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Three Songs No Flash

We Are All Space Junk: The Membranes Live in Tallinn
Tristan Bath , October 3rd, 2015 17:09

Tristan Bath travels to Tallinn Estonia, to witness the true exploratory nature of post punk still in action as The Membranes, the Sireen choir and a CERN scientist collide

All photographs courtesy of Tanel Tero

"They are antisocial," explains Dr Umut Kose. "The neutrinos should be massless, but experiments show they have a mass. They also convert from one ‘flavour’ to another ‘flavour’." These tiny elemental particles are small even in the subatomic particle world and they’ve barely been within the realm of our knowledge much longer than punk rock... well, in relative terms anyway. Dr. Kose of CERN sits opposite Membranes frontman John Robb in an old kino in Tallinn’s even older old town, discussing his work at the forefront of quantum physics with these rule-breaking neutrinos (on which he is a world leading expert).

As the CERN projects delve deeper and deeper inside the atom, the unwillingness of the sums and particles to add up throws a constant spanner in the works, yet this is something about which Kose seems more enthusiastic than disheartened. He goes into detail about the tendency of neutrinos to change atomic ‘flavour’ mid experiment: "Let’s assume I’m sending 100 dogs from here to London. In London I check these 100 dogs and I see 95 puppy dogs and 5 Schrödinger cats! The make-up of these neutrinos is changing." Kose spends half an hour explaining the ways in which modern physics searches deep inside subatomic particles to piece together the origins of the universe, while Robb sits opposite the scientist, gazing in wide-eyed fascination, occasionally prodding him with questions.

It’s safe to say this is not your normal opening act. But then again this isn’t a normal gig. The reformed Membranes are easily as volatile and mercurial as a quartet of neutrinos, and as such, this evening sees them adding an all-female choir to the mix as they play through tunes from their revelatory and extraordinary first new album in a quarter of a century, itself inspired by the learnings of galactic and atomic sciences: Dark Matter/Dark Energy.

It could of course be very easy to wheel out dull cliches about the reignited Membranes "still having a lot to say" and such like, but it's so much more than that. Our understanding of precisely what a rock band is, much like our knowledge of the universe is flexible and worthy of reassessment on a daily basis as further empirical evidence reveals itself. Much like the latest incarnation of Swans, The Membranes adhere to no pre-existing laws about the band narrative. They are both arguably now at a most unexpected peak some three decades after their birth, outdoing their younger selves with the size and scope of this music. And anybody who’s heard Dark Matter/Dark Energy will agree, it’s an amazing achievement by any standards.

It shatters the post punk formula into its fundamental particles and rearranges the pieces into a cosmic slop of razor sharp grooves and shape-shifting guitars floating into dub-influenced atmospheres, turning proverbial dogs into Schrödinger cats. What’s more, Robb’s ability to pen the mighty words and choruses holding these songs together remains very healthily intact. The songs are built from lessons learned via both Buzzcocks and Hawkwind, with Peter Byrchmore and Nick Brown’s twin guitars taking cues and influence from both Television and King Crimson, with interlocking Frippy ebow playing alongside bluesy noodling, massive power chords and smatterings of outright heavy shredding. Then there’s the sparingly invoked spirit of dub music, which wields a hugely potent influence over the record too. Dub’s innate sense of vacant space most closely relates to the theme of dark matter too, creating sonic voids that wield as much musical power as the crunch of bass or smash of a drum. As Kose explains:

“If you look at the stars at the outer corners of the milky way, they behave differently to what you expect. You expect them to rotate [around the centre of the galaxy] slowly, but they are not rotating slowly, they move quite fast. In order for this to work, you need more mass in the centre of the galaxy. This matter must behave somewhat differently too as we can’t see it. We know dark matter exists, but we don’t know what it is.”

The Membranes don’t see the dots between punk rock and physics as being disconnected. Robb rather views punk’s central philosophies as meeting the needs of scientific thinkers on the fringes. “The idea of questioning everything, of do-it-yourself, of empowerment, of open-mindedness, of thinking outside the box, of destroying the norm, of breaking free from lateral thinking - it’s perfect for scientific thought about the universe and thinking beyond. I can be 10% Sid Vicious and 10% universe scientist and 10% mystic sat on the Ganges covered in the holy grey mud and 10% classical music composer... Surely what most punk rock is that you can be anything you want without really caring what anyone else thinks. I can be 10% happy and thrilled by everything and 10% broken hearted at the endless chaos and mess and 10% northern melancholic, and like many of my northern friends I embrace the melancholy. Joy Division were melancholic and euphoric their music could break your heart, but also thrill your soul.”

The sight of Tallinn's Sireen choir seems bluntly terrestrial, and distinctly human alongside the central cosmic theme of the origins (and perhaps the fate) of the universe. They’ve provided their own new choral arrangements and assimilated some older Estonian runo songs (a traditional form of epic ballad or poem) into the set of tunes from Dark Matter/Dark Energy.

The Sireen choir make their sounds in a massive variety of ways, including earsplitting yelps and all manner of atypical techniques alongside the soaring vocal drones and unified singing that remains a cornerstone of Estonian choral music. They join Robb for the belting chorus on ‘Do The Supernova’, practically all head-banging on stage in unison (the two conductors at the front also mosh their way through much of the set). Notably, they include ‘Ei Saa Mitte Vaiki Olla’ alongside ‘The Multiverse Suite’. The song, dating back to 1890, acted as a hidden outcry for freedom during the Soviet occupation: “I cannot keep quiet/ I cannot stop singing/ Keeping quiet would be wrong/ It would make my heart break”. Completely coincidentally, the freely flowing video projections during ‘The Multiverse Suite’ deem to show footage of Russian soldiers arriving in Estonia during the Second World War. The contrast is perhaps a divisive one, as Kose’s words (he fills in on stage in for fellow CERN physicist Joe Incandela who provided spoken narration for the album version of ‘The Multiverse Suite’) describe goings on at such greater cosmic heights as to dwarf any earthly human problems. Then again perhaps it’s a hopeful vision: a society solely devoted to searching space together would presumably have little time for terrestrial imperial aims.

