Monday 25 March 2013

Wire at Heaven 24 March 2013


It’s still stupidly cold out. Once again I’ve eschewed the pleasures of a warm home to venture out. And on a Sunday night too. It had better be something special.

It is. This is the culmination of a weekend of gigs and events to celebrate the release of the new album by art rock veterans Wire.

The venue is thronged by identikit figures, short haired men of middle age clothed in black. I fit right in.

First onstage is East India Youth, which is the non de guerre of William Doyle, a slight and dapper young man behind a bench of electronic equipment. Having seen so many acts like this, I’m prepared for the worst, but things soon take a turn for the interesting.

Doyle is less interested in beats as he is in almost orchestral washes of sound. And he sings, grabbing a microphone towards him to keen in a piercing high pitched voice. It sounds better than that description.

Once he gets into his stride he unshackles a guitar and uses it to generate a humungous repetitive thrash. It’s a great noise and goes down well with this crowd. East India Youth is musically all over the map, there are three distinct types of music rubbing against each other.  He’s worth keeping an eye on.

This gig is the official unveiling of a Wire project that has been over thirty years in the making. When the band first split up back in 1981, they left behind some unrecorded songs, some of which surfaced on ‘Document + Eyewitness’, a live album of a particularly wilful piece of performance art which was an indulgent mess even at the time.

Now, all these years later, the band have revisited some of these songs and fashioned them into a new album ‘Change Becomes Us’. Tonight they play this in its entirety.

As the first notes of ‘Doubles and Trebles’ ring out, it is clear that the band are still brimming with the concise metallic power that always set them apart from their cotemporaries. There is a distinctive Wire sound that has never been replicated elsewhere.

The ‘new’ songs sound terrific. This is not how the band would have sounded back in the day, this is very much Wire 2013.

Colin Newman snaps at his guitar and sings with a nasal whine that occasionally rises in pitch and hysteria until he sounds like an angry Dalek. Graham Lewis looks like a lugubrious Highland warrior, the streamers that hand down from the back of his tam o’ shanter echoing the waves of the appalling mullet hairstyle he sported in the Eighties.

It’s an intriguing collection of songs. You can hear ghosts of tunes that did make it onto the first three seminal Wire albums. For example ‘Magic Bullet’ at least in its live form, is so close to ‘Map Ref 41ON 93O W’ from third album ‘154’ that only a parent could tell them apart.

Other tracks have altered completely. A particularly trying moment on ‘Document’ was ‘Eels Sang Lino’ (which is described on the accompanying sleeve notes as “Vocalist accompanied by and lit by illuminated goose…”), a song of incoherent gabbling in a silly Monty Python voice. The modern ‘Eels Sang’ is a much more restrained beast sung by Lewis and it finally makes sense.

You can’t take the art punk out of Wire completely. The encore sees them joined onstage by over twenty guitarists for a massed version of ‘Pink Flag’. I’ve seen many massed guitar orchestras over the years, notably from Glenn Branca, but this is the first time that it actually SOUNDS like twenty guitars going full out. I think it is because they have each bought an individual amp rather than are being fed through a central sound system.

It’s absolutely deafening and a fitting end to a massively impressive performance.

(Here's video footage. The noise was too much for the recording equipment to bear).


Thursday 21 March 2013

Yo La Tengo at the Barbican - 20 March 2013

Yo La Tengo pic by Stephanie F Black

The Barbican is a harsh concrete construct in the middle of the City of London.  It’s confusing to negotiate and easy to get lost amongst its many levels.

And yet, onstage is a haven of tranquillity, a little grove of wooden trees, surrounded by monitors swathed in lush foliage. This is the small bower from within which Yo La Tengo will play the first of two sets this evening.

The trio sit comfortably amongst the trees with a dappled sunlight effect playing around them. Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew have been together for thirty odd years and have always kept themselves fresh with experimentation. If they want to chill out in an artificial grotto, so be it.

This first set is a quiet, introspective collection of songs. Voices are hushed, Georgia merely brushing a snare drum, James and Ira thrumming semi-acoustically.  It’s extremely relaxing in much the way as fishing from the bank of a slow-moving river – you’re paying attention, but it’s more about enjoying the idyll.

At the intermission I leave the hall and find surprisingly large numbers of unfortunates who have wandered into the Barbican from the cold streets outside, secreted themselves in this out of the way spot and passed out. One in particular has made an heroic attempt to light a cigarette, but has gone unconscious before he can complete the task. The sad fag balances on his lip, the lighter held limply in his hand.

For the second set, the trees have been moved to the rear of the stage behind a large drum kit. The wall of foliage disguising the monitors makes the small area within which the band will operate more forbidding, like a military dug out. This will be the setting for the loud part of the evening.

Yo La Tengo are touring to promote their new album ‘Fade’ and it is characterised by a number of longer motorik-influenced pieces like “Ohm”, which ticks along like a metronome, building in urgency as it progresses.

The band is as comfortable with raw noise as they are with the quieter material of earlier.  Ira swings his guitar wildly round his head and spends five minutes at a time generating feedback solos.

However, it’s never just noise for its own sake. There is always melody and structure here.

Yo La Tengo occupy an almost unique position. There are elements of contemporaries such as Sonic Youth, but this is married to the much more pastoral and tuneful rhythms of Talking Heads or David Byrne. I’m struck by how unisex the audience is – mostly young couples in their thirties and early forties enjoying a civilised night out.

