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Saturday, 21 April 2018

THURSTON MOORE: 'GALAXIES 12X12'/ THE MEKONS 77 (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

THURSTON MOORE: ‘GALAXIES 12×12’
The Barbican, London, Sat 14th April



After seeing the Thurston Moore Group in Hove last year, I was most taken by the longer, slower, self-weaving pieces. Not least because they took things the furthest from the Sonic Youth days. (Who were great, of course. But all the more reason not to want their blundering zombie corpse.) But mostly because, as I put it at the time, they were “expanding beyond the usual range of guitar rock.” And in fact, listening to the ’Rock ‘n’ Roll Consciousness’ album, I’ve found it’s the longest track, the extendedopeningof’Exalted’ which is the most memorable.

And this gig in many ways picks up from there, ditching the group format altogether for a line-up of twelve twelve-string guitars. For the first half, titled ’Earth’, they playedacoustically.The accompanying film-show mostly featured abiogenesis (shooting, sprouting, blooming and the like), but the appeal of the music was that it wasn’t linear in the same fashion. With’Exalted’there’s an inevitability that it willbuild up into something, the guitars willget louder, the vocals willkick in.

Here, things could take their own course, with less emphasis on an overall structure and more on each passing moment. With just one instrument, albeit multiplied by twelve, sonic range was limited. And changes happened slowly, often passing across players like fronts in aweather system. (Changes communicated by numbers from a held-up notepad, suggesting a modular system of composition.) Which meant you needed to listen more closely than at a rock gig. But once you got there it was mesmerising.

’Sky’, was for a similar number of electric guitars. But anyone expecting the sight of jack plugs and amps meant a return for more familiar territory would have been confounded. It had one of the most “have they started yet” starts I’ve experienced in some while. I think they started at… you know, the start but suffice to say it took its own time to build up.

For the first half of the piece not a chord was played as strings were plucked by multiple fingers, struck with sticks, scraped and screwdrivered. It produced the most ethereal of sounds, where sight unseen whole sequences would never have seemed the work of guitars.

It then slowly built up into a melodic pattern something like pealing bells, before some of your actual guitar riffing finally emerged. As this grew more and more powerful I assumed this time things would end on a crescendo. But instead, in time-honoured fashion, twelve guitars were turned against twelve amps. Rather than the squalls of feedback, this produced a rather aum-like hum. From there the piece took a palindromic structure, passing through an abbreviated form of the earlier sections before diminishing to nothing.

Which is, I think, significant. Despite what the title might suggest, itwasn’t really about blasting off. It more took life in the weightless expanse of space, getting drawn into a gravitational field but then floating free of it.

Moore’s far-out comments in the programme first seemed a bit hippy-dippy, yet in retrospect they seemed almost earned. While the two pieces hit my senses as something fresh and new, at the same time theyseemed on a trajectory that made sense to me. It’s not the Eighties any more, and we don’t need to stay stuck in them. My musical tastes have widened over the years, and the rock track no longer has primacy. So the people I was listening to in the Eighties, particularly those who were even them pushing against the limits of the rock track, why shouldn’t they be moving forwards in the same way?

Theseclipsmay not stay up for long, knowing the Barbican…



THE MEKONS 77
Con Club, Lewes, Thurs 12th April


The Mekons had the short and volatile history you’d expect from a punk band formed in 1977. Their first single was rejected for distribution by Rough Trade, haven of the DIY sound, for sounding too DIY. Until the NME made it Single of the Week, and the decision was soon reversed. They then signed to Virgin records, from where they were unceremoniously dropped after one album. But now, as we’ve come to expect from this sort of thing, they’re back.

Except nothing is so straightforward here. The band actually reformed in ‘84, originally as a means to perform benefits for the striking Miners. But a move to America heralded a new rootsy sound, claimed by some to have invented alternative country. And they’ve been going ever since, with me seeing them in London last year. So the original Mekons have become a second head, hence that ‘77’ suffix.

The difference in the sounds is accentuated by that London gig being an acoustic performance in a Church, and by for this gig band member Jon Langford supporting with the Four Lost Souls – who are in sound the New Mekons in a more stripped-down format. Alas for some perverse reason they played support to the support band, so I missed the start of their set. Still, I did hear the one about the Gospel star staging a comeback despite death.

And the difference was accentuated again by only two members being common to old and new versions, Langford and Tom Greenhalgh. And Langford then abandoned his pole position for the drum stool, for all but one number. Many rivers have been crossed since 1977, and the two lead singers now bear a striking resemblance to Morecambe and Wise. To the point where I wondered if one would do an encore without telling the other.

Which actually became kind of fitting. If they were a political band, with the opening number only semi-jokingly introduced as a Marxist critique of economics, they were also possessed of an absurdist sense of humour. Songs can be about fighting the cuts one minute (still relevant, as they ruefully point out) and Dan Dare in space the next.

Musically things ranged from three-chord jabs to longer, darker, more expressionist pieces. It’s similar to the way old hippie bands such as Gong would alternate between short, sharp numbers and spacey jams, the variation accentuating the unique taste of each. Not au fait with the early Mekons I don’t know if the longer numbers came slightly later, or are even still to come. (Some tracks are recently written, and a Mekons 77 album is “anticipated”.)

Both Leeds-based bands, back in the day the Mekons were fellow travellers with Gang of Four. And if they sound quiet different they have a similar advantage. In retrospect the problem with punk wasn’t so much the often cartoony politics as the way the insurrectionary rhetoric soon became kind of reassuring. (People gonna rise up? I’ll watch out for that.) It was a problem which started with the Clash, and reached it’s risible nadir with the likes of Conflict. Whereas the Mekons were always simply too awkward for that.

As the Four Lost Souls stopped to tune their two guitars, one of the singers commented she preferred music which allowed her to go “left of tune”. Later, the assembled Mekons echoed the sentiment, figuring a left-of-tune sound went with left politics. Amen to that.

Their second single,’Where Were You?’...

Friday, 13 April 2018

THE LENS OF LUCID FRENZY FINDS YET MORE GRAFFITI BY BRIGHTON STATION...

...though, as said last time, this may be the last load for this location. (However, more graffiti pics from other parts of Brighton to come.) As ever, full set over on 500px....






Saturday, 7 April 2018

CHRIS WATSON/ A CERTAIN RATIO/ SUN RA ARKESTRA (GIG GOING ADVENTURES)

CHRIS WATSON’S ‘NO MAN’S LAND’
Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Falmer, Brighton, Thurs 29th March



Onetime member of acerbic electronica post-punks Cabaret Voltaire, Chris Watson has embarked on a solo career you could never have predicted but still seems entirely fitting. He captures the sounds for David Attenborough and other nature docs, while releasing his field recordings in his own right. (If anyone from Kajagoogoo is now doing something so cool, I wait to be told about it.) He’s now providing a “spatialised audio journey of the imagination”, where you hear one of his sound art creations in sensurround. (And still on until Sunday the 8th!)

Sight seems very much the dominants sense in our culture, we casually use phrases such as “I see what you mean”. Sound is very often reduced to signifiers – car horns, alarms, you’ve got mail – the merely incidental or even the intrusive. The sound of the town gets treated as just noise pollution, which means we conceive of nature as effective silence, the “peace and quiet” of the countryside.

But consign sound to the edge and it becomes associated with that edge, with the liminal and uncanny. Soundtracks become more significant for horror or science fiction flicks than any other kind of film, more necessary for the atmosphere they’re evoking. Cabaret Voltaire, I’m afraid, are another subject I know little of. But what I’ve heard doesn't depart from post-punk’s Dadaism, a wrench thrown in the mechanism of music. Whereas his field recordings are more similar to Surrealism, which treated art as a springboard for a voyage of personal discovery. Surrealists were always collecting found objects, such as strangely shaped pebbles, for that reason.

The event’s title effectively references all that. As we sat or lay in the centre of a near-dark room surrounded by speakers, it became almost like that scene in jungle films, where the white expeditionary force sit around the campfire, hearing the strange cries all around them.

Smartly, Watson starts his sound journey on Brighton beach, where it’s easy enough to attach images to the sounds (I can never feel too far from home if I can hear a seagull.) But he soon dispenses with those handy tags and departs for shores unknown. The blurb explains the journey “takes the listener from the edge of Brighton’s beach and out with the ebbing tide… on a trackless voyage around the planet from the ocean floor.” Which I’d read but happily then forgotten, so discovered in real time that this trip would be taking us beneath the waves.

Someone watching our reaction, with most people sprawled out on the floor, might have thought this was no more than a bliss-out exercise, a sonic massage. But it actuality illustrated the distinction between atmospheric and evocative. Even though I knew Watson’s only contribution to the sounds was to edit them, it was impossible not to hear what happened as a composition. While, much as you listen to music more closely when the words are taken away, there in the dark you listened to the strange sounds quite intently indeed. (And in their own right. A sign on the wall chronologically listed the sources, but I think most attendees didn’t consult it until afterwards.)

I’d watched a section of a filmed conversation between Watson and Attenborough before the show, and by chance they’d talked about the effect of sound on the pre-born. And aquatic sounds similarly seem to trigger some buried memory of womb states, with the sounds you hear simultaneously entirely unfamiliar and comforting.

Music… sound art, whichever you prefer to call it… always seems at its most effective when it doesn’t just change the way you hear music but they way you hear the world around you. And waiting before the bus home by the busy A23, I realised I was hearing the whirr of each passing car as a phased note in some industrial symphony. Once you’re tuned in, it takes a lot longer to tune out...

Watson interviewed by the irrepressible Graham Duff on Totally Radio here.

From an earlier, different version of ’No Man’s Land’...



A CERTAIN RATIO
The Haunt, Brighton, Sun 25th March




Alas, fate may have pinned A Certain Ratio to the mast of a misjudged but brief fashion statement. In the (unashamedly mythologised) history of the Factory records scene, ’24 Hour Party People’, their only appearance is in order for them to sport some khaki shorts on stage. Notably, they’re not in such attire today.

Let’s jump to the first encore track. A slow, sparse keyboard motif launched the number, which was then not replaced by but combined with a frenetic, pummelling groove. Notably, the main singer has the same dry, intonatory tones of New Order’s Bernie Sumner. While the second main singer (well, she’s more than a backing vocalist) emits rich, soulful tones. And when the band are working is when they manage to make those two things interlock.

Which may sound like a euphemistic way of saying we’re dealing with a mixed-race band. Something which surely shouldn’t be worthy of comment in this day and age. But there is more to it than that. Formed back in ‘77, ACR are generally thought of as part of the post-punk scene. A feature of which was white folks being influenced by contemporary black music in ways which wasn’t merely imitative, after seeing earlier imitations which had ended up as watered down and second rate.

Hence we have a white-boy, suit-and-tie take on funk, dubbed “funk noir” by Simon Reynolds. It’s restrained to the point of being clipped. The band’s name even comes from a Brian Eno lyric. The clarinetist, for example, plays not at all for much of the time. And when he does play he doesn’t play much, the briefest snatches, like he’s constantly thinking where and when to make his mark. But this white-boy funk, soon as invented, is recombined with the get-down world of black funk, cool colliding with cold. If it was a foodstuff it would be a sweet’n’sour.

But often the two don’t align so much as merge, and then they get along together too well. Which ends up as... well, a funk band. A very good funk band, admittedly, but one which hints at so much more. There’s no let up in quality to speak of, but there is one in originality.

It might seem a peculiarity of music history that ACR were one of the most prescient of post-punk bands, yet not one of the best remembered. (The Haunt’s packed out, but confined to us oldsters.) They were channelling a black American influence before New Order, despite both being Factory acts. They were serving up dance music via a band format some way before the Happy Mondays. Yet while I’ve quoted Simon Reynolds’ post-punk account ’Rip It Up And Start Again’ up above, he only really mentions them in passing.

But the answer may lie less in the ill-judged shorts than in a rephrasing of the question. The point of post-punk was to be awkward, to resist categorisation, to repel pigeon-holing, to become nail that couldn’t be hammered flat into the face of musical history. There remains to this day something inscrutable about the Fall and Joy Division, which makes them endlessly fascinating. Whereas ACR worked too well, too neatly.

Or perhaps the problem’s time. I’m woefully ignorant of the band’s history, but the thought occurs they may have sorted themselves into more of a regular funk band as time went on, their edge progressively blunted. Perhaps significantly, their first release, ’The Graveyard and the Ballroom’ was divided into ’Graveyard’ and ’Ballroom’ sides, yin opposing yang yet becoming it. Those more knowledgeable than me are welcome to comment...

Not from Brighton, despite the date YouTube gives it…


SUN RA ARKESTRA
Con Club, Lewes, Sun 1st April



Almost a year after last landing in Lewes, 
the longstanding space jazz ensemble return, still honouring the memory of their now departed main main.

“If we came from nowhere here, why can’t go somewhere there?” runs one of their manta-like lyrics. And over the course of a nigh-on two-and-a-half hour set, they take in nowhere here (somewhat standard loungey jazz), somewhere there (places you’d neither been nor knew existed), all points between and – perhaps most bizarrely – both at once. It frequently felt like attending a cocktail party on Mars.

Not only that, but the whole gig seems programmed on shuffle, leaving you with no idea what would happen next, or where you’d find it on the scale between banal and sublime. There were sections I essentially took as the intermission between the features. But at other points I even found myself adapting to relay soloing, something I normally find anathema.

It’s actually less maddening than that description might make it seem, not least because of the ensemble’s cheery assurance that there’s a method somewhere in all their madness. As said last time “it's not chin-stroking music to chew on, it's joyous, exuberant and energising. If it doesn't quite teleport you to Saturn you can almost feel your feet lifting from the ground.” Band leader Marshall Allan, despite now being in his Nineties, really does lead, directing the ensemble and joining in himself. In their brightly coloured costumes, they even come across like some cosmic form of showbiz. Ensemble members leap into the audience from time to time, still playing, encouraging us to sing along.

In fact so strangely random was the set that with the two stand-out tracks, each came not as an opener or finale but at the mid-point in each of the two sets. One sung of angels and demons, and I would be hard pressed to describe it now. While the other was their anthem, ’Space Is the Place’. Except entirely different. 

In today’s bids for pseuds’ corner, imagine the recorded version as like being in the midst of sub-atomic particles, fragments ceaselessly turning and orbiting one another, according to some system clearly operating yet whose workings were inscrutable to you. While this version was based on a pulse. Over which the brass would at times line up and blast in unison, like birds along a telephone wire, and at others fly off in flurries.



Coming soon! Gig-going adventures will come again...

Friday, 30 March 2018

‘THE ENCHANTED ROOM’

Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, London



Absolutely uninteresting preamble: The subtitle for this exhibition was “modern works from the Pinacoteca di Brera”, referring to highlights on loan from a collection in Milan – their first showing abroad. While the Estorick’s permanent collection celebrates its twentieth anniversary. As these two collections to all intents and purposes focus on the same thing, early Twentieth Century Italian Modernist art, and because I saw both on the same day, I’ve bundled both into this review. (I did say it was uninteresting...)

The World Put Into Motion
“There can be no modern painting without the starting point of an absolutely modern sensation and no one can contradict us when we state that painting and sensation are two inseparable words.”
- From The First Futurist Exhibition, 1912



Value for money, this show bundles together two self-portraits by the Italian Futurist artist Umberto Boccioni. One, abandoned, was recently discovered on the back of the other. It’s a fairly conventional view of an artist, holding his brushes out prominently, art strategically placed on the wall behind him. Yet in the version he rejected it for (1908, above), though he’s still clutching a palette board it’s pushed to the edge of the frame. In fact it’s only half a self-portrait, the other part being taken up by the view behind him. So why reject one for the other, more of a self-portrait for less of one? Artists are usually egocentric creatures, aren’t they?

The show uses the phrase ‘simultaneous view’ many times, and this sets us up for them with a double view. As those narrowed eyes scrutinise so intently Boccioni’s not looking out at us but the same view we see, the thing he will paint. The guidebook confirms this stretching view was not just over suburban Milan but was literally his view, from the terrace of his home. He’d not taken a day-trip out to see some nature, easel under arm – he’d painted his own world. This isn’t just the artist and the view, but the artist as himself part of the view. With it’s broad spaces it may not look urban to us today, but at the time there would have seemed a great many impossibly tall buildings. A better title than ’Self Portrait’ would have been ’Artist and Muse’.

If there are a number of good things to say about this show, it does at times fall into the trap of framing Modernism in terms of a lineage. Yet, not least in the quote above, the Futurists always stated the inspiration for their art was the new world of architecture and machines. And that they found this new world not alienating but invigorating, both literally and metaphorically electrifying, so wanted to create art which both reflected and matched it. Why not take them at their word?

And the key word in the quote up top is “sensation”. The Futurists weren’t just keen on changing the subject matter of art, from haywains to housing blocks, they were insistent this brave new world has irrevocably altered our perceptions. Take for example Giacomo Balla’s ‘The Hand of the Violinist’ (1912, from the permanent collection). As the title suggests it evokes not an engine but the fast-flowing hands of a violinist at work. 

Now of course violinist’s hands have always moved. Or at least the ones who didn’t tended to have less successful careers. But even if you went to the same old concert hall to hear the same classical pieces as played in yesteryear, your journey there would inevitably pass through different streets and they would colour the experience you had.

Yet at the same time this early work gives the game away by being so Post-Impressionist in style. (The favoured phrase in Italy at the time seems to have been ‘Divisionism’, referring to how short flecks of paint combined not on the canvas but in the viewer’s eye. Though how that’s supposed to differ from the Post-Impressionist term Pointillist isn’t clear.) Even assuming my theory of the double view is correct, unlike later there is nothing in the work to insist on this. It can be read as coherent pictorial space. In fact as that’s the way we’ve all learnt to read paintings, at least initially that’s the way we see it.

Early masters of spin and polemic, the Futurists often sought to conceal such debts. In the text quoted above they insisted “we repudiate Impressionism” because “they obstinately continue to paint objects motionless, frozen, and all the static aspects of Nature”. Which indulges the popular stereotype of the Impressionists as daubers of twee and bucolic little scenes, in contravention of anything they were actually doing. A more accurate statement comes slightly later, as if buried in the small print: “It is only possible to react against Impressionism by surpassing it.” (British Vorticism, despite being only a few years younger, had little to no Impressionist influence. Part of that may have been their feeling the surpassing had already been achieved.)



And Carra’s ‘Leaving The Theatre’ (1910) can be seen as this surpassing in literal motion. It’s subject matter, given away in the title, could be Impressionist. Yet Carra has taken those lively brush strokes, that flickering colour scheme, that disinterest in tight delineation and ran with it. It’s not just that so little can be discerned from those scurrying figures. It’s that they’re not moving against a static background, for the painting suggests all is in motion - even the street itself.

Impressionist paintings can still be used as period documentation, as records of the topography of their setting, of people’s clothing and so on. Carra discards all of that as baggage. He’s not going out on some aesthetic limb to prove some abstruse point, as in the caricature of Modernism, he’s going further and deeper into what painting can do. However great Boccioni’s self-portrait is, and I’d insist it is great, Carra has done something greater by going beyond.

And if the street itself seems to be in motion, a flow of energy the way a river is a flow of water, that’s an image the First Futurist Manifesto put into words: “Suddenly we jumped, hearing the mighty noise of the huge double-decker trams that rumbled by outside, ablaze with coloured lights, like villages on holiday suddenly struck and uprooted by the flooding Po and dragged over falls and through gorges to the sea.” It later makes its infamous threat to divert the rivers to flood away the museums. “Lines of force” soon became a common Futurist phrase.

So, despite its furious insistence on breaking with the past, the work is also an example of the Romantic notion of the Industrial sublime, which goes back at least to Turner. The City confronts us not as something of our making but as something from without, while at the same time charging us like particles caught in its orbit.



The City… Impressionism… there’s one great influence on Futurism to come. ‘Simultaneous views’ was our clue, and Gino Severini’s ‘The Boulevard’ (1910/11, perm. coll., above) our example. While Carra thrusts you onto the streets, Severini gives you an elevated, extended perspective. (Despite the title, it’s a panorama.) If Carra was upping the ante on Post-Impressionism until he burst out of it, Severini looks as if a Bruegel has been shown through some distorting, kaleidoscope lens. 

And the fracturing gives you the sense of the jumbled ‘busyness’ of the city streets, a myriad of events happening all at once, a riot clamouring at your senses. If Carra’s figures are blurs, his are ciphers. Perhaps they’re a crowd, perhaps the same few figures caught in various points of their scurrying journeys, perhaps a mixture of these.

Of course the influence here is Cubism. An influence we can pretty much pin it to a month. In November 1911 Ardengo Soffici, already resident in Paris, invited Boccioni and Carra (plus Russolo) over to check out this latest trend. If they absorbed its influence almost overnight, it’s been suggested the self-styled avant garde were most keen not to look left behind when they presented their own forthcoming Paris show. Certainly many works of this period are directly imitative of Cubism. These include Soffici’s ‘Deconstruction of the Planes of a Lamp’ (1912/13) and Carra’s own 1913 drawing ‘Boxer’.



Carra’s ‘The Rhythms of Objects’ (1911, above), though from the same year as ’The Boulevard’ shows the mid-point in a transition which Severini completes. This is less a single or finite number of forms fractured into pieces, and more a collage of elements. Cubist works tended to be monochrome, a colour scheme Carra partly sticks to, yet he is already adding brighter hues – aqua blues and vivid greens.

If Cubism’s brought in last here, that’s the way it worked chronologically. But, and in some accounts almost immediately, the two movements became confused in the popular mind. Futurism was taken to be merely Cubism pronounced in Italian. Even today, it takes a little effort to prise the two apart. First, they differed significantly in tone and approach. Cubism was at the time effectively art for artists, an experimental fringe little seen and still less understood by the public. The Cubists has been quietly at work since 1907 and while a 1911 exhibition caused something of a furore they did not overly court controversy. Their colour schemes were calm and sober, their titles flatly descriptive.

While Futurism roared it’s self-publicising pronouncements, staged events little more than stunts, and in every way clamoured for public attention. It was no surprise the younger brother, crying so much louder, got the most notice. (The situation was then further entangled by the synthesis movement Cubo-Futurism.)

To generalise, Cubism made a maze out of what should have been solid, discernible objects. It fractured it’s images right across the frame, rejecting any suggestion of perspective. They’re almost always interiors and often still lives, reducing the requirement for the stuff through bypassing setting. The chief interest was in devising different ways of representing space, and the resulting works are cool and contemplative.

Whereas after the Tate’s Futurism show, I referred to their works as 
“diagrams of time designed to convey the motion itself”. The resulting works are dynamic, to the point of explosive. Severini later wrote in his autobiography: "I recall an extraordinary feeling of dynamism in that year [1910]. There was a frenzied desire for freedom in the air, an inexpressible appetite for innovation and adventure... Anything was possible."


The Collage Aesthetic
“In the city the visual expressions succeed each other, overlap, overcross, they are cinematographic”
- Ezra Pound

I also said in that earlier piece “Cubism’s subject matter for the most part remained traditional still lives, Futurism always turns to action scenes.” I like to think I’m big enough to admit it when I’m wrong.



It’s arguable that the still life, in placing together objects in order for them to be painted, is already a latent form of collage. True, you could spill a lot of ink arguing whether Cubism could be considered a form of collage. But arguably by presenting several different views of an object at once it collaged it’s subject with itself. And the slightly later Synthetic Cubism (1912/14), where physical materials such as newspaper were pasted straight on the canvas, was all about collage. But collage is what Futurism took from it. See for example Soffici’s ’Watermelon and Liqueurs’ (1914, above), which not only combines painting and collage, but blurs the distinction between the two. Collage elements are added but objects – such as the knife – are added as discrete elements rather than set in a scene.



And Severini’s ’Le Nord-Sud’ (1912, above) shows this influence manifest in a fully Futurist work. Like a cocktail drug, the Cubist motif of laying fragmentary texts across the canvas is combined with Futurism’s dizzying dynamism. To quote Anna Souter from The Upcoming: 
“Our vantage point seems to be both on the platform and within the metro train itself: our perspective is warped and flattened, signs call out at us from every direction, and light and shadows form rhythmic ripples that push us off in opposing directions.”

And to quote Norbert Lynton from ’The Story of Modern Art’: “Experience had to be represented as multiplicity and fragmentation. This would demand overlapping and transparent representation, a mingling of near, far, moving, stationary, seen and recollected.” It’s not enough to show a frozen moment from a Metro ride, because Metro rides aren’t frozen moments. The Metro signs, the views through the window, the people inside the carriages must be laid atop one another. Look for example at the way the curve which starts to rise under the Metro sign twists round across the rest of the work.

But the key quote is from Pound at the top of this section. We encounter the City like a collage, an ever-shifting combination of elements. The City is itself a show, swirling around us, and we take our seats like spectators. But also, while the figures may be more recognisable than in a fully Cubist work, they are not looking out on with the view they see (as Boccioni was in his self-portrait) but essentially mingling with it. They’ve become city dwellers.



Alas, the effects of this cocktail drug would not last long. Severini’s ‘Large Still Life With Pumpkin’ (above) is from 1917, only five years later, but there's a big gap between that watermelon and this pumpkin. Rather than combining the two it lacks the radicalism of either Futurism or Cubism. The objects are caught within a series of overlapping multicoloured frames. They’re often delineated differently within each, the pumpkin alternated between the textures of it’s skin and a solid block of grey-blue. 

But the through lines are there to see, the effect as if still lives in several different but recognisable styles had been combined. The show refers to this as “the deconstruction of images theorised by Braque and Picasso interpreted in an essentially decorative manner.” In other words, Cubism lite.

It’s most commonly said that the shock of the First World War left Futurism’s hymns to the machine age stuck in their once-full throats. And there’s no doubt some truth to that. But here Severini’s essentially trying to sing the old songs, but only managing an emaciated parody version of them. 


The story of urbanism had a long way to go. But perhaps an art movement which laid so much stress on shock value was never going to give itself a shelf life. With the First Manifesto, they’d insisted on such a thing from the beginning: “The oldest of us is thirty: so we have at least a decade for finishing our work. When we are forty, other younger and stronger men will probably throw us in the wastebasket like useless manuscripts—we want it to happen!” As it happened, the decade was an over-estimate.

