Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Music is Fiction

ANBB (Alva Noto & Blixa Bargeld)
Resonate Festival
Dom Omladine, Belgrade
By Frank Capri

Juggling a laptop at a new media festival where chairs to sit on, not free wifi access, are the most valuable commodity is not my idea of Saturday morning entertainment, especially since the organisers have gone all progressive on our heads and banned smoking from the venue (very Euro-progressive). But then this is Belgrade, a city not renowned for “entertainment”, nor for technological innovation, a fact confirmed by the predominantly northern European contingent of artists, coders, musicians, techno geeks, waifs and strays that descended on the Serbian capital this weekend in surprisingly large numbers.

“Survival” might be a more apt metaphor for this two-day geekathon, whose creative high was undoubtedly the arrival on stage on Saturday of Blixa Bargeld, lead vocalist with early 80s industrial noise pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten, ex-Bad Seed, and more recently half of the German electro outfit ANBB with Raster Norton man Alva Noto that released the Mimikry album a few years back. Not that Blixa has merely “survived”. Life is bigger than cabaret, old chum. Then again, maybe Blixa, born in late 50s Berlin, exudes enough burlesque to pass for a seasoned “trooper”. Dressed in his trademark black suit, with inflatable, bug-eyed expression, this could be a figure from Murnau’s Faust, and as he approaches the microphone the audience (seated on the floor, which adds to the incongruous decadence of this “gig”) falls strangely silent. “Good evening,” says Bargeld politely.

If truth be told, Bargeld is a dive bar raconteur. We get the message on Electricity is Fiction, which Bargeld introduces with a sardonic spiel about Schrödinger's cat (“the cat that’s both dead and alive”) or on Ret Marut Handshake, which references German novelist and author of The Death Ship “B. Traven”, “the man with about 100 aliases” whose real identity was never established.

The festival blurb describing ANBB’s “crystalline noise formations... phrases, words, syllables of pure sound” is avant-garde quatsch which neglects Blixa’s razor-sharp wit. It’s like describing Mark E. Smith as a “stream of consciousness” writer. The “noise” ANBB specialise in is generated like any other musical composition, and “performed” by Carsten Nicolai aka Noto, as is standard with electro-dub fare, on laptops and mixing desks. You wouldn’t dare describe it as “random” (which, in passing, most of the self-proclaimed transdisciplinary “artists” at this festival would be advised to keep in mind. If I heard the word “random” mentioned once here in relation to computer algorithms, I heard it stupidly trotted out one hundred times). Instead, ANBB’s compositions are in the tradition of High German Romanticism, or music that never quite manages to discard the traces of the Baroque, from Vivaldi all the way to Debussy.

When I listen – which is certainly the wrong word, rather “experience” or “take in” – ANBB’s music, it’s not remotely atonal, nor is it “progressive” in adhering to some abstract formalism. Blow that jazz, this is rock n roll. Shit kicking (when it’s good) rock ’n roll. And if anyone needed reminding that all rock n roll returns to its roots in the blues, then this is spelt out explicitly in a brilliant double encore (more cabaret for you) which includes I Wish I was a Mole in the Ground.

“I wish I was a lizard on a rock,” screeches Bargeld in that death throes-delivery of his. This is fiction, but one we can believe in.

(image courtesy of Resonate. See their festival Flickr for more)
(try and buy the ANBB stuff here)

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Right On in Brighton


Who hates soul? You’re no more than petty, prejudiced pondlife if you don’t like the Sound of Black America, surely. All those universal themes, lush textures, heartfelt lyrics, pop icons. But such is its resurgence that it’s beginning to look pretty fascistic to mob up behind the ringfence of admiration and dangerously open minded to question why it is people feel safe with the Music of S>O>U>L.

In tune with times given over more to ecstatic abandon, the 90s had disco as the more mutable and populist American black music replicant (from deep and French filter house to unashamed curators like Jamiroquai and commercial troupes SClub 7 and Steps to the popularity of Love Train-type nights). But soul’s had a moment for at least most of the early noughties and beyond. It seems to fit well with the modern genres through sharing reference points in hip-hop and r&b. Big acts like Amy Winehouse and Plan B bandwagoners sell the units, the return of the Saturday night talent show puts pure singing in the spotlight and the love of the, ahem, ‘mature underground’ Keeps Soul Alive (insert clenched fist icon here). On this underground, differentiation between northern soul, folk-soul and its other variants are important but not as important as keeping the spirit going with nights, reissues, etc. Craig Charles’ soul and funk 6Music show seems very popular, and like-minded club nights are a reliable winner for promoters; people of all ages come to drink, dance, be merry, leave their shit at the door.

The issue of whether they’re comfortable swimming in retro is now considered to be so irrelevant as to be not worth raising, it’s retro like techno guys hunt down vintage synths. We have already had more years of 1980s influenced music than there were years in the 80s FFS; we’re retromaniacal, but the symptoms don’t bother us now like they used to. Yes soul is retro, but so’s social democracy, the welfare state, social housing, you could leave your door open etc (whoops be careful where you’re going with this). Soul is bound up in a comforting projection of past progress and, more prosaically, it’s just part of the iPod’s bottomless pit.

So Sharon Jones at Brighton’s Concorde, a chance to meet up with old friends, do the trip from London. Jones has been around as long as this music so could never be a retro pasticher per se. Yet I found myself working through a debunking of all the justifications about what makes nu-soul great before Jones and the 10-strong Dap Kings (including ‘Dapette’ backing singers) got on stage. Yes they’ll be ‘tight’, that is surely a minimum requirement of a travelling band. Yes, they’ll put the effort in, ditto. Yes they’re ‘authentic’ (albums recorded on an ‘old Ampex eight-track tape machine’ blah-blah).

But there was ‘vibe’ here, there was atmosphere, there is no little stardust too in the form of Jones, a charismatic band leader who commands the stage, pushes herself to the edge, plays with stereotypes, gets voodoo on your ass. What she does is cause mayhem in the middle range with a voice that can go from note perfect singing to quasi rapping and speaking from line to line. When musically these lines of thought (riffs on her slave ancestry in west Africa, for example) are wedded to the Dap Kings’ preferred mode of high-tempo extended funk-soul workouts it’s a powerful combination. Two or three times this happens in their set and I just wanted to see it through to the brass-heavy climaxes. Earlier thoughts of sneaking off to the back were banished; it was packed back there anyway.

And the themes of railing against injustice, whether the political of What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes or the personal of My Man is a Mean Man, go down well with the libertarian Brighton crowd, many of which were the obligatory late 30s to early 40s upwards (in some cases not so much reliving their youth music as their parents’ music; Motown, the great pop surge, etc), although 20 somethings were very much present. In a break for most of the band, tributes to Etta James and Amy Winehouse touched the crowd in an extended section with just guitarist and hypeman Binky Griptite (yes), but also, and they may have been slightly double edged, to Whitney Houston. And most emotionally, we hear of the recent death of her mother, and how it’s about time she got home to bury her, the payback of earning a crust in a band hitting home.

So I’m not ready to give up the modern music dream yet and retire to a soul night in a village hall to see my dancing feet eclipsed by my beer belly. Converted for the night though, definitely. Make no mistake Jones and the Dap Kings is no mere accurate soul music rendition, but all about an uplifting embodiment of the genre’s big themes, liberation, longing, justice, heartbreak.
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