Thursday, 29 November 2012

Swans - Live At KOKO, London 15/11/12

"Good evening, boys and girls," growls Swans' grizzled, 58 year-old cult leader Michael Gira. Over the shimmering sound that a wine glass makes when a finger is run around its rim, he begins to chant, slowly: "To be kind, to be kind," he's saying. Let's be clear – one thing Swans have never, ever been is kind.
The shimmering sound turns out to merely be the moment of calm before a two and a half hour shitstorm of noise, as thunderous feedback and the crash of cymbals herald the presence of the five other long-serving members of Swans.
The US band don’t do things by halves, and one quick glance at tonight's stage set up shows nothing has changed. Two almighty drum kits sit side by side, one of which has two (TWO) gongs, while huge amps have been stacked up on top of one another, as if the roadies are all set to play a Borrowers-style game of Jenga after the gig.
The backs of the heads in front bob rhythmically with the second-by-second pounding of drums in 'Avatar', as a wall of sound rises up and KOKO's foundations get a fairly good idea of what to expect should Camden ever find itself at the centre of an earthquake.
At times the intensity of the volume is close to unbearable. Also, because frequent moments in Swans' music could easily soundtrack that bit in a horror film where they find the bodies, parts of the gig feel more like an endurance test than a night out. But, despite the colossal weight of the songs that Swans create, there is also a subtly to their brutal power.
People always recommend that meditation should take place in as quiet a place as possible; however Swans construct an environment of such perfectly orchestrated carnage that it's impossible not to think of anything else except the immediate full-frontal assault happening in front of you. This forms the basis of a strange feeling of peaceful escapism.   
Meanwhile, the melody-less 'Coward', a heaving great slab of industrial rock, highlights the tightness of a band that first started playing together thirty+ years ago. The 1980s track again sees Gira chanting, this time the words, "I'm useless, walk away." A few people towards the front of the crowd do, leaving to seek refuge nearer the back with a terror-stricken look on their face.
On the band's return in 2010 after 14 years in the wilderness, Gira promised that Swans would not turn into some "dumb-ass nostalgia act." With a setlist made up of blistering new songs and tracks from this year's apocalyptic 'The Seer', he's a man of his word.
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Photo credit: Marco Micceri

Alt-J, Michael Kiwanuka & The Maccabees Live 25/10/12

Albatross round the neck or not, the Mercury Prize remains as hard a fought piece of music industry back-slappery today as it ever has. And tonight, playing with Michael Kiwanuka and The Maccabees, it’s Alt-J that make the strongest case to be thrown into the full media spotlight come November 1st.  
The Cambridge band’s set is an almost note-for-note recreation of ten crafty songs from their inventive but instantly accessible debut, ‘An Awesome Wave’. Appropriately enough, seeing as tonight’s venue is a converted church, ‘Interlude 1’ sees three of the four-piece harmonising like a group of monks, softly cooing together about who knows what.
Fizzing with genre-bending idiosyncrasies the songs may be, but these quirks don’t cover the fact that Alt-J’s kingdom is built on orderliness, control and, above all, melody. Take the track ‘Something Good’ as evidence, with its beguiling time shifts and magnetic chorus.
Like The xx (another band no stranger to the Mercury merry-go-round), each Alt-J track is lean, measured and concise, pricking the attention and then doing just enough to hold it. The crowd seems transfixed throughout and when the set has finished, men whistle the riff to ‘Taro’ as they pee together in the gents.
After they’ve had their two shakes, the unabashedly smooth Michael Kiwanuka takes to the stage, surrounded by futuristic beams of blue lights rather than a sea of lava lamps, as would befit his retro take on ‘70s soul.
The singer-songwriter’s ‘Tell Me A Tale’ nestles neatly in-between two classic styles – the free-swinging jazz of Van Morrison’s ‘The Way Young Lovers Do’ and Otis Redding’s ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’ – in such a way that’s undeniably comforting, but ultimately borrowed.
Yet, despite Kiwanuka being more sound of 1972 than Sound of 2012, he still deserves a place on the Mercury stage. The woozy ‘Rest’, which the charmer dedicates to a recently married couple (n’awwww), silences the chattering coming from the bar, while ‘Home Again’ rises above any timeframe as one of those songs that just won’t get old.
Next up it’s The Maccabees who, once upon a time, were fun and sung about swimming pools with wave machines. Now, they’re an altogether different proposition- surly but shy and armed with effects pedals and smoke machines.
The Maccabees’ set is weighed down by a nagging sense that, whereas Alt-J manage to sound relatively innovative in the face of retromania, the South London band’s muscular and accomplished indie rock moves in well-trodden, rather than unchartered, territory.  
Not that there’s no kind words to say; ‘Pelican’ is impressively beefy, establishing a stark contrast between Orlando Weeks’ gliding, affected vocals and the violent stabs of guitar. But the maturity and depth in sound apparent on the band’s third album is hard to pinpoint live. Instead, most of it simply washes over the senses, rather than invigorates them.  

Photo credit: Barclaycard Mercury Prize

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Beacons Festival 2012

2012 hasn’t been a bad summer for Yorkshire. As a suited and booted Roots Manuva acknowledges in his propulsive Friday night headline set, athletes from these green hills ran away with seven gold medals in London earlier this month. 

This brings an unfamiliar sense of optimism to the north of England, perfectly setting the scene for 4,000 or so people to lap up this boutique festival’s discerning line-up. After being unceremoniously rained off last year, Beacons is back. 

The cruel post-punk of Savages takes the first night by the scruff of the neck and wrings it without mercy. Every so often a set reaffirms your faith in the ability of live music to turn individuals in a crowd into sweaty cogs in the same machine. This was one of them. 

Numerous Yorkshire bands were cherry picked to play across the weekend, ranging from local lads done good, Wild Beasts, to those hoping to follow in their footsteps. The extroverted pop rhythms of Antibangs, a seven-piece band studying at Leeds Uni, stick in the memory, but that might have had something to do with each member being semi-naked with faces daubed in silver paint. 

Now removed, but no less attached to these beautiful and dramatic surroundings, Wild Beasts receive a rapturous homecoming welcome. Sensuous and meticulously played tracks from last year’s ‘Smother’ continue to transmit surprisingly well live, while older songs ‘The Devil’s Crayon’ and ‘All the King’s Men’ ensure the set boils over into a sweaty orgy of adoration for the band by its end. 

Elsewhere, Factory Floor ran a marathon of industrial electro, their tireless drummer working overtime to pin down the aggressively hypnotic synths with continuously inventive fills, before Andrew Weatherall’s otherworldly DJ set warmed the cockles of a tent packed full with soggy revellers. 

Paws, Mazes, Gross Magic and Holograms provided an abundance of fuzzy lo-fi rock over the weekend, while Ghostpoet’s late-night, plaintive musings got a shot in the arm from his live band, energising the crowd and turning the set into one of the weekend’s most memorable. 

Fans of bookish Americana were well catered for on Saturday, with the striking simplicity of Cass McCombs followed by an intimate set from the promising Grass House, who, despite being made up of northeners, look and sound for all the world as if they’ve taken up the lease in Bon Iver’s cabin. 

On the final day, Willis Earl Beal, black cape across his huge frame, made the startling jump from lo-fi to hi-fi, departing the main stage drenched in sweat, his combo of tape machine, guitar and impossibly booming voice leaving mouths agape. Then, it was the turn of Toots & the Maytals to bring this all-encompassing festival, overflowing with musical enthusiasm, to a close in the way only true reggae legends can, embraced by the audience after playing a setlist with “crowd pleaser” written all over it. 

Photo credit: Xander Lloyd

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