Sunday, 23 October 2016


After posting photos of Newhaven as part of my Fort Process review, I seem to have inadvertently set off a short series of photos of Sussex towns. Regular readers may be under the impression I only visit the place for the Pallant House Gallery. Whereas I actually also visit the Cathedral which - strange but true - comes complete with it's own collection of Modernist art.

As ever, full set on Flickr.

Sunday, 16 October 2016


Concorde 2, Brighton, 19th Sept

After the last Sun Kil Moon outing my response see-sawed between gig and CD review. Please expect the same here. Only this time over the eponymously titled collaborative album given away in the title...

News of this meeting of minds between Sun Kil Moon (aka Mark Koselek) and Jesu (known to his mother as Justin Broadrick) was received in Lucid Frenzy Towers the way others responded to the recent team-up of Scott Walker and Sunn0))). As the record shows, I greatly enjoyed both Sun Kil Moon's last visit to Brighton and Broadrick being back with his original sparring partner in Godflesh. But those gigs had little to nothing in common with each other. Would the two talents get together to serve up a tasty sweet and sour, or wind up with a chalk and cheese?

The subject matter of the earlier album 'Benji' was death, death and more death – roughly in that order. When an old man faces unjust incarceration it comes as virtual light relief. And Death gets a look-in on the new album too. But overall, just as the music gets heavier, the lyrics get less so. The line from the opening song “the sun's gonna come out and shine,” referring to a storm passing, seems emblematic. Which works well. Broadrick serves up riffs which double as fuzzy, numinous drones. And as noted here numerous times, very heavy music segues into the very sublime strangely easily.

The collaboration often comes across as a kind of a sensory overload, like you're getting it from both barrels. Koselek outpours his torrents of words as Broadrick unleashes his beats. Music is normally turned down to magnify the words, like it's relegated to sidekick status. Here it's turned up to match them. It's the same trick as the insistent lyrical loghorrea of the Velvet's 'Black Angel's Death Song', even if the effect is quite different.

Koselek often sings in a breathless semi-mumble, the very opposite of an actor in-to-na-ting his woo-o-ords. While the lyrics recount details, often trivial in themselves, in a way that's somewhere between diary entry and stream-of-consciousness – three lines in and he's visited his bank. 'America's Most Wanted' contains the refrain “that's an account of my last few days”, but it's a line which could describe almost every song. Perhaps significantly, the lyric sheet has no line breaks but presents the whole album as one free-flowing screed.

Let's go back to that opening track, 'Good Morning My Love', as a key to how the thing fits together. It follows Koselek going about his daily tasks, while his mind constantly drifts back to a line from the documentary he watched the night before “that played over and over in my head all night/ What does 'rekindle' mean?” Koselek's a direct songwriter. If there's snow on the ground, he tells you there's snow on the ground. If a sweet tastes... well, sweet, he tells you that. I don't think he's posing us a philosophical question, or setting us up to see rekindling as the theme of the album or anything of that kind. The songs don't make points or try to construct an argument so much as convey a perspective or an experience.

What does rekindle mean? It probably says on Wkitionary, but it's irrelevant. He talks of the line “playing”, like the phrase is a tune that's earwormed you. He even refers to it as “that line in my head, it just keeps going in a ring”. And it's that experience, not the phrase itself, which he's reliving. The phrase becomes more like a mantra, something the mind focuses on irrespective of it's content.

And when the music's placed over these words, it acts as a kind of filter. Place psychedelic music over words and everyday terms start to sound strange and surreal. (Lennon singing about “Blackburn, Lancashire”.) While Broadrick's fuzzy drones make a stray line from a documentary feel numinous. The often dry details of Koselek's life become like one of those dreams where everyday events somehow seem significant. The mantras get magnified.

And once you have that filter, you can take it and place it over what you did yesterday. I am about the last person who'd ever sign up for one of those hideous New Ages courses in “mindfulness”. But if we were to start treating our lives as if the details of them matter, then those details might start to matter. As a letter from a fan, read out on the album says, “it inspired me, as only good music can do.”

For accuracy's sake the music veers away from this sound as the album goes on, closing on a long track that's virtually easy listening. But anyway, there was also a gig...

Last time Koselek played in a Church with the evening sun in the windows, in what felt like a solo set which happened to have a couple of extra guys involved. This time it's a rock venue, and they're very much a band with Koselek as the frontman. He cheerily boasts of the sheer Spinal Tappery of having a bassist with six strings and a guitarist with eight, while not touching an instrument himself.

The band play laconic, hypnotic riffs while Koselek unleashes all those words over the top. (So many he often needs a crib sheet to hand.) Every now and then this misfires, the words and music don't quite synch. ('Song of Shadows', my absolute favourite song from the album, alas isn't served well by the version here.) Koselek's songs are so unmediated, so in the moment, that live many be the best way to hear them. But they may spill out better when he can have his fluidity, where there's less of a band unit sticking to a set list. However, when it does work it becomes as mesmerising as the album.

