Concert date: February 24, 2012

Rammstein, "Engel", live at the O2, London, February 24th 2012

Almost two years to the day, Rammstein return to London, this time to the O2. While the key set pieces in the show were present last time around, the performance lost none of its impact, musically or in the jaw-dropping staging. Simply stunning. I refer you to my 2010 review for more details.

Video on YouTube:

Photos on Flickr

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Concert date: Friday, May 20, 2011

Old Apparatus video projection at St. Pancras Parish Church, May 20, 2011

I’ve fallen badly out of the blogging habit over the last few months – and, more regrettably, the listening habit too if I’m honest. I could blame starting a new job, but in any case it’s time to get back on the wagon.

One thing I managed to do was go along to a Miles Of Smiles event at St. Pancras Parish Church last Friday that brought together a trio of ‘beautiful noise’ practitioners, established and new: Christian Fennesz, Philip Jeck and Old Apparatus. I’ve since lost the notes I scribbled during the performance, so this review will be a little more impressionistic than usual.

Fennesz’s set, which closed the evening by a civilised 10pm, saw him push his use of reverb as an active instrument to near total saturation – the originating sounds became almost entirely forgotten beneath layer upon layer of self-sustaining, infinite echo. Yet he maintained a harmonious quality throughout even the most intense, piercing sections of the set.

It was a shame, therefore, that the points of departure for this sonic drenching were Knopfler-esque melodic guitar phrases, albeit with the distortion cranked up a notch or six. They seemed unimaginative, twee even, in comparison to what they became as a result of Fennesz’s deft processing, undermining some of the music’s power as a result.

Fennesz (pictured below, right) announced a new solo EP earlier this week, his first major release since 2008’s Black SeaSeven Stars (Touch), due for release in July. Based on this performance, I’m tempering my expectations.

The evening opened with a video-augmented laptop set from experimental dub-steppers Old Apparatus, who built a pulsing electronic accompaniment to their audiovisual projections of anatomically-themed scans, scopes and symbols (see main picture, top).

Old Apparatus’ music suits headphone listening better than ‘live’. It is in the detail – much of which was lost (to me) in the perfect atmospheric but imperfect acoustic environment of the church – rather than the vision that they excel.

Nonetheless Old Apparatus – whose identity, typically for the genre, is something of a mystery – provided an absorbing and aptly dark introduction to the evening.

Philip Jeck and Christian Fennesz at St. Pancras Parish Church, May 20, 2011

In between Old Apparatus and new Fennesz came the unassuming figure that is Philip Jeck (pictured above, left), “multimedia composer, magician, choreographer and taxidermist” (Wikipedia).

Jeck’s simply wonderful An Ark For The Listener (Touch, 2010), his mediation on Gerald Manley Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutchsland”, is but the latest addition to an outstanding oeuvre of sonic collage-sculptures. His performance here was perhaps slightly freer in its shifting timbres and dynamics but no less coherent than Ark.

One phrase I recall from my now-lost notes from the evening I wrote in relation to Jeck’s set: “meta-drone”. This now seems like pretentious frippery, of course, but at the time felt like useful shorthand for how Jeck (deliberately or otherwise) uses the drone form both within and across his works.

No matter how much variation in sound, tone, rhythm (as distinct from percussion) or atmosphere he injects – which is plenty, by the way – the spell is never broken. Stretched or mutated yes, but never broken.

Magnificent.

Concert date: Monday, December 13, 2010
Godspeed You Black Emporer performing live at the Troxy, London, December 13th 2010

This performance (and the following two in their three-day residence at the Troxy) was Christmas come early for those of us who couldn’t make it to the Godspeed-curated Nightmare Before Christmas festival organised by All Tomorrow’s Parties. As their last set of performances on these shores for the foreseeable future (pending “further introspection“), it was an evening to be embraced, embodied, savoured.

The set opened with a single word, scrawled and rescrawled onto the projection screen behind the band. Hope, which took the form of a sustained drone, building gradually into waves of static-saturated chords before breaking into Gathering Storm (from 2000’s Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven!), its gospel-like melody distantly echoing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

From then on the dark, portentous world the band created – cloaking the assembled in layer upon sonic layer of anticipation, suggestion and reflection – was inescapable. Monheim, also from Skinny Fists, was the first of several breathtaking moments that unfolded in slow motion, accumulating and relaying meaning with every beat.

Throughout, sound was accompanied by sequences of sepia-tinged film – dilapidated buildings, pastoral landscapes, scenes of urban decay, engineering blueprints, flocks of birds at dusk – their apparent randomness creating new points of departure for the cinema reel inside your head. In the end, though, these images were superfluous. One-by-one the audience surrendered wholly to the music: eyes closed, imaginations opened, dreamstates entered.

The band continued to mine Skinny Fists – surfacing the fragile power of Chart #3/World Police And Friendly Fire – until the final trio of pieces, which effectively comprised the second half of the performance. The pounding, almost tribal Dead Metheny, from debut album proper F♯ A♯ ∞ (1998) gave way to phase-driven muscular baroque of Rockets Fall On Rocket Falls (from 2002’s Yanqui U.X.O.).