The Enigma of the Everyday
“There is nothing more surreal, more abstract than reality.”
- Morandi



But not everyone ended up slung in that skip. In those heady days Modernist movements could be short-lived, but could just as rapidly succeed one another. By the time of the First World War Carra had already abandoned Futurism, and in 1917 he took up the Metaphysical style of Giorgio de Chirico. Delightfully befitting each movement, Carra had sought out Cubism on that trip to Paris but met De Chirico quite by chance, when military service stationed them together. Equally befittingly, the collection only has a small selection of de Chiricos so he becomes a haunting presence even in a show largely dedicated to Metaphysical art.

The show groups three of Carra’s 1917 works together. ’The Enchanted Room’ makes for a good show title, but isn’t the best example and notably it’s ‘The Metaphysical Muse’ (above) which makes it onto the poster. (The third is ’Mother and Son’.)

Rarely for a Modernist movement, Metaphysical art was all about painting. (Futurism had been characteristically multi-disciplinary.) And if we’re insistent on Modernism only as a series of formal innovations arranged in a lineage, this marks nothing but retreat. Possibly more so than Severini’s pumpkins. Things are back to being there, in front of us, in recognisable pictorial space. There’s no struggle to make them out, no perplexing questions as to why they’ve been painted this way. Art has become straightforward again.

Or is that just the sheep’s clothing? To quote Anna Souter again, these works depict “rooms filled with objects that initially appear ordinary, but which are imbued with intense emotional power.” If they have an unsettling effect that’s partly because it’s not even clear how they come to be so unsettling, as if they’re possessed of an unknowable and barely discernible power. These are the numinous, charged objects we encounter in dreams. (Or at least the type of dream which cinema later went in for depicting.)

An effect enhanced by subliminal visual tricks. The racket of the main figure maps to the folds in her skirt, as this is a cheap child’s toy cast from a mould, yet she’s human height. The two framed objects are a map and another painting, yet the second continues the tapering lines of the floorboards. The geometric cone and the folded skirt also echo this motif, the same time as they disrupt it. The colour scheme is monochrome, yet the map and cone are bright. Your eye finds multiple points of comparison and contrast between the figures, suggesting there must be some rhyme or reason to this you haven’t quite got yet. (Pointing out this stuff is a little like giving away a magic trick.)

The show uses an analogy of mind maps, as if these objects clustered in rooms are spatial metaphors for the thoughts in our heads. Yet if all three works are of enclosed spaces, Carra places a doorway in each back wall, with ’Metaphysical Muse’ adding a second. In fact I suspect Carra included a back wall precisely in order to place a doorway in it. (This fascination for holes and apertures became one of the many things later picked up by Surrealism.)

And each work has those tapering floorboard lines, which evoke space as much as presence. (In the example above, also reflected in the ceiling.) Norbert Lynton referred to “a combination of empty space and oppressively clustered objects,” which give the works their effect. While De Chirico himself often used all these elements in exteriors, such as ‘The Disquieting Muses’ (1916/18). None of this seems to fit the analogy.

And in fact, to reduce the objects in the works to thoughts or even unconscious impulses is too familiarising, robbing Metaphysical painting of its metaphysics. It seems to me vital that they retain their own identity. All three works feature mannequins, with two naming themselves after them. The tennis player is even described as a Muse, creatures regarded as apparitions, visitors from the spirit world. But represented here by a mere physical object.

“Unsettling” is a frequently reached-for word with this style, I’ve used it myself already. And much of that effect comes from the way the works look literally, if strangely, unsettled. The stillness of a still life is surely inherent, something to take for granted, heralded in the name. After all, these are solidified representations in paint of objects that couldn’t have moved in the first place.

Yet with these still lives there’s always the hint of motion, the suggestion of sentience, as if these objects are playing a sinister game of statues in a refusal to surrender their mysteries. If some of the objects look like toys there’s the ’Toy Story’ conceit that all they require to become real is for us to stop looking at them. See for example the later ’Engineer’s Mistress’ (1921, below), whose eye we might catch peeping out at us at any moment.



Sarane Alexandrian calls de Chirico “the painter of silences. He describes the moment of waiting, where everything holds its breath and is transfixed before the arrival of some portent or some apparition. His universe stands on the threshold of the event. It’s calm and harmonious lines conceal the alarm and curiosity aroused by what is to come.” (‘Surrealism’,, Thames & Hudson) And he evokes a similar sense of anticipation over sound, the suspended moment where an object seemingly hangs in the air before it comes crashing to the floor. There’s a literal element to his titling a work ’The Disquieting Muse’.

In short, these works are better approached in terms of the atmosphere they evoke than the symbols they employ. They work by channel the child’s fundamental incomprehension of the world. Not only are objects inscrutably strange, they’re not even necessarily objects. Children can ascribe an animist sense to things, where that ball that rolls before them quite possibly contains a rolling spirit. As we get older this innate metaphysics is lost, beaten down into flat physics.

But these works give us that sense back, an incomprehension which makes the world simultaneously wondrous and menacing, with each of those reactions not possible without the other. De Chirico said “a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken it will enter the regions of childhood vision and dream."

Which marks both Metaphysical art’s influence on Surrealism and the point they differed. At its least inspired, Surrealism was merely a code you could crack using Freud as a cypher book. (Leading, ironically, to Freud himself delivering their biggest put-down: “it’s their consciousness which interests me”.) Whereas Metaphysical painting remains tantalisingly incomprehensible. The influence is quite analogous to Cubism on Futurism, that of the quieter elder sibling.. Metaphysical art doesn’t shock your senses, but quietly undermines your sureties. In fact Surrealism’s violent eyeball assaults seem much more an inheritance from Futurism.

...which may seem like a long step away from Futurism. Which after all included in it’s manifesto the proud boast “Mythology and the Mystic Ideal are defeated at last.” But the distance may not be as broad as it seems. As said, Futurism had a basis in still lives. And it was not concerned with capturing sights so much as sensations, subjective responses. The difference is that in Futurism the lines of energy are overt, in Metaphysical painting implicit. But that just makes the difference significant. The Futurists were full of bold proclamations and promises, the very notion of which Metaphysical art undermines. This show’s appeal comes not just from grouping together two striking art movements, but demonstrating the transition between them.



Like Carra, Mario Sironi had travelled from Divisionism to Futurism to an apparent reacquaintance with real things. ‘Urban Landscape With Chimney’ (1930, above) takes place in a pictorial space that’s not only viable but integral - it could have been painted from life. There’s none of de Chirico's Mediterranean arches and boulevards, or his extended perspectives filled with a strange accumulation of figures and objects. In it’s monochrome glumness, it’s almost realist.

Yet the puff of smoke as a sign of distant activity was also a motif of his, for example in ’The Uncertainty of the Poet’ (1913). And your subjective reaction to the work is almost identical, falling into the interchange between enticingly mysterious and menacing. As you look at an environment built around motion but currently under a deathly stillness that classic movie line comes back to you: “sure is quiet, maybe too quiet”.

Its effect also comes from its style. When we think of depictions of the city our minds often run to bright, bold, clean colours, as in Charles Green Shaw and Aaron Douglas’ art featured in the Academy’s recent ‘America After the Fall’ show. Sironi is not at all sophisticated but naive, the paint roughly slapped on. The effect is as if the artist is gazing upon something he’s unfamiliar with, like a cave painting of an internal combustion engine. And his task is to pass that unfamiliarity on to us.



Giorgio Morandi’s dalliance with Futurism was only brief. But he took us closer still to the objective reality of this world only to highlight our distance from it. His ‘Still Life’ (1929, above) is best described by Lamberto Vitali’s phrase, passed on by the show, “populated not by things but by the ghosts of things”. In most still lives objects have been combined, arranged, like characters in a diorama. Here we don’t see a teapot, a bottle and a plate - we look straight to that spectralness. What appears before us is… well, some kind of apparition. The juxtaposition still exists, it’s just that rather than arising between the objects it lies between them and us. It’s as if worlds exist only on the periphery of our perception.



Zoran Music’s ‘Horses And Landscape’ (1951, perm. coll, above) uses a similarly restricted colour range for a similarly enigmatic effect. Horses and riders, with their backs to us, return to a landscape they’ve barely emerged from in the first place. That low colour range abets their escape. It’s as if they’re a foreign tribe whose customs we can’t know, whose language we can’t speak, who shrug off our enquiries with uninterest.

There’s art which is about expanding our knowledge or awareness, and there’s art which is more concerned with convincing us we know less of the world around us than we thought we did. Both Morandi and Music are definitely in the latter camp. What seems art’s most fundamental promise, to delineate, to show things, is made problematic. 

De Chirico, Carra and Sironi pay it lip service, only to undermine it. Morandi and Music quietly but calmly dismiss it. They’re almost anti-paintings, a record of a failed attempt to capture something. It was difficult to find a true image for Music’s painting on-line, as many had clearly taken to photo editing in order to ‘fix’ it. A small incident which may say much about the bold certainties of our times, and how much they mirror the pre-Great War era.

Coming soon! I’m still behind in these visual arts posts, but somehow just found myself writing this one and so it jumped the queue. Back to the behind-the-times stuff shortly. I am also working on some wholly new things, which further delays the backlog. No, I wouldn’t believe me either, but actually it’s true...

Sunday, 25 March 2018

THE LENS OF LUCID FRENZY FINDS MORE BRIGHTON GRAFFITI...

...this time near Brighton Station. As ever, full set over at 500px. More to post in this set shortly. Alas, that might then be it for what has for many years been a graffiti hotspot. The boards which have long been used as canvases have now been taken over by ads for the latest neoliberal office block. Another day, another step in the corporatisation of everything...








Sunday, 18 March 2018

AT THE DRIVE-IN/ VIBRACATHEDRAL ORCHESTRA/ GOD IS MY CO-PILOT (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

AT THE DRIVE-IN
02 Academy, Brixton, London, Fri 9th March




It’s another axiom of Lucid Frenzy that a great band can combine apparent contradictions. At the Drive-In for example, were a full-on hardcore punk band who managed to pack in the most left-field manoeuvrers. They were like a switchblade knife that was simultaneously a corkscrew.

And I did sometimes wonder if what made them burn so bright also made them burn half as long, with their releasing just three albums then quitting at their peak. As if contrapedal forces finally reasserted themselves, they split into the proggy, jazzy Mars Volta and the “cleaner, more accessible” Sparta. And the two were never as good apart.

So will the reunited band manage to reassemble, like that movie scene where the split parts of the amulet recombine to reignite the magic? Or, would they just be, to quote an old lyric, “dancing on the corpse’s ashes” of their grand reputation? They’re clear still at the top of the crowd’s heart, spurring many singalongs. But initially, it veers towards the second option.

Much of what permitted ATDI to perform their magic trick was the twin guitars - the switchblade edge of Jim Ward combining with the corkscrewing of Omar Rodriguez. (Who’s cited Frank Zappa, Robert Fripp and John McLaughlin as his influences.) At the Drive-In are still driving, still full of force. But those twin guitars merely make a wall of noise to underline the vocals. it’s switchblade at the expense of corkscrew. Despite the fact that it’s Ward who’s absent from the reunion. (Seemingly dropping out at the last minute, and replaced by Keely Davis, also ex-Sparta.)

I had given up all hope and started to figure I should just settle for what I was getting, when relatively suddenly they managed to click back in. What had been pure frontal assault gains depth and breadth, and songs take on strange and unexpected elements. Even the ones you know well.

They strike up noise between tracks, meaning the next number erupts from it as if a sculpture arose from a single stroke. And, something I previously witnessed from seeing their re-reformation incarnation Antemasque, in the midst of well-known tracks such as ’Enfilade’ they introduce long, slower and much more hypnotic sections – influenced more by soul and reggae than hardcore punk. They’d stretch for long enough to leave you almost forgetting the original number, before breaking back into it. The original ADI didn’t tend to pull such switches , and were more given to superimpose each element over one another. Which perhaps that gives them an extra novel effect.

The encore, perhaps predictable but still a welcome choice...


VIBRACATHEDRAL ORCHESTRA
Cafe Oto, Dalston, London, Sat 11th March




The legendary trance/ drone/ impro outfit Vibracathedral are celebrating their Twentieth anniversary. Somehow I have only succeed in seeing them once before, in a short set at the Colour Out of Space festival. So, even though I was only up in London the previous day, tonight I’m back.

Some music you need to search a little before you find a way to listen to it. As if your head’s a radio, you need to tilt it to the right angle for you to tune in. But VBO are almost the opposite. As the five members bang, strum and pluck away, barely ever looking at one another and seemingly just off on their own thing, the surprising thing is how perfectly it all fits together. It’s not head-scratching music, it’s heart-lifting.

This may be partially down to the magic unifying power of the held drone. Provided in the opening section rather wonderfully by someone simply tra-la-laing. At times you feel like they’re packing a rhythm section a more conventional band would burn their A+R contact list for, even when their ‘drummer’ is merely hitting cymbals placed on the floor.

Perhaps there can be no bigger praise than saying how much it reminded me of Terry Riley. Not just the raga influence. Or the metronomic pieces, playing what often sounds like snatches from riffs or melodies, or the ‘holy groove’ sonic shimmer. Or even the sense of the eternal present, where the music somehow shifts into something else entirely without you noticing until they’ve done it.

More because it has Riley’s spirit, his combination of wig-out exuberance with transcendentalism. Plus, many years before punk, he brought a DIY approach to music which these guys are still channelling. There’s black boxes which get twiddled from time to time. But instruments include the aforesaid cymbals, a rather battered violin whose bow looks almost fully frayed, and a toy piano. It conveys the sense that this joyous sound stems chiefly from a state of mind, as if once in the zone they could cheerily play for hours if given the chance.