We've only just got used to this found-Jesu sound and already there's many new songs which take another direction. After my only just telling you Koselek doesn't normally write songs to make points, here's a clutch of numbers which do precisely that. Rather than fuzzy and drone-based they're tighter and sharper, more strident. Lyrics are much more political and on the nose, covering gun control, our great friend Donald Trump (Koselek insists if he came as a surprise we weren't paying attention) and the general state of America. We may come to see this forthcoming album, yet to be titled, as his protest album, perhaps his version of Lou Reed's 'New York'.

My favourite point in the whole thing, though, is when on 'Last Night I Rocked the Room' he reads a fan's letter warning him against listening to the hipsters who “like you only because of 'Benji'.” Which was of course my jumping-on point. Craft beer, anyone?

'America's Most Wanted' and 'Exodus' from Paris...

Prince Albert, Brighton, Sun 9th Oct

From unexpected team-ups to unexpected solo sets. Ben Ottewell of the great Gomez going alone... It was one of these events which piqued my curiosity, but about which I had no expectations whatsoever. Ottewell's songs do tend to be my favourite of the band's. But while I was dimly aware they inhabited separate bodies, and didn't necessarily all living together in one big house like the Monkees, I very much thought of the band as a band. Like their playing, their songs complemented one another.

The gig turned out to herald a forthcoming solo album (as I was to discover, his second) and he was armed only with a solo guitar and – befitting his fledgeling singer-songwriter status – the shaggy beard of the folkie. It's bizarre to recall that, on first seeing Gomez, I couldn't conceive how such young shavers, looking like they were in town for Fresher's week, could be playing such timeless music. Slowly but surely, Ottewell is starting to resemble someone from one of his songs.

With Gomez still a going concern, Ottewell's solo songs present quite a different face. And this was accentuated by his playing not only old but almost entirely early Gomez numbers. The new songs are... well... more songy, less based around anthemic chorus lines and with less of the soulful baritone vocals that might seem his trademark. 

A contrast which did make the new songs seem more 'hard centres' than those of yore, a taste that needed a little more chewing on. The new songs are strong, they're just more in the strong and silent vein. Which is unavoidably exacerbated by the more familiar songs being also the more immediate. The Gomez songs would quickly lead to audience singalongs, the new songs not.

Yet what they do have in common is their unhurriedness, their willingness to proceed at their own pace. Early on he played the classic 'Free To Run', a song about walking places sung at a walking pace. And in the sound-bite instant-fix world we inhabit, that's a cure for what ails yer.

Not from Brighton, not actually from a gig but a sofa. But a new song...

The Hope & Ruin, Brighton, Tues 11th Oct

For those not already in the loop... ex-Can frontman Damo Suzuki has embarked on a never-ending world tour, playing entirely improvised sets with local musicians wherever he might land, and I have been much taken by his previous visits to Brighton.

One cool thing is the way that each time not just the players but the instrumentation changes. Beyond Damo's vocals this line-up consisted of guitar, keyboards, cello, violin, drums, congas (by the inimitable E-da of Drum Eyes and Adrena Adrena). Plus a hippy girl sat on the floor, whose remit seemed to be “do hippy stuff”. She'd dong bells, hit gongs, play various bits and pieces of percussion but at other times waft incense or do precisely nothing at all. When she stood up to blow bubbles from a pipe, it was a veritable bubble solo.

And what might seem the most superfluous role, the Bez of the band, came to epitomise the whole thing. Despite looking like she was doing her own thing in her own time, she somehow always worked with the other players.

At one point, a melodic line was split between cello, violin and keyboards, each playing their snatch of it in quick succession. It's the sort of thing you'd imagine requiring not just a composer but an arranger, painstakingly transposing the parts to the players in rehearsal. And yet they just fell into the thing spontaneously on the night. It's a testament to the power of collective effort that such a thing can be done.

Perhaps with there being more players, or with the higher proportion of non-rock instruments, there was less of everyone finding a riff to climb aboard. Instead the set was more varied and dynamic, slipping into lyrical quietude before rising up into great flurreys, then abandoning them for the next thing out there.

Back in the day, Damo must have been the youngster of Can. And I'm not sure if this pans out quite so exactly, but I think he might have played with younger and younger players each time I've seen him. It's like he's become our tribal shaman, drawing new generations into his sound world then moving on once the ritual's complete. At the end he left the stage to let the others come to a climax, as if to say “my work here is done”.

And in a way, there's more of a DIY spirit to the enterprise than there was with punk. It exudes the sense that all you really need to do to make this music is to surrender yourself to it. Of course that might be something of a romaticisation on my part, and if I start to tell you I'm reforming my student band based on his example please slap me back to my senses. But at the same time it's precisely the right attitude to take.

This live clip includes the bubbles solo...

