Magma – courtesy of Tim van Veen
Friday November 20th 2015
Sometimes I feel as if we are living through the end of days. Certainly when it comes to dealing with the amount of musical riches thrown our way. Take these boutique festivals. Stuffed full of choice and surprise names from many a decade, and usually set in an attractive, forward thinking city full of Bright Young Things. Even the food’s gone posh.
Le Guess Who? is one of a number of huge “alternative” music festivals currently doing the rounds on the Dutch circuit. Like its competitors, it offers a veritable cornucopia of musical choice. It’s too much if I’m honest. Running round the large number of groovy venues spread all round this very attractive city it’s sometimes impossible to get more than a glimpse of an act. I’ve always found that it’s better to hang out in one place and take in the scene. This year, we tramped down to two of the outlier venues; EE:EN and De Helling, to watch John Doran, Marissa Nadler, Circuit des Yeux and Arthur Brown respectively.
The Quietus editor John Doran was first on the bill, reading extracts from his book, Jolly Lad in the pleasant performance space in cafe EE:EN. To make things even more horizontal (always an important consideration here in The Netherlands) he was joined by one of the heads from Finders Keepers, Andy Votel, who added synth rumbles that could have been, but probably weren’t, Thighpaulsandra or Coil outtakes. Standing in front of a massive wall painting of a Koi Karp (which somehow opened the gates of memory and had me thinking about the Japanese TV series Monkey) John Doran read out his stories about dealing with an addictive personality, and mistaking face painted kids for Satan’s incubi at bus stops. Now, before you think this sounds all very groovy and in-crowd and chortlesome, it wasn’t. From the off, I was surprised by the openness, and directness of his performance. John Doran looked to engage with us; to be straight, and to involve us. And his manner – a wry take on a coffee bar confessional and a rock and roll version of Radio 4’s Home Truths – went down very well indeed. It was mildly hypnotic too, what with the subterranean synth rumbles and the bloody great orange fish behind John’s head. The last piece (a slight re-working of his memories of watching the Red Arrows at the Silver Jubilee somewhere on the East Lancs Road) involved John acting as a hypnotist and us as the guinea pigs. We shut our eyes and imagined that we too were the Red Arrows’ vapor trails, that we too had somehow left the atmosphere behind and were in a state of weightless grace. It was actually very affecting. He should do this much more. He’d probably run a mile at the thought.
After a short pause, we settled down for a bewitching set from Marissa Nadler, one which got more and more dreamy as time went on. Nadler started off with a clutch of starry lullabies like that conjured up images of bleached-out, crumbling Gothic churches and wasted country roads going to nowhere in particular. After a while things progressed in a more psychedelic direction; and it felt as if the music became that bit more suggestive, and ever so slightly sinister. Guitar patterns became more intertwined and crystalline, the melody got groovy, and Nadler hugged the dark like an owl in a tree. So woozy and strange were the melodies, we could have been listening to Robyn Hitchcock’s Eye, or the together bits on Syd Barrett’s Barrett. It was a heavy scene, but seductively heavy, in the way that a siren would lead some son of the soil to their doom in the local millpond. Nadler, then is a magician, and one whose magic is maybe uncovered by the following afterthought. Given the fact that Nadler was standing in the dark the whole gig, I spent some time wondering how the bloody hell she could see the mic, let alone where the strings on her guitar were. Does she have night vision? Or shapeshifting powers?
Time to pop round the corner to functional but friendly De Helling; to catch Circuit des Yeux, who had played WORM in Rotterdam the night before as a solo performer and blown the socks off the crowd with her intense and off-kilter folk. Here, she was backed by a fiddle and drums for that “big festival experience”. The venue was packed and I’m not surprised; as there’s a strange word-of-mouth thing happening round Hayley Fohr at the moment. People are latching onto the fact that her music is unique and somehow a gateway to something else, new understandings. Her rise is like that of Ought’s, another act that seemingly appeared out of nowhere through the strength – and conviction – of their inner vision alone.
Anyway, the set started to steam by the mid-point; and her powerful take on pop moved inexorably towards the audience, like some komodo dragon looking for its lunch. This sense of power was unlocked by Fohr’s incredible baritone-drone, but also the hunch that something (but what??) was missing in the music that made it incredibly moreish at the same time. And finally a growing sense of tension, one that felt very nihilist and removed… I’m beginning to waffle, but pinning down what she does was the thing that kept people locked into her set. That’s not to say that her sound was totally mystifying. There were flashes of Nick Drake chord sequences, Valerie & Her Week of Wonders / Nico chamber pop gone sour, and the hiss of a lava flow drone balanced against this Ur-Patti Smith vibe. There, I’ve got my poptastic analogy. Imagine Patti Smith drawling over a very early, folksy take on Pere Ubu’s 30 Seconds over Tokyo. Incredible. After an extended wipe out involving pedals and the thickest, muckiest sort of white noise, it was all over. This woman could reshape our take on alternative music in any way she wants. Watch out.
Reeling, and slightly loose of limb, we hung about to catch Arthur Brown. Well you would, wouldn’t you. And the show was good. Very good. A sort of cabaret for alternative types, very theatrical, and slightly off kilter. Which is what you’d expect, and pretty much in the same vein as his records (which you really should check out). I can’t write much as I saw three songs (all great, one involving a dancer with a fan) and only heard Fire from the other room. But it was great in a very, very self-indulgent way; the sign of a showman who knows he can take as long as he pleases to win you round. But it must be hell being Arthur Brown. I mean, how on earth do you go to parties? “Arthur, we’ve made this hat which combusts. Can you wear it?” After that we found ourselves in a taxi listening to Iraqi pop and ending up negotiating the Tivoli Vredenburg’s millions of stairs and escalators just to find somewhere to sit down…
Saturday 21st 2015
Ah Le Mini Who!; the Saturday showcase for local bands that has traditionally acted as an hors d’oeuvre for the Saturday festival “proper”. I COULD go off on one and air an old gripe about why some really great Dutch bands never seem to be on the main festival. Music is an international language, even if it is from your own backyard. But to be fair to Le Guess Who? and others, there is a realisation that homegrown has plenty to offer (albeit after something like 7 years, at the tail end of this Dutch alternative pop scene). And anyway, Le Mini Who’s a good showcase. First stop was Cafe Tilt (sadly NOT named after Scott Walker’s LP) to watch Naive Set. Naive Set are a funny bunch. Perverse, naughty. Their latest record Dragon is a sublime slice of sparkling, wistful pop that is criminally short and they know it and laugh about it. Oh, to have that confidence. And whilst lots of bands try to rock out to get attention, they go down the Johnny Richman route of adding tension by keeping things quiet when they play live. They seem to revel in winning the chattering audiences over by being as undemonstrative, and as soft-sounding as possible. But what really makes them stand out are their brilliant pop songs. In Tilt, they let their mix of sparkling pop and easy stage charm do the work. Drawing on a rucksack full of ideas (Gruff Rhys, Shack, Felt, Velvets, Richman, Beatles – especially those jaunty bass lines) the band knocked out pop gem after pop gem. He Will Lead You Home, Dragon, Rabbits, Like That, all sounding like tracks off a lost La’s record. The audience were rendered supine, their senses marinated by the brilliant major-minor switches and chiming guitar runs that threatened to go all raga at any moment. And then the finish, their reworking of Roadrunner known as Let Me Down. Singer Mikey and bassist Caspar grinned as they watched people sniffing out the old song in the new arrangement. Perverse I tell you. If they’d bring that their TV Personalities cover, live would be peachy.
Then we trudged up the road to see Venus Tropicaux play in the gloaming of Kapitaal. This band, a threepiece from Rotterdam held together by attitude and an overriding desire to express themselves, couldn’t be more of an opposite to Naive Set. Where clever playing dominated at Tilt, here, a brilliant sense of primeval punk attitude ruled. Singers Shalita and Shelley revelled in their confrontational stance, calling out all the lazy arses in true punk fashion. But one thing draws these bands together; songs. Boy have Venus Tropicaux got songs. Simple and direct ullulations that leave nothing to the imagination. Harangues that possess a headspace bigger than a zeppelin. Final Solution rumbles that grind about in 2nd gear. Yes, (given the fact that there are two girls playing Ur-prog punk in the band) the Slits can be a comparision but only in the most superficial sense. Venus Tropicaux display none of the Slits’ elasticity or dreaminess. This gig was full of punkier, darker, heavier music; more attuned to the old Nuggets garage of Litter, or Alice Cooper and The Troggs; albeit stripped of any cock-rockisms. Watch out for this band. I hope they never learn to “play”. Back to Tilt we went, where we caught a great gig by Silver Ferns, a new band hot outta Groningen. Silver Ferns are one of the most truculent-looking bands I’ve seen in ages. Looking like a bunch of lads skiving off the night shift, they knocked out an incredible wall of sound that somehow mixed up Delays, Talk Talk, Radiohead (!) and lots of deeply uncool (but satisfying) AOR rockisms in a heady if sometimes mystifying stew. What are these lads taking? All “players”in the old musical sense of the word, they could do what they wanted, and there was never the sense that they were trying to please. That’s what made their rich, overblown, but glorious music so more-ish.
A quick 5 minutes of Howart at The Village Cafe (whose strange, loungey, “starry-eyed” pop has the whiff of Air’s debut about it) then we ran over over to Kapitaal to catch The Lumes, a young band out of Rotterdam. Scruffy, growly and loud, The Lumes rocked out in what is now the classic C21st take on post-punk. There were mannerisms that made you realise you’re watching a young band; the lad sounded almost painfully like Ian Curtis at times. But they had something elemental about them, and they seem to be driven by an inner vision. And their cover of the great Space Siren’s Who Makes Me Try was hotter than a blast furnace; easily up there with the original. Back to Apneu at Tilt, who were as daft and entertaining as ever. Apneu are one of those great live bands that never seem to escape their fun tag, their pithy guitar pop nevertheless sparkles in a live setting. Plus you get to revel in their cartoony personalities playing off each other. Finally, a trudge over to boutique record shoppe Swordfish and Friend to see Blue Crime play in front of a jam-packed crowd. Blue Crime’s sound gets proggier, and heavier each time I see them. This of course is a good thing if handled well; there is enough sand in the sonic vaseline, and bounce in their loud workouts. And their hook-laden approach sounds like a whole set of things the band’s probably never heard of like Amon Düül II’s Carnival in Babylon or (God forbid) Pink Fairies’ Do It, with this intensely feminine, Fleetwood Mac pop side chucked in.
Remember when I said that running (or even biking) between venues at Le Guess Who? can be a drag? Well, the past two years Le Guess Who? have based most of their acts in the new Tivoli Vredenburg, a weird amalgam of an airport and a high rise block out of a J.G. Ballard novel. The 70s Utopian feel the building gives off makes you wonder (once you’ve had the odd glass of pop) whether you are actually living out some ambient soundtrack written by Brian Eno. And then there’s the feeling of overload. Alongside the stairs, muzak and escalators, and all the weird meeting spaces/departure lounges where you can get your puff back, each floor (I didn’t count) boasts a large venue space for around 500 groovers. Blimey.
Still, Magma were here. I’d been fed on Julian Cope stories about Christian Vander and then bassist Jannick Top hiring castles and waging magicke warfare on each other. I was expecting a total melt down. Shit, I’d even spun Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh earlier in the day to get my head in place. So what to say of the gig? Well, I think if you were list-ticking this was the worst band you could ever see. Total concentration was required. And an acceptance that this rolling, anti-opera (a Kobeain-punk take on Hair, on repeat) would drag you under. Imagine walking in and out of Magma. Their take on Kontaktorsz was unbelievable, unfathomable; a shimmering Tolkein-esque juggernaut that somehow anaesthetised the senses. And to follow it up with Mekanik Destruktiv Kommandoh itself was nothing short of terrifying. Vander can still hold court like no other, driving the band on, exhorting the crowd, even giving us a soliloquy. Then there was the band’s playing (ridiculously tight, on another plane entirely) was a head trip in itself. The choir (two genial women and an operatic fella) hammered this writhing elf-music into the audience’s lobes with finely wrought silver nails. Where to go after this? My decision to take the whole set in had rendered me mute and saw me getting the train home not long after the gig had finished. A great gig and something Le Guess Who? should be immensely proud of staging.