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Things Learned At: Le Guess Who?
Danny Riley , November 30th, 2015 10:59

Danny Riley reports from Utrecht, on sets from SunnO))), Magma, Eric Chenaux, Kamasi Washington and more.

Photo by Tim van Veen

The development of Utrecht's Le Guess Who? festival in its eight-year history is pretty remarkable. From its emergence as a single-venue festival of around 800 attendees in 2007, it now incorporates some 12 venues across the city (that's not including the multiple spaces within the new Tivoli Vredenburg building, where much of the action takes place), as well as a mighty bill of music. In contrast to most festivals of a similar size and popularity, the bill of Le Guess Who? actually favours the esoteric, seeming to sideline the more populist elements of indie blandness. Given this bias, what's even more surprising about Le Guess Who? is its wide appeal, with the city flooded with adventurous music fans for the duration of the festival. But then again, why shouldn't it be? Utrecht, a city of excellent arts funding, great cycle lanes and diverse late-night snacking options, seems built for events such as these.

Prog is cool now.

On arriving in Utrecht, I can see Magma everywhere. Magma box sets peer out of record store windows, Magma posters plaster walls and Magma's claw-like, cultic logo blazons many a shirt throughout the city. It appears that Zeuhl, the genre title coined by Magma bandleader Christian Vander to describe the group's sky-scraping prog theatrics, is pretty fucking cool right now. No mean feat for a group that had its heyday in the mid-1970's, creating their own unique language and mythology to accompany their outlandish musical vision. It's a testimony both to the band's continued appeal and the intrepidity of Dutch music fans that their Saturday night set in the Tivoli is remarkably well-attended. Though a little quiet, Magma's insane jazz fusion chops and neoclassical complexity is beguiling even for the uninitiated. Can't work out a word they're saying, mind. 

Magma aren't the only ones winning people over with complex music. On Thursday night Eric Chenaux plays a persuasive set of wobbly and warped torch songs, exuding an air of easygoing amiability that belies his considerable musicianship. Though becoming a little patience-testing towards the end of his set, it's hard not to be drawn in by his limpid song manipulations, as he utilises loop pedals and a wah-and-whammy guitar technique that makes everything sound as if tottering and drunken. Funnily enough, one could say that his sound is comparable only to that awkward, squiggly strain of English prog best of which Robert Wyatt is the most emblematic proponent, though tracks like 'Skullsplitter' are clearly refracted through his own skewed principles of song craft. 

It's also nice to see Swedish psych journeymen Dungen drawing a big crowd. The band have kept on trucking with their brand of hypermelodic, jazzy folk-rock long after the critical furore around their breakthrough album Ta Det Lungt died down. Pissed off and ragged at the end of a tour, the band are eager to kick out the jams, battling sound and technical issues whilst managing to deliver a stormer of a set (guitarist Reine Fiske on multiple occasions restrings and retunes his guitar mid-song). People still lose their shit to 'Panda', and the band hits one final blow with a grinding closing jam worthy of their countrymen and forefathers Träd, Gräs Och Stenar. 

Even when SunnO))) go soft, it's heavy.

It's no secret that Stephen O' Malley and Greg Anderson are men of catholic interests just as likely to be found wigging out to Chick Corea as they are to Celtic Frost. But nevertheless there are some artists in their curation that nevertheless raise eyebrows - Julia Holter in particular. However the setting for her gig in the beautiful and bare Janskerk does her a huge favour, particularly in the spectral swell of her closing number in which the sonorous tonalities of double bass, viola and organ meld together in a delicious swirl. In buildings where the acoustics are literally designed to inspire the fear of God, even quieter acts can seem crushing. Another artist of a quieter persuasion on SunnO)))'s list is Haley Fohr aka Circuit des Yeux, whose set in the murky rock club De Helling is a bracing exercise in coaxing maximum effectiveness from limited resources. Whilst there is only Fohr's twelve-string guitar, a viola player and drummer, the group manage to summon an impressive range of colours, tones and degrees of heaviosity. With a sound that manages to be at once psychedelic and folk-based without conforming to the whimsical tropes of acid-folk, it's a strident, shocking exposition that ratifies Circuit des Yeux' position as one of 2015's standout acts. The freeform freakout moment at the end of the set is particularly spine-tingling, with Fohr going full-pelt into a spell of atonal yodelling reminiscent of Renate Knaup of Amon Düül II. 

Other artists making a mockery of the quiet/heavy dichotomy include Iraqi vocalist and Oud player Sahar Taha, who combines a melismatic vocal style of deep emotional resonance with a monophonic approach to composition that lends her songs an intense, involving quality. Later on the Sunday, improvisatory medievalist Laura Cannell makes an interesting case for imposing limitations on free music. The fact that she improvises on the same skeletons of medieval composition as the work on her albums means that her performances seem to grow in confidence and exploratory depth with each performance.  

