Swans / Xiu Xiu
O2 Academy, Bristol – 6/4/13
As I understand it, Xiu Xiu has gone out with a different line-up and sound for every tour. Listening to his recent release I was expecting an elaborate electronic set-up, maybe a female vocalist and some disturbing neo-darkwave sounds. Instead, we got a man with a guitar, a few pedals (apparently all reverb) and some kind of smartphone or tablet from which he ran a few ambient loops of birdsong, wind etc. These varied over the set, building slightly in tension and running over the whole thing. The songs appeared to share a gospel music influence (the snarling “halleluiah”s a not-so-subtle pointer), presented by a conflicted, insecure character. Arcade Fire’s “Neon Bible” is an obvious peer in theme and approach, but they have rather more manpower and less fragility as a result. His voice is astonishing, very weak and warbling yet pitched exactly. Bright Eyes haters beware… If he spoke to the crowd, I don’t recall it; the set ended with the quiet genius standing up, raising a hand to the crowd, and strolling off. And then a few minutes of rapturous applause. The set was stunning; short, well-themed, structured and captivating.
Swans were really loud. That is definitely something they wanted to impress upon us. Their leader carried a level of anger and tension that wasn’t quite shared by the rest of the band, who seemed to be enjoying themselves. It felt a little artificial; if you’re making this much noise you should either be pouring energy into your guitar a la Pete Townsend or worshipping the results like Steve Vai or Gary Moore. Don’t just stand there like you’re covering rhythm guitar in a Herbie Hancock tribute band. I don’t want to beat on Swans too hard because I did enjoy their set, I did enjoy the noise and I recognise that they have been around for a while and their early influence and legacy is important.
Part of the problem with drone music is that by far the hardest part is getting somebody to let you play it at the appropriate volume levels. I quickly identified a gentleman in a Sunn O))) shirt, which led me to wonder: if I had seen Swans before Sunn O))), would I have been more impressed by them and less impressed by Sunn O)))? I think Sunn O))) have a purity to their approach that is lacking in Swans; they reject rhythm rather than overwhelm it.
Swans filled the stage with some of my favourite guitars and amplifiers, extra percussion including tubular bells, trombone, clarinet… If I wrote a wish-list of instruments to form a show, this would be it. But on this night I was far more impressed and affected by one man with a guitar, a smartphone, a pile of reverb pedals, and a slightly fragile, slightly constructed and really enthralling emotional state.
And So I Watch You From Afar / Antlered Man
Thekla, Bristol – 17/4/13
Thekla is a pretty fun venue: the moored boat has an adequate performance area, decent-sized bar, upstairs balcony and, best of all, an outside deck where you can take your drink and chill out before the show starts. Arriving fairly eary, I spotted Big Jeff hanging outside the door — a good omen. I’m *fairly* convinced that some of the people at the door thought my friends were the band (leather jackets, one Irish accent), which was a touch awkward.
Although my third time of seeing ASIWYFA, I had not seen or heard of the support band Gallops, who were in turn substituted for Antlered Man. This did a great job of guaranteeing that Antlered Man would be a surprise; and what a surprise they were! Exhilarating and moody, noisy and well-constructed, they brought a kind of progressive grunge with a “Moroccan roll” flourish. Political lyrics and massive attention to detail (the bassist stepping on and and off his distortion about 50 times in the set to stop the thing humming during rests) made for a really compelling performance. The vocal melodies were both original and natural. The music was different enough from ASIWYFA to avoid any overshadowing, while close enough to engage their audience. Basically, I don’t have a bad word to say about them. The next day, I bought their record (digital download + physical in post = YES) and have been blown away by it ever since. A strong contender for my 2012 album round-up!
In a sense there is little to say about ASIWYFA’s performance; precise, powerful and sufficiently varied. If you’re not familiar with them, the music combines alternative rock sounds with the spirit of traditional (“folk”, if you must use the word) dance music. The band give a huge amount of energy on stage, likely at some cost to their health. Their new material was well-received, bringing in more electronic and synth elements, while the 1-album audience lag showed itself in the thermonuclear response to “Gangs” and “Search:Party:Animal”. It was very much a rugby scrum in that while appearing violent, the crowd was fairly considerate and friendly and I didn’t feel in any danger bending down to tie a shoelace. The greatest nuisance was one discourteous gentleman who relied on this rather too heavily, essentially trying to fall onto the floor through other people. After dispatching this twit to the edge we were treated to a close encounter with both guitarists playing in the middle of the audience. The last time I saw them do this, guitarist Rory Friers actually fainted and as such, in my position directly behind him, my thoughts were alternating between “CATCH HIM IF HE FALLS”, “DON’T MOVE OR DO ANYTHING THAT MIGHT INTERFERE WITH HIS PLAYING” and “THIS IS AWESOME”.
If I have to criticise ASIWYFA it is on a much more abstract level; while their songs are meticulously paced, the musical support for the structures is weaker. It can feel a little directionless and improvised, rather than composed; some tracks could have more “purpose”. These are fairly widespread, even intentional, aspects of the post-rock genre, and it is one of the telling things that puts ASIWYFA with the rest. But live, at 115dB or so, in front of an adoring crowd, does it matter? No. These gigs are special.
Physics House Band / Casimir / Shallows / Fixtures
The Louisiana, Bristol – 23/4/13
This was my first time in the Louisiana, a pleasant pub with an upstairs venue. The card minimum is £10 and there are no cash machines nearby, so make sure to bring plenty…
Fixtures are based in Bath and I’ve seen them a few times before; they are really the city’s pre-eminent progressive/post-rock band (by which I mean they are the only one I know of that I’m not playing in) and I do genuinely think they are pretty good. There’s enough jangly pop sensibility to rope in the punters and they made a fair effort in terms of giving an energetic performance given that there were all of, oh, about fifteen people there for their set. They played some new material (again!) and seemed fairly secure; I’ve seen them play better, but they deserved more support on this occasion.
Shallows are a fairly recently-formed noisy Bristolian three-piece. Their songs were interesting and individually their playing was impressive, but on this occasion they didn’t quite gel enough to live up to their obvious potential. Plenty of practice done, but more *rehearsal* needed I think. Would happily watch them again in a month or two.
Casimir were a pleasant surprise; in many ways musically similar to Fixtures, they are a young, explosive and somewhat progressive band, with a little less pop appeal and a slightly more post-punk/noise aesthetic. Unfortunately I was not able to pick up their EP on the night owing to the aforementioned cash shortage at the venue; getting in touch and tracking this down is on my to-do list.
Physics House Band are difficult to pin down. Their music is complex, their playing technique both original and effective, their performance very precise. The drumming especially is remarkable; intricate, accurate and not too showy. Both bassist and guitarist hop on and off keyboards as appropriate, and play them with abstract tremolo or gentle stabs; they have really embraced the fact that synthesisers are not traditional keyboard instruments and each style of program demands a different playing technique. The genre would normally be identified as “math rock”, but math rock is generally much more avant-garde and noisy (see Deerhoof, for example). This is sweet, clean, grooving. Much has been made of their education and classical background but they don’t really satisfy my desire for sophisticated compositions and classical counterpoint. If you really break down the structures and chords, I think they’re playing jazz without the cliches. Nice.