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Pere Ubu, Manorexia, Growing & Acid Mothers Temple


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Pere Ubu

(le) Poisson Rouge

March 28, 2010

Let's get this out of the way first: these masters of the avant-garage genre (well, lead vocalist David Thomas came up with the term, and there might not be many contending combos for such a mortar'n'gown) had played a gig four days earlier, in Chicago. This is about as equidistant to the west as NYC is to the east from Pere Ubu's Cleveland breeding-ground. This gig involved a complete rendition of The Modern Dance, the band's startling debut album from way back in 1978. Such a reproduction tactic is a performing trend that has particularly been developing as a by-product of the All Tomorrow's Parties festivals, where bands will increasingly be invited to select a classic album for complete exhumation.

Comparisons could be made with The Residents, another revolutionary gang who have moved increasingly towards narrative, theatrical presentations. Call me a retro-primitivist, but I'd much rather hear these bands play their own displaced versions of rock'n'roll songs. There's a sense that certain folks have always been too hung up on making rock music lollop out of its teenage tightness, spraying deliberately intellectual substances into all corners. Surely such depth can already be found within the words and chords spouted by such creative regents as The Residents and Pere Ubu?

Anyway, before even arriving at this gig, your scribe was frustrated that Thomas and his crew weren't going to be delivering the same Modern Dance in NYC. This could be perceived as an under-developed nostalgia on his part, a primordial desire to be battered with a rock'n'roll bludgeon. It could be argued that the Stateside premiere of their dramatic adaptation of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi would be far more exciting. This was the 1896 absurdist play that gave Ubu their name, a savagely anarchic romp that would suit the Thomas persona perfectly. In some ways this turned out to be so, but a prior airing of the attendant Long Live Père Ubu album prompted an initially lukewarm response from this listener.

Above: David Thomas performing with Pere Ubu at (le) Poisson Rouge. Photo by Ryan Muir.

The stage adaptation was commissioned for a 2008 performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, on London's South Bank. A month prior to this NYC gig, Pere Ubu had been touring the work in the UK. Thomas soon developed the habit of rewriting his script adaptation whilst out on the road. He was preserving its anarchic qualities, persistently tripping up the performers.

Nowadays, Thomas is a much less blobular being, bordering on the slimline. Shaven-headed, goateed and draped in a seedy-looking Mackintosh, Thomas was liberally swigging from a wine bottle, alternated with a hip-flask. Regardless of whether these vessels actually contained alcoholic beverages, and whether Thomas was swallowing, he was still performing a good impersonation of a tetchily challenging bandleader. He was veering wildly from impish humour to disciplinary snapping. Whether this was staged or 'true' is almost irrelevant, as the ratcheting of tension was conducive to rock'n'roll potency.

At times, the performance would disintegrate into guffaws, sniggers and general fluffing of lines. Again, this was genuinely amusing, contributing an air of subtle menace once the 'straight' dialogue resumed. There were elements of burlesque, or even a particularly perverse college play. Band members were co-opted as characters, with drummer Steve Mehlman garbed in a summer dress, relishing his femininity. Synthesizer and theremin man Robert Wheeler preferred to romp around the stage wearing a horse's head.

The Brothers Quay were responsible for an animated accompaniment, though this was a more static variant of their accustomed style: slow-moving, monochromed, and at times almost still-framed. The Thomas persona is so compulsive that it was always tempting to observe his antics rather than concentrate on the filmic backdrop. At one point he was lowered down onto the floor to deliver his lines from a horizontal perspective. At another, he opened his paedophile Mackintosh to reveal sickly green beams of radioactive light, emanating from devices that were strapped to his stomach.

The performance was peppered with songs from the album, becoming more effective through their musical isolation. Despite the entertainment qualities of the piece, your scribe couldn't staunch a rising bloodlust for rock'n'roll once "The Final Solution" geared in to launch a three-song encore. Thomas was whining in the classic mode. Mehlman was pounding with abandon, whilst guitarist Keith Moliné was exploding in close sonic approximation of the song's recorded version. Then they played "Over My Head" from the same album, followed by "Sad.txt," a song of sinister near-misogyny from 1998's Pennsylvania. Thomas is a marvelous anti-showman, and a brilliant raconteur, but the increasingly rare opportunity to hear him fronting his old rock'n'roll band needs to be savoured with intensity nowadays.

J.G. Thirlwell's Manorexia

(le) Poisson Rouge

April 4, 2010

J.G. Thirlwell began to besmirch rock's normality half a decade after Pere Ubu formed. Melbourne-born, he moved to London in 1978, but for the last 25 years he's mostly been identified with the New York scene. Thirlwell's reputation was established via operating various manifestations of the Foetus persona, from 1981 onwards. His extremist rock constructions have lately been retired from the live stage, but these creations were never limited to this particular arena anyway. Thirlwell has been consistently attuned to film music, dark electronica and moderne classical composition. It's the latter output that has been most regularly performed in NYC recently.

A few weeks before the Poisson Rouge gig, Thirlwell had "Eremikophobia" premiered by the Kronos Quartet at Carnegie Hall. This smaller Greenwich Village club show marked the release of Manorexia: The Mesopelagic Waters on John Zorn's Tzadik label. Thirlwell began the Manorexia project in 2001, the group dedicating itself to atmospheric instrumental works. The new album features re-shaped versions of pieces that appeared on the first two Manorexia discs.

The current chamber group formation revolves around a string quartet core, flanked by piano and percussion (primarily vibraphone and tympani). Thirlwell plays laptop, though his input mostly appears to be very subtle, to the point where the listener might wonder about the nature of what he's contributing to the sonic banquet.