With the audience’s senses heightened by the preceding perfect storm, the set’s final message was delivered. The evening concluded with Blaise Bailey Finnegan III’s counter-cultural (and apparently Iron Maiden-inspired) sermon: BBF3 from 1999’s sublime EP, Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada. And the music faded to the drone it had sprung from two-and-a-quarter hours earlier.

It being a few years since I last saw Godspeed live (with no new studio-recorded material released in the interim), I was a little apprehensive that Monday’s performance would merely be a repeat of what I had already seen. I guess it was a repeat in a sense, but there was nothing “mere” about it. Godspeed You! Black Emperor make music of consequence, and its power grows in the retelling.

Concert date: December 1, 2010

Tim Hecker @ The Luminaire, December 1st 2010 (after Edward Hopper)

A rather belated gig review (life in the Unblog intervened) but no matter as this evening of beautiful noise at the Luminaire – sadly one of the last of this lifetime for the venue – is not yet forgotten.

Montrealer Tim Hecker specialises in coaxing shimmering grace from the clutches of otherwise clipped, pounded and flattened white, pink and brown noise. Tonight’s performance – trailing his forthcoming album release, Ravedeath, 1972, out February 2011 – was typically stunning.

Evoking if not borrowing from his most successful (and very highly recommended) record to date, 2006’s Harmony In Ultraviolet, the set – if you let it – transported you from the dark, confined room in north-west London to somewhere quite different; somewhere elemental but personal. Where precisely was up to you.

Bathed in gloom (hence the deliberately painterly photo above), Hecker manipulated the hissing, throbbing sheets of noise as though he were directing the weather, pushing through storm clouds to reveal glimpses of harmonic clarity only to see them overwhelmed again by renewed inclemency. Listen closely, though, and the beauty is still there inside the noise and is all the more affecting for it.

Support Bill Kouligas (a.k.a. Family Battle Snake) is a Berlin-based musician, sound artist and label-owner who has an ear for disembodied, unsettling ambience. His immersive performance this evening seemed to me to play out an alien abduction, starting with cold, piercing, generative bleeps – suggesting communication from a superior intelligence – heralding the gradual arrival of an overwhelming, subsonic noise like a city-sized alien craft. Finally, your mind is subjected to experimentation by a pulsating, static-filled waveform. Deep beneath the distortion, though, you discern something faintly familiar, allowing you to humbly accept your fate.

The evening was opened by Cam Deas, who bravely stepped in at short notice to replace the snowed-in Rameses III. Deas creates folk-drones using his (on this occasion) standard six-string acoustic guitar that are both captivating and liberating at the same time – you were fully in the moment, but your mind was able to free-associate across thought boundaries at will.

Deas’ hand-processed plucks, picks, strums, slides, detunes, slaps and knocks reveal new angles on our folk memory. Like his musical brethren – talents such as James Blackshaw, Richard Youngs and Scott Tuma as well as Rameses III – Deas’ performances write new chapters for ancient stories begun centuries ago. Their instruments vibrate with eternal truths and myths, but resonate here, today.

Concert date: November 16, 2010

Francesco Tristano & Murcof performing at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southank, London, November 16th 2010

If the performance from Murcof and Francesco Tristano (pictured above, right and left respectively) at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Tuesday evening wasn’t jazz – and judging by the mini exodus in the opening minutes of their set it certainly didn’t match preconceptions of what a London Jazz Festival event should sound like – it at least retained the genre’s core attributes: a conscious balancing of spontaneity and structure; a willingness to diverge from the beat-en track to explore themes more loosely and deeply; call and response between instruments; and, yes, the ability to confound expectations.

Over the past five years, Tristano (Luxembourg-born, Juilliard-educated) has made a name for himself as a pianist performing both classical music (antiquarian and modern) and contemporary jazz. As composer, though, he stretches into less well-defined, more experimental – though still very musical – territory, embracing technology to both augment and manipulate his piano sound; his latest album, Idiosynkrasia [buy from eMusic or Boomkat] was recorded at Carl Craig‘s Planet E studios.

Murcof (Fernando Corona) operates in a similar domain, but arrived there from opposite direction. A Mexican producer and laptop artist, Murcof’s groundbreaking debut album, Martes [buy from eMusic or Boomkat], deployed meticulously-edited samples of contemporary classical music (violin plucks, cello stabs, string phrases) onto a spare minimal techno backdrop.

The seeds for this performance were sown back in 2007 when Corona produced Tristano’s debut album, the misleadingly titled Not For Piano. Spotlit in a darkened auditorium, the pair set reworked music from this album over just three pieces across a set lasting just shy of an hour and a quarter. The soundworld they created, once it had absorbed you (it was a gradual surrender), was a deeply rewarding experience. The connection between the two musicians was formed by the real-time effects and resampling Murcof applied to Tristano’s largely improvised parade – sometimes sparse, sometimes dense – of notes, chords and passages. In this respect at least the music was jazz.

