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Things Learned At: Tusk Festival
The Quietus , October 19th, 2015 18:56

Adam Potts and Stewart Smith reflect on a busy weekend at the sixth edition of Newcastle's excellent Tusk festival, with sets from Klara Lewis, Depletion, Demdike Stare, Ruins and more

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Photo by Kuba Ryniewicz

Tusk Festival recognises the importance of space

It's so obvious that it borders on the banal but space is fundamental when it comes to live music. Described by the Tusk organisers as their "12th man", the Star & Shadow Cinema has been Tusk's home for the past five years. A volunteer-run arts space – and illustrious home to local and visiting multimedia/performance experimentations – Star & Shadow had a warmth and intimacy that became synonymous with Tusk. But because it is currently "between buildings", Tusk, in its sixth year, found itself without a home, relocating temporarily to the Old Gateshead Town Hall with some spill-over performances in the attached Old Police House.

This move was always going to create a challenge for the organisers. But with some smart billing and some stellar performances, good lighting and huge sound rig, they narrowed this distance and it felt almost like home.

The opening acts on Friday and Saturday set the tone for this new space. Undaunted by its size, Martyn Reid of Depletion gets Friday night rolling in fearless fashion. Hunched over a table of synths and tape loops, Reid builds bassy atmospheric textures as quickly as he interrupts them. Maybe Reid could sit on some of his textures for longer but the strength of his work might just be his unwillingness to do so – it's a project of risk and unpredictability.

Rhian Thompson of CKDH also has no trouble filling the room. Her set hits unprecedented volumes. With a constant drone of wind noise, she whisks all her sounds to crushing peak. What's so powerful about Thompson's set is she doesn't give a shit; she doesn't care that it's Saturday morning and light outside. She builds an epic darkness that echoes for the rest of the day.

All that being said, no artists are as attentive to the space as much as Julie Myers and the trio performing Klangfarbe. Myers is infatuated with the way in which sound inhabits space. In her talk at the Old Police House she explains how for Klangfarbe Gateshead (download available here) she spent days in the Old Town Hall, listening, filming and reflecting. But rather than making field recording, Myers allocates spaces to her performers (Simon Rose on sax, Pascal Nichols on drums and John Pope on bass) asking them to listen to the room and make sounds in response. The live performance of Klangfarbe is the bringing together of these different processes, culminating in an improvised trio set with a video projection. It's dynamic and full of life, dizzying and poetic, giving the Town Hall a real vitality as home to Tusk. Adam Potts

Don't forget the groove

Tusk has never been a festival to forget the importance of groove, managing to bill it in unusual ways. This year was no different; Friday was the night of grooves.

Following Depletion, Reizen's set is incredibly measured and patient, slowly layering guitar textures to a hypnotic pulse. It's segue to Louise Landes Levi. Her voice is the first voice of the festival and cuts an odd but warm tone. Her sarangi and repetitions give the feeling of a mantra. It fills the room beautifully. It's the steady temporal flow of both sets that's makes them so undeniable and gripping.

Rhys Chatman's No Wave theatre is slightly more chaotic. Using flute, sax, guitar, and loops, he creates a jumbled whirlwind of sounds which he somehow works into a frenzied dance. Sadly the momentum isn't held by dub aesthetics of Maurice Louca. Some great samples and beats are spoilt by inexplicable track breaks. Any momentum they build quickly gets lost whereas Sleeparchive, closer of the night, is all about momentum. The patient repetition and subtle beat shifts avoid any obvious drops, kicks or breaks; it's at once repetitive and unpredictable. Caught in this equilibrium you can't help but dance. Despite the minimalism, Roger Semsroth's music has an odd type of fullness that only disappoints when it ends. And in this case, it felt like it ended too early. Adam Potts

Even on film, Borbetomagus will melt your face

Borbetomagus slayed Tusk 2014, so it's fitting that Jeff Merten's documentary of the snuff-jazz trio, A Pollock of Sound should receive its test screening here. The film could do with a little tightening up - some of the talking head segments are a little superfluous, while a truncated show-and-tell of their albums doesn't really go anywhere - but the interviews with the band, largely drawn from David Keenan's talk with them at last year's festival, are illuminating and entertaining, while the extended live footage is an absolute blast, achieving maximum brutalising impact through the Baltic's powerful PA. Stewart Smith

Demdike Stare are an ideal witching hour soundtrack

After that, Demdike Stare's eldritch electronica might seem a bit of a comedown, but to a bleary-eyed audience on its last legs, Miles Whittaker and Sean Canty's cut 'n paste grimoire of folk-horror dread and occult funk is just the ticket. Stewart Smith

Sax Ruins: the rebirth of zheul

Following the departure of bassist Sasaki Hisashi in 2004, Ruins have just been drummer and vocalist Tastusya Yoshida. The recent addition of saxophonist Ono Ryoko is a masterstroke. Hisashi's basslines remain in the mix, with Ryoko doubling them and expanding on them. Playing to what is effectively a click-track doesn't take anything away from the music. Sax Ruins' full-bore Magma-via-hardcore prog is as joyous as it is intricate, with Ryoko's free jazz inflections disrupting the mathy structures to thrilling effect. Stewart Smith

Underground supergroups aren't always the sum of their parts

Tusk has long had a tradition of instigating new collaborations between underground heavyweights. Given Oren Ambarchi, Rhys Chatham and Sam Shalabi's shared interest in repetition and texture, it's a combination that makes sense on paper at least. Shalabi's guitar and oud glints out from the shimmering drones of Ambarchi's Leslie speaker, while Chatham loops up flute tones and Don Cherry trumpet squalls. Switching to drums, Ambarchi pounds out an expansive motorik, bringing forth percussive shards of guitar from Chatham. There are no revelations, but it's an enjoyable free rock jam nonetheless.

If only the same could be said of the one-off guitar duo of Richard Pinhas and Stephen O'Malley. I'm as much as fan of Sunn O))) as the next man, but this improvised context does not play to O'Malley's strengths. Rather than build up monolithic drones and textural dimensions, he's reduced to cranking out trebly grunts while Pinhas attempts to reach the heavens with delay drenched shredding. Ambarchi eventually jumps in on drums, but his linear rhythms leave the guitarists nowhere to go but louder and emptier. Stewart Smith

Klara Lewis constructs a hyper-real sonic landscape

Klara Lewis's abstract techno is a highlight of the day, with swarming blackbirds, creaking branches, roots and radicles emerging from a fog of reverb and delay. For all the organic metaphors, this is finely etched music, with Lewis's bass frequencies forming deep labyrinths around the listener. Stewart Smith

Baba Commandant is one of Sublime Frequencies' best finds yet

With his repeated exclamiations of 'super!' Baba Commandant coins the catchphrase of the day. Singing and playing ngoni, the Burkinabé maestro and his Mandingo Band offer a fiery Afrobeat characterised by the fluid lead guitar of Issouf Diabaté and a muscular rhythm section. Stewart Smith

I should have paid more attention to Aaron Dilloway over the years

As a fan of his work with Wolf Eyes, I'm not sure why I haven't kept up to date with Dilloway's work. Partly it's intimidation – it's hard to keep up with his voracious output. But during his talk with Derek Walmsley (editor of the Wire), I'm regretting my laziness. Walmsley plays a live video of Dilloway as they chat about his love of tape hiss and horror masks. It's an interesting talk but it's the intensity of Dilloway in the videos projected behind that has me excited.

Later, it's time for his set and the room is full. Although touching on some tried and tested formulas – horror and noise – it's the way Dilloway settles into the performance that makes it so engaging. He isn't rushing anything. He lets the music take hold. With the microphone in his mouth attached to his tape machines, it's a Tetsuo-like amalgam of human and machine that explodes into piercing screams and feedback. He looks possessed, rocking back and forward violently. He never lets his noises get tired as he constantly pulls and stretches them in different directions. Dilloway's isn't just another performance. It's a noise apogee.

Perhaps the smartest billing of the entire festival is Ashley Paul. It's out of necessity that she comes after Dilloway. Her voice is delicate, meandering dreamily alongside some atonal guitar notes. It's abstract and challenging but a dreamscape rather than a nightmare. She's like a calm oddity coming out of the storm. It's an almost perfect balance but I'm not sure if the night quite recovers from Dilloway, that is until Pinhas-Tatsuya-Ryoko.

Of all the different sounds and textures touched on during the day, the trio bring it all together. Vocals meet sax and waves of guitar pedals. It's a thick and abstract psychedelia that closes Saturday triumphantly. Like Sleeparchive, it's a reminder that endings matter. Adam Potts