allow that to happen, so any freeform, anarchistic blurring of the divide between artist and audience remained merely notional. Then it was time to wait for Joanna Newsom to appear. This was to be the second of her two sets over the weekend, the first having clashed with Young Marble Giants. Thankfully, this repeat performance meant that I didn’t have to miss them, although apparently the songs which Newsom sang did vary over the two evenings. Thankfully there was no repeat of the technical difficulties which preceded her show at Matt Groening’s 2010 ATP, which forced people to wait for some time outside the Central Stage entrance in a dispiritingly lengthy queue. That performance saw her backed by the chamber group from the Have One On Me LP, whereas here she played solo. This left her to fill out the arrangements from Ys and Have One On Me on harp and piano alone, a considerably more involved task requiring great concentration. She didn’t shy from choosing challenging pieces, too. At one point, in between songs, she took a deep breath and commented that she really was going for it, and that maybe she should loosen up a little. She didn’t however, continuing at an equal pitch of intensity. Her voice has grown in strength since her vocal problems of a few years ago, and her wordless chorusing towards the end of Have One On Me, shared with backing singers on the record and in previous performances, was confident and almost approached a bel canto classical style. The high notes on Sadie, from the first LP Milk Eyed Mender, were also clearer now, having lost the shrill, slightly screeching quality they possessed on that record. In this sense, her progress echoes that of Kate Bush, whose vocals also grew in assurance and range (although in both cases, the early, more untutored style had considerable charm). There was a great deal of expressivity in the voice, too, with the emotions of the songs powerfully conveyed. This came through particularly in Monkey and Bear from the Ys LP, in a baroque, bardic storytelling fashion, Newsom really bringing the anthropomorphised characters to life. She caught the growth of monkey’s sharp, controlling nature, his materialistic drive which increasingly pushes bear, the romantic dreamer away, and thus brought the song’s symbolic heart to the surface and made me see it in a new light.

Indeed, her performance revealed other aspects of familiar songs to me, or brought a new clarity to their underlying themes. I noticed the recurrence of bears as a sort of emblematic (and the symbolic use of wild animals in general). There was the romantic, mystical half of the Monkey and Bear relationship, of course; The equation of bears with nobility, goodness and strength in Esme (‘brave as a bear with a heart rare and true’); and with the fear of wildness in the line ‘I took a blind shot across the creek at the black bear’ in Soft As Chalk. The concern with ‘long time’ and the sense of personal identity and place within its geological and evolutionary perspectives also came through in Soft as Chalk and Sawdust and Diamonds. Her playing was supremely accomplished throughout, with the lack of supporting musicians allowing her to display the full range of shimmering harp glissandos and rippling arpeggios, emphatically plucked or tenderly brushed chords. Her piano playing showed a light and deft touch too, with the sprightly instrumental melody which emerges in the course of Soft As Chalk dancing with a breezy, jazz-inflected bounce worthy of Oscar Peterson. She played songs from all three of her albums: Sadie and Bridges and Balloons from Milk Eyed Mender (and, I see from a Youtube video, Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie the previous evening, too); the epics Monkey and Bear and Sawdust and Diamonds from Ys, both very challenging to perform in this solo context; and Have One On Me, Jackrabbits, Soft As Chalk and Esme from Have One On Me, the latter almost unbearably tender and touching. A wonderful, wholly committed performance, and undoubtedly one of the highlights of the weekend for me.

Next up was another of my favourites, the masters of slow burning quietude from Duluth, Low. They had a perfectly balanced, symmetrical stage set up, all standing to the fore in a line. Mimi Sparhawk was at the centre behind her simple snare, trap and cymbals drum set up, which she plays standing in the Mo Tucker tradition. To her right stood Alan Sparhawk, guitarist and partner, and to her left bassist Steve Garrington. Garrington, a relatively new addition to the trio, having joined for the 2007 LP Drums and Guns, also adds a new dimension to the Low sound, retreating from the front row to sit behind the piano on several numbers. Alan greeted the audience in a relaxed manner, asking them if they were having a good time before dedicating the first song to the people of Syria. It was Nothing But Heart from the recent C’mon LP, and in the context of the dedication, its repeat to fade chorus of the song’s title became a hollow refrain, the plea of a tyrant. This false leader reveals himself in the empty promise of the opening lines: ‘I would be your king/If you want to be free’. Sparhawk immediately dedicated the next song to Syria, too, insisting that he was serious, and that ‘we’ve got to stop killing each other’. Low have always possessed a strong sense of moral purpose, without ever descending into preaching or strutting pomp. This partly derives from the Sparhawks’ religious beliefs, and partly from the asceticism and purity of approach of the punk and hardcore which inspired them. This seriousness is reflected both in the lyrics and in the stripped back sound. It’s difficult to imagine Low, for all the shifts in dynamics over the years, existing as anything other than a trio, with the Sparhawks’ delicate harmonies and simple guitar and drum accompaniments at its heart. Their seriousness can be offputting to some. I heard one party dude taking the piss out of the Syrian statements on the way out. When Alan told us that we were all angels after one particular song, someone behind me demurred, saying ‘we’re no angels’ (speak for yourself, mate). Such proclamations of holiness certainly rub against the cherished cliché of rock as the rebellious devil’s music. Their sincerity is never in doubt, however, and is inspiring and affecting for others.