"I went and saw [the Sireen choir] with Viv Albertine ‘cause I’d just done a talk with her," explains Robb."We just sat there and thought wow, this sounds amazing! [Viv] said it’d be great if they came to England, and I said I’d love to do a gig with them. I could already hear it then. There’s a lot of drones in our music, and there’s a lot of drones in theirs. They also had that glacial thing… there was a just a place in the middle where it met. I could hear it straight away."

Robb was right. The live show (and album) opener ‘The Universe Explodes Into A Billion Photons Of Pure White Light’ brims with an amplified sense of symphonic scope. The choir was integrated into the set with Robb’s guidance in the weeks leading up to the concert. "The idea of working with something that’s so opposite [to what we do], it’s this perfect thing. But all musicians have common ground… Half of [Sireen] probably don’t even listen to our kind of music, but they just see simply as it all being music. They don’t have those barriers and preconceptions."

Being the homeland of some of the most celebrated choral composers of modern times - Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis - it’s perhaps unsurprising to discover Estonia boasts hundreds of choirs despite its relatively small population of 1.3 million. Point being, if you want to work with a choir, your best bet is to head to Estonia. But Eastern Europe’s music culture at large (as anybody who’s read tQ’s own investigations of modern Polish music will know) remains a criminally underappreciated fountain of wildly original talent. The Sireen choir’s outright experimentation with The Membranes’ latest material is uniformly excellent, and the results feel entirely natural - as if they were a missing piece from the music the whole time and we never knew it.

"Every country’s got its own scene now," enthuses Robb. "In Estonia there’s this great band here now called Trad.Attack, that use these old Estonian bagpipes but make it into this really modern sounding music." Other Estonian bands that come up include Tallinn post-punkers Junk Riot, and Maria Minerva who, as Robb puts it, “cites Throbbing gristle in her spooked pop music”.

It’s something the people behind CERN understood when the organisation was founded back in 1954: in physics there is no East and West. It’s only by maintaining the organisation’s original disdain for boundaries that they can promote their ideas globally and peacefully, not to mention the benefits of their achievements. These, as Dr Kose proudly explains early in the talk, already surround us all in the form of the internet, which started life in the organisation back in the early 1980s (right around the time The Membranes recorded ‘Myths And Legends’, which is this evening’s first encore and only older tune to make an appearance).

While expanding the scope of the music to more galactic sizes, the sounds of the Sireen’s very human voices reveal something else, something hidden deep inside this music. "Originally the album was going to start with the beginning of the universe, and end with the ending of the universe, but then my Father died so we made the last track about him - and the two things joined together in a way." The death of Robb’s father during the recording of the album still colours the music, and the sea of connotations with requia and laments that choirs carry with them adds further shades on this night in Tallinn.

The narrative of the universe, of its birth and death, and even simply to ask what came before, are all stuff we tend to interrogate in the face of bereavement. We could argue that the universe is as powerful a metaphor for a human life as anything. We're born, we die and our self-perception in between is only possible through observing our actions as regards others. We aren't much more than the sum of the knock-on-effects of our lives, perceivable through instruments both biological and electronic. Whether flipping through a family photo album, or observing the Higgs boson, it’s all just part of the search to make sense of where and what we are. As The Membranes put it during their second encore, we're all just "space junk".

This live incarnation of Dark Matter/Dark Energy does the brilliance of the reformulated Membranes the full justice they deserve. Post punk was always defined by its open-ended nature as much as anything else, but like that minimal skeleton of Bauhaus’ ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ (surely the template for so much that followed), several of the key moments in Dark Matter/Dark Energy hinge on just how vacant the space above The Membranes ritual dirge remains. The integration of the beguilingly talented Sireen choir feels like that final bit of cross-hatching, like discovering vital dark matter where before there was only nothing, or finally realising what those long streaks on the surface of Mars truly mean.

Earlier in the evening Robb asks Dr. Kose about his ”preferred theory on the end of the universe”. Kose responds:

“As far as we know, the universe is expanding and it will expand forever. But the universe is unstable, and the standard theories are all in conflict. We still don’t understand 96% of the universe.”

Despite the order of the cosmos painted by both astro- and quantum physics, the cold and dark of the universe still seems a lonely and alien place, devoid of humanity. Our total understanding of the big black universe remains for the most part, utterly miniscule, and as Kose put it, “the more we find out - the less we know”. I can’t find the same smiling childlike enthusiasm as Kose or Robb in the face of such doomy nothingness but on this night in Tallinn’s Kino Sõprus I've been taught a more wholesomely human lesson. The sight of this collaboration - international, in the spirit of CERN itself - creates hope. The smiles on the faces of Robb the rocker and Dr. Kose the physicist, both grinning in unison, are infectious. Faced with those unsolvable questions we come together, and unwittingly discover each other - our fellow chunks of space junk.

The Membranes play tonight in Sheffield (October 3) and at Rockaway Beach festival in Butlins on October 9, followed by a string of US and UK tour dates. Full details here.

There are also plans to bring the choir over to the UK in February 2016 for shows in Manchester and London. See The Membranes Facebook page for more information