ATP Nightmare Before Christmas 2011 In Review
, January 4th, 2012 03:20
Adam Workman reviews Les Savy Fav Friday. John Doran takes the reins for Battles Saturday and Caribou Sunday. All photos by Shot2Bits
All photographs by Maria Jefferis and Andy Ennis, except main picture of Gary Numan by James Cadden for Shot2Bits.net
All Tomorrow's Parties commendable line-ups have, on occasion, sent you diving for a well-thumbed Oxford Dictionary to triple-check that the definition of 'fun' hasn't altered while you weren't looking. Example: why, yes, ATP schedulers, I'd love to watch drone at 1am while monstrously wasted [Sounds good to me - Ed]; that won't ruin the trajectory of a perfectly awesome night in any way, shape or form. No such worries this weekend, we're pleased to report. Because opening day curators Les Savy Fav have spent the past decade-plus redefining the word for the common good.
That said, we still dodge the Brooklyn loons' late afternoon show in favour of keeping our powder dry – sadly, only metaphorically – for a proper headline set later in the evening (ETA Party O'Clock). Fun is still with us, though. Despite the HBO-approved grimmer-than-a-crack-death rep of Baltimore, improving enjoyment of Maryland's urban wastelands has proved a high priority for Oxes.
From our in-the-scrum vantage point, we can't confirm whether they do, as their rhyme-loving followers request, stand on boxes. What definitely happens, however, is the final step of an evolution from math-rock troublemakers to the best house party band in the world today, powered by at least one tracksuit so truly awful that nods of respect are about the only sane response.
No Age (Reds) and reunited punk heroes Hot Snakes (Centre Stage) may represent bands at opposing ends of their respective careers, yet in their own ways end equally as essential. The former's fat is trimmed to the leanest of slacker pop brilliance; Speedo and company are clearly enjoying themselves so much that we only experience momentary wishes for a Rocket From The Crypt reformation to fill this perfectly greased-up slot instead.
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But where we came in is where Friday finishes. And how. It's been nothing short of a pleasure to witness Tim Harrington and his handsome charges progress from anarchic late 1990s/early 2000s toilet venue destroyers to just about the most enjoyment you can cram into in a 1960s British holiday camp. Okay, so you can write the script in broad strokes before the band so much step onstage: visual-interpretation-of-mental-illness costumes; frequent in-crowd ventures with added garrotting mic cable; indie-rock anthems to burn. Except every time Harrington pulls on a ridiculous get-up – this time around, a spangly contraption possibly the deviant spawn of glam era Elton John and a Furry sex freak – there's something so genuine about his passionate performances that going through the motions is as far off the agenda as is possible to chart. For handfuls of unmatchable minutes, no other band on the planet exists. The heartbreakingly raw content of a back catalogue far too often overlooked in favour of Harrington's physical exploits is the fuel. The result: an equally massive amount of lost personal effects in the ebb and swell of an enraptured crowd weighed down only by the abundance of ear-to-ear grins. Fun? More than any mere mortal could handle, just about, thank you very much.
Disclaimer: while attempting to sidestep the danger of 'I PREFERRED THE EARLIER STUFF' dickery, there was a sense that Mirrored was something of a dead end for New York's can-we-stop-calling-them-a-supergroup-now? heroes Battles. Their live shows were swiftly turning into a competition between Tyondai Braxton and, err, himself to introduce as many overtly bonkers vocal effects into play. The initial rush of sheer mechanical propulsion – we're looking at you, mind-blowing sticksman John Stanier – was beginning to sink under the weight of an ad hoc frontman, or as near as Battles were ever likely to host. Then Braxton left, Gloss Drop took a brave step into the unknown – minus, we'd offer, some songwriting stardust – and everything changed. Without the distraction of their departed frizz-haired protagonist, however, Battles are again an absolutely revelatory experience today, despite the early afternoon opening set being hampered by their own self-confessed vomit-tastic hangovers. With absent guest vocalists beamed into the room via hypnotic projections, even Gloss Drop meh-ments such as 'Ice Cream' come alive with electricity fit to overload the National Grid, and all is well with the (math-rock) world once more.
Battles get into the spirit of what makes a great Nightmare Before Xmas by booking bands who they share a spiritual kinship with, as opposed to those that sound exactly like them. (Not that many people do sound like the newly revitalized three piece.) So while there may well be a group of bemused Numanoids watching the curators' early set (and vice versa), such is the power of both acts in the live arena that in theory, they will both leave with brand new converts. The spiritual kinship that unifies Saturday's line up is they are all militants of funk - and for the most part, they all have shit hot drummers.
Nisennenmondai (like their hosts) apply a deep-listener understanding of techno to driving, motorik, minimal, hypnotic rock music. They play an overwhelming set that builds and builds and builds without ever resolving, peaking or freaking out into a rockist premature ejaculation. 'Mirror Ball' is all loops of staccato, Morse Code guitar before Sayaka Himeno lays down a blink inducing four four. You will dance. This three piece will not accept your refusal. Thousands of fish hooks attached to chains shoot down from the ceiling, catching the audience under skin and muscle. They venue is now full of flesh marionettes, jerking spasmodically, uncontrollably, ecstatically to a mid afternoon hoe down.
Another sign of a great NBC is coming away having witnessed something you were previously unaware of. The Psychic Paramount may be massive for all I know, or they may be Brooklyn's best kept secret. Either way they perforate my noggin with unexpected sonic shrapnel and let the sun shine in through the multitudinous holes. They are a power trio, harshly back lit, whose savage, insistent, cosmic rock suggests that they are playing in celebration of the discovery of an obelisk on the dark side of the moon, transmitting signals to the Jovian planetary system. This is not easy music, more like sublime, cathartic, S&M. An experience that must start at agonizing and frightening, traversing the tolerable before becoming intense and enjoyable in a painful kind of way. The guitar onslaught calls to mind Loop's 'Vision Stain', Liturgy's 'Returner', Part Chimp's 'War Machine' and the destruction of substandard 1970s high rise housing using dynamite.
Walls are simply perfect for the half way mark. Battle hardened and battle drilled by a recent Battles tour they are the shot in the arm that one needs to counter balance everything that might be considered... bracing in today's line up. Tracks from the recent Coracle sound mighty at venue rattling volumes.
It's genuinely exciting to see Gary Numan on such a small stage. Time was in the late 80s and early 90s when he never got to play in front of this many people but his star has been slowly re-ascending for the last 15 years now. To enjoy the Nume these days means having a healthy love for good industrial metal, techno, gothic rock and EBM, which suits me just fine. Again, Numan trades in something that is essentially (robotic) funk music - just ask Afrika Bambaataa, Ghostface Killah, Basement Jaxx and all the other hip hop/house stars who have sampled him. Ironically it was only his flirtation with literal funk in the late 80s that nearly killed him off. Since his rebirth as an elder statesman of alternative rock he has amassed more than enough anthemic 'new' tracks to save him from retro-death. These songs such as 'Haunted', 'Pure', 'The Fall' and 'Rip' make up the main part of the set today but he finds time to tear through the Pleasure Principle hit that never was, 'Metal'. It's always good to see a proper rock star at Butlins throwing the plaid-slouching slackers into sharp relief. In fact the show is only marred by the fact that the Nume's voice is unusually weak, to the extent that he appears to be singing to a backing tape on a couple of tracks. It's a shame if his voice is suffering because of illness or what have you, but it's not like his 35 year long back catalogue isn't big enough to allow for a careful set list selection based on what his vocal cords are up to.
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Despite this it's still a great show and probably one of his best songs of recent years is aired just before the obligatory mass sing along of 'Are "Friends" Electric?' in the form of 'Prayer For The Unborn' - which somehow combines Chris Isaac's 'Wicked Game', expansive acid techno, Numan's gift for weird soul music and the bombast of Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin into something fragile yet anthemic.
When Battles returned to the UK earlier in the year to promote Gloss Drop they weren't underwhelming but they did feel embattled, for want of a better word. It was interesting that the shows were short, heads down kind of affairs that didn't address the be-afroed elephant not in the room. If then they safely acquitted themselves, tonight they deliver probably the best performance of their career to date. Opening with 'Atlas' which is broken down and reassembled into an unassailable dance standard, the problem of Tyondai Braxton's disappearance is dealt with deftly by having a sample of children sing the song's lyrics. What do they actually say? Well, I can tell you this much, they don't say, "The purple people, the purple people, the sea board salad. The singer is a bloke, oh-wee-oh, the singer is broke, oh-wee-oh" like I used to think. Energy flashes from the stage and across the crowd, the room is jumping, in a way that just didn't happen during Flying Lotus's admirable but stiff set. All the songs are deconstructed and reassembled from the floor up, Battles even nod to this with good humour by playing several well worn remix tropes live on their instruments. Good natured, great fun, endlessly inventive, Battles' cold hard funk snap keeps everyone dancing til the end.
But the bona-fide militants round off the night. Underground Resistance have always traded on partial anonymity but essentially this is the second generation collective that recorded the Interstellar Fugitives album in 1998. This line up formed round Mad Mike Banks after Jeff Mills and Robert Hood left to pursue solo careers in the mid 90s, culling members from other UR acts such as Drexcyia, DJ Ronaldo and the Suburban Knight. They have to fight to get people on side, due in no small part to some pretty bad rapping near the beginning. It's safe to say that the whole set up is a shock to the system for most people here as well and a lot clearly don't know what to make of it. However UR are a righteous force and shake the crowd into action. The only way militant lyrics are acceptable in any form of popular music is when accompanied by militant music, otherwise the 'message' just becomes another untrustworthy gimmick to sell more records - compare Public Enemy and Black Flag to Frank Turner and Chumbawamba for example. There is no reform from the inside only attack from the outside. But despite a stern lecture before every new song, the entire crowd have become partisans by 'Mirage' and 'Afro Germanic'. In short, UR are as radical in their own way as CRASS and TG are in theirs and it's good to see a united crowd raving. After 'Moor Horseman On Bolarus 5' I go and have a back massage while watching 'Unabomber' which will go down as one of the most pleasant musical experiences of my fortieth year on this planet as it feels like shards of pure techno are being pummelled into my spine.
If asked during the last year I would have probably answered that Caribou are rapidly becoming one of my favourite live bands. When asked after this weekend, probably gets upgraded to definitely. Dan Snaith seems to be that old school kind of musician who releases LPs just to get the audience prepped for the live show which has always been the thing with Caribou. Snaith, who seems to have spent most of the last eight years on the road is taking a well-earned break in 2012 and is going out with something of a bang.
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The early afternoon set featuring part of the Vibration Ensemble was one of the most transcendent, shocking and (yet) cleansing experiences of the year. They made up for not having famous mates in attendance by amping up their forays into free jazz, Balearic disco, bracing electronische and serotonin burst funk. I can only imagine that their set later in the evening with an expanded line up featuring Kieran Hebden and part of Sun Ra's Arkestra was monumental but unfortunately the pull of Factory Floor and Theo Parrish proved too much to resist.
Having had the joy of seeing The Arkestra before, the real revelation of Sunday is The Ex with Getatchew Mekuria. The venerable Dutch punks have been playing shows on and off with the celebrated Ethiopian saxophonist since 2004 - and it shows such is the vigorously enjoyable performance. Songs range from the very traditional 'Sethed Seketelat' to the skronking freak out of 'Eywat Setenafegagn'. (While the wild sax playing of the 77-year-old may sometimes sound like that of Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler to our ears, it is the case of divergent evolution, given that he developed his own style in isolation from the 1950s onwards.) Fans of the Ethiopiques album series will recognize most of these tracks as classics from the era of 'Swinging Addis Ababa' of Ethiopian jazz. Not to be outdone The Ex step up to the plate as well rendering 'Shemonmwanaye' like Sonny Sharrock jamming with The Jesus Lizard. They end on three colossal disco tracks which sound like Gang Of Four in their heyday beefing up Mulatu Astatke's live band. Getatchew - a devotee of the Shellala, a musical ritual performed by warriors before going into battle - breaks off after one particularly rigid blast on the horn to threaten the crowd with stabbing motions of his sax; roaring and grunting before breaking into a hearty laugh.
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Syrrian wedding singer and international party starter Omar Souleyman is on point and on form tonight. He now performs in a much more streamlined form, minus the electric saz, oud player and trio of poets who used to improvise his lyrics for him while chain smoking B&H cigarettes. Now it is just him, impervious behind mirror shades and mighty moustache, with his secret weapon, Rizan Sa'id, who drums up a dabke/rai storm on keyboards and live electronic percussion.
Pharoah Sanders is one for the jazz purists. The quartet he heads up is hard working and undeniably brilliant and luxurious to watch but it's only really when he starts pushing at the edges during one early, frenetic work out and when producing lengthy tones using circular breathing that he really flexes his muscles. It's far more interesting (to me) to watch Sun Ra's Arkestra and while Sanders is 71, Marshall Allen, the band leader is 86 and still adamant that space is the place. The Arkestra are like the cruise ship band on the vessel that takes you from this world to the next, whether that be heaven, hell or purgatory. Dressed in gaudy, Las Vegas-style Egyptian outfits made from tinsel and glitter they launch into standards and big band swing which is then evolved before our ears through, hard bop, free jazz and off out into the cosmos. They may well still sound revolutionary but they are also immense fun to watch. During a song composed for this evening, baritone sax player Charles Davis shouts: "Nightmare! Before! Christmas!" and then roars like a monster. This becomes too much for conga player and road manager Elson Dos Santos Nascimento who starts laughing uncontrollably and doesn't regain his composure for the rest of the lengthy track.
DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn are the piece of the footwork puzzle I've been waiting to see fall into place. The spasmodic hi-hats and stuttering samples of Chicago juke comes alive tonight with hard edged 808 beats and nasty acid bass. The way they rework Joey Beltram's 'Energy Flash' is a revelation. There are only somewhere in the region of 60 or so people doing frantic on the spot dancing which is a shame but those who want to lose their shit on the dancefloor won't have long to wait.
After some delays, next up is Factory Floor. Still, no one comes close to them for live dance music in the 21st Century. They open with recent hit of sorts 'Two Different Ways' which, as always, has been smashed to pieces and reassembled into a monstrous, Optimus Prime floor destroyer. This DFA-released 12" has reignited label interest in the group, so at this rate expect to see an album some time in 2017. In the mean time they remain peerless at this noise/industrial/EBM/acid/rave influenced future dance, whether they're riffing on ideas that they will soon discard, never to be heard again or smashing their way through the classic 'Wooden Box'.