Concorde 2, Brighton, Mon 16th Sept
Reader, be reassured that I don't just post things late here, but in fact manage to be habitually late for everything except work and planes. For example, I am forever finding out about bands just as they split up, or hearing of gigs or exhibitions after they're over. And when I'm not too late? Then I'm too early.
When I first saw Fuck Buttons, in the small Audio venue almost exactly four years before, I liked them without loving them. At that time, their sound still felt formative. If they warranted writing home about, it was by postcard more than letter.
But a duo comprising an Aphex Twin and a Mogwai fan – that was only ever going to turn out well, wasn't it? And so our story turns out happily, and I do get to go to the ball. They're never as audaciously Dadaistic as Aphex Twin nor as rocky as Mogwai, which results in a fine blend.
If you were going to try to take them apart, many of their tracks do share the common denominators of electronic dance. There's the two lanes; the fast lane where the beats flurry by, and the other lane. Often slower in tempo it's probably better named the weird lane, when the unexpected turns on and off from hidden slip roads. All too often in this type of music the lanes feel adjacent rather than related. The 'art' stuff is just decoration, sprinkled over a somewhat stodgy cake baked from a standard four/four recipe. But in Fuck Buttons' case they really do result in a creative juxtaposition, like the proverbial encounter between the sewing machine and the umbrella.
Responding to their Glasgow gig in the Guardian, Graeme Virtue noted on how their tracks “sound as if [they] could go on forever, but the repetition is hypnotic rather than numbing, with subtle variations and manipulations in each loop that border on the subliminal.”
While reviewing their most recent release in the same august organ, Alexis Petridis commented their “default emotional setting was somewhere between the kind of breakdown that causes clubbers to throw their hands in the air and the kind of breakdown that ends with you being strapped to a gurney.... [They] evoke a weird apocalyptic euphoria.” And aquote on their Wikipedia page pointed out "rarely have two men sounded so much like the end of the world."
Not bad descriptions, but I wonder if they don't set the duo's scope too small. The effect is more one of busting out of human scale, not hand-waving at the end times so much as taking a taste of timelessness. They sound reminiscent of those fast-forward sections in time travel movies, where the centuries fly by faster than your eyes can cope. Shouldn't the place of music be to epitomise its times? The accelerating pace of change, the headlong rush into the future, the feeling that you cannot help but be swept along, that you won't so much be left behind as left bewildered... whether intended or not, it's all here.
And yet the joyous paradox is that at the same time it couldn't be more immediate. Those who insist music only works live when it comes with 'proper' instruments... all I can say is, come check out these guys. Screens match abstract patterns with silhouettes of the guys as they perform, hunched over their keyboards, sometimes screaming into mikes. For a band who can go some way out there and fear no abrasion of the ears, it's intriguing how they can also set a crowd a-dancing.
...which I would guess is where their name comes from. A collision term between one of our most emotive words and one of our most automated and mechanical. Two lanes in strange accord, somehow working as it happens.
Right tour, but not Brighton...
(Featuring Kimmo Pohjonen, Samuli Kosminen and the Kronos Quartet)
Barbican Centre, London, Wed 18th Sept
If the prospect of a Finnish avant-garde accordianist doesn't set your heart aflutter, perhaps you should check it works at all. Previously I'd only seen Kimmo Pohjonen once, in a solo show more than a decade ago. Afterwards, the audience were enthusiastically discussing it not with reference to other composers or musicians but animal sounds. “Elephants,” I remember someone insisting, “there were definitely elephants in there.”
This time he's fronting a single composition co-authored by sampler and electronics artist Samuli Kosminen, commissioned and here performed by the Kronos Quartet. “The idea,” he recounts in the programme, “was to 'electrify' the sound of the string quartet and explore the possibilities of manipulating it electronically, expanding the scope.”
Kosminen's contribution is sometimes to loop back the string players to themselves, sometimes to treat them and at others provide electronic beats. But with the wide range supplied by the 'live' players, you soon gave up on guessing who was producing what and just went with it.
Rather than springing up outside the history of music, it's appeal lay in the way it worked almost as its summation. Awarding it a full row of stars in the Guardian, Robin Denslow described it as “a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of avant-garde electronica, global folk styles and classical influences.” All of which it managed without ever sounding like pastiche or post-modernism. Melodies could sound achingly beautiful, more out-there sections audacious yet somehow natural. The effect was utterly mesmerising.
And after all, that Modernist insistence on a total break with the past – how well did those bold claims really come off? This was more like an accumulation of music history, stretching back through the eras and across through the genres, like fresh new branches sprouting and fruiting from the crest of a tree.
“The aim was to try and reach a new level of emotional content,” Pochjonen continued, “to take the listener, as well as ourselves, on an adventure.”
It certainly did.
Nothing YouTubed from the Barbican, but you can see the whole thing on-line, starting below. (Though, somewhat frustratingly, the clip parts don't match the section breaks.)