The only downside… And it should be acknowledged it must be hardest of all to mix an impro set, when you can’t be sure what you’ll need to capture. But the sound quality was often patchy, sometimes harsh and abrasive in a way which might even match a noise outfit but not these sound carriers. However, these problems were mostly confined to the earlier part of the set.

Not from Cafe Oto but in full flight…


GOD IS MY CO-PILOT
Cafe Oto, Dalston, London, Sat 17th March





God is My Copilot are a DIY punk band from Nineties New York, mostly associated with queercore, sometimes described as “Raincoats meet Black Flag”, and whose mission statement is ”co-opting rock, the language of sexism, to address gender identity.” They’re yet another legendary band who have somehow previously passed me by.

If hippie bands would smoke and punks snort something before their set, GodCo would seem to have jabbed their mitts in some mains electricity. Their sound’s agitated and angsty with trebly, scratchy guitar more skating over the surface of songs than leading them. Tracks don’t push ahead so much as proceed in spasmodic jerks, often pulling abrupt tempo shifts on you.

Their songs aren’t the righteous rallying cries most associate with punk, they’re simultaneously more immediate and more obtuse, shot through with sardonic humour. Like they less want to reach out and fix the world, and more plan to draw you into their messy web of personal relations. “I want a dress with no blood on it”, went the words to one number.

It’s an odd mixture of exhilarating and frustrating, ramshackle to the point of uneven. In fact, for a band with songs and a set-list, it had many of the ups and downs of an impro outfit. In fact, Vibracathedral Orchestra were more consistent despite being an impro band! The singer (who in police parlance I now know to be called Normandy Sherwood) frequently wandered over to a box of tricks of some kind, but I was no clearer by the end what it was supposed to be doing. 

That somewhat odd photo the venue used for the gig, with the top of the guitarist’s head just poking in (reproduced above), does fit the occasion. They seemed to come off the rails a couple of times, the drummer (who plays a more active role than in a regular punk band) picking them up again.

But then this is the type of music where that can just be part of the point. They seemed to somewhat divide the audience. Not what you expect from a cult punk band reformed and returning to London, serving tracks up with practised ease, but more in the spirit of the day. Back then, to please everyone was seen as the same thing as pleasing no-one.

They close with a Devo-like deconstruction of ’Totally Wired’. It turns out you can simplify a Fall guitar line, who knew? Whether that was a special tribute to the recently departed Mark E Smith or a regular feature of their set, I’ve no idea.

Couldn’t find any current footage so here’s some back-in-the day stuff. Guitarist Craig Flanagin looks to be the only member in common ‘tween then and now…

Saturday, 10 March 2018

A SINGLE VISION (ANOTHER SPOTIFY PLAYLIST)


After posting a playlist of longer tracks, I foolishly promised to compile a companion piece of shorter snappier numbers. Much to my own surprise, I then went and did it.

The original plan was to keep everything to single length, which I decided was the four minute mark. A few did end up creeping past that, but nothing beyond five minutes. Well, apart from the one that does. Anyway, this is what I came up with. Ah-wun-too-free-four...

The Small Faces : Song Of A Baker
The Blues Magoos : Tobacco Road
Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band : I Love You, You Big Dummy
Fairport Convention : The Bonny Black Hare
Nick Drake : Black Eyed Dog
Low : Dragonfly
New Order : ICB
Wire : Indirect Enquiries
The Jesus + Mary Chain : On The Wall
At The Drive-In : Metronome Arthritis
The Magnetic Fields : When My Boy Walks Down The Street
Melt-Banana : Cat And The Blood
The Fall : Mother-Sister! (Peel Session)
Long Fin Killie : The Heads Of Dead Surfers
Stiff Little Fingers : You Can't Say Crap On The Radio
Gang Of Four : Outside The Trains Don't Run On Time
Fucked Up : Invisible Leader
Miss Black America : Miss Black America

”Just like a doll
”I'm one feet tall
”But dolls can't see anyway
”I’m like the clock
”On the wall” 

Saturday, 3 March 2018

CARLTON MELTON + PSYCHIC LEMON + SLEEPING CREATURES/ TALLIS FESTIVAL/ NIK TURNER'S SPACE RITUAL

CARLTON MELTON/ PSYCHIC LEMON/ SLEEPING CREATURES
The Hope, Brighton, Sat 24th Feb




Carlton Melton hail from a geodesic dome out in the wilds of Northern California, from where they create “meditative soundtracks freed from the constraints of traditional song composition”. An all-instrumental trio, they commence with slow, intricate, lines built up by threading together two lead guitars which become thoroughly transformative to listen to. (Slightly reminiscent of the recent Thurston Moore show.) The second guitarist shortly takes to the drums, and things kick off into a full-on noise-fest. It was music which first pulled you in, then sent you right out there.

Though this was a pattern they’d repeat throughout the set, it remained involving and unpredictable. The only drawback being, while the twin-guitar parts were very much ensemble playing, the rockier sections did lend themselves to guitar solo heroics. However, in this context they do appear as more of an organic growth. Guitar solos in the midst of songs always feel like when the adverts break into a film you’re watching.

Psychic Lemon are a psychedelic band hailing from Cambridge. (Though they prefer the label “krautfunk.”) Prior to psychedelia there’d been garage rock, music hard and regular in shape. There’s a reason after all why the most celebrated compilation of that era was called ’Nuggets’. And part of the joy of psychedelia is the collision of that solid object with it’s morphing, shapeless forms. That classic movie staple of the cop, or some other straight and rational thinker, succumbing to a trip is essentially what happened to the music.

But with the greater use of effects available to music today, even in a live setting, Psychic Lemon can effectively make the two things happen at once. They were more song-based than most of the other acts, yet that structure never seemed to constrain them. The guitar and drums could stretch out in all sorts of strange directions, leaving the bass to keep the sound grounded.

The upside of such a crowded night, courtesy of the good folks at Drone Rock records, was the plethora of acts. Which came with a perhaps inveitable downside, this Saturday night gig effectively started sometime during Thursday. So, alas I missed half the set of opening act Sleeping Creatures. Again with twin guitars, though this time without bass, they managed to combine the seemingly contradictory virtues of the sonic assualt of heavy riffing with post-rock’s freedom to move around. It seems they’re a local outfit, so hopefully I’ll catch a full set soon.

I was, if I’m honest, less taken by the other three acts. Melt Dunes were the best of them, particularly when they let their swirling keyboards take to the fore – like a fairground carousel which had discovered Surrealism. Stereolicia involved guitar improvisations over a near-drone loop, which was somewhat New Agey. And while the beauty of psychedelia is in it’s unhinged abandon, Gnob were most definitely hinged. Their far out stage costumes were nifty, but mere fancy dress.