Low - perfect symmetry
The lyrics often have an allusive quality, showing a deliberate disavowal of directly or easily comprehensible meaning. They also sometimes play with troubling or provocative perspectives, as with the terrorist’s prayer Murderer, from the Drums and Guns LP, played here. This attempts to get into the mindset of a religious extremist (the religion is not revealed) wishing to become a ‘fool for god’ and carry out whatever murderous tasks he might require. Alan Sparhawk can, at different times, be equally compassionate and admonitory. He ranges from the withering contempt of his judgement, in Witches, that ‘all you guys out there trying to be like Al Green, you’re all weak’, to the tender reassurances whispered on Nightingale. Both of these songs come from the excellent C’mon LP, much of which they played here, including Try To Sleep (without the stardust sprinkle of the celeste line, alas, but still gorgeous), You See Everything and Especially Me. Mimi provided the harmonies which shimmered above Alan’s vocals on most songs, but took lead on a couple. Her singing (rather than harmonising) voice has an unforced, natural quality which imbues the songs which she carries with a touching directness. Their quavering fragility is bolstered with quiet conviction. Quietness has always been a touchstone of the Low sound, and several of the songs here were played pianissimo, with Mimi lightly brushing cymbal and drumhead and Alan stroking guitar chords with his thumb – playing as if the baby was asleep upstairs. Unfortunately, the location of the Reds stage directly below meant that these intimate songs had the unwanted, Charles Ivesian addition of colliding polyrhythmic bass lines pounding through the floor, subtlety and nuance losing out to dumb heaviosity (although I don’t mean to impugn Blanck Mass, from whom these intrusive sounds originated – more on them in a sec). This sound bleeding didn’t detract unduly from the performance, however. A little mental filtering served to block it out. Perhaps more sensitive programming in the future might eliminate the problem, however. It was significant that by Sunday evening, Jeff Mangum was insisting that Group Doueh, due to go on at the same time as him in Reds, delay the start of their performance until he was finished.

Low - Sweet, sweet sunflower
Alan also turned up the volume for some songs, playing slow, expressively distorted guitar, vaguely reminiscent at times of the Neil Young of Cortez the Killer, and demonstrating what a fine player he is in his own unshowy way (although he has in fact showcased his guitar playing on a solo instrumental record, Solo Guitar). A couple of old songs were dusted off and greeted with great enthusiasm; the fierce and vaguely threatening Monkey (‘tonight you will be mine/tonight the monkey dies’) from the Trust LP, and Sunflower from Things We Lost In The Fire. It only dawned on me as I was listening to it here that the lyrics which I had previously half understood as a blend of mourning and hope might actually be lateral Christian allegory, a song of resurrection. As with Joanna Newsom, live performances of songs can bring new perspectives on familiar songs, new revelations of previously occluded meanings. Alan Sparhawk, the band’s stage spokesman, maintained a relaxed and friendly rapport with the audience throughout, and at one point invited anyone who wanted to join him for a run to meet outside the entrance to Butlins the next day at one o’clock. He was as good as his word (we happened to be heading out to town at that time) and set off with a ragged trail of spindly indie kids in tow. He is clearly a very fit man, so how long they managed to keep up with him, I don’t know. A great performance though, full of conviction and slow-burning fire.

Low - Alan Sparhawk
Heading downstairs to the Reds venue, I joined Mrs W for the latter half of the Blanck Mass set, some of which I had inadvertently experienced in filtered form. This is the solo electronica project of Benjamin Power, one half of Bristolian duo Fuck Buttons. His record was one of my favourites from last year, filled with all-engulfing ambient pieces which made for an invigorating aural wallow. Mrs W informed me that the start of the set more closely resembled the music on the album, albeit at vastly greater volumes than any at which we’d listened to it. By the time I arrived, however, it had morphed into far more abrasive sonic forms, with looped layers steadily accumulating, and deep, throbbing bass lines pulsing through the room. Swirling visuals revolved in swift, slightly dizzying orbits on the screen behind Power, who stood attentively at his laptop throughout. It still amazes me what volumes and ranges of sound can emerge from such a small and unprepossessing object. I could feel the vibrations from where I was sitting on the floor pass through the bridge to the tip of my nose, which felt tingly – a slightly disconcerting physical experience which suggested that some fairly specific wavelengths and frequencies were being brought into play. By the end, the rippling loops, thumping bass and regular drum beats meant that Blanck Mass had essentially been absorbed back into the body of the Fuck Buttons from which it had been spawned.