Postscript! After writing about Swans twice over, I figure I've little to add after the most recent gig. But the good news is that, after rumours the band was winding up, they played a couple of new tracks. Here's one. (NB It starts with audio only...)

Coming soon: Tis the season for gig-going adventures...

Friday, 7 October 2016


It's about time we had another Spotify playlist around here. 

Regular readers will recognise some of the bands from gig reviews. Me, I like to imagone this one earn it's title by achieving a symmetry between out-and-out tracks such as Föllakzoid's nine minutes of driving trance, and epic songs such as Hole's stirring 'Northern Star' (with it's classic cry “blessed are the broken”). It all peaks with the shot in the arm of Wire's 'Spent', after which no more really need be said.

That illo is Dali's great Surrealist painting 'Sleep'. (You know that already, right?)

Föllakzoid: 'Feuerzeug'
Jesu & Sun Kil Moon: 'A Song Of Shadows'
The Blue Aeroplanes: 'What It Is'
Jah Wobble & The English Roots Band: 'My Love's in Germany'
Current 93: 'Moonlight, You Will Say'
Hole: 'Northern Star'
Josh T. Pearson: 'Sorry With A Song'
The Tiger Lillies: 'Reap What You Sow'
Swans: 'Will We Survive'
Sleep: 'Aquarian'
Wire: 'Spent' (live 2005)

”Trapped inside a world under leagues of ocean
The clergy arrives with the magic potion
I put my mouth into the cup of potion
Sip down the nectar and escape the ocean”

Saturday, 1 October 2016


Fabrica Gallery, Brighton, Thurs 8th Sept

“Metaphysical splatter movie” 'Begotten' has been cited as the twenty-third most disturbing film ever made. (Though I have heard that others consider it only the 27th or even the 28tj.) Though it is graphically violent... in fact it's pretty much perpetually graphically violent, to the point that if we started with trigger warnings we probably wouldn't be able to stop, 'disturbing' is the most fitting term. Certainly more accurate than 'horrific' or 'visceral'.

Though sometimes described as Surreal, this film has no relation to Pop Surrealism with it's glossy pictures of eyes superimposed upon candles. It more took my mind back to the 'Undercover Surrealism' exhibition at the Hayward. (I was about to say 'recent', but seems it was a decade ago!) This is Surrealism with the Freud and Nietzsche turned up to eleven. A soundbite description might be the savage opening of 'Un Chien Andalou' extended to film length.

Inevitably people search for meaning in all of this. But the best place to look is actually on the surface. As Greg Smalley comments: “what gives 'Begotten' its staying power is its unique look… the 'meaning' of the film is contained in the moving image itself; the experience of the film is itself what it is 'about'. To reduce 'Begotten' from image to language would be a mistake. The film begins with an incantation rebuking the 'language makers': 'you, with your memory, are dead, frozen'. It immediately invokes a different sort of language, 'the incantation of matter'.”

Certainly, without this look the film might well descend into mere torture porn. Director E. Elias Murhige spent months achieving those filtered, distressed effects, including such devices as running the film past sandpaper. In fact he was so keen on achieving this that one minute of film could take up to ten hours to process. Combined with the film being silent, it creates something literally timeless - almost impossible to pin to an era. Nor are there any signifiers within the film - the bleak landscape looks some strange combination of post-industrial and pre-natural, bare trees and bare pipes, broken-down houses. It could even hail from the glory days of Surrealism themselves, were it not so unconstrained by censorship. (The actual date is 1990, which seems refreshingly arbitrary.)

In fact, it results in a film that's very hard to pin to anything. With the contrasts so strong it's less in black-and-white than is black-and-white. It somehow looks simultaneously unremittingly graphic and strangely elusive, like you're no more sure what you're looking at than how to take it.

And it feels timeless even as you watch it. Scenes play out to an almost absurd length, past any narrative point which they might be expected to convey. The point is less narrative than experiential, like what we're watching is a ritual.

The end credits give post-hoc names to the characters, which acts as a kind of retrospective key to proceedings. That figure in the opening commits slow ritual slaughter through repeated self-stabs, we come to know he's God Killing Himself. (A great entry for an actor to have on his CV.) Yet the result of his slow suicide isn't the end of things but the begetting of another figure, Mother Earth. She and her son, Flesh and Bone, who appears to be in a perpetual state of catatonic tremor, are then repeatedly assaulted by hooded figures. Those figures would seem to represent humanity (you know, us), but are entirely anonymised and undifferentiated. Its the divine victims you follow. (Even if you can't really say 'identify with'.)

God kills himself through stabs to the stomach, which seems an image of sexual penetration. Mother Earth then impregnates herself with his semen. While disembowelling also seems associated with pregnancy. The images being only semi-decipherable also mitigates against the sense of separation which you think of as being inherent to film. These should be a strong difference between seeing a figure self-harming and a group beating and torturing another. But here there isn’t really. Mother and Son do not resist their fate at the hands of the humans, but largely bear it without even expression. And the humans are in somewhere between a state of ritual trance and workaday drudgery – slaughter as labour. It adds up to signify a world at war with itself.