Yer real actual gig footage of Carlton Melton...



...and not so from Psychic Lemon (well, you can’t have everything)...



TALLIS FESTIVAL
Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Falmer, Brighton, Sun 11th Feb




While I might listen to a variety of styles in music, ask me about eras and I can be quite rigid. In art in general, I’m only really interested in the primitive and the modern, regarding the rest as mere in-filling. My interest usually shades in somewhere around Romanticism. The Renaissance was just a whole load of hype.

So it was pretty much by chance I first heard Renaissance composer, Thomas Tallis, via an art installation at a previous Brighton Festival. And, finding every rule comes with exceptions, I went along to the Sunday night of this Tallis festival.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I did feel like something of a no-nothing novice. If I had a seat within the venue, it was still like being an outsider with my nose pressed up against the glass. And so, while I enjoyed the event, I’ve only two observations. Tallis’ compositions are choral and hearing music composed only of multiple human voices has a strangely unearthly quality. The human voice, the first ever instrument, should surely be a natural sound for us. Yet when you hear this many voices at work it’s anything but.

It’s also music that’s virtually impossible to listen to in terms of individual lines. There are just so many voices you need to just take in the combination, the same way you’d watch a murmuration of starlings.

NIK TURNER’S SPACE RITUAL
The Brunswick, Hove, Sat 10th Feb



Space Ritual are Nik Turner’s variant of the band which must absolutely not be called Hawkwind while on British shores. A few years ago, I was telling you that in the great Hawkwind schism I aligned more with the heretical Turnerite sect than the Brock orthodoxy.

Alas, things have turned. Now seventy-seven, you would no longer be expecting Turner to roller-skate around the stage. But perhaps inevitably through time he’s pretty much lost his singing voice. Through some quirk of the human larynx he can still honk his horn as ever, meaning there was some effectiveness to the instrumental sections. I am really not sure I want to point this out, Turner being so strongly associated with music I’ve loved since by early teens. I still have vivid memories of my first Inner City Unit gig, shortly after leaving home. But facts, I suppose, are facts.

And as Brock long ago made the decision to be the director of music rather than the frontman, that makes his Hawkwind – the Hawkwind who are called Hawkwind – the live version to go for.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

THE LENS OF LUCID FRENZY GOES SLIGHTLY FURTHER DOWN BRIGHTON'S TRAFALGAR LANE...

Following the entry from a couple of weeks ago, this completes our pectoral journey down one of Brighton's graffiti havens. But if I went back there today, I expect there'd be several new pieces up - it changes faster than you can snap it! As ever, full set over on 500px.





Saturday, 17 February 2018

'PHANTOM THREAD'




It’s strange the way the ostensible subject of films have so little to do with the film itself. Rock biopics are, by and large, awful however big a fan you are of the band themselves. While my disinterest in ballet meant that for years I avoided seeing Powell and Pressburger’s ‘Red Shoes’, before finally find it a favourite of theirs. But when it comes to dressmaking, particularly when it comes to the devising of gowns to be draped over the wealthy,then my interest in ballet becomes by comparison almost an obsession.

And yet that’s no barrier whatsoever to Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Phantom Thread’. Chief character Reynols is a fashion designer, but that’s not particularly significant. The subject of his obsessions isn’t the focus on the film, his obsessions themselves are the subject of the film. His art is Platonist, he works not from omissions but ceaseless sketches, realising the perfect object he sees in his mind. He’s learnt how to turn on the charm to the society ladies who purchase the finished product, but they’re merely an unfortunate necessity to him, the ignorant but cash-dispensing patrons to his Renaissance artistry. 

The film’s a character study of ‘the artistic temperament’, and we watch with contradictory feelings of admiration, abhorrence and plain puzzlement. There are very few exteriors, and the vast majority of the film takes place inside the limited sets of the house. (I didn’t even know when it was set until reading it afterwards.)

The next most significant characters are Alma, his latest muse, assistant and living mannequin, and his sister Cyril. (I have no idea why she’s called Cyril!) While Reynols busies himself with his work, Cyril is the business head. When he intends to refuse a society invitation, Cyril curtly informs him such people pay for their house. Viewing a finished dress, he pronounces it as matching his specifications yet “ugly” before (albeit involuntarily) damaging it. If it doesn’t work for him it’s of no use. Cyril then goes into gear, politely but firmly telling the seamstresses no-one’s going home until it’s repaired and the client’s order fulfilled.

Alma is demonstrated to be unlike Cyril, her interest in the man not the goods he produces. When a (particularly disliked) customer collapses in one of his dresses, she brusquely forces her way into the room to rescue it. And as that example shows, she’s capable of agency. Unlike her predecessor muse, a doormat whose shunting offstage is even accomplished offstage.

But the fact we’re discussing Alma in the negative, seeing her in terms of not occupying space blocked off elsewhere, is indicative. The film, so fixated in Reynol’s fixations, has little interest in her fixation on him. Does his devotion to his work attract her at the same time it shuts her out? Does she sense someone beneath all this? Is she merely looking for a place in the world?

She has no backstory, or anything else which might help us out there. She has strength of character yet no actual character. And such questions simply pass unasked. As in the classic Frank Sinatra quote, it’s his world and she just lives in it. And as this becomes more acute, as Reynols rebuffs her more and more cruelly and ruthlessly, and as she still persists, this absence of any actual Alma becomes a bigger and bigger space.

We all know rom-coms where unlikely couples overcome obstacles to get together. (And most mainstream films now have at least a rom-com element.) Naturally, they’re two-handers. We also know films where small characters work as our link to the lives of great ones. (Perhaps most exemplified in the early scene in ‘Citizen Kane’, where anonymous figures in a darkened movie theatre speculate on him.) ‘Phantom Thread’ is a strange mish-mash of the two.

Other reviews have found this a weakness of the film. But it’s clearly not a mistake. It’s a deliberate decision, however strange. Reynols isn’t portrayed sympathetically, he’s actually shown quite unsparingly. In the showing I saw, some were laughing out loud at his self-importance, as he delivered the most scathing abuse in the most mellifluous of tones. But in another way he’s simply not shown at all. Through non-Alma, we’re simply standing too close to him to frame him, and so we become radiated by his light.

The film comes to feel like something Reynols would make if he took up directing. Individual scenes can be stunning and exquisite. The afore-mentioned dress repair sequence, for example, has the dress laid out below multiple seamstresses like a patient on an operating table. A party scene is as elaborate and fantastical as a Fellini set-piece, yet occupies the screen for an absurdly brief period of time. It’s a film that’s cut from the most priceless cloth, but there’s no gaining any purchase on those silky surfaces.