Tuesday 22 July 2014

Julia Holter at St John-at-Hackney - 21 July 2014

Julia Holter

It’s a warm summer’s night. There are plenty of people lounging around the church yard of St John at Hackney and a few souls are already inside bagging decent positions amongst the rows of chairs.

Eventually a woman wanders onto stage and starts generating electronic noises that echo the sounds of a mighty church organ, the tones drifting and droning and rising and falling and ringing and turning back on themselves. It’s hypnotic.

It goes on far too long. This is Karen Gwyer and in this case a good idea goes rather a long way. Her sounds and drones are entirely appropriate to this setting but drawn out over an extended period it is like listening to a comedy routine with an endlessly repeated punchline. OK, we get it.

Gwyer eventually gives way to Ocitrop, a trio of young men who nurdle away contently for an hour while a dancer ‘interprets’ their sound through the medium of moving slowly across the stage and teetering a bit.

The sounds are part sampled, part played and once more they evoke an atmosphere of hush and reverence. There are clicks and bangs, as if of the seats of folding chairs flying up and these harsh clacks eventually transform into something not unlike a rural soundscape.

I like them quite a bit, although I find myself looking at my watch after they continue for a good fifteen minutes after they had appeared to reach a natural and satisfying conclusion.

By now it is becoming clear that we are in for a late finish and that the headliner is going to be squeezed for time. This is just poor planning – there’s been one too many supports.

Eventually, finally, Julia Holter and her band take the floor. Holter quickly advises us that this is the last night of a long tour and the last time this particular group will play together. What follows is both spectacularly wonderful, yet almost rushed and perfunctory. The set list is so cobbled together that Holter and the band can barely keep track of it. It doesn't matter.

Julia Holter occupies a sonic space unlike any other performer. Her music is elusive and hard to describe. It’s genuinely timeless, her crystal pure voice offset by the atonal scrapes of violin or wailing honks of saxophone.

Is it jazz? Kinda. Is it the woozy swirl of a thirties orchestra doing the soundtrack for a melodrama about white slavery and opiates? Quite possibly. But probably not.

Holter enthuses about the church and certainly the acoustics suit her down to the ground, her voice ringing round the walls until it totally surrounds you.

My personal highlight is ‘Maxims 1’ which sounds like Rhapsody in Blue played underwater, being both beautiful and strange and distant.

In a scant hour, she is gone, leaving a room stunned into appreciative silence. There is then an eruption of furious applause and a dash for the trains.

Julia Holter made the evening special. The organisers may wish to check their watches when working out stage timings.


Tuesday 8 July 2014

BabyMetal at The Forum 07 July 2014


I'm having fun in the longest queue that I've ever encountered at the Forum. It snakes round so long that those at the back are out of eyesight of the venue and are just trusting to luck that it's a gig and not late night opening at the big carpet warehouse nearby.

I'm joshing with a group of Japanese lads who are jumping around and getting very excited. One of them says that he has written songs for the band. Before we can get to the bottom of this he is whisked away into a special queue and that's the last we see of him. Maybe it was true…

Once we get inside, we find the place rammed with fans of every stripe. Virtually everyone is wearing a BabyMetal T-shirt, virtually every T-shirt is different from the one next to it. Merchandising is massive. Every fan is super duper excited.

I take my place in the throng in front of the stage. Around me a gang of lads are building a human pyramid (not successfully) and waving a Japanese flag. By now everyone is so excited that steam is coming out their ears.

The lights go down and Star Wars-y credits scroll across a curtain. A tale is told of a distant heavy metal galaxy long ago where… something something… heavy metal had got a bit crap …something something… therefore the Fox God had charged three girls to save it…

The curtain falls, the lights dazzle and for the next hour it is just as that other fox, the one in Von Trier's 'Antichrist', had prophesied -"Chaos reigns!"

Told you!

There are thunderous machine gun drums and two shredding guitarists dressed as Japanese ghosts, all long white robes, ghoulish make up and long black hair. A bassist stands among them as an evil, decaying monk. You barely notice them.

Along with the tumult and onslaught you can hear high pitched squeaking. I then have to adjust my sight lines for BabyMetal as the three girls in pig tails and metal anime warrior costumes are absolutely tiny and are momentarily invisible amongst the forest of outstretched arms and banners of the joyful crowd.

The girls dance and 'sing', popping up and down like hand puppets and whirling around the stage as though on wires. The crowd has gone from excited to utterly incoherently delirious. We all chant along to 'BabyMetal Death'.

Of the three girls, only Suzuka Nakamoto aka Su-Metal is even pretending to sing. Moa Kikuchi and Yui Mizuno  (Moametal and Yuimetal) are so young and swept up in proceedings that even their dancing is somewhat approximate. It doesn't matter a jot.

If you want authenticity, go and watch three hours of Bruce Springsteen lumbering about. This is a sweat drenched celebration of the absurdist fantasy side of metal, sixty minutes of rummaging in the dressing up box and a whole heap of consensual carnage.

The crowd surges and moshes, slamming into each other and laughing as the weakest amongst them are ploughed underfoot. A guy comes by me forlornly looking for his glasses. He's not going to find them.

I am soaked in beer and sweat and exhilaration. The band play 'Catch Me if You Can', '4no Uta' and 'Megitsune'. There is bedlam onstage and off.

For an encore the band play 'Headbangers!!!" By now the scene around me is one of devastation, with people wandering blindly through the fog as if through a battlefield.

When the show finally explodes in an all smothering air cannon salute of silver foil and bright red streamers, the survivors turn to each other in their sodden clothing and wipe the matted hair from their eyes.

Heavy metal has been comprehensively saved.