What's this a film about? I'd be tempted to glibly answer - about four months. That part of the year where Winter passes into Spring, where (at least in times past) our survival was at its most difficult and our ravaging of nature was at it's harshest and most desperate. At the end of the film, we see vegetation start to sprout. Remember the old Coil lyric “kill to keep the world turning”? That about covers it.

But it's simultaneously cosmogenic, particularly with the opening scene of the self-harming God. The title literally explains Mother Earth and Son, but it also alludes to how we all came to be here. And that recurrence, the duplication of events at different scales like mandelbrots, is a common feature of mythology. We're reminded of our visceral begetting with each passing of the seasons.

Through the Judeo-Christian tradition we have become used to external creators conjuring our universe up out of nothing, magic words making matter. But that's a relatively recent development. Creation myths are more commonly based around the primacy of sacrifice, either of the self or another. The material world is sometimes held to be the dead body of a cosmic being, slaughtered at the start of time.

Commentators often spend their time trying to pin this film to a particular myth or myth system. All they are really doing is showing off their reading list. The point is that it's not based in a myth so much as in myth, in it's totality.

One reason, beyond all the obvious ones, for this film not being better known is that Murhige is keen for it to be seen only in cinemas. I suspect he's right. The way to see it is in a public showing, not just for the big screen but for the sake of ceremony. Certainly it was a rare experience to see it in the 'right' way.

The live soundtrack came from the presumably bespoke band the Begotten. If the film has an anti-narrative, the soundtrack was an anti-composition, aimed at creating mood music for the screen – and all the better for it. It started very slightly with the 'singer' (if that's the word) emitting the eeriest of vocals while hidden in the Church pulpit. The other players processed onto stage some time later, well after the film had begun, dropping and dragging chains as they went. Though guitar and bass were involved they rarely played conventional sounds, and effectively were mixed in with the electronics.

If the film shouldn't really be watched on-line, perhaps the trailer's okay...

Caroline of Brunswick, Brighton, Fri 15th Sept

It's been four years since Mystery Dick last played Brighton. In fact, as I learn on arrival, it's been four years since they've played. But their sound has moved on considerably in the meantime, even if no-one's heard the interim steps.

It's still the hum of Sixties-style electric organ. But the previous outing was like the soundtrack to some long-lost black-and-white B movie, which you might have seen years ago on late night TV or may have just imagined. Whereas this time it was more taking from Sixties popular music. (Symbolised nicely by the CD from the last gig being packaged in a 7” single sleeve, see below.) Albeit a pretty unusual take.

Sixties music often sounds in retrospect like the edict hadn't yet gone out that you could go beyond song form, and you can hear players straining against the walls. So imagine taking the mini-breaks permitted in those three-minute singles, then using Kool Herc's DJ trick of repeating to extend them. While combined with Photshop's ability to go close up to 400%. And done live.

Ed Pinsent played a series of increasingly agitated organ stabs, like some long forgotten twenty second keyboard solo had continued in the echo chamber of an alternate dimension until it was played out. Which segued into Harley Richardson swapping his organ for guitar feedback, the classic way to end one of those singles.

That I figured must be the climax, but they went beyond my little mental schema to break into a whole new section. Whereas previously, one had always led they now both contributed to a much more meditative piece, which was soon to prove my favourite part of the set. It was admittedly a slightly uneven performance. The recited vocal parts in particular seemed too 'art happening'. And it needed time and a little audience indulgence to unfurl it's wings. But when it did it was off.

So, after the Static Memories, this marks the second time I've gone to see Mystery Dick and ended up preferring another act on the bill. I expect I will be thrown out of their fan club any day now. After Yoaf had done their thing, someone cried the name Coil. A cry not made in vain, for there was the same sense of players being less musicians than sound mediums, tuning into and channelling uncanny forces of some description.

Their weapons of choice were strings and springs. One took to the strangest of spring-sprung devices, looking like one of those things you find in old junk shops which you can't play after midnight, and when you go back the junk shop isn't there any more. (You know the sort of thing.) While the other played a long plank of wood strung with strings, a steel guitar for the most lo-fi of lo-fi enthusiasts, which he'd bow or even attack with a hammer. Other instruments were employed along the way, all either found or home-made.

Perhaps unusually for an impro act, one normally took the lead – striking up the eeriest of rhythms, but rhythm nonetheless, for the other to play around. Though the baton passed so effortlessly back and forth between them they scarcely fell into assigned roles. Initially playing along to a loop they were able to build their set up quickly, then pulled the loop to turn to sparser more etherial sounds, breaking the standard model of instant composition that the sounds build up over time.

The standard duo (of Tim Yates and Tom Fox) were augmented by a guest (whose name alas now escapes me). His mumbled, intonatory vocals ostensibly contributed the least, and he even stood downstage of the others with head bowed – less frontman than backman. Yet it was hard to imagine their sound without him. Perhaps we are used to vocals being a recognisable, even explanatory element of music, so to defamilarise them takes our handholds away.

Despite hailing from London, this is apparently the first time Yoaf have played Brighton. The audience was admittedly small, but appreciative. So hopefully they will be persuaded back.

Some Mystery Dick...

...and a little Yoaf...

Coming soon! Yes, I'm a bit behind on these posts again. Blame it on my summer holidays...

Saturday, 17 September 2016


Music-and-sound-art-festival-held-in-fort attending adventures (part of a series)
Newhaven Fort, East Sussex, Sat 3rd Sept

So one night I happen to be watching a documentary on Miyazaki making 'The Wind Rises'. Or more specifically on how he was motivated by the contradictory feelings of being avowedly anti-war while attracted to the aesthetics of militarism. And of course back in the day I was attending antinuclear marches while almost simultaneously listening to industrial music, pretty much militarism for the ears. So I knew the feeling.

And what do I do the very next day but attend (and I quote) “an expansive multi-disciplinary music and arts festival held in the evocative spaces of Newhaven Fort in East Sussex”?

All those stories which reached us from the continent, of people squatting old Car War bunkers to turn them into venues, this must be the nearest to that I've seen. Except it didn't just repurpose the fort but take advantage of it's layout, take it's nest of nooks and crannies and create a spontaneous sound art happening around every corner. Despite it being a mere half hour ride from Brighton I'd never been to the place before. Which made the experience only the richer as I ascended ramparts, descended vertiginous stairwells and traversed corridors so narrow as to resemble some strange Surrealist film set.

There was a programme but in true festival spirit it seemed more appropriate to drift, trusting to run into something you weren't expecting, following the sound trails like some Pied Piper child. At one point, following sounds along a long underground tunnel I eventually realised that rather than some act lying tantalisingly ahead of me they were coming from a string of hidden speakers. I'd gone from Pied Piper child to White Rabbit chaser! (When I did get to the end there was some woman reading earnest poetry while naked. You don't win 'em all...)

The choice of setting was doubly inspired. Music venues are built around old showbiz schematics which map relatively easy to rock and pop music, so we normally don't think to question such basics as darkened auditoriums and spotlit stages. But music such as this comes from a wholly other tradition, which works its magic better in a wholly other environment.

And improvised music (which much of this line-up was) is always site-specific, always based around the mood of the moment and the acoustic properties of the space. I certainly shan't forget Inwards emitting electronica from inside a bunker, viewable only through a narrow slit like the world's most secure DJ booth, while we musical eavesdroppers hung out oustide.

The day was a mix-up of performances, film showings and sound installations. The amount of stuff on offer made for almost an embarassment of riches, and I did find myself passing through the installations rather than letting them sink in, keen not to miss the next happening – resulting in their playing something of a second fiddle.

But at the same time there was an appealing absence of any neat dividing line between installations and performances. For example Alice and Luuma's Self-resonating Feedback Cellos (handily pictured) was “a durational droneduet for elctro-acoustically modifed cellos and no cellists”, essentially self-perpetuating cello feedback. While Hakarl's eight hour performance was in it's way an installation which merely used live musicians rather than mechanisms. As the string trio played slow and repetitive lines from inside a gun emplacement, making for a surprisingly natural auditorium, I watched a passanger ferry slowly emerge over the horizon and pull into town – it seemed part of the thing. (I also liked the way one player sported a Taylor Swift T-shirt.)

Seijiro Murayama's set was a classic case, as it would not have worked so well in a more standard setting. The bare lighting, the way we casually sat around him on the floor matched his stripped-down performance – one drum, one cymbal and one voice. He'd often pause unhurriedly between sections, eyes remaining closed, unconcerned with providing a steady flow of entertainment, doing merely what he was moved to do. I know I always say this stuff is analagous to shamanic ritual. But honestly, I say it because it's true!

There were a couple of acts I found disappointing. Of course there were the inevitable outbreaks of frenetic jazz rock and the like, but as there were multiple opportunities at any one time I just made my way elsewhere. I mean here stuff I sought out, then felt afterwards I'd backed the wrong horse. (And remember I was mostly avoiding stuff I'd seen before, feeling the day was about encountering something new.)

I was keen to see Audrey Chen again, after her enthralling set at Colour Out of Space. (Now some seven years ago!) In that time she's ditched the cello and now relies only on her voice. Perhaps tonsils are simply an easier item to pack, when travelling from one international festival to another. And the sounds she could conjour from those vocal chords, with no need for effects or filters... it was impressive. But those possessed-sounding voices have become something of a genre of their own, while the cello gave her something more unique. Best points were when she sounded the possessed version of a soul singer.

