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Three Songs No Flash

Pitch Invasion: Planningtorock Live In Brighton
Jamie Ryder , October 16th, 2019 06:18

Bolton-bred and Berlin resident artist adapts new tracks for acoustic performance at ACCA Digital in partnership with Brighton Digital Festival. Words by Jamie Ryder

Photographs by Goodyn Green

Jam Rostron has lived in Berlin for the last two decades, and their companionable Bolton accent has acquired a gentle German sibilance. If you’re acquainted with PTR’s music, their ordinary speaking voice comes as a bit of a surprise — over the course of several albums, fans have become accustomed to vocals deeply warped and messed-with, cloaked in dramatic reverb, pitch-shifted and manipulated to the point of machinelike unrecognisability.

Rostron’s attitude is playful; sometimes the voice is made cavern-deep, reaching a thundering, Biblical intensity, and sometimes it’s a sad-AI chirrup, flitting above the grooves of a catchy house track. The individual within the music isn’t concealed entirely, of course, but they are undoubtedly distant, occluded, abstracted; they are a voice heard through a portal in the floor, a digital assistant malfunctioning, a haunted boombox. It’s this approach to human sounds which has become a defining feature of the PTR project. The altered voice is the primary channel through which Rostron’s most pressing interests — gender, selfhood, self-presentation — are probed and explored.

“The BBC wanted to play ‘Transome’ on the radio,” Rostron explained this Friday, in between-songs, during their performance at the Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts in Brighton. “But they said, ‘Can you send us a clean version?’” Audience and artist giggle together. “I thought, ‘There’s nothing dirty about ‘Transome’. It’s a really wholesome song.’”

Rostron goes on to relate, in those surprisingly light conversational tones, that the Beeb felt the line ‘You make me wet’ — which appears as a slinky refrain throughout the song’s chorus — was rather too near-the-knuckle for daytime airplay. “There’s nowt cleaner than bloody wet, is there?” Rostron says, in mock astonishment. The offending word, the story concludes, was eventually replaced with the “loudest, juiciest” gushing water sample Rostron could find, on the recommendation of the Canadian musician Peaches. In the song's performance, we are provided with both. “You make me wet. Pfwshhhhhhh.”

It’s a charming anecdote. But as is the case with Rostron’s music, the manner of delivery is as compelling as the story itself. In their work, the human voice is mangled, augmented and obscured; they have a penchant, furthermore, for striking facial prosthesis, frequently appearing onstage and in promotional material wearing an imposing, angular brow-piece which makes them look like an ancient carving. Given all that, I expected austerity and distance in the live setting, something akin to the stage-show of PTR collaborators The Knife; instead, Rostron is a convivial host who slips naturally between song and story, chats with the audience and grins widely throughout. It’s a real pleasure to get such a feel for the person behind the art.

The album from which the majority of the night’s performed tracks are taken, 2018’s Powerhouse, is PTR’s most intimate work, and the performance is appropriately stripped-down. Rostron cuts a solitary figure onstage, with sensitive guitar-playing by Berlin-based musician Simonne Jones as their sole accompaniment for the first half of the set. The songs on Powerhouse are maximal throwback bops, all splashy synths and no-nonsense, head-to-the-floor percussion; reduced to their essence in this way, they take on a new and very different power. ‘Somethings More Painful Than Others’, in recorded form, is a sugary delight; here it becomes sinister and claustrophobic, the Jaws-like quality of its lurking bassline given fresh prominence by the absence of additional instrumentation. Rostron’s voice remains effect-laden, and it too benefits from all the extra room. The sound in the ACCA auditorium is gorgeous, and the singing takes on a towering, claustral quality. Funnelled through the omnipresent vocoder and gallons of lush delay, Rostron’s tech-assisted self-harmonies fill just as much space as the guitar; both sound, for lack of a better phrase, fucking massive. Jones’s instrument is judiciously amplified — trebles sparkle and snap, and bass notes make the walls shiver.

‘Dear Brother’, a track written about the sexual abuse Rostron suffered during childhood, is simultaneously forlorn and hopeful, and unsurprisingly affecting in its starker form. It’s a sobering moment in an otherwise-joyful performance, and Rostron worries aloud about their chances of finishing the song. The simple coda — "I wrote this song/ so I can forgive you" — is poignant, and the integral quiver and quail of the autotune is recontextualised by the words. Here the digitised voice is not a symbol of tech-augmented strength, a cybernetic enhancement; it sounds on the edge of collapse.

Towards the conclusion of the performance, the guitar is set aside and Rostron launches into some 'self-karaoke'. “I can’t really sing anybody else’s songs,” they note with a laugh. Many in the audience shuffled and swayed through the acoustic section, and we’re keen for a beat; following the exuberant R&B of ‘Much To Touch’ (which, for me, recalls both 808s-era Kanye and Toto’s ‘Africa’) the crowd is invited to join Rostron onstage in a precursor to the genderqueer dance party planned for the end of the night.

By a happy coincidence, the performance has fallen on National Coming Out Day; Rostron points out that it took them just over forty years to come to full terms with their sexuality and seriously understand their identity as a gender nonconforming person. To applause, they talk briefly about the satisfaction, the palpable feeling of relief, that accompanies finally knowing and embracing what you are — perhaps after a long period of wondering. Anybody can enjoy Planningtorock’s music, however they ID — it’s well-crafted, often-catchy pop. But there is still a special form of gratification, both immediate and specific and frustratingly nebulous, to be found in good songwriting by and about non-straight people, however mainstream or normalised LGBT+ culture and advocacy becomes. It’s lying on your bed and thinking, “Wow, this band just totally gets me!” and it’s not. It’s a jumbled mixture of recognition, solidarity, curiosity and grievance, wrapped in a weird sense of vicarious quasi-triumph. It feels wholesome and good, and I am buoyed by it as I sprint through the dark for the last train back to London, hardly aware of the pissing rain.