Things Learned At: Recon Festival

JR Moores worries for his ears as he's confronted by all sorts of excellent racket at this year's Recon festival. Step ye forth Stephen O'Malley, Blixa Bargeld, Teho Teardo, Ashtray Navigations, Core Of The Coalman. Photos by Danny Payne

Blixa Bargeld is not an axolotl

You know the ones? Those brilliant "walking fish" (actually amphibians) with the jolly-looking faces? Inspired by the writings of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, Blixa Bargeld and Teho Teardo have composed a piece about the axolotl. The interesting thing about the axolotl, explains Bargeld, is that it never grows up. If you inject the animal with the correct hormones, it will transform into a salamander. By itself, the axolotl is incapable of maturity and will die before reaching adulthood. In contrast, the dapper, besuited, middle-aged gentleman who stands before us has ripened significantly since the 1980s when he was the gaunt, spider-haired industrial noise-maker for Einsturzende Neubauten and simultaneous Bad Seeds guitarist who hated guitars. He warmly shakes the hand of an audience member who was at Neubauten’s Leeds date back in 1983. Bargeld remembers, too. There was a building site opposite the venue. They stole some construction equipment from there. The band used it for years later, Blixa chuckles.

There isn’t any bashing of metal sheets or drilling through the stage tonight, however. The venue, Howard Assembly Room inside Leeds’ Grand Theatre, is so imposingly posh and formal that nobody even dares to clap after the first song. Bargeld stands at front-centre of the stage, singing his multilingual lyrics in warm baritone, making the odd semi-demented squawk or gentle howl, theatrically gesticulating and supplying wry quips between numbers. Teardo is to his right, on guitar and laptop. They’re accompanied by a cellist and, halfway through, a string quartet turn up. At one point an alarm goes off in Bargeld’s pocket "to remind me to take my medication". But If you can’t help maturing, by God this is the way to do it. It is a truly special and mesmerizing performance. Still breathtaking, still innovative, still challenging, still gleefully mischievous. Just a bit older and calmer, that’s all.

Mississippi Records know their stuff

Mississippi Records are here to showcase three of their roster, bookended by parts 1 and 2 of label boss Eric Isaacson’s lecture on "The Cosmic and Earthly History of Recorded Music". Having enjoyed unexpected success by reissuing obscure, long out-of-print American folk (in the broadest possible sense) recordings, Isaacson found that, in around 2009, major labels began copying such ideas and he simply couldn’t keep up. His way of coping with this setback was to write this lecture, the main thesis of which is that music is the most powerful force in the world, so naturally those who have power and want to keep power have to control music, but every now and then there are periods when they lose power, briefly, before regaining it (as they did in 2009).

Part 1 is quite fascinating, taking in Thomas Edison ("asshole, racist, anti-Semite plagiarist with a terrible taste in music"), historical crazes which seem very strange to us now (such as that for "laughing records"), reasons why a number of early hit-makers became suicidal, the two years of World War Two when only the US military were allowed to issue records, and the golden age of the 50s and 60s illustrated with a short film compiling wonderful archive footage taken from Isaacson’s basement collection that, apparently, no formal museum or archive is interested in. Part 2 is Isaacson’s self-confessed "paranoid rant" against corporations’ buying and selling of rebellion. Like Hunter S. Thompson, Isaacson sees the 1960s as the great missed opportunity, a tragic loss in the history of human progress and happiness.

In contrast to Part 1’s uplifting footage, Part 2 includes an unbelievably depressing compilation of the worst extremes of 80s/90s commercial music and advertisements – the domination of the Macarena, punk fashions paraded across the catwalk, hip-hop jingles used to flog mattresses – culminating in Scott Williams’ 1997 ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ figure skating routine. As amusingly bleak as this second section is, it becomes a little "small indie labels = good; big, corporate labels = bad" which may be true if not exactly intellectually stimulating. More satisfying are the performances which precede it. Marissa Anderson plays ragged electric and pedal steel gospel guitar licks as if she’s some kind of immortal one-woman instrumental personification of the ongoing history of American music. Brian Mumford (aka Dragging An Ox Through Water) performs haunted/haunting droney, echoing folk/blues, barely illuminated by a lamp half the size of Pixar’s Luxo Jr. He has some light-sensitive equipment, he explains, "so I have to play in darkness". For one song he appears to have some sort of slow strobe at his feet imitating the sound of an ex-military helicopter’s weary blades. Who needs drummers and light techs, hey?

Thirdly, Lori Goldston, who has collaborated with the likes of Nirvana and Earth, treats us to her expansive improv solo cello work that sits somewhere between classical, drone and jazz. She ends one piece by whistling a melody, with no microphone, so quietly, so beautifully, to an audience in complete, silent awe. All three artists are somehow rooted in the past, in tradition, yet they also seem to be pushing things forward. Both timeless and timely. It’s all rather moving.

It’s about time I saw Sunn O)))

It is with slight trepidation that I enter the Brudenell Social Club. As much as I worship their recorded output, I have never been to a Sunn O))) concert. It’s not that the opportunities have never risen. It’s just that I’m a bit scared, really. I like my ears. I value them.
There is no robe tonight. O’Malley is dressed in black jeans and a black NEU! t-shirt. There is an imposing row of large, mostly orange, amplifiers that he stands in front of… well, a bit to the side of, actually. For safety reasons? As he plays his slow, droning notes and long passages of feedback, it’s like watching a man trying to be as loud as he can by touching his instrument as infrequently as possible. Still, it is not as deafening as I feared. My body is vibrating, but not excessively. In the quieter moments, especially at the beginning, I even consider removing the ear-foam. Is it psychedelic though? According to John "Dr Psyche" Doran, true psychedelic music has got to jolt you out of your everyday, normal mental state, instigating the "temporary transition into psychic deterritorialisation".