I was equally eager to see Carla Bosulich, and equally disappointed. While I can't claim to know her music well I like it when I hear it – like bluesy songwriting and lo-fi freakery got double-booked but somehow managed to get along. Like a more volume, less laid back Califone. Here, for the first half of her set she kneeled over a guitar which she scraped with found objects while pressing pedals. The second half grew more song-based, marked by her throwing back her hoodie and even taking to her feet. But the result was rather neither-nor, like whichever half we were in was the wrong one – too loose followed by too constrained. It was too much like what a rock star does when they're not doing a set-list set.

But more happily and more often, I stumbled across other things I previously knew not of and was wowed by. John Chantler's electronica set was something like a chauffeur-driven rollercoaster ride, being expertly taken through the most vertigious twists and turns. I especially liked the way he'd skid in and out of beats. Too often when electronica artists turn to beats it's like the fun stuff is over, and the set becomes constrained within their tramlines. Whereas Chantler was their master, not their servant.

When you watch electronica artists hunched behind a line of jack leads, they can seem as remote and arcane as sorcerers casting secret spells. Conversely Pierre Bastien (also handily pictured) took the 'demystifying' approach of the post-punk days in a new direction. He'd built a meccano construction, projected up on the screen above him, around which he'd loop tapes. He'd play along while triggering samples, often accompanied by a video of their making. His enthused stage persona was part mad scientist part children's entertainer, infusing music-making not just with the sense of accessibility but of fun.

At the other extreme, Ewa Justka was lit only by the glare of a flashing white light. She emitted a fusion of electronic noise and dance music for the end of time, the pumping beats giving a discipline over the usual self-indulgent howlaround. By fortuitous scheduling she followed some dippy New Age act, less like night following day than truth winning out over platitudes. In fact as the set went on I came to think of it almost as an antidote and corrective to the blissed-out all-hold-hands feelgood of dance music, uniting us all but by pulverizing us into our constituent atoms. Remarkably, she was able to keep the sonic onslaught up for some forty-five minutes without losing any of it's impact. We staggered out and somehow got the train home.

More of my photos of the day over on Flickr.

You can see photos of the Fort in all it's at the event's website.

A brief write-up and some cool photos of the events at Cutlasses.

That set by Seijiro Murayama...

...and Ewa Juska, though from Warsaw...

… while this short film's of the predecessor event. Which alas I didn't attend, but gives you a good flavour...

Saturday, 10 September 2016


...but takes some last lingering shots of the Scottish isle. As ever, full set on Flickr.

Proper post next week!

Friday, 2 September 2016


The Dance of Machines

Back in the early Nineteen Tens, David Bomberg was pretty much the bad boy of British Modernism. An East End roughneck, it had been his undeferential attitude towards his tutors which had seem him “asked to leave” the prestigious Slade school. But that was pretty much analogous to his approach to art. Typically, the lesson he brought away from the experience was to take things further. He had soon fallen into the company of the Vorticists, self-styled as the most avant garde group in Britain. (Whose antics we looked at here.)

For reasons we'll come onto, the show skates past this early era. But one paintings it does provide is 'The Dancer' (1913/14, above), a classically Cubo-Futurist agitation of lines and shapes in the place of of a fixed image. (On the continent Cubism and Futurism were not just separate but pretty much opposing art movements. But often in Britain, as with Russia, their arriving together meant they were taken as one.) Perhaps what's unusual about the image is it's more muted palette, with that salmon background, and - despite the title – the way it's almost fully abstract. This is Bomberg absorbing his influences, not yet painting like himself.

His most celebrated work, 'The Mud Bath' (1914, below), isn't included here. But it was in the Tate's Vorticist retrospective and now part of the permanent (and therefore free) collection at the Tate Britain, so let's cheat and drag it in. It's hard not to speak of. Not only was it the best of his works from this era, almost everything else subsequently seemed seemed preparatory towards it. And sometimes this was quite literally true, with works like 'Vision of Ezekiel' (1912) and 'Bathing Scene' (1912/13) pointers on the path of reduction which led to it - each time a bit more boiled down. After all, as Bomberg said at the time “where decoration happens it is accidental. My object is the construction of Pure Form. I reject everything in painting that is not Pure Form.”

Famously, it was exhibited on the street outside his first solo show, as if the gallery confines couldn't contain its explosive force. He always maintained it stopped the traffic. (Or scared the horses. The two still overlapped in those days.) With it, Bomberg didn't just reach his apogee but semi-abstraction reached its epitome. (In the same way that Munch's 'The Scream' is the epitome of Expressionism.)

That black column might initially look incongruous. In fact it's literally and figuratively central. It's like the monolith of Modernism, the totem pole of the dance, reducing (or raising) the dancing figures into an undifferentiated geometric mass of angled limbs. And this is perhaps emphasised most of all by the boldly reductive use of colour, that block of bright red, the strikingly solid lines of white and blue. And if it looks coloured rather than painted, like he could have handed the job to a sign-writer, then later artists would do precisely that.

