Somnambule - Writing About Music

Back In Your Town 6

17 September 2004, Red Rose Club

The monthly gathering of improvisors curated by Ashley Wales and Ian R. Watson is beginning to sound like a certain long-running anthology of poptastic hits, though fortunately the music itself is rather less moribund. Each event sees a different lineup and this evening is no different: there’s been some whispering and sidelong glances in the bar: Gareth Sager, alumnus of The Pop Group and Rip, Rig and Panic will be playing tonight. He doesn’t turn up until the second half, but even without him the audience is squared off against an almighty tentet introduced by and focused around Karl Blake whose large, greying beard flies from his face as if petrified in a big gust of wind. Blake, founder member of Lemon Kittens with Danielle Dax and contributor to many other groups including Current 93, initially appears a little self-conscious as he reads poetry from a small card raised to eye level. Spoken word immediately creates a different focus from instrumental performance and for a moment or two archness seems a distinct possibility. A few of the players look a little bemused, but the ensemble quickly respond to the rhythms and cadences of Blake’s speech and as he pauses they pick up bluesy threads and create loud rallies of sound which wash up against the pauses between lines like sparkling waves.

After 10 minutes or so Blake puts away his card, seats himself towards the back of the stage and picks up an electric guitar. The music takes over or rather, with their focal point gone and no conductor or leader to take the reins, the musicians do a convincing impression of a rudderless ship with the music becoming formless and undynamic. Fortunately after a few minutes they rally: Dave Knight contributes starshower synths like comet particles glittering in the nightsky as the ensemble builds to a shortlived intensity before breaking apart in clangs and scrapes. Nick Smart and Ian R. Watson head off the possibility of any becalming by playing a brief, strident figure over and over again. This has the effect of stirring the hornet’s nest. There’s a sudden moment of noisy clarity as though a blurred photograph had unexpectly shot into focus and everyone launches into a roiling, driving monochordal workout which just keeps steaming on and on. It’s singularly reminiscent of Kraftwerk in their initial Krautrock period circa 1971. Mark Sanders and John Coxon maintain the rhythmic backbone while Tony Bevans plays maelstrom sax like a large, angry moth trapped in a jar. Eventually the group’s energy dissipates and the first half ends with barely audibles breaths channeled through Bevans’ sax and Smart’s and Watson’s trumpets.

Part two begins with Gareth Sager ambling up to the stage edge looking youthful, but anonymously dressed in dark jumper, shirt and jeans. He takes a seat at the centre surrounded by his fellow players and begins to play an amplified clarinet solo whose yowling feedback is manipulated vigorously via footpedal. He sits bent over his instrument, resolutely avoidng eye contact with the audience like a nervous, heavy me(n)tal guitarist. It seems difficult to imagine a way for his colleagues to join in, but Ian R. Watson plays a brief trumpet figure and manipulates the resulting sample into descending oscillations. Others join in with angry drones and mangled guitar until another great wave of sound builds, though the feeling this time is of an ecstatic state achieved by ingesting Seconal. Sager sits motionless at the centre of the storm as Ashley Wales supplies blasts of drill noise. The wave breaks and reveals that it’s made of iron filings and steel shards. A clatterback rhythm breaks out underpinned by some funky sway from Peter Marsh and morphs into a stoned, messy, almost-falling-apart-at-any-moment blues. The rest of the evening negotiates a number of successive passages, one of which is sliced into by Sager whistling a single note repeatedly through index and middle finger. It’s difficult to tell whether the music goes on too long or whether I’m too tired to appreciate it, but it’s undeniable that the evening has delivered some brilliant music, whatever the truth of its later moments.
Colin Buttimer
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