Thirlwell is a master of gradual development, painting a sombre tableaux that held the packed crowd in a hushed state. The strings built up a steady blanket of darkness, not taking the atonal avenue, but rather crystallising a bitter sweetness, singing sorrowful lines of the terminally ill. Thirlwell manages to include tuneful matter without relinquishing a sense of threat. The sequence of pieces established a gathering cloud of intensity, sometimes picking up in pace, but mostly operating on a stately plane. Peter Wise's almost subsonic kettle drum rumblings emphasised the sense of foreboding dread. The penultimate movement provided the only instance where Thirlwell's electronic shock could be felt, as he emitted great wrenching twists of processed brutality.

Growing/Eric Copeland


April 6, 2010

Even though their profile cannot be deemed to be anything approaching enlarged, the Brooklyn electronica trio Growing have just released Pumps!, hitting their eighth album. Indeed, this gig acted as its record release party, and was therefore rife with a predictable legion of video documentarians. Sometimes it seems as though so many folks are involved with slavishly recording events, with their variously-sized devices, that few are let loose to uninhibitedly immerse themselves in the free-flowing proceedings.

The walk up to Greenpoint from the bustling Brooklyn heart of Williamsburg involves the discovery of a riverside industrial wasteland. But as we near Coco66, the density of new apartments increases and there's a tiny cluster of bars that signal an artily youthful presence. The venue's music space lies to the rear, and its sound system array holds an impressive bass weight, more than brutal enough to sate even the most ragged and abused eardrums. Its judder passes deeply through the walls and seating. Its low frequencies crumple the inner membranes.

Eric Copeland preceded the main act. He's usually found in Black Dice. Alone, he remains one of the more rebellious, roughened electronicists. He dredges up large slabs of grumbling texture, laying his distorted voice over their nobbled surface. At one point there came a sound like unto a perverted duduk, a looped, heavily transmogrified Armenian flute sample. At other junctures, Copeland sounded like, somewhere, lost in the barrage, there was a Cajun twang to his singing, hopping over a clumping beat. Or he was some other lost and lonesome moonshine rambler. Copeland gave the impression that events were barely under his control, but this may well have been an illusion. Either way, this lent an edge of gutsy extremity.

The Growing threesome were more regimented. For the new album, Sadie Laska has augmented the original guitaring twosome who first came together in 1999. Actually, even though Joe DeNardo and Kevin Doria often have guitars slung around their necks, it's the three tabletops laden with electronic devices that emit Growing's core sound. Frequently, the guitars don't sound like guitars, as they trigger sampled clouds of disembodiment. The mass of wires, effects boxes and pedals seem quite hands-on, giving the impression that studious laptoppery is not Growing's ideal activity.

Laska vocalised for most of the set, but her contribution was barely audible, at least assuming that she wasn't triggering other samples via her vocal cords. It was hard to untangle who was responsible for which sound in this dense, driving onslaught of rhythmically toughened primitivism. Their mechanoid mass was getting harder by the minute. The Growing approach is to keep on nagging at a minimalist trudgery, thickening with new layers as they march onwards. It's a cumulative technique that gives the impression of simplicity and directness. But if the audience cocks its collective ears until the juices run out of their burst interior pustules, untold subtleties will emerge. Ringing diversities, even.

These players are terminally introverted. At the finish, they appeared unable to deal with the positive reaction of the audience. They looked floorwards. After a pause, they smiled hesitantly at each other. It was that kind of music.

Acid Mothers Temple/Over-Gain Optimal Death

The Knitting Factory

April 7, 2010

Here were two bands of a swirlingly heavy, cosmo-psychedlic persuasion. On the sidewalk, just before the gig, a man was sighted in a Gong Camembert Electrique t-shirt. We knew that we were approaching the right place. The Knitting Factory must have been virtually at capacity. Upon entering the performance space, a wave of unwashed-hair aromas assailed the nostrils in the newly-dawned NYC gulf-streamed summer climate. Yes, we were certainly in the right place. A humid garden of alternative flora.

The opening Over-Gain Optimal Death were visiting from Los Angeles. This trio of guitar, bass and drums have been together for a couple of years. They levered straight into a riffage gross-out, dominated by their lead-picker's spiralling solos, each climax attaining greater levels of freak-out. The guitarist's between-tune pronouncements were swampily indecipherable. A voice in the audience called out for them to turn off the delay effect, but this was surely the only condition for him to speak: gurgles mimicking drug-tripping perception.

Surging though this OGOD combo were, they soon had to make way for their masters in the genre, Japan's Acid Mothers Temple. It's been several years since I've caught this crew, and their spacey synthesiser knob-twiddler Cotton Casino has now departed (in 2004). The band is currently trimmed to a four-piece, with Higashi Hiroshi spending much of the set filling Casino's old black hole, as well as switching back to guitar. In terms of lead-soloing action, this is still very much dominated by bandleader Kawabata Makoto, whose tendency to flail his axe in a suspended skywards direction is an attempt to visually approximate the cathartic peaks of his orgiastic aural expression.

At times, Shimura Koji's drumming locked into patterns that were too metronomically bullying, given the abstraction of the guitars. Bassman Tsuyama Atsushi also has a curiously arcane prog-folk enunciation to his vocals, calling to mind a twisted Okinawa-Canterbury twinning. It was everything else that made the greatest impact, and 'everything else' was Makoto's majestic guitar, caught in the almost perpetual act of peaking. There were times towards the end of the set where AMT appeared to be reaching an extreme plateau of abandon, even within the band's accustomed realm. In his ongoing quest for a higher place, Makoto spontaneously decided to hang his guitar from the rolled-up projection screen on the stage's ceiling. There he dangled it to feed back, exiting as he left the remaining band members to finish the set. It would have seemed like a subsequent encore was not advisable, but the foursome did indeed return, and their next stellar explosion still didn't suffer any effects of anti-climax.

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