Dashing across the central ‘tent’ to the Crazy Horse bar, I caught the tail end of Mount Eerie’s set. In this instance, Mount Eerie was Phil Elverum playing solo, his fragile, wavering voice accompanied only by chords plucked from his small acoustic guitar. This context suited songs which were suggestive of a lonely soul in the wilderness, real or figurative (or both). There was no hint of the crashing, distorted metallic guitars which sometimes tear into his songs on the records. Elverum had to make a sudden mental adjustment some way through his performance, shyly admitting that he’d run out of material, having become used to the 30 minute duration of his support slot on the current Earth tour. A request from the audience for Voice In Headphones from the Lost Wisdom LP was gratefully received, and he rounded off his set with this haunting and beautiful song.

Earth - Dylan Carson
I returned to the Reds stage to see Earth themselves, cover stars of last month’s Wire magazine. Frontman and guitarist Dylan Carson was quietly spoken and hesitant, and played for significant lengths of time facing drummer Adrienne Davies, his back to the audience. Not that this was music for demonstrative gestures, anyway. It was stately and slowly worked out, and played at a medium volume which demanded active listening. This led to a call to turn it up, suggesting that this malcontent hadn’t been paying attention to Earth’s recent musical development, and was still hoping for the kind of crushing drone metal which they’d pioneered over a decade ago (and which Jim Jarmusch had used to such effect on the soundtrack to his film The Limits of Control). The band features Lori Goldston playing cello, hardly an instrument which would find a meaningful voice within the overwhelming volumes of a metallic onslaught, no matter how much it was transformed by leftfield impulses. The sober dress code, with Carlson in neat shirt, buttoned waistcoat and striped tie, was a further signal that this was far from heads down power chord music. Conscious clarity rather than distorted blur through overdriven volume was now the aim. It was fascinating to watch Adrienne Davies providing the gelid, creeping sloth rhythms which drove the music. Her arms raised the sticks and then hung in the air for a suspended moment before deliberately bringing them down to strike the beat. It was like watching the dreamlike movements of actors in a Japanese Noh drama, time slowed down to serve a ritualistic observance of a state beyond everyday experience. Davies was akin to a slomo version of Yamatsuke Eye, the figure at the centre of the Boredom’s roiling whirwind. Earth’s progress was more like a viscous lava flow, gradually burning a course through mountain rock. Like Eye, Davies seemed to be conducting the tempo of the music, drumsticks held up as twinned batons. No wonder, then, that it was to her that Carlson looked in the early stages of the set to get the measure of the music. The intensity picked up towards the end, if not in volume, suggesting that this is a music which needs to take its time to find resolution, and is not content to settle into easy grooves. It was absorbing to listen to and watch the concentrated quest throughout, however.

Adrienne Davies conducting Earth
Earth play with occult imagery and Blakean demonologies in their titles and covers, and Carlson talked of his fascination with English folklore and local legends in his Wire interview. This gives them something in common with the electronica duo Demdike Stare. They come from near Manchester, and have named themselves after a local seventeenth century Pendle witch (or rather someone who was accused of witchcraft), Elizabeth Southerns, known as Demdike. Miles Whittaker said of his musical partner Sean Canty, in a Wire Jukebox feature in the June 2011 edition, ‘he wanted to write a soundtrack to a horror movie that didn’t exist’. The visuals projected behind them went some way towards hinting at the movie he might have had in mind. A drone accumulated into a swarming cloud of buzzing, abrasive sound, suggesting the ominous approach of some dark, scouring force. On the screen, an old man walked across a blasted plain, billowing stormclouds massing behind him and a strong wind blowing his white hair about his face. A cowled figure approached from the other horizon. As it neared, its hood blowed back to reveal a young girl, her face a mask of lichenous scabs through which eyes blazed with malevolent triumph. And that was as much as we saw, a tantalising prelude to a film which we’ll never see. There were other sequences, some with a point of view camera prowling through deserted institutional corridors, others focussing on women’s faces filled with romantic tristesse which could almost have been taken from some forgotten Antonioni movie. The music began to develop clattering, echoing beats suggestive of empty, underground spaces. The visuals began repeating themselves, what was initially startling soon becoming overfamiliar, and they were finally overlaid by the mystic sigil Panasonic, after which no more was seen. The performance was scheduled to go on for an hour and a half, but had started late, and in the end wound down before an hour had passed. I assumed the extended running time meant they would be replicating the visual show to be performed at the Union Chapel in London on 31st March. Perhaps the breakdown of the projector led to a premature end, or maybe they were honest enough to admit that they’d run out of ideas. It was good while it lasted, but the music did seem to have got stuck into a loop which was failing to fruitfully develop. Enough was enough. And that was what we decided for the night, too. I’d have loved to have seen Oneohtrix Point Never, whose electronic music I like a great deal, but he wasn’t due on for another hour, and I no longer have any real desire to stay up until past three in the morning. This would have been endurance rather than enjoyment. There were more delights to come the next day, including some legendary titans of free jazz, so it was back to the chalet.

No comments: