Saturday, September 25, 2010

Live venue survey/reviews - Stutter, Maximum Arousal, Make It Up Club

Three programs are currently at the heart of Melbourne's vibrant live experimental music scene: Stutter at Horse Bazaar, Make It Up Club at Bar Open, Fitzroy and Maximum Arousal at The Toff in Town. The artists who run them - Annalee Koernig, Sean Baxter and Oren Ambarchi - forge valiantly ahead in the face of the Hydra-headed pressures of the commercial world and the problematic administration of Victoria's liquor licensing laws to regularly provide programs of consistent aesthetic merit and diversity. Stutter and Make It Up Club are both weekly events, the latter in operation since 1997. A more sporadic affair now than when it started in 2007, Maximum Arousal still provides a vital conduit for connecting Melbourne with the international experimental music scene, playing host to such luminaries as Damo Suzuki, Mani Neumeier and Eugene Chadbourne.


The occasion for this night of diverse experimental sounds is the launch of the Anonymeye CD The Disambiguation of Anonymeye with support from Blankface Distortion and The Bznzz.

Contrary to the brutalist noise connotations of their name, Blankface Distortion are a neo-prog septet who deal in a soundtrack-friendly form of ambient post-rock with instrumentation consisting of guitar, pedals, computer, percussion, sax and electronics.'Melodramatic popular song' is how they describe their sound on their My Space page, listing Italo-Disco and early Ministry as their main influences, but what comes more readily to mind is some liminal nexus of instrumental dream pop and space rock improv, somewhere between Sigur Ros and Bardo Pond. The three pieces they played on this night all rose on a gentle gradient of intensity, starting from two chord string synth patterns or oscillating sequenced loops, overlaid with softly blown melancholic sax, pointillist dabs of echo guitar, minimal drumming and samples fragmented through laptop processing (a spectral bell tree resonated through their first number in a manner recalling China-era Vangelis or Joy Division's 'Atmosphere'). There were some passages of densely textured ensemble playing, scythed by distortion and snarls of volume swelled phaser, where only the saxophone was clearly identifiable. Their last number most readily suggested one path of origin for Euro-Techno and pop Electronica in Sky label-era Michael Rother or Robert Schroeder's IC albums (Floating Music). Opening with billowing sonic clouds dissipated with a steam piston rhythm and finally fading out with glistening gamelan toned electric piano, it was an apt culmination for a pleasant if not particularly groundbreaking set.

Sydney's Th Bznzz are just that, a bass and drums duo with serious chops laying down intense, agitated math rock expressed in a syntax of asymmetric funk interplay and militaristic polymetric motifs, pauses and explosive skronk interjections. If there are individual pieces in their set it isn't apparent - all seems to merge into one polyrhythmic stream whose intensity brings to mind not so much the noise elements of experimental bass-drums duos like Lightning Bolt, more the muscularity of King Crimson's classic Wetton/Bruford rhythm section on some counterfactual historical cusp, mutating into an avant-disco built on warped propulsion. Bassist Josh Ahearn's astonishingly agile finger technique is able to perfectly match Alon Ilsar's drumming stroke for stroke. There are quieter passages where Ahearn's chordal arpeggios meet Ilsar's extended techniques such as rubbing cymbals to create ringing shrieks. In the more intense sections, funky octave-spanning intervallic leaps and explosive thumb pops alternate with plucked harmonics. The music is often mind boggling, turning exquisitely on a dime while winding itself into ever more feverish gyres. You're constantly wondering how they are able to remember or count this stuff, especially as they don't ever seem to even look at each other for the occasional cue. A dense mosaic of interlocking motivic cells fashioned from non-Euclidian geometries.

Anonymeye (aka Brisbane laptop musician and folk guitarist Andrew Tuttle) starts off his short but sweet set with looped harmonica and guitar, layering bucolic lines that are patterned and phased with echo. The introduction of swirling electronics brings about an aesthetic deterritorialisation of heavy industry and pastoral landscape, gradually faded out until there is only live guitar. Single lead notes alternated with bass pedal tone summon the spirit of John Fahey with a rippling cascade of bluegrass flavours.

His second piece moves from a suggested dialectic of nostalgia and progress further into pure electronic abstraction, building a drone pulsar out of guitar harmonics. Arpeggio loops are added, a motif shimmering in vibrato, amid waves of buzzing electronics. Swirling fragments of drone are set spinning in hard-panned echo and then gradually restitched to radiate warmly.



The realm of guitar abstraction is also a favoured mode of expression for Maximum Arousal curator Oren Ambarchi and Marco Fusinato, the artist who opens this evening's program. Fusinato begins his set with a random succession of static bursts and constrained squeals that suddenly erupt into sustained blasts of roaring feedback, broken up with syntactical pauses. Despite the centrality of signal processing in his methodology, this is a highly tactile music, the guitar held close to the body and rubbed while tabletop FX units and mixer are manipulated to produce textures of deep, crackling booms coupled with high pitched scree. The guitar strings are mostly dampened, but occasionally struck open when Fusinato is going for a particularly dramatic gesture. Expressive twists and detours gradually develop into a overwhelming sound wave churned up by hurricane feedback, gleaming ribbons of guitar string harmony braided through the roaring sound mass. At its best, this is a magical matrix music, emerging supernaturally through the nexus of circuits, both electronic and neural, comprising guitar, mixer, FX units and artist.

