Saint Ghetto Festival: Dean Blunt, Triptykon, Ben Frost, Sudden Infant
Dampfzentrale; Bern, Switzerland

In case you aren’t familiar with the Saint Ghetto festival, it’s in Bern. In case you aren’t familiar with Bern, it’s the capital of Switzerland. Privy to this revelatory information, you might not be surprised to hear that the festival in question, despite its modest size, boasts the most diverse and diverting bill you’re likely to find in any part of the French-, German-, or Italian-speaking world that’s neither France, Germany, nor Italy.

Beginning with Laetitia Sadier and Atom™ on Thursday, which I missed because I had to complete an application form to purchase some socks, it moved on to accommodate Sudden Infant, Wildbirds & Peacedrums, and Ben Frost on Friday. First on was Sudden Infant, a three-piece headquartered in Berlin that might conceivably be a distant relative of Zu, Xiu Xiu, and Throbbing Gristle. I’d never listened to them before, but given their acerbic rush of devious stop-start rhythms, pummeling bass riffs, and Joke Lanz’s bilious yet faintly comedic vocal trickery, they made me wish I got out a little more.

Their successors, Wildbirds & Peacedrums, filled their hour-long set with material taken chiefly from their new album, Rhythm. And while their minimal drums-and-voice setup can arguably be a little sparse and repetitive from time to time (at least for me), they found a healthy number of converts in the audience, who took their kinetic syncopation and Mariam Wallentin’s expressive-yet-acrobatic larynx as the perfect opportunity to flaunt their own brand of drunken acrobatics.

And fair play to the intoxicated dancers who outnumbered me, because even with Ben Frost’s savage run through A U R O R A, they managed to lurch and sway themselves from one side to another like lovesick teens. Frost, for his part, extended and intensified the über-dance sounds of his latest to “A Single Point of Blinding Light,” transforming them into torrents of unstoppable processed noise and inhuman wails of guitar. Introducing himself and his six strings with his own take on metal machine music, he then crept into an elongated version of “No Sorrowing,” teasing and stretching out every second of its bottomless imminence, which quivered, undulated, and expanded as it swallowed the crowd in its promise of who-knows-what. Similar treatments and magnifications were in store for “Sola Fide,” “Venter,” and “Nolan,” all of which unraveled and fissioned as part of a seamless, uninterrupted whole, brutalizing and mesmerizing. In the midst of this tumult, Frost stood behind his equipment in sparse, inconspicuous clothing, his bare feet and simple manner emphasizing the primordial nature of his music. And when he ended with the numinous “The Teeth Behind the Kisses,” he simply took a bow and departed, leaving us all slightly dazed, but cleansed.

Fortunately, Saturday was on hand to dirty us all over again, since the closing night of the festival heralded the aggression of Zurich’s Triptykon and the encrypted identity politics of Dean Blunt. Maybe it was just me, but I found something deliciously poetic about Dean Blunt playing immediately after a black metal band, not only because the indoor venue was swamped with long-haired, black-shirted white dudes who were going to have no interest in Blunt’s music whatsoever, but because it heightened the irony and defiance contained in the title of his new album.

With this (inadvertent?) juxtaposition in place, it was almost as if Blunt’s set had been plotted as a deliberately nonconformist answer to Triptykon’s, a refusal to play a white genre of music on an evening that — by all superficial tokens (e.g., genre tags, in the case of Triptykon, and album names, in the case of Blunt) — had been billed precisely as an evening dedicated to a white genre of music. However, to be fair to Tom Gabriel Warrior/Fischer (he of Celtic Frost fame), his band’s performance was everything their doting legions wanted, so it would be a gross misrepresentation to say that the night was about Blunt and what in all likelihood was a mere coincidence.

But sadly, I knew and know nothing about Triptykon (shameful, I know), so rather than make any ill-informed appraisals, I’m just going to skip ahead of their prog-cum-doom-cum-black metal and land right at Blunt’s feet. His set began in darkness and the sound of heavy rainfall. At the back of the stage, in its pit of shadow, a cellist and then a saxophonist could be seen with their instruments. They pulled skewed drones out of them, creating the lilting soundscape into which Blunt unceremoniously entered, in the midst of the smoke machine’s excesses. For almost 10 minutes, he walked from the rear of the stage to the front, resting before his mic only to hesitate and retreat once again into darkness. Eventually the hired hands retired to the backstage area, replaced by the Londoner’s personal “bodyguard,” who according to his recent interview with The Wire was there to ensure Blunt wasn’t the only black person in the room (although he wouldn’t have been, in this case).

After a further round of hesitations — possibly deliberations over whether we were even worth the effort — the patter of rain faded, seguing into the brooding drama of “The Pedigree.” From here, we were treated to a The Redeemer-Stone Island greatest hits compilation — “II,” “III,” “The Walls of Jericho,” “VI,” and “Demon.” And even if it’s no longer 2013 — the year in which those albums were released — the zeal surrounding the subject matter of these tracks hasn’t dimmed for Blunt. He made a point of intoning the “me” in “All she sees is me” in “II” and “So don’t you wanna be with me?” in “III” with particular venom and indignation, and as the hour progressed, his initial taciturnity morphed into a steely audacity, one that saw him intermittently resting one foot on his monitor and leaning into an audience he seemed to be judging from afar.

Less combative, however, was Joanne Robertson, whose tender singing provided a graceful and stoic counterpoint to Blunt’s slick militancy. She also was the one who whipped out the Telecaster for the folkier Black Metal numbers, forming the second of what could be regarded as the set’s three stages. “50 CENT,” “BLOW,” “100,” and “MOLLY & AQUAFINA” all benefited from a subtly explorative approach to their melodic leads, with the Fender’s drippy echo opening up a space that was more fluid in contrast to the preset recordings that’d served as the musical backdrop until then. More than that, it deepened the sense of “lost” and drifting that threads through much of Black Metal, sinking Blunt further into his exiled funk and sinking the audience further into a placid reverie.

But just as we were settling into our comfort zones, the voided blare of “X” began and the performance transitioned into its final phase. If nothing else, this segment will be remembered by the locals for the surge of wild oscillating noise that followed “X” and, more indelibly, for the strobe lights that accelerated and brightened to an unbearable pitch as this surge congealed into the obscurity of “GRADE.” Seriously, the flashing was so extreme that almost the entire crowd was compelled by their own instincts of self-preservation to spend the remainder of Blunt’s visit with their eyes closed and their heads bowed in solemn prayer, except for a few notable exceptions who took the opportunity to pretend they were at their favorite nightclub.

Maybe because the lamps producing this violent luminescence were situated at the very front of the stage, or maybe because he’d already been inured to strobing by that point in his tour, Blunt continued with his passage through “PUNK,” “HUSH,” and “MERSH,” taking advantage of our de facto blindness to observe us without being observed in return. And regardless of whether this stunt was intended as a piece of conceptual art, as a commentary (on the invisibility of subjugated and persecuted minorities?), or just as a way of giving us oglers a figurative taste of the scrutiny that often follows him around, Blunt appeared satisfied as the uppity post-dub of “MERSH” shut off. He raised his fist into the air, held it there for a second, and then withdrew backstage. He didn’t come out for an encore.

[Photos: Baron von Kissalot and Mona]

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