As the set progressed piano-led concert hall acoustics gradually gave to a night club feel as Murcof’s subsonic frequencies were foregrounded, electronic beats were added and Tristano’s playing became more rhythmic. The final piece – a 20 minute extended groove based on Hello, the opening track on Not For Piano – piled minimal techno on top of dub effects on top of a hypnotic, trance-like piano line. It left the audience (except those few that gave up early on, of course) wanting more.

The evening began with a short set from Hidden Orchestra, the brainchild of UK composer and sound designer Joe Acheson. HO are a contemporary ensemble (with two drum kits – yes!) who create soulful, cinematic moods a bit like, well, the Cinematic Orchestra (see also the Heliocentrics and the Heritage Orchestra). A pleasing listen, and one to explore further (they recently issued their first album, Night Walks) – though an improvised solo or two would have added a welcome sense of risk to their comfortable musical backdrop.

Concert date: October 29, 2010

port-royal perform at the Wilmington Arms, London, October 29th 2010

Last Friday saw an evening of extremely satisfying electronic shoegaze at the Wilmington Arms in Clerkenwell, courtesy of Italian dreamscapers port-royal (pictured above), London-based Kontakte and Winterlight, who hail from Cornwall.

The venue’s intimate club setting, with semi-improvised audiovisual projection system (a sheet hung up at the back), provided a fitting context for the flowing, saturated, minor-key house of port-royal’s Dying In Time (2009, reviewed here), material from which constituted the majority of their set. The feel was familiar (familial even) but exploratory, introspective but welcoming – like their album only more so.

Kontakte performing at the Wilmington Arms, London, October 29th 2010

I hadn’t come across Kontakte (pictured above) before this performance. They wear their Germanic inspiration lightly (being named after a seminal Stockhausen piece and all), focusing instead on a universal, propulsive, often noisy – though always accessible – wall of electric guitar and synthetic textures and rhythm. Very effective it was too, and entirely sympathetic to port-royal’s set to come (watch one of the songs they performed here). I will definitely be looking up their new album, We Move Through Negative Spaces, when it arrives early next year.

Unfortunately I was too late to catch much of Winterlight’s set. Based on video evidence, though, it was a slightly poppier (with a nostalgia-inducing early-80s hue) take on the night’s instrumental shoegaze template – though no less intelligent or transporting for it. Again, a new album in early 2011 should be on your listening list.

Winterlight’s Tim Ingham joined port-royal on stage for their set too (they are label-mates) and, as an aside, he also designed the album cover for Dying In Time – further examples of the symbiosis between these three artists that made this evening gel so well.

Concert date: September 29, 2010

Mulatu Asktatke & the Heliocentrics @ Barbican Centre, September 29th 2010

Mulatu Astatke, founding father of Ethio-jazz, is quite aware of his impact on the country’s music: “I changed Ethiopian music by combining jazz and fusion with the Ethiopian five-note scales,” he says in the programme notes for this performance. “Since then my name has been on the very top of the Ethiopian music scene.”

At 68 years old, he’s quite entitled to feel confident about his contribution to African musical culture, not least because he is influencing another generation of musicians – this time 3,500 miles away in London – with his cosmic brew of 1970s early-fusion (think Bitches Brew/Mwandishi), Ellington’s chamber jazz (think Money Jungle), James Brown-influenced funk and, of course, the sounds and rhythms of his homeland. (Though, believe it or not, he received his formative musical education in Wrexham, Wales.)

Astatke’s relationship with London astro-jazz collective the Heliocentrics dates back to 2008, resulting in live performances and a 2009 album, Inspiration Information (recommended). For this performance, the 15-strong group (including one of my favourite trumpeters, Byron Wallen) largely ignored this release in favour of what the audience was really there to hear: Astatke’s classic 1970s grooves, particularly those captured on the fourth volume of the seminal Ethiopiques compilation series and featured in the 2005 Jim Jarmusch film, Broken Flowers (itself probably responsible for Astatke’s current renaissance).

Mulatu Astatke & the Heliocentrics @ Barbican Centre, September 29th 2010

Needless to say it was wonderful, whisking the audience to a far-flung galaxy of modal grooves. Astatke himself – playing a combination of vibes, Wurlitzer and congas – remained honourably subservient to the collective sound; his contribution is assured enough not to have to steal the limelight from the music itself. It just all came together, bringing most of the crowd to their feet for the final two, unimpeachably good, pieces: propulsive set closer Yègellé Tezeta (My Own Memory) and encore Yèkatit (February), the latter simply the finest slab of exotic jazz-funk ever committed to vinyl.

Astatke is a musician for whom the label “legend” is wholly justifiable, at least among those in the know. One hopes this performance (not least the fantastic accompaniment from the Heliocentrics) will help get the word out to a wider audience. It certainly deserves to.

I can’t close this review without mentioning support act (again London-based) Krar Collective, who showcased a range of traditional music and dance from all parts of Ethiopia – great fun and a perfect scene-setter for the musical journey to come.