TUSK Festival 2015
Old Town Hall, Gateshead
9-11 October 2015
The dizzingly eclectic TUSK festival continues to blow minds with its dispatches from the the outer reaches of music. Louder Than War’s Paul Margree reports back, with photos from the brilliant Kuba Ryniewicz.
This year’s TUSK festival takes place in the distinguished surroundings of Gateshead Old Town Hall. It’s a shift from the comfy environs of the Star & Shadow, a community theatre across the river, which had given the festival its home since its inaugural weekend in 2011. The reason for the shift is pragmatic – the old building is being demolished and the theatre is temporarily homeless until a new purpose-built venue is completed – but the change is also an acknowledgement of TUSK’s success of over its first five years. Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better in life, but 2015 shows the festival stepping up to the plate and delivering plenty of highlights for connoisseurs of underground racket-making.
So, there were dispatches from the Cairo underground from Maurice Louca, Ashley Paul’s sinewy, glassy songwriting, Aaron Dilloway’s horrorcore histrionics, timeless ragas from Louise Landes Levi, scorching afro-funk from Baba Commandant and the Mandingo Band, intensive horn and drums workouts from Sax Ruins and an appropriately eldritch finale from Manchester rave goths Demdike Stare. Circling all that were installations and performances in the police cells underneath the Old Town Hall, a post-Saturday night fringe party at the Old Police House next door, and a programme of underground and experimental films to soothe jaded palettes.
A stunningly wide-ranging programme then. Almost too much to take in, in fact. Definitely far too much to write about. So here are some edited highlights from across the weekend, along with some great shots from the festival’s photographer, Kuba Ryniewicz (including this one of THF Drenching and Odie Ji Ghast, who opened the third day of the festival).
And they’re off! It’s a fine Autumn afternoon as I make my way across town from Newcastle station, shuffling through heaving crowds of sports fans, here for the Rugby World Cup (Newcastle is one of the host towns of the tournament). I’m in search of something a little less grassy and energetic though, and I cross the Tyne just in time for the opening brace of acts, local boy Depletion and Tokyo’s Atsushi Reizen.
You could argue that there’s a surfeit of drone-based acts at this year’s festival, leading to a few snarky comments on social media as the weekend progressed. If so, putting these two acts on relatively early was a good move, enabling us to enjoy their takes on the genre before the inevitable festival fatigue sets in.
Depletion, aka Gateshead electronic artist Martyn Reid, serves up a skilfully assembled noise vortex. Undulating drones slowly give way to angry buzzing static, like a swarm of cyborg wasps trapped in a very big biscuit tin. We’re a universe away from the Hakka and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Reid’s sound is trippy and very alien, moving through a series of distress beacon-like drones and reactor core overload groans before erupting into a full-on deep space dogfight, proper Cylon vs human style. A great way to kick things off.
Reizen’s minimalist guitar rituals follow soon after. This is Atsushi Reizen’s first ever UK show, and, from where I was standing, he acquits himself pretty well. Sitting motionless on the floor, he creates immense bass string chimes that seemed to echo the heartbeat of the universe, gradually growing louder and more distorted, then transforming into a deep echoing riff that seems to reverberate as if within a vast chasm.
Louise Landes Levi
A veteran of the New York underground, Louise Landes Levi has worked with counter cultural luminaries such as Terry Riley and LaMonte Young, as well as making solo pilgrimages to northern India and translating the work of Mira, a 16th Century Indian singer-saint. She’s a master of the Sarangi, an Indian stringed instrument that’s played with a bow and which features in much of the folk music of north-eastern India and Nepal.
Her performance is, frankly, amazing. Accompanied by guitarist Paul LaBrecque and Reizen (who provides delicate finger cymbal embellishments), she creates gorgeously meditative ragas that seem to envelop the Old Town Hall in a cocoon of iridescence. Levi’s immersion in the musical tradition of another culture does, I guess, leave her open to accusations of appropriation. But her empathy and sympathy for this work is so self-evident that any objections fade away in the face of its radiant shimmer. The backbone of her sound is glorious, almost vocal glissandos produced by bowing the Sarangi, a sound that seems to weave in and out of time, seemingly coming from very far way but resonating very deeply within us. Occasional vocals, along with LaBrecque’s subtle guitar figures and Reizen’s cymbal twinkles, only emphasise the effect. The highlight of the day, if not the weekend.
Initially, Maurice Louca’s decision to bring along a bassist and drummer to beef up his electronic reworkings of Cairo’s shaabi music seems like a misstep. The rhythm section is stiff and lumpy and the vibrancy of Louca’s source material seems insignificant in the mix. Three songs, however, and things seem to come together. The bass and drums loosen up a bit, providing a punchy proto-dubstep bottom end, and Louca’s processed samples and live electronics shimmer above it like of memories of half-remembered songs dredged up out the unconscious.
As their set goes on I realise I’m enjoying the moments where things fall out of lockstep, like on Al-‘Asr Adh-Dhahabi (The Golden Age), where the hectic shaabi oscillations rush ahead of the steady pace of the other two, seeming to almost overheat and glitch even as the stiff bass and drum grid forces them back into line. The trio’s final, and best, number is a pulsing rework of Malnash Diyah (Spineless), its simple bass ostinato and crying vocal sample mesmerising in their repetition.
My old bones are feeling somewhat weary by the time Sleeparchive appears behind his laptop for a set of sleek and brutal techno. There’s no fussing about with moody synth intros – just a few seconds of glassy bloops and then we’re off, propelled by a thuggish kick drum and minimal-but-effective bass that’s just present enough to provide an unsettling low end throb.
Across this titanium skeleton, he throws snatches of synth doodles, vaporous hisses and vocal gasps, more for moral support than anything else. At times like this, I like to lean against the wall and feel the bass vibrations coming in through my spine and ribs as well as my feet and ears. Other people are dancing, some twitching and head nodding, others truly losing their shit in frenetic gurning. And it’s not even midnight.
Ali Robertson’s Loose Lips
Secret events are a treasure of this festival. At last year’s TUSK Mini, I dug the ramshackle vaudeville of Los Bongoleeros, who inflected their demented Alvin Stardust hooligan rockabilly onto select groups of enthusiasts in a tiny room opposite the main venue. This year, Glasgow artist Ali Robertson has created a head-scratchingly complicated suite of interrelated, 10-minute micro-performances, staged in the old police holding cells underneath the Town Hall. I have no idea what it all meant (Robertson assured me that there was a unifying narrative to it but refused to enlighten me further) but it was tremendously enjoyable.
Of the trio of pieces I catch, one is a Kafka-esque satire on office politics, with Robertson playing the deluded, tyrannical boss as two underlings (played by Fritz Welch and Malcy Duff) make mischief and generally subvert their leader’s attempts to get anything done. A second sees a gossipy and possibly libellous conversation between Rhys Chatham and Robertson interrupted (or censored?) by vocal artists Gwilly Edmondez. The third is a playful tech send-up with Joe Murray, Grant Smith and Robertson mangling Dictaphones and cassette recorders. What does it all mean? Who knows?
Julie Myers’ Klangfarbe
After spending a week hanging around the Old Town Hall, visual artist Julie Myers created a graphic score based on the everyday sounds of the building and the people within it. This is Klangfarbe, and Saturday evening kicks off with an interpretation of it by a trio of Pascal Nichols (drums), John Pope (double bass), and Simon Rose (baritone sax).
The performance sees Rose, Nichols and Pope performing short solo sequences, before the trio come together about halfway through. Stylistically, it has something of the spiky nature of free improvisation (even though it’s a composed work). Rose’s breathy parps and mouthy clicks seem particularly well suited to the piece , as well as to the footage of the venue that plays behind the trio. The group sequence has a lovely openness to it that reminds me of The Necks’ best work, unhurried and meditative, slowly building its momentum even as it undercuts any idea of progression or development.
This is Dilloway’s first visit to UK since 2006 and there’s considerably expectation around his early evening set. The ex-Wolf Eyes man doesn’t disappoint, delivering one of the more intense and unnerving experiences of the festival. He starts calmly, coaxing a distinctively grainy undulation from his table of eight-track tape players and delays, with an off-kilter thud providing a percussive punctuation. After a few minutes, he puts a contact mic in his mouth, enabling to add a breathy hissing to the mix, swaying as he twiddles his knobs like the snake charmers immortalised in his famous Hanson Tapes releases.
Soon, however, his love of vintage horror films starts to exert itself, and shit gets real.
Out of nowhere, Dilloway unleashes a tidal wave of barbed wire noise, accompanied by genuinely terrifying screams. As if that weren’t enough, he starts rocking violently back and forth in his seat, lit only by a red light, the lead from the contact mic in his mouth just about visible. It’s incredibly disconcerting, like being in the middle of a medical emergency but being unable to do anything. Not that anyone else seems bothered, mind. They’re too busy grinning and head banging.
Just as I’m gearing myself up for health and safety related stage invasion, the violent juddering stops, and Dilloway spends the rest of the set stalking side to side, like some shadowy, hulking killer from an 80s slasher flick as all the while, torrents of white noise pour from the speakers.
Incredible stuff. I’m just glad it’s not prom night.
Arriving almost immediately after Dilloway’s headrush noise, Ashley Paul’s sinewy, spacey set nevertheless refuses us any of the comforts you might expect from a singer-songwriter with a guitar. Operating as a trio with Ben Pritchard and Olan Stephen, her performance combines affectless, pared down songwriting with dissonant shards of improvisation using guitar and saxophone. it’s a combination that takes Paul into a unique sonic space. Well versed in both composition and improvisation, she’s able to drift between the two poles effortlessly, conjuring up beautifully fragile song structures that seem to dissolve into the air, opening up undefined spaces for her intuitive explorations.
Although, as she reveals in a Q&A the following afternoon, the transitions are planned and mapped out beforehand, her shifts into the different registers seem totally natural. The soft, breathy vocals and skeletal guitar picking on a song like I’m In You (first heard on 2014’s fantastic Heat Source) are beautifully dissonant, somehow filled with stillness and calm even as they inch forward. It makes the sax interruptions all the more severe when they arrive, as if Paul is creating a beautiful abstract painting and then taking a knife to the canvas. The fact that, most of the time, she’s wielding her saxophone with one hand while coaxing sliding metallic notes from her table top guitar, pausing only to sing, makes the pieces all the more exquisite.
The willingness of performers to combine and recombine into new configurations as well as their standard setups is an invigorating aspect of the TUSK experience. Artists like Rhys Chatham, Oren Ambarchi and Sam Shalabi put in several different shifts across the weekend and it’s fascinating to see how they gel (or not) with their collaborators.
Tokyo twosome Sax Ruins – drummer Tatsuya Yoshida and saxophonist Ryoko Ono – appear on Saturday and Sunday nights. Their trio with ex-Heldon guitar wrangler Richard Pinhas rounded off a brilliant Saturday, and they open Sunday evening in their more familiar duo setup. For me, the duo was more successful than the trio. I’m not a big fan of Pinhas’ work – his set at last year’s TUSK mini-festival left me cold and rushing for shelter from its crushing volume – and here, again, his insouciant guitar scuzz seems to smother Yoshida and Ono’s contributions. They have a fair go at cutting through the sludge, to be fair, Ono unleashing huge Peter Brötzmann-like bursts of dimension-shattering sax skronk and Yoshida letting fly with salvos of drum fury.
On Sunday, though – man they’re really something. Without Pinhas, there’s room for their ultra-precise, super-fast interplay to really get going. It’s a punk-prog-skronk rush, the seemingly chaotic rain of notes and percussion actually highly orchestrated and locked together in a unified attack. Ono is an amazing player, able to lay down detailed swirls of notes while retaining a bluesy swagger, and Yoshida ain’t bad too. The songs are short and sharp, and after every one Yoshida gives a curt ‘Thankyou’ before barking out the name of the next tune, like a reverse thrust Ramones. Bloody marvellous.
Oren Ambarchi / Rhys Chatham / Sam Shalabi
The spry, impish figure of Rhys Chatham is one of those who pops up several times during the weekend. His enigmatic appearance during Ali Robertson’s Loose Lips performance, is preceded by a solo set on Friday night that sees him looping breathy trumpet flutters, wiry guitar clangs a smooth flute tones into a vibrating collage of sound. That set culminates in a massive monochord guitar overload, Chatham looping a single phrase over and again into a mighty tumult, before he jumps down from the stage and passes through the crowd hugging audience members in transcendent joy.
He revisits those techniques in a trio formation on Sunday with Oren Ambarchi and Sam Shalabi, his jittery, layered sonics ruffling the other two’s molten drone. It’s enjoyable enough but somehow less than the sum of its parts. Better is a meditative interval, which sees Shalabi picking out hazy Oud motifs – a highlight of his solo set late on Saturday night – while Chatham releases long, mellow alto flute lines into the space. These transporting moments don’t really go on for long enough before Chatham and Shalabi pick up their guitars for a final thrash, Ambarchi leaving his guitar to feed back while moving to the drum stool to bash out some over the top Keith Moon style rolls and fills. A nicely ridiculous way to end.
‘A simple modus operandi,’ says the TUSK programme about Klara Lewis’s dense electronic soundscapes, in which she scrubs, filters and warps field recordings into unrecognisable, monolithic shapes. Simple it may be, but it’s devastatingly effective. Her opening salvo sees her manoeuvring blocks of sound into massive, enigmatic constructions, as her monochrome and abstract visuals slowly morph behind her. I feel like I’m watching something simultaneously ancient and futuristic, both Stonehenge and Ringworld.
Gradually, the sonic brutalism melts into a gloopy, amniotic shimmer, its submerged cycles avoiding conventional rhythmic approaches while retaining a pulsing heart. Her compositions (or improvisations?) are like icebergs or plate tectonics, moving slowly but with a heck of lot going on. There’s a kind of post-Autechre level of detail in Lewis’s refusal of symmetry, her music seeming to cast impossible, abstract shapes like an inverted mountain or a multidimensional canyon in a digital dream. Coldly thrilling.
Baba Commandant & The Mandingo Band
After a slightly abortive set from a duo of Richard Pinhas and Stephen O’Malley duo (rescued by a last minute drum intervention by Oren Ambarchi), the fried Burkina Faso funk of Baba Commandant and his crew is like an end of exams party. Their beats are tough, but with a fluid rhythmic core. The Commandant, aka Mamadou Sanou, wears his six-string, long-necked ngoni slung low but it doesn’t stop its kora-like brittle tones adding a slightly otherworldly flavour to the band’s grooves. There are plenty of great moments, such as on Juguya, when the lead guitar interlocks with the ngoni to lay down hypnotic melody lines, over which the band’s call and response vocals holler as bass and drums keep things rock solid. I’m into it. The band are into it. And the audience are into it too, throwing off their drone and noise pouts for a right old Gateshead chop up.
The Old Town Hall seems almost deserted when Miles Whittaker and Sean Cantry take to the stage at around a quarter past midnight for the final set of this year’s TUSK. Perhaps I’m not the only one feeling a little jaded as events draw to a close. Yet Demdike Stare’s occult techno gives us the injection of dark energy that we need to push on through. And if their oppressive bass synth chords and crushing kick drum booms are like a brooding comedown after the euphoria of Baba Commandant and his crew, it’s a darned immersive one, sweeping us along in vortex of electronic devilry and camp Satanic visuals. An intro segment of growling sub bass and all sorts of ominous drones suddenly gives way to a shower of titanium beats, like tape edits occult fashioned by samurai swords, which in turn hands off to looming slo-mo techno. Its steady undulations are like the breath of the dragon living under the mountain. The pace is hardly frenetic, but the duo keep changing things up, hefty bangers morphing into tricksy d’n’b. A final abrupt switch lays down an extended glam techno stomp before the house lights are on and it’s home time.
There’s an afterparty somewhere but I’m all done in, my brain still buzzing with all of the way out sounds crammed into the last three days. Good work, TUSK. Here’s to you and all who sail in you.