Mutations is the self-styled sequel to Wire's Drill festival from this time last year, put on by co-curators One Inch Badge and promising “a creative mass of genre hybrids and expression, delivering some of the most inspiring, creative and interesting music the world has to offer”.
Of all the acts, the festival was chiefly sold to me by Om - a band I've long been keen to see live. If their name alone isn't enough to suggest their trance-out sound, imagine Pink Floyd's 'Set The Controls For the Heart of the Sun' - there's the same relentlessly steady pace, the same sense of measured expansiveness. Or, as they sprang from the rhythm section of doom band Sleep, imagine doom without... well, without the doominess. Ever wondered what doom would sound like with just the transcendence, with none of the oblivion? Wonder no more.
Perhaps the most significant thing about Om is the way they can actually play so little yet conjure up such a vast sense of space – like each instrument is a flickering flame in a huge cavern. If the bass is the bedrock of their sound, its chief accompaniment is not the drums but the recited vocals. (Assisted no doubt by bassist and founder member Al Cisneros also being the vocalist.) Amil Amos' drums, liberated from their usual back-up role, throw almost dub-like rolls around the Cisneros that open up the sound.
The third member, Robert Lowe, has the commendable restraint to contribute either tambourine or nothing at all for long periods. At times he takes to a keyboard, a teeny-tiny thing still capable of providing a rich organ sound. At others he contributes vocals which could only be compared to choirs of angels. (Quite possibly from some choir-of-angels effect. But whatever the effect is, its effective.) Sometimes I'd watch him waiting, waiting. Then sing a couple of phrases and sit back again. The calm restraint was enticing in and of itself.
And rather than building the set up to a finale they have the quiet confidence to instead slow it down. Tracks extend in length and get simpler, for one extended section only bass and vocals. Though they're more hypnotically regular than drone, they perfectly epitomise something I said of drone music some time ago:
“While drone is sometimes dismissed as bliss-out and escapist, it doesn’t have to refer out to anything else in the universe because it already encompasses the universe. It doesn’t merely encompass the sound of the big and the small, it denies the distinction between those sounds. 'As above, so below' is an important concept in drone. Blake’s conception of 'infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour' is just up drone’s street.”
Before the set, we were talking about how much of a Marmite band they were – how liable to induce a polarised reaction. For me, its not too strong a word to describe them as magnificent. Then at the end I looked round after an hour of being mesmerised, to find half the room had decamped to venues elsewhere. Each to their own...
Next up on my must-see list was Josh T Pearson. His career to date consists of shrinking from a trio to a solo player, then recently expanding back up to a duo. And in the process sounding the least expansive yet. But I'm getting ahead of myself...
His first band, Lift to Experience, a trio of Texans who played Texan-sized music - psychedelia multiplied by post-rock turned up to eleven. Released in 2001, their one album almost fits with Godspeed's ambiguous apocalypse. Except in their case it was never clear whether the Biblical imagery was the only thing which captured their mighty, expansive sound or vice versa. Whichever, they were best summed up by the lyric “And I can hardly wait to hear that great trumpet sound/ Pouring down out across the land”.
His next record didn't appear until a decade later, a solo album of what Wikipedia calls “epic acoustic ballads”. Songs seemed sung with the weary reflection of someone much older, surrounded by regret and discarded beer cans. This time the defining lyric was 'Woman, When I've Raised Hell'. The brooding quality of wisdom reached too late. As if Lennon had jumped from 'Sgt. Pepper' to 'Plastic Ono Band' with nothing in-between.
The Church venue makes for the perfect setting for such songs. Pearson has a five-finger strum technique which sounds as much classical as country, combined with an ability to make his own voice sound like a choir.This can create a huge range, both sonically and dynamically, with things rising to a crescendo then falling to a mumble. It hardly seems possible to be coming from one man and his guitar.
Then midway through he introduces his new performing partner Calvin LeBaron and the tongue-in-cheek name the Two Witnesses. They sing actual old-time Pentecostal hymns, or new songs in the style of them. (Plus a cover of the Velvets' 'Jesus', never a bad thing.) Reflecting this cleaner, new direct new music he has a cleaner appearance – now shorn of beard and with a white-hat cowboy look. In their unadorned simplicity, those hymns must be about about the hardest of styles to emulate. There's nothing really to them apart from their effectiveness, they just remind you what a great songbook the hymn book really is. But, against the odds, Pearson comes through. Only the final number, playing up the gay element of singing about “his love”, was pastichy.
From the sublime to the ridiculous... only you know, the good kind of ridiculous...
Anecdotally, I got the impression most people's must-see was Lightning Bolt. And they may well have been higher up my list had I not seen them before. They comprise noise-guitar and still-more-noisy drums. If there was such a music genre as 'dayglo cartoony noise', that would be Lightning Bolt. Himself a cartoonist, drummer Brian Chippendale almost takes on the persona of a cartoon character onstage – masked and using a distortion mike throughout, even when speaking to the audience. Much like the great Melt-Banana, amid the sonic onslaught is not just melodies but catchy bubblegum pop tunes.
The surrealist George Bataille once claimed...honest, this is going somewhere... once claimed that the drive to make art was rooted into the infantile instinct to despoil pristine surfaces. That's why the child doesn't stop colouring when they get to the edge of the piece of paper. Similarly, Lightning Bolt seem to stem from the child's love of making noise. Rather than the nihilism so associated with the genre there's something joyous and uplifting about the whole thing, even as its rough and abrasive. Certainly, you can rely on a Lightning Bolt set to put a great grin on your face.
Metz had the unenviable task of following Lightning Bolt and pulled it off, but having blogged about them before I wouldn't have much to add.
The Ice Maiden vocals of Chelsea Wolfe may be as much a cliché as her too-much-mascara all-black Goth look... in fact they may well be the same cliché. But her music is as inventive as her image isn't. I was even reminded at times of Swans, the same punch-packing sonic savagery and willingness to go into sections of atonal noise. While at others I was reminded of the wall-of-sound of Phil Spector. Perhaps the problem with the studied dressing-up of Goth is, contrary to Lightning Bolt, its cartoony without knowing it. While Chelsea Wolfe's set truly did take shamanic flight for shores unknown. Hopefully she'll be back in Brighton soon...
Blanck Mass is the solo project of Benjamin John Power, one half of the inimitable Fuck Buttons. And the solo set ranked alongside the double act. Perhaps sounding similar to the parent project, but then sounding like Fuck Buttons is hardly a downside. There's the sudden drops you'd expect from dance music. But as often Power would overlay one section above another, sometimes then pulling it away to re-expose the beat beneath, like dance music's answer to 'Sister Ray'. Ultimately, I can only repeat what I said after seeing Fuck Buttons: “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.”
Dan Friel mixed throbbing discordant electronica with rinky-dink Casio tunes. Not alternating between them or juxtaposing them, but melding them together. It was a musical chimera, like the body of a tiger given the head of a purring house-cat. All provided by what looked like the most boffinish piece of home-made kit, leads and wires bedecked with fairy lights. The sheer impossibility of it dazzled your ears.
Despite the dodgy name, Montreal's Ought are a force to be reckoned with – propulsive post-punk with perhaps a dash of the Strokes. In a similar trick to the Fall of Flipper, the ever-insistent music is overlain by a singer sneering with arch disdain. It's like wanting to diss the whole world at once, with a band was the best way of blagging a public address system. It's the type of punk which isn't angry at its audience – just disappointed.
To combine dream pop with shoegaze guitar might seem an obvious idea. But perhaps doing it requires quite different skill sets – the melodic sense and self-discipline of songwriting versus the tight band dynamics that allow a bunch of people to take off together without getting lost. My Bloody Valentine, for example, might have often sounded like their tracks had pop songs inside them. But they stayed inside, like the gooey centre of a chocolate.
Widowspeak, however, seem capable of combining both. Singer Molly Hamilton would stand front of stage, intoning breathless sugary vocals, a little Stina Nordenstam only less little-girl and affected. Only for the band to then huddle together to create intricately interlaced guitar lines. It was like being read a bedtime story, then having your dreams take flight. Genuinely ethereal.
Arcimago started out with an intriguing question – what if Goblin had been an electronica act? )And ironically the performer was Italian, Ugo Negroni.) After all, doesn't electronica sound non-human yet possessive? Alas, as it went along it swapped strange electronica for more regular beats. Nice while it lasted...
Nature Channel served up some spiky garage rock fit to put hairs on your chest, then announced they'd not be gigging for the next six months. As soon as you come across a band... Wild Cat Strike (that's them above) provided Americana so languid steel guitar came in. Which they'd then splice with outbreaks of wall-of-sound guitar. While Saintsenaca popped over from Ohio for some of your actual from-America Americana. Some other stuff too. And of course I couldn't see everything.
Generally the festival seemed well-planned, acts starting on time and venue sizes working coping with the punters without leaving latecomers stuck outside. (If any of that did happen, I didn't see it.) And it was great to be rushing between venues when the rest of town was going mad for the Black Friday consumerfest, despite the fact it wasn't even Friday. There was, however, a strange swapping over between what would be the most intuitive Saturday and Sunday nights. While Saturday night finished up with everyone in a church in Hove listening to acoustic music, Sunday culminated with the double bombardment of Metz and Lightning Bolt. Followed by a club night going on till one. (Which by that point I was feeling too middle-aged to attend.)
Which was compounded by Christopher Owens' Saturday set not being headliner material at all. It's not so much that I didn't take to it, though I threw in the towel after two numbers. It's that most people didn't even stay as long as me, upping and leaving as soon as Josh T Pearson finished. All this most likely stemmed from the festival being planned slightly too late, when all the regular venues already had their Saturday nights booked out. But it would be worth considering should One Inch Badge decide on a follow-up...
The inevitable vidclips, a few from the festival itself but mostly from thenabouts. You'll figure it out...
Coming soon! More gig-going adventures...