The foot of one figure remains planted on the ground (in the lower right), an attachment leading to it casting a shadow. It probably won't be there for long, soon it'll be caught up in the whirlygig along with everything else. But its inclusion is important. The painting evokes the loss of self that ecstatic frenzy can induce, but seems pitched at the last few seconds before that sense was extinguished.

In has striking similarities to Matisse's 'La Danse' (1909/10). However, it's probably the differences between the two which are more instructive. It's more than Matisse's figures being more humanised. Not just holding hands but twisting their bodies in line with the gesture, the separate figures form a circle - become one. (It's the companion to a piece titled 'Music', reinforcing the idea of the figures as notes in a composition.) 

And with Bomberg the figures also cease to be separate parts. But at the same time they are reduced to separate parts within themselves – limbs detaching from torsos. While instead of being rounded and semi-shapeless they're geometrically precise. They're become like components of some greater mechanism.

Modernism championed the machine as the epitome of the age. This is a dance where the machine is setting the beat. And 'Mud Bath', not about finding the individual in a portrait but reducing the human body to a set of parts, makes that manifest. Bomberg had said “I want to translate the life of a great city, its motion, its machinery into an art that shall not be photographic but expressive”.

And if he'd given semi-abstraction it's perfect form, his experiences of the Great War were similarly archetypical. Not long after exhibiting 'The Mud Bath' he'd enlisted. The painter of such striking colours was no shrinking violet. From the wrong side of the tracks, Jewish in an anti-semitic era, he'd frequently respond to racist abuse with his fists. But his battle experiences, including at the Somme, understandably affected him profoundly.

And not least artistically. Yes, Modernist art had matched its times. Better than anyone had thought. But that now became the problem. Reducing the human body to parts had once seemed audacious and thrilling, now it too closely matched what machine gun fire had done for real, in a war where men had been merely components and collateral. In short war had proven the machine's greater efficiency extended to the act of slaughter. As I said on encountering 'Mud Bath' in the flesh for the first time at the Tate's Vorticist exhibition, “it’s depersonalisation is simultaneously seducing and alarming”. Modernism's success had become its failure.

The Great War had acted like an accelerator on the conveyor belt of human progress, whether artistic, social or technological. But what hastened the pace of art shortened the lifespan. When it was over the conveyor belt suddenly stopped and artists were thrown off the end, tangled up in themselves, unsure what to do next. Solutions usually involved some combination of 'back' and 'out'.

The Desert Years

At the Slade Bomberg had been part of the 'Crisis of Brilliance' group. Having been told by their tutors to stay away from those continental Modernist exhibitions, the bright young things had taken that warning as an invitation. And, to varying degrees, the War induced the same crisis in all of them. And once it was over, they all went somewhere new. (Though for Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer that “somewhere new” was the English countryside.)

Bomberg went to Palestine and took up landscape painting. Given his previous avant garde reputation, these works were at the time dismissed by critics as a retreat. Figuratively, he was out in the desert. The bold blocks of colour, the quest for pure form – all seemed gone. They even abandoned those evocative titles for flatly descriptive names. (As a rough and ready comparison, think of when Dylan swapped electrically charged iconoclasm for crooning Country standards.)

But are they as conventional as this suggests? 'The South East Corner, Jerusalem' (1926, above), a sedate, recognisable landscape, is not an obvious successor to 'The Mud Bath'. But then look at the way it is painted – quite literally with broad strokes. While it is clearly of somewhere, there is no effort at all to disguise the fact it is made up of marks upon a canvas. It's only the way the composition is so light in palette (as the opposite of bright), and made up of gradations of tone, which initially obscures this.

We all know that 'Mud Bath' was inspired by life, it was a scene from public baths. But we know that because we've been told it. The resulting work is universalised, sanded smooth of any localising signifiers, part of a movement which saw itself as internationalist. Whereas this post-war turn, as the title of the show suggests, is back towards art which evokes a sense of place.

And that place can be seamless. 'Jerusalem, Looking to Mount Scopes' (1925, below) places at patchwork of terracotta roofs in the lower foreground which are then echoed in the patchwork of fields in the upper background – the city effectively blending into the landscape. (The roofs' triangular formation virtually points up at the fields, with only a couple of verticals in the composition as a counter-measure.)

While alongside place comes moment. There's an attempt to capture time of day reminiscent of the Impressionists. Look at the long shadows running alongside the figures and down the building on 'Outside Damascus Gates' (1923, below). Early morning, late afternoon and bathing moonlight became his favoured times.

These works have been reappraised in more recent decades, a process of which this show would seem a part. Some then take this talk of place further, and suggest the Jewish artist was returning to his homeland. (A question the show does not weigh in on.) It may have been a factor in his choosing Palestine, when others in his group picked Paris or New York. We're told he had even originally planned a series of 'Jewish return' works. But these were abandoned. The figures in 'Outside Damascus Gates' are rare, and even they are reduced to incidental blobs and ciphers.

