What Is Music? @ Gaelic Club, Sydney, 12/02/2004

WHAT? YOU'LL HAVE TO SPEAK UP.

Festival artwork, 2004.

This is an older review of mine, presented here for archival purposes. The writing is undoubtedly different to the present, and the review style may differ between publications. Enjoy, if that’s the right word. 

What Is Music? is a festival that’s been running since 1993 and aims to show gig-goers that there’s more to music than three chords and the truth. Judging from the mixture of baffled and ecstatic faces seen in The Gaelic Club this evening, the education continues.

As punters entered the room, Matthew Chaumont was already well under way. Seated in front of the stage, manning a couple of computers, a mixer, and what appeared to be a large speaker attached to a couple of metres of industrial ducting. Apparently called Metaphenomena, the piece was a series of bowel-shakingly low tones with a satisfyingly dirty texture. It was a piece that was designed to be felt, too – walking in front of the duct’s opening, the amount of air being shifted was easily noticeable. A bell tree, set up on stage and awaiting another artist, began to create small harmonics because of the vibrations being sent through the building. It’s surprising how beautiful something so seemingly free of variation can be.

While Chaumont’s large pipe was stowed at front-of-stage, Staubgold Sound System kicked in, albeit with a couple of static shards thrown in for effect. Playing between all the artists’ sets, the SSS ensured a low-key, mostly percussive and submerged-sounding atmosphere prevailed.

James Heighway’s set – easily one of the night’s best – consisted of constant manipulation of a bank of wave-generating electronics. Perched over a multi-knobbed box, Heighway coaxed a number of sounds into the air – from oldschool, Kraftwerk-chunky buzzsaws to what sounded like faux bird-calls. If there’s such a thing as sine wave channel-surfing, then this set was it – and it provided the perfect background for closed eye visualisations. While the music created was entirely the product of machines and signal decay, it also overcame the inhumanity of its machinery to become something beautiful – just fantastic.

Scott Horscroft’s ensemble took the stage for an extended piece using eight bells and more musicians. With six guitar players, the spectre of Glenn Branca loomed over the stage, but what was played was a little more low-key to begin with: a tribal-feel longform piece that seemed to have been pulled from a mystery cult’s rites. Bells rang with guitars tuned sympathetically, creating an interplay that was more rhythmic than melodic. These beginnings bode well, but it seems that somewhere along the line, brevity was lost: the ensemble sustained their theme (over some fairly straight-sounding drumming which seemed to rob the piece of some important mystery) much longer than was good for it – eventually falling into the predictably cacophonous “everybody play now!” ending that seemed to sell everyone onstage short. A pity, given that before there was kowtowing to Godspeed You Black Emperor length, there was something really compelling in Horscroft’s composition.

Next, a duo. Matthew Earle and Mattin – hailing from Newtown and Basque Country, respectively – set up a tabletop soundslinging battle. (Mattin, it must also be noted, bears more than a passing resemblance to a sober Shane MacGowan – if that’s not an oxymoron.) With a set that opens with a lot of high-frequency noise (or silence?), they lose the crowd early. The attention needed to digest this sound creation/deconstruction isn’t easily attained because there’s not a whole lot, aurally, to hang on to – until some way into the performance when an anvil of white noise is dropped into the room. Nothing makes people pay attention like a blast of ear-shredding volume. Without a seemingly distinct end, Mattin closes the laptop and walks off: apparently, that’s it. Confused? So is everyone else.

Noriko Tujiko – armed with a laptop and the best footwear of the evening – offers her unique brand of Japanese pop to the crowd. It’s easy to reference other so-called ‘quirky’ female vocalists, but that’d be selling this performer’s particular brand of dark pop short. With careful lifting from other sources – the theme from I Dream Of Jeannie seems to make an appearance – her music has a sinuous quality that’s very appealing. There’s a sort of Portishead feel of things not revealed flowing through the music as Noriko sings with herself, vocal lines multiplied by machine. “I cannot make music/I don’t wanna sing” she croons over a tune that’s half confection and half rotting digital corpse – winning the audience but also ensuring that her edge stays intact. Genius.

And then, the noisy moment that the room had filled for: Merzbow. Otherwise known as Masami Akita, thedefining artist of noise music took the stage with an air of quiet boredom. Armed with a pair of headphones, two Macs and a mixer, he proceeded to produce almost an hour of unrelenting tonal abuse in his inimitable style. Rather than focusing on high-end tones, this set seemed more aligned to his work onMezzrow or Merzbeat –  a dense sea of gut-roiling sounds that were felt as much as heard, panning from side to side of the stage. The crowd went wild for it – some, eyes closed, hanging onto the stage trying to find an anchor in the chaos, while some others went into holy-roller spasms. A guy next to me played an invisible saxophone during the set, while two girls over the other side of the stage clasped chunks of wood to their chests and grinned incessantly. Whether this was ecstasy of a musical nature or otherwise I couldn’t quite say.

The way Merzbow sat, impassively tweaking his two laptops in the midst of this vortex of noise was quite soothing – zen, to use a much-bandied-about phrase. Though the air seemed to rip at the ears and viscera of the gig-goers, the quiet concentration on the face of the artist served as a grounding point, a lightning rod – a handy thing to have when it sounds like there’s a 747 about to land in your backside. After roughly an hour of explorations in tone and texture he stood up and made for the side of stage – perhaps the only man in the room without ringing ears.

Whether these acts qualified as music varied from punter to punter – some were shocked into early departure by the angularity of the offerings, while others could be seen headbanging like the tones on offer were classic AC/DC – but there could be nobody doubting the sheer power of what they’d just seen. Love it or hate it, this is as far from a tired three-piece going through the motions as you’ll get.

First published on Fasterlouder.com.au in February 2004. I really wish there were more images around online from this gig – I’ve only really found the one. It was deeply enjoyable, though not as much as the next WIM gig: Keiji Haino at the Annandale.

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