Tonight O’Malley doesn’t do that for me. I try to lose myself. I want to lose myself. But I can’t quite get there. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t bad, it wasn’t boring. I love distortion and I love feedback. They’re probably my two favourite things, after breathing and cheddar. But I am not psychically deterritorialised. The bloke in front of me is faring better, bobbing around, stumbling from foot-to-foot, attempting to bang his head to a nonexistent tempo. I want what he’s on. I notice the whiff of his occasional farts, which really doesn’t aid my chances of psychic escape. O’Malley gets gradually, almost worryingly, louder and towards the end the bridge of my nose begins to shudder and tingle like it might fall off or at least burst into sneezes, but I probably need more bass, more robes, and a Hungarian black metal vocalist dressed as a tree. Yes, I really need to see Sunn O))).

Black and white can be psychedelic

If O’Malley didn’t jerk my mind into a different plain of reality, The Grammar Of Order did (a little bit). Installed in brewing-headquarters-turned-contemporary-arts-space The Tetley, The Grammar Of Order is a new sound and visual piece by Giulia Ricci and Tom Hopkins. Inspired by Owen Jones (the nineteenth-century design theorist, not the baby-faced leftwing polemicist), Ricci has produced a set of black and white geometric patterns that are projected onto a huge screen, changing every three seconds or so. Hopkins has taken Ricci’s patterns as a "graphic score" for his music which accompanies the visuals and sounds like Steve Reich clip-clopping through fresh puddles on a gamelan donkey. I sit there being willingly hypnotized for a good chunk of the morning, on my own. It’s a shame that there aren’t more visitors but on a personal, selfish level I’m glad. There are no other people here. No whispering, no chattering, no texting people there, silently passing their silent, stinking, flatulent gases into the air around my nostrils. I am alone. I am comfortable. And I escape. It’s mind-blowing how many lovely patterns you can make with just black, white, and a lot of straight lines.

Ashtray Navigations should have an annual birthday bash

To celebrate their twentieth anniversary, Phil Todd’s psych-noise project Ashtray Navigations have curated a six-hour music, print and film mini-fest. As an added bonus, it takes place inside the grand hundred-year-old Hyde Park Picture House, so as our brains become expanded, our legs don’t tire. First up are Castrato Attack Group, for whom Todd plays bass. When the quartet launch into their skree-ridden krautrock psyche jam, you kinda wish these four musical Merlins will just rock on all day long. The bass is deep and rich. The electronics add extra layers of wackiness. The guitarist sounds like Hendrix making love to an detuned wireless radio inside Thurston Moore’s espresso machine. It only lasts twenty minutes in the end, but oh what a glorious twenty minutes they are.

They’re followed by Core Of The Coalman, who kneels over a tiny forest of wires and boxes and whatnot. He’s like a human Buddha Box with all his gentle loops,  soothing me into a very relaxing half-sleep trance in those nice comfy cinema seats, even while occasionally playing the kind of violin noise pioneered by Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel or making his small keyboard sound like R2-D2’s darkside twin having a panic attack.

Filmmaker David Larcher introduces some of his video works, in a bemused sort of "why the hell would anybody invite me along to anything?" kind-of-way. The first piece mixes frazzled, static-y, retro graphics, music and poetry. Weird shapes bend out of each other and fly around the screen. Slight flashes of colour interrupt the monochrome. There’s a digital ocean made out of Alphabetti Spaghetti-like digital letters. It’s like a post-apocalyptic android is trying to transmit a cryptic warning message back to Earth from another dimension, disguised as a fractured video installation. The next piece is footage of a man (Larcher himself?) trying to ride a donkey or something. That one’s then interrupted by a massive, flashing, fit-inducing Rorschach-like symbol with a mad, atonal soundtrack, similar to Futurama’s radiant Hypnotoad. "I’ll think I’ll stop it there," says Larcher, "that one goes on for six hours."

Shemboid performs a live guitar-noodle and organ-drone soundtrack to one of his movies, which includes footage of the sun trying to shine through grey clouds amid occasional trippy throbbing effects, lots of footage of inner-city bus-stops, violent, primitive paintings of bleeding faces, like Picasso’s Guernica victims seen through the eyes of  Braindead-era Peter Jackson, and footage of Shemboid himself wearing a range of truly sinister facepaint and masks. City Hands performs his ten-pin-bowling-inspired ‘Bowling Meditations’. "I am a graceful bowler," he repeats over samples of pins crashing to the floor. It doesn’t quite work for me, but I know The Dude would dig it. Hysteresis play a load of free-jazz skonk-noise during which Charlotte CHW crawls around on her knees contorting her body into strange shapes, she and Jason Williams bash a variety of objects and instruments, throw cymbals on top of other cymbals. They’re in the darkness though, with a bright film behind them, so you can’t see everything they’re doing, which I find a bit of a shame (those two are far more interesting than the film). At one point they seem to be loudly chucking a load of rubble or something into a pedal-bin. Jason ties something to Charlotte’s arms and legs… I think. They conclude by departing the stage and sitting on the front row while the crackle and feedback they’ve summoned continues to resonate. Then Ashtray Navigations finish things off with their meditative psych patterns. Can we do this every year?

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