The truth is simpler. He simply painted what he saw. And what he saw most, as ever, was what was unfamiliar to him. Which explains the works' fascination with light. He'd joke that, after an East End upbringing, it was something new to him. Palestine was to Bomberg more muse than homeland.

”The Spirit in the Mass”

In 1929, Bomberg visited the Spanish mountain town of Toldeo. The show suggests this became his new 'place', and by 1935 he'd moved to Andalucia. Certainly it precipitated what Alexander Graham Dixon, in a BBC documentary shown in the exhibition, called “a whole new phase in his art”.

Take 'Valley of La Hermida, Asturias, Spain' (1935, up top). It's not just that the vibrant colours are back. If 'Mud Bath' was pure blocks of colour and the desert paintings made up of an elegant sufficiency of marks, the brushwork here is a flurry of frenzied strokes. This can reach such a fervour that the works almost become semi-abstract all over again, take for example the blur of marks in the lower half of 'Ronda Valley' (1954, below).

If the desert paintings in some ways referred to the Impressionists, this time we're right back with the Romantics and their evocation of the sublime – nature experienced as an overwhelming force. And if the last great Romantic to get a British show was Turner, then there seems something of a similarity. See for example, 'Sunset, Mount Hilarion, Cyprus' (1948, below).

Except a frequent feature of Romanticism is vertiginous scale, often achieved by incorporating diminutive human figures. Whereas Bomberg leaves the works as unpopulated as the desert paintings, while they are not physically large (particularly compared to his often gargantuan early pieces). Which then throws the emphasis elsewehere, onto the power of nature as a set of forces. These forces are present in Romanticism too, but they’re often depicted transiently – as Turner's sea storms, and so on. Whereas Bomberg paints forces which are inherent, and therefore unabatable.

If the distilled essence of early Bomberg lies in the quote about “pure form”, there's another which sums up this era - “our search is towards the spirit in the mass”. What Bomberg really does is paint solid objects as though they're not. Because of course they're not. Look again to the hillsides of 'Valley of La Hermida', they're not painted as something stable or steady, for walkers to plant their boots upon, but by vigorous downward strokes.

David Sylvester, one of the first critics to rediscover Bomberg, commented “the scene under our eyes… shifts about as we watch it. And we realize, with a sort of transport, how intuitively true this is of landscape. It is not still. It has its own weird anima, and to our wide-eyed perception it changes like a living animal under our gaze.”

If the desert paintings are about capturing a moment, tied to a time of day, these take things which seem solid and immutable to us (as in expressions such as 'solid as a rock') and portray them as convulsive and ever-changing. And those geological forces are never at rest, they only seem solid to us because we are so fleeting. Bomberg said at the time that he found the past and the present indistinguishable.

And in this way, even if Toledo did act as a kind of muse, they're not about place. Or at least only in the sense that nature has to be instanced through place. Place implies a presumption of permanence, somewhere that could be departed from then returned to, which is being over-ridden here. Bomberg only left Spain when the Civil War drove him out. But he subsequently painted across Europe, notably visiting the Romantic hotspots. In Britain for example, his favoured locations were Devon, Cornwall and Wales. And the results are remarkably similar wherever he roved.

It's easy to see how those concerned with notions of linear progress in art, a frequent pitfall of Modernism, would have been as tempted to overlook these works. Furthermore, the Modernist notion that we have changed the world, or even that we could, lies buried beneath his brushstrokes. But chiefly, Modernism set itself the task of becoming universal, a global reach whose spread left it uninterested in time. It's defining value was 'now'. The longstanding genre of history painting was effectively brought to a close. Cubism, as mentioned a huge influence on the young Bomberg, was about flattening time into a single image - as if taking to it with a blacksmith's hammer.

The past was gone, and I'm not sure Modernism was all that concerned with how history would perceive it. Some of its movements, such as the Futurists, explicitly stated their fervent wish was to be supplanted by the still-more-modern, and then forgotten. Whereas from Spain onwards, all of Bomberg's work is about the inescapable force of time.

'The Mud Bath' could be described as a hit single - a combination of “the most purely distilled essence of something” and “the one everybody knows”. But musicians will tell you a hit singles can become an albatross, and indeed it came to overshadow Bomberg's later work. Few thought to ask what the bad boy did as an adult. In this way, it's an advantage it's absent from this show. An audaciously large work, it would dominate over the others even physically.

Perhaps the desert paintings are not as exciting as his early years, rating a very good rather than a great. But with the 'spirit in the mass' works Bomberg finds a whole new direction which is fully compelling. Alas, no-one at the time thought so. He died in 1957 virtually forgotten, sidelined by Wyndham Lewis in the Tate's Vorticist retrospective, none of his works in national collections, his plans to resume art tutoring come to naught. Badly malnourished, he effectively died of poverty. Only gradually was his work rediscovered, first – perhaps inevitably – through Vorticism and then the later years. Which in a sense is fitting. 'Mud Bath' struck people there and then. The rest took us time...