The Menstruation Sisters deal in a whole other zone of energies, most of them primal, viscous and filled with blind purpose, like the earliest amoebic proteins struggling through aeons of natural selection to form the first semblances of sentient life. They reach for something new by first stripping music making back to primordial first principles: Stephen O'Malley, colleague of Sisters drummer Oren Ambarchi in Sunn O))) and Gravetemple, has spoken of wanting to create music that replicates the surreality of a primeval consciousness and its tempting to hear similar objectives in the Sisters sound. But Ambarchi and fellow Sisters Brendan Walls and Nick Kamvissis (aka Rizili) create something altogether more rough hewn than the glacial electronics, Spectralist leanings, black metal texturalist refinement and elegantly menacing negative spaces of Black One and Monoliths and Dimensions. Their first piece opens with bass and guitar feedback drones building up to a roar before Nick Kamvissis begins striking a tonal cluster, bristling with static. There's a kind of oozing coalescence to this free rock that recalls UFO-era Guru Guru (i.e. the opening of 'Girl Call'), but without that trio's tendency to eventually break out into rock riffs and jazzy interplay. The busiest playing from a technical standpoint is Oren Ambarchi's drumming - cymbal rolls intercepted by hi-hat snap - while Kamvissis continues striking the same non-chord like the tolling of an irregular bell. Brendan Walls on bass sways to catch every nuance of feedback from his amp. NK starts singing along with a primitive guitar motif while the drumming becomes more intense. At its best, this is true O-mind rock that would do the Psychedelic Stooges proud, an extension of the kind of No Wave deconstructionism that Phlegm, Kamvissis and Ambarchi's 1990s experimental punk band with Robbie Avenaim, only occasionally essayed from amongst their gonzoid postmodernist palette. Kamvissis gets a little free form and then returns to the same Neanderthalic refrain - then it's over.

Their second number is an even more severe study in atechnique and asynchrony, strumming and drumming in glorious disconnect. It's impossible to tell if this number has been poorly rehearsed or it's meant to be that way. Kamvissis' atonal drone guitar is disharmonised with droning, atonal singing. Walls meanwhile strums the same single note. Nothing quite matches up in this loose, non-groove; Oren's 4/4 pattern is the most together thing while the others seem to be playing in a more textural fashion, but overall this set sounds less inspired than a previous performance at this venue in 2008. See below, a document of that event by ArchiveAlive

A tricky balancing act is required with music built on a disregard for traditional notions of technique, but where some vestige of the contours and dynamics of song structure is still present. On this occasion the group mind seemed a little short on the necessary ectoplasm required for these raggedy assemblages to really cook. Nevertheless, there were still plenty of pleasures to be found: an aggressive, surf punk-styled number features Kamvissis wailing in a creepy vibrato that recalls Neil Hegarty on 'Yin Jim versus the Vomit People' from Royal Trux's splatter psych masterpiece Twin Infinitives; another song is made from detuned bass and guitar warbling on the sludgy beat, incantatory and hypnotic; the next number has the guitars detuned even further into a microtonal morass that provides the backing for Kamvissis' brain-damaged shaman intonations. Finally a drum beat comes into it, Ambarchi providing a solid funky backbeat and occasional encouraging yelps for single note bass and vocal mantras. They close with a number in a 'LA Blues'/The Dead C vein, 'Footprint' and here something closer to true energy music emerges in a rolling dynamic of ecstatic wailing and drum blitz, voices and feedback united in lunar serenade. Oren's grunt, a kind of solar plexus impact fashioned as ultra-rock gesture, signals the end of the set.

The headlining Hair Stylistics set begins with crackle and looped whistles and hoots, a horde of ciccadas and owls playing call and response in a forest of static bursts. Micromanaged manipulations merge into looped fragments, vocalese patterns intersected by fluctuating wavelengths. This is rich, deeply textured noise, teeming with alien life and reminiscent of a 2008 performance at this venue by the Fluxus artist Yasunao Tone. But whereas the invigorating, immersive environment conjured by Tone's damaged CD montages at times suggested the kind of biomechanoid ontological horror depicted in Shinya Tsukamoto's film Tetsuo: The Iron Man (i.e. being trapped in its fetishist character's nightmarish fantasy of a metal world), Masaya Nakahara's noise cosmos is an altogether more cartoonish and light-hearted place to be, even if it does operate with similar power dynamics. Piercing whistles and trickling liquid patterns metamorphose into slicing rays of static, sawtooth waves and chirruping, skull-piercing tones. Popcorn rattling, insectoid whistling, shuddering bass tones collapsing against each other across the stereo field.

A high pitched whine agitates alpha waves on which blocks of feedback and oscillating squiggles erect the kind of monstrous architectures that emerge holographically in the original noise manifesto, Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. Warring interference waves then tear these structures down to be drowned in noise tsunamis. Nakahara starts screaming into the microphone, conjuring a similar bacchanalian ecstatic mode to that in which Hijokaidan operates, though eventually he cannot even be heