Ether Festival 2012
The South Bank Centre; London, England
Fear had seemingly gripped the lads sitting behind us as the lights went out. Their in-group chortling a thinly veiled cry for comfort as the suspense grew, Ralph Cumbers and Nick Edwards stood in front of their equipment, and amplifiers began to hum. How loud was this thing going to be? With their visuals a subtle flickering of rainbow tench scales, a thick black lugworm draped across, thumping pulsations were pelted through shambolic noise improv and contorted trombone sequences. With darker hints of breakbeat and dubstep gorged from out of nowhere, EkoClef proved to be the perfect opening act, a not-so-quiet lull before the tech surge set to follow.
Raime opened with a mutating polonium grid that entrapped its audience, earth-shaking bass pulsations carried exquisite visuals as they morphed into some rough of a leather jacket, its bearer quaking in mid seizure while this pulverizing headline set literally ravaged the Purcell Room. The performers remained anonymous, cloaked in darkness that surrounded their gear as silhouettes bobbed ruggedly to throbbing industrial techno, every beat a tectonic juggernaut. I was on the edge of my seat, eyes glued to the screen, ears trying to make sense of what was happening. The experience was utterly thrilling.
The Queen Elizabeth Hall Front Room was just outside, surrounded by a loop of tables, facilities, and bars. Airhead was in the cutting throes of his DJ set and a jostling crowd began to steadily amass in front of him. We danced, partly as a consequence of McAndrew’s tracklist, partly to recover from what Raime had done to our nervous systems. Mount Kimbie were soon to follow; lights cracked and strobes burst as the pair attempted a suspense build-up, which broke out into the ever-popular “Carbonated.” The remainder of their show was solid, but incomparable to that of the Purcell experience, for something extraordinary was witnessed on the South Bank that night.
Thee Oh Sees / Sic Alps
Rickshaw Theatre; Vancouver, Canada
Located at the infamous intersection of Main and Hastings, the Rickshaw is not a place for the faint of heart. The venue was built in 1971 as an Asian movie theater, a flagship piece of the once-great Shaw Brothers cinema empire, but it closed down in the mid-80s as the wave of North American interest in kung-fu movies broke and rolled back. It sat empty for 20 years or so, until someone tore out half of the seats, spray-painted most of it black, and reopened it as a concert hall. It’s an unimaginably dirty venue, chock full of character, with great sight-lines and a decent soundsystem. As such, it bares all the hallmarks of a classic rock ‘n’ roll space.
Sic Alps and Thee Oh Sees made the perfect double bill to see at the Rickshaw Theatre. They’re both California bands with psychedelic and garage leanings, both touring in support of fantastic new albums (an eponymous Sic Alps album [sold at the show for only $5 on tape] and Thee Oh Sees’ Putrifiers II), and both have the ability to lull you into a haze and blow you away with a paisley grenade. Yet, their performances brought something a little different to the table this evening.
While scenes from the 1978 classic kung-fu revenge flick The 36th Chamber of Shaolin played on the dual screens that bookend either side of the dimly lit stage, Sic Alps was the first band to step out of the darkness. Their set wasn’t perfect, as co-founding lead guitarist Mike Donovan’s vocals weren’t particularly strong considering how high in the mix they were placed, and lady luck snapped the strap on his acoustic, forcing him to uncomfortably coddle his guitar for “Love Is Strange” (one of the oldest and goldest songs in their set). Commendably, they built up the energy and intensity as they moved along, incorporating more noise by the last few tracks and bringing the mosh pit up to a simmer with their apt cover of “The Seeker” by The Who. After his set, Donovan was surprised with a couple of candles in a cupcake, and the crowd, learning that they were celebrating his 41st birthday, joined in singing “Happy Birthday” to him.
Thee Oh Sees turned up the heat immediately upon gracing the stage. Beer cans started to fly by their first note, and the mosh pit spanned from one speaker stack to the other, a bustling activity that would retain its vigor for the set’s duration. With a smiling Mike Shoun on a minimal six-piece drum kit, perpetual head-bobbing machine Petey Dammit on guitar, and the underrated Brigid Dawson solidifying the group’s vocals while adding tambourine and Nord Electro keyboard, founding guitarist John Dwyer led his crew through a barrage of brisk, reverb- and delay-laden fuzz jams that were seemingly on the brink of unruliness yet fluidly disciplined. His vocals awash in effects, Dwyer moved from falsetto to absurd growl to carnival barker, ever supported and occasionally carried by Dawson, as he alternately gripped a clear acrylic Electrical Guitar Company DS and a green-and-black Burns Double Six 12-string guitar high on his chest, his dark, cut-off shorts adding a hint of Angus Young to his swagger.
The unforgiving concrete space reverberated the energy of the room as much as it reverberated their art-punk noise, largely benefiting both. By the end of their set, the B.O. of the Rickshaw crowd had reached a stench of Romney tax return proportions. Everyone in the place was either wiping sweat from their brow or reveling in their own filth. It’s freeing to see bands that can take you to that place of transcendence, where individual comfort becomes secondary to the experience of a happening.
Jason Lescalleet and Graham Lambkin / Hild Sofie Tafjord / Rhodri Davies
Cafe Oto; London, England
Candles flickered in the darkness as Graham Lambkin stood assertively over his equipment, a glass of whiskey in his right hand and a blue shirt on his back; there was something about the scene that didn’t quite fit. But then I wasn’t sure what I should be expecting. Jason Lescalleet was sitting opposite eating a satsuma, a crumpled cardboard box over his Casio worked as a dinner plate for collecting peel and pith as Lambkin rested his glass on the table and began flicking switches on his laptop. Faces in the audience were difficult to make out, the mood snug with a cozy twist of herbal tea and stout that lingered in the air while couples shared the last of their coconut cookies, consumed throughout the course of Rhodri Davies’ amplified harp set. Sound began to seep out of the speakers, an electric barracuda caught in barbed wire, rustling, cracking, and snapping as Lescalleet returned to his reel-to-reel gear for spool manipulations.
Lambkin covered a microphone with plastic and dragged it across the edge of the surface supporting his mixing desk, some choral dirge he had been looping faded out and the collaborators continued their fiddling. Prongs, clatters, and high-pitched pulses burst out of the speakers. Folk held their hands to their ears and winced while others lovingly beamed. Lambkin finished his whiskey, draped a microphone over his shoulders, and bobbed at the buzz as it banged against the tape recorder he held with careful hands. Once the penetrating bulges peaked, the volume shrank and lit the way for aquatic sampling. The performers bowed to their audience, clapping ensued, and we vacated the premises.
How to Dress Well
Santos Party House; New York City
That photo isn’t from last night, because my phone was dying and Tom Krell started out by saying “Can we get these lights off?” proceeded by the projection of faces slowly taring from each other, visually screaming, set against white. Now it surprised me that How To Dress Well expanded to include a keyboardist and sampler/violinist, because I remember him just using a sampler and doing the best karaoke-style singing ever. Anyway, the set started out real fucking heavy, something about “You got a baby now” and “Shit.” It was hard to pinpoint a lot of his tracks for two reasons. First off, my favorite part of live shows is sound absorption. Almost each and every song was a struggle for him to belt out the sweetest little licks through the most layered noise; it was borderline magical. The boii got pipes, and maybe it’s the raw emotion or conscious sacrifice of art, but it all worked too well. Second, they’re just kind of that act that switches their original track style when played live. Yet, that makes a more interesting show. Most of the songs performed here I recognized off the new How To Dress Well album Total Loss, two or three were from Love Remains, and one new track. The last track performed was “Ocean Floor For Everything,” which seized my pal Stephen with sound. I looked over to see his eyes flickering back, jamming his fist in the air. He had been saved!
Godspeed You! Black Emperor / Total Life
The Bottletree Cafe; Birmingham, AL
I arrive at 8:33 PM, hoping to beat out the crowd. Of course, the crowd is the standard beer-chugging, college/post-college-yet-still-affiliating-with-undergrads types and the ilk. I’m immediately struck by the oddly festive air in the room. Inappropriate emotion for the occasion? Bottletree’s David Lynch-borrowing theme also adds to the incongruous atmosphere. What was I expecting? Surely they all know that a reckoning is upon us? Complete abysmal despair is what we’re waiting for… Then I wonder, has Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s reputation preceded them? The line from Pineapple Express comes to mind: Is Godspeed just a go-to band? I’m getting anxious.
A Krautrock documentary plays on a screen that blocks the band’s equipment. Foreshadowing, fitting, and telling. There’s a Krautrock playlist playing as well: Faust, Can, Ashra, Kraftwerk, etc. At least the venue is alluding to our end.
Soon, a drone overtakes the room. The crowd is perplexed. Eventually, they settle. The drone rises and the room begins to vibrate. Tones modulate continuing to rise. No sign of the opening act yet. Interesting.
The drone becomes frantic after a while, clustering, pulsating. Still the room sits unaffected, or patient, maybe. “Godspeed will arrive soon?” they wonder. The drone drops, glitches, but continues on all the stronger. Still no sign of the opener. The only form of life on stage is a lamp, emitting blue light. More tones, more frantic. Higher tones. Piercing, domineering, ear-splitting. The weight of the abyss? Stage lights up for a moment, then quickly goes out. People begin to cover their ears or chin stroke. Frankly, I’m frightened. This has gone on for about 30 minutes at this point. When the drone sustains for a while, the crowd parts… I see the noise maker. Opening act Total Life. No one even looks his way. He skulks off without a word.
Godspeed arrives, sophisticated. They take their places, tune. Projected blurred images are cast over them. After about 10 minutes of a droning build, a train appears on the screen. The band mimics the sounds of a train: bowing cymbals, beating the violin strings with a kind of stick. No one is impressed. Then they drop the weight of god upon the audience. The full band shoots through the opening track of the new LP. It’s gorgeous and overwhelming.
After the show, the band leaves the stage politely waving. A few shout out, everyone else heads for the bar. My eyes are wet.
[Photo: Justin Lynham]
Planet Mu at Corsica Studios
Corsica Studios; London, England
When Apple decided to upgrade iOS 5, they also chose to replace the ever-helpful Google Maps app that made taking an iPhone to underground clubs like Corsica useful, particularly when visiting for the first time. We stood somewhere on Elephant Road battling with the new version of this pseudo GPS abomination until my friend JT spotted a man wearing a full-blown rabbit costume by the curb at the traffic lights. “He has to be going to the concert,” he whispered in his thick French accent, frisky from the can of Tyskie consumed on hoof. After questioning, it appeared he was indeed right, though a slight concern arose that I had missed the memo about Planet Mu Takeover being a Donnie Darko-themed fancy dress. The white rabbit led the way.
Planet Mu has been holding events at Corsica since 2008, showcasing artists and performers affiliated with the label, selling out the venue on almost every occasion. Saturday evening was no exception in boasting a roster that included a range of extraordinaires that I had convinced my dear friend were well worth seeing — from the label founder Mike Paradinas, a.k.a µ-Ziq, to Glaswegian soundscape pioneer and visual artist Konx-om-Pax, to the ultimate breakcore mastermind, Venetian Snares. With such an unhinged lineup, it was sure to be an engaging evening, with or without the assistance of les hommes lapins.
Corsica is situated at the rear of a tube station; it’s dark, cramped, and bears the features of a grubby domicile, with conditional exceptions. The lounge area is a converted bar, complete with leather sofas that overlook the main room and consequential stage. It was here we found Rudi Zygadlo closing down his set, which was probably the only one of the evening that actually involved musical instruments in a relatively traditional sense. As he packed away his guitar and drum kit, Ital Tek began setting up, a herd of Mu-star DJs huddled in a booth to the left of the stage twisting footwork, drum’n’bass, and techno to an ever-growing crowd while skewed images of Bladerunner cityscapes were looped over a white cloth behind decks and laptops.
The closer Ital Tek got to his performance, the more the crowd became restless and irksome, and the moment he began to throw switches, lights pulsated, bodies erupted from the shadows, and the building shook. At one point, I noticed JT and I were the only people in my line of vision other than the DJ, who did not bear a face tattoo — torsos were writhing, silhouettes burst and palpitated in strobe to a deep and penetrating set by one of the most creative producers on the bill. We managed about 20 minutes in this writhing sweat swarm as Alan Myson tore up the dancefloor, projecting his beats through the smoke -filled air and into the Red Stripe beer garden out back.
It was then when we discovered the second stage, where µ-Ziq was busy gathering momentum. His bass-heavy live set attracted less of a crowd than Ital Tek, but his jams were equally outstanding. His meshing of Chicago footwork with techno grimace and improv cuts was a jutting reminder as to why this man remains at the forefront of his game and the owner of one of the most enterprising independent labels out there. As his set drew to a close, we retreated to the garden once again for more Jamaican refreshments and a discussion about the scene. JT was shocked, firstly as to how many people were at the sold-out event, and secondly as to how passionately the audience seemed to bounce with every beat and jerk.
We made our way back to the main stage just in time to catch the end of Boxcutter, the number of bodies in this already crowded space beginning to swell. With shouts of “Bring on the Canadian!” and screams of “Snares!,” the techno overlord took to the stage. He placed six bottles of beer next to one of his laptops and the lights cut out. A creepy sample, something childlike and impish, seeped out of the speakers. Strobes immediately proceeded, and the audience was thrown into a self-induced techno mosh pit. Beer was spilled, bottles of water were flung, a gurning skinhead with a frantic septum piercing crashed into me. The intensity, the heat, the strobes, and the sheer volume subsided only with more creepy samples, suggesting more carnage set to follow. We lasted another half hour in this convulsing drove before catching the final stages of Konx-om-Pax’s DJ set in the next room. His music was so displaced from Regional Surrealism — an album I have developed sheer adoration for these past few months — that I was unsure if it was even him… though this may also have been due to extreme disorientation and befuddlement from the strobe/volume/violence still occurring at The Temple of Snares.
The Konx set was exquisitely paced, funky even. When it finished and the crowd showed signs of diminishing, we vacated the premises, unaccompanied by our man rabbit. The stroll somewhere in the direction of Waterloo complemented our slightly slurring dissection of the evening, but that then splintered off into gibberish about audience demographics, the fruit of which rotted in our squiffy state as we meandered into the night, our spirits in tact and our shoes in tethers.