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Things Learned At: Raw Power
Tristan Bath , September 4th, 2014 08:15

Tristan Bath heads to The Dome in Tufnell Park, London for a weekend of sticky floors, plastic pig masks, and mighty, unadulterated OOF.

All photos by Jo Wells

It's best to bring earplugs

From the first crushing notes of Thought Forms' festival-opening set on Friday night, to Bo Ningen's amp-crushing, twenty minute blowout of a finale on Sunday, Raw Power is uncompromisingly a loud festival. It almost goes without saying, but after a bloody fantastic summer spent outside at festivals with sets sounding continually and disappointingly flaccid, it's a shock to go back inside where the sound has no escape beyond dissipating right inside your ear canal. Even Motörhead support slot at that Black Sabbath gig earlier this year in London's Hyde Park wound up pretty weak - the sound waves dissolved into the sky above, shooting straight up, over and past the audience and into the ether. You shouldn't be able to hold a conversation unperturbed during 'Overkill'. So the instant Thought Forms smash those pedals and unleash huge swathes of fuzz comes as something of a blessed relief. Thought Forms corner the simmering, dark psych song market, and pad things with pedal-looped ambience and long-held chords. Guitarist Deej Dhariwal takes the whole droopy shoegazing thing way too far, hobbling about the place bent double with his guitar strap adjusted to swing somewhere down by his ankles - but the grand space-punk noise the band make is pretty tough to argue with nonetheless.

The Oscillation come out next and set the standard for the weekend, as the powerful rhythm section of drummer Valentina Magaletti and bassist Tom Relleen construct note-perfect acid grooves over which Demian Castellanos sprawls mutant psych guitar, sings mutant echo tunes and bashes noisy distorted keys. It's the same thing Hawkwind were doing forty years ago, and Spacemen 3 twenty years after that, but The Oscillation along with many more bands over the course of the weekend prove it's a format far from running dry. The revamped Terminal Cheesecake riff endlessly, chanting on time and space, and generally wigging out on a loop for their entire earsplitting Sunday evening set; Evil Blizzard barely shift from a wall of white noise and effects pedal weirdness atop a pounding mechanic beat; Mainliner's heavy riffs melted into extended looping noisy freakouts. The sheer volume is what gets you though, and it never comes across on record. The constant signposting of the route back to Germany and krautrock is clearly pretty faddish, delusional, and apocryphal, as this is a very British sort of rock. With the exception of Faust, the krauts and their rock were never about sheer fucking heaviosity like this - while countless Brits, from The Pink Fairies to My Bloody Valentine have forged speaker-obliterating, cyclical rock. The main room at the Dome in Tufnell Park is an ideal spot for it too, with near-perfect sound –everybody from the front row to the merch tables at the back can feel the sheer weighty throb of every jam coursing through their body. By Sunday night, I'm deaf and hoarse.

Costumes are still cool

Since Sun Ra first put on a silly hat, psychedelic music and whacky outfits have been happy brethren, and it's a tradition that's alive and well. Acid Mothers Temple and Bo Ningen's very beings appear to be the most vivid costumes on show, with that long silken hair, and beards, and dresses, all flailing about like druids at a pagan ritual through all four of the sets featuring the band. Clinic headlined Friday evening donning their customary, well-worn surgical gear. Their surgical gear's been attributed to The Residents' influence, but while The Residents have always underpinned proceedings with sardonic humour, Clinic's gloomy pop songs are as sterile and ominous as going under the knife itself. Terminal Cheesecake too look as aptly silly as their name, with wigs, lit-up toy rings and eye-glasses, and singer Neil Francis waving blinking ray guns over his head throughout. Even so, Evil Blizzard take the proverbial (cheese)cake. As if the spectacle of a band featuring four basses and no guitars wasn't enough, everyone in Evil Blizzard steps out dressed like Michael Myers from Halloween – all boiler suits and faded plastic masks – made no less intimidating by their unholy swagger. The final epic jam sees one masked figure climb on top of the PA and ultimately lie down and seemingly fall asleep amid the relentless cacophony, while every one of the four basses then gets given out and passed amongst the crowd, with some of the band members leaping into the throng at the same time. The whole thing plays out without the drummer batting an eyelid or wavering from their urgent beat, and eventually all five axes find their way back on stage, and the sheer chaos is once again somewhat tamed.

Like sushi-grade tuna, rock is best served raw

Despite the very best efforts from everybody else, the twin Japanese powerhouses of Acid Mothers Temple and Bo Ningen dominated the weekend, with the Mothers headlining Saturday, and Bo Ningen on Sunday. With both bands playing a gig almost as often as having breakfast, their immense live shows are already the well known stuff of legend. Acid Mothers played something of an atypically all-encompassing festival sized set, featuring relatively brief (10-15 minute rather than 30-40) renditions of favourites like the soaring minimalism of 'Pink Lady Lemonade' or the epic peaks and troughs and folky chanting of 'La Le Lo'. In between the discernible themes though, the usual freeforms abound, with Kawabata showing no signs of ageing beyond the slightest grey tint to that beard. He still plays with the energy of a Hendrix-possessed speed freak, and with the addition of Tabata Mitsuru (Leningrad Blues Machine) into the usual Acid Mothers Temple lineup in recent years, the more pensive moments have started fleshing out into denser, more intricate jams. Bo Ningen's stellar live reputation is similarly well deserved, and they round off the entire event with an absolutely stellar set of recent material, impenetrable guitar hiss, and singing bassist Taigen Kawabe's madman facial expressions, freaky gestures and amp climbing antics.

A side project apiece from both of the Japanese institutions played a set too, with the trio of Kawabata Makoto, AMT drummer Koiji Shimura, and Taigen Kawabe playing early on Sunday as Mainliner. Since it first appeared back on the 90s with bassist/vocalist Asahito Nanjo as its bedrock (it's named after a track by Nanjo's legendary band High Rise), Mainliner's essentially been a vehicle for a more debased brand of AMT's heavy psych, with Kawabata Makoto's soloing at its most unhinged, often wandering for fifteen minutes at a stretch through towering passages of high-energy power trio improv. The new lineup with Bo Ningen's Taigen remains as unrelenting as the original.

Another improvising trio featuring two members of Bo Ningen - Xaviers - played the smaller room downstairs on Saturday afternoon too, facing Ningen's guitar and drums against Kenichi Iwasa's synth and percussion. They race forward through an ever-upward spiral, with drummer Mon-Chan sticking to his signature pulsing rock rhythms, and guitarist Yuki's axe ultimately jerking out of control for a climax of hair-flailing amp assault. For whatever reason, the Japanese are undoubtedly still making the most furious, unrelenting, rawest psych.

It's actually pretty nice to be back inside again

Yeah the sun was good and all that, but rock music belongs inside! Sticky wooden floors, leaning against the wall, and above all, trippy lights and projections from all sides have been sorely missed.

Needs more saxophone!

Unbeknownst to this writer, genius Brummie saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings (Sons of Kemet, Melt Yourself Down) has added a heavy electrified freeform trio to his already busy schedule. The Comet is Coming sees Hutchings blasting out themes through effects pedals while Dan Leavers and Max Hallett bash out spacebound synth loops and noises atop primordial heavy drumming. Shabaka Hutchings' Sun Ra t-shirt identifies where he's coming from with this, and announces the man's eternal mantra, "Space is the Place" - something with which The Comet is Coming most definitely agree. The music detours down various tangents, from pure abrasive blasts on all fronts, to danceable and almost disco-friendly melodies over funked up synth bass. The entire things is loud as hell, and drenched in reverb like the rest of the weekend on the main stage, but Shabaka's sax is the defining feature, and a solid reminder that psychedelic doesn't have to mean rock.

Baba Yaga's Hut are really on to something

The main stage is adorned with heavy psych almost exclusively, but the downstairs room goes further, adding in killer sets from Hey Colossus and Henry Blacker, whose dark, totally insane metal is in plain opposition to the ecstatically joyous sets of intricate high energy upbeat math rock from AKDK and Axes that happen later on the same stage. Axes are definitely worthy of note, making absolutely everybody in the room grin from cheek to cheek with their own beaming smiles, and outright screams of sheer joy during any rest in their relentlessly jolly math melodies. The breadth of the entire weekend was much larger than it lets on at first sight, but every act shared a certain spirit all the same. It's indicative of a certain prevalence of ephemeral experience in contemporary culture. People don't 'travel' any more; they tick off countries on a map. People don't go to see music any more; they collect festival wristbands and photos of ageing, reunited chart toppers. Festival bookers take the same approach, trying to tick off as many notable acts as possible for the wristband collectors, and never going the distance to create something, great. That's what Baba Yaga's Hut have actually done here, achieved an (albeit niche) sort of true greatness in an event. Here's hoping they're on to something.