You're not always as cosmic as your clothes

Despite sporting a fetching outfit, Kamasi Washington's set is markedly less cosmic than his afro-futurist garb might imply. Not such a bad thing, as the warm, celebratory atmosphere created during the end of his packed-out Tivoli performance proves, but if you're expecting spaced out jams, it might be worth looking elsewhere. 

Contrasting with Kamasi Washington's colourful appearance is the black-clad master of the Japanese avant-garde, Keiji Haino, who sits at the apex of Le Guess Who's freakier side. Never one to rehash old ground, his performance in the Tivoli's Hertz auditorium is an improvised piece mixing dance and percussion. It's a joy to see the way Haino interacts with sound, as he strikes an assortment of gongs, cymbals and specially-made percussive rings, moving and shaking his sound-makers wildly to manipulate and divert each tone. With his bizarre contortions and highly stylised movements, it's almost as if he views sound as some sort of mystical substance, waving his hands in ritualistic motions over the metal objects like a dark magus. Otherworldly - an overused word in the vernacular of music journalism, but one that should readily and rightfully be applied to artists like Keiji Haino.

Aluk Todolo look to all intents and purposes like a classic metal band: lustrous locks, leather, and wide-legged power stances. The music they make however, though unmistakably grounded in the sonics of black and death metal, is far more meditative than their clear aesthetic reference points. Performing a late night set in De Helling, theirs is a brutal, blasting exercise in heavy metal minimalism. Blast beats, tremolo picking and thunderous bass lines are played with a heads-down, trancelike intensity. One-note riffs circle for ages around head-bending drum patterns, slight compositional changes give an effect of the set comprising of one, subtly modulated song. Devil-goatee'd drummer Antoine Hadjioannou is the star of the show, sat at the very front of the stage with his face illuminated by a single, bare lightbulb, eyes rolling to the back of his head as he smacks out mesmeric rhythmic patterns. Occult rock at its finest. 

Dutch audiences are responsible caners.

It has to be said that Dutch audiences are generally more polite and markedly more sober than English festival audiences. Perhaps it's the preference for 25cl glasses of beer rather than pints, or the legality of weed, but it seems on the whole people are slightly less bent on oblivion at Le Guess Who? than punters I've seen at similar festivals in the UK.

This is a general observation, however. Thursday night at De Helling certainly bucks this trend. Om are on, so naturally the venue's strangely cage-like indoor smoking booth is filled with acolytes toking up for an evening of esoteric Kabballah doom. The gig itself is everything you would hope for with Om. The sympathy between Al Cisneros' bass and Emil Amos' exclamatory drum fills is hypnotic. Words like 'Lebanon', 'priest' and 'ascending' are sung a lot. Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe bashes the shit out of his tambourine. During a particularly intense, extended version of 'Bhima's Theme' a man in front of me crouches on the floor and proceeds to have a ganja-induced panic attack. Part of the territory of theological drone-metal, I guess. Later that evening, some confused ravers stumble in on Demdike Stare's late night set, but things turn out OK as the duo stray into dancier territories toward the end of the set, culminating in a kind of hauntological proto-jungle - the tale of a rave gone wrong as told by Dennis Wheatley. 

Electronic dance acts seem generally quite thin on the ground at Le Guess Who?. Most of the dance action happens in Utrecht's Ekko club, where the crowd seems notably younger and a hint druggier. This is the setting for DJ Paypal's wholesale obliteration of the boundaries and conventions of footwork, bringing the hectic Chicago sound to its logical confusion. His bezerk beats are anathema to Prefuse 73's backpack snoozathon later in the Friday evening, as he assaults the room with a set of outrageous high-bpm bangers (teasing t.A.T.u.'s 'All The Things She Said' brilliantly in the process). Mind-mangling fun. 

Though DJ Paypal certainly provides one of the most physical sets of the festival, along with SunnO)))'s thought-destroying immersion, Lightning Bolt lay claim to the weekend's wildest gig. Brian Chippendale is actually terrifying, howling deranged vocals from behind his Dr Zoidberg-esque mask as Brian Gibson lays down fuzz-saturated, head-bending riffs like a death metal Stanley Clarke. The crowd react accordingly to the sonic maelstrom, and it seems like the gigs comprises of one fifty-minute moshpit. It's visceral and exhausting joy, leaving me almost spent for the rest of the festival. Lightning Bolt's gig seems to encapsulate the ethos of Le Guess Who?; both challenging and celebratory, esoteric and inviting. Here's to another eight years.

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