Well, mostly. The stage times have thrown a sizeable minority who roll up at around 08:45 and find that they have missed about an hour and a half.

The band announces that they will play a song in tribute to their being in London. This turns out to be ‘Antmusic’ by Adam and the Ants. Ira and Georgia generate an authentic Burundi drum beat and James bashes through the vocals.  This goes down well with the crowd. Requests for ‘Stand and Deliver’ are rejected.

A number of encores follow, including moving versions of ‘Take Care’ and ‘Our Way to Fall’.

It’s been a lovely evening. I note the increased numbers of sleeping street people on the sofas outside (it’s a veritable colony) and make my way off to my own warm home.*

* After getting lost and schlepping around various levels of the Barbican for about five minutes.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Divorce, Poino, Her Parents at The Macbeth - 19 March 2013


I’m here at the Macbeth, a lovely little venue off Hoxton Square. Ok ‘lovely’ is a relative term, but in this case I’m referring to it being brilliant for small, rowdy gigs rather than the outside appearance of the place, which looks as though it is ready for a wrecking ball.

First up are Her Parents, often described in these rarefied circles as a supergroup because the foursome comprise survivors from outfits such as Internet Forever, Stairs to Korea and Dananananaykroyd. Household names all.

The band plug in and fire off in all directions. Lead vocals are exchanged between all members and bass and guitars are thrashed and abused with gusto. It’s fast and screamy and chaotic and blows the cobwebs away. 

If the band seem initially a little constrained by the small stage they soon loosen up into a shouty, punky cacophony.

One of my colleagues mischievously observes that two of the band are so much noticeably older than the other two that they should be called ‘Our Parents’, but that is a crueller jibe than they deserve.

Her Parents are fun and fresh and the perfect way to get the party started.  

It is clear that most people are here to see indulgent math rockers Poino.

The band immediately cause me problems. I can tell that they are assured, skilled and in total mastery of what they do. I know that those who have come to see them are not disappointed.

And yet I think them soulless and dull. This is essentially the jazz rock of bands like Battles and although it may be popular with the beard stroking fraternity that dig these sounds, I just find this fiddly noodling self absorbed and nowhere near as innovative as they think they are.

It’s not them. It’s me. (But it’s them).

Poino go down like a house on fire and the venue thins out a bit before the arrival of headliners Divorce
And Divorce are utterly uncompromising, terrifying and completely brilliant.

While bassist Vickie and guitarist VSO circle the drum kit of Andy, singer Jennie is lost in the crowd. You can see occasional glimpses of a tiny form pacing back and forth, her hair in her eyes. The noise that she makes is an unholy, distorted squealing wail, like demons boiling in the pits of hell.

The noise and energy that the band generate is tremendous, a thunderous rumble of menace and malevolence interspersed with inchoate babbles of despair and anguish.

They’re a bit good.

A vicious mosh pit forms, with overweight youths crashing and bumping into each other. It’s an appropriate response.

Divorce are a band that can only exist on nights like this, in small scuzzy wonderful little venues like the Macbeth. This keeps you alive.

Saturday 16 March 2013

Purity Ring at St John at Hackney - 14 March 2013

Purity Ring pic Mike Frash

Approaching St John at Hackney at night I am struck with how huge it is. In my mind I had nursed the idea of a small, intimate venue along the lines of the Union Chapel or St Leonard’s Shoreditch. But this church, standing magnificently isolated amidst the streets of the newly gentrified Hackney is an imposing edifice.

The inside is startling too. This is a vast room unencumbered by anything more than a fug of dry ice. Once full (and before the evening is out, the place is extremely packed), I’d say that it is the equivalent to medium sized venues like Shepherds Bush Empire or the much missed Astoria.

The stage is prominent, sufficiently raised up so that you can see from wherever you stand. Above it are suspended a random grouping of lights that sometimes look like Chinese lanterns, but on occasion hang white and gravid like enormous insect eggs.

The first act is an electronic noodler styling himself Evian Christ (although his mum may know him as Joshua Leary). What follows is the usual selection of crunching beats, enlivened only by the fact that the bass is so loud and low that every tiny hair on my body quivers.  EC mixes in various vocal samples and truth be told, he’s moderately entertaining and goes down well with a section of the crowd.

However, he vastly outstays his welcome- what is refreshing for twenty minutes becomes numbing when extended to three quarters of an hour. By the end, you just want one of the hanging eggs to hatch and something to drop down and eat the fucker.

Purity Ring comprise Corin Roddick and Megan James. He stands behind a pile of equipment, including a succession of lantern shaped drum pads that illuminate whenever he strikes them. It’s like something out of a fairy story.

Singer Megan wears a heavy dress and wails down a hand-held microphone. At least in the early part of the set, the sound is so muddy that she is all but inaudible.

The lantern/egg light show is impressive, switching through a series of striking tableaus, changing the mood of the songs.

The set progresses. It’s all much of a muchness. Not bad at all, but equally lacking in any particular OMG or even WTF? moments.

The new Purity Ring album is called ‘Shrines’. It’s a bit of a coup to play here tonight and there is the sense that this is special, it feels like an event. But it is the church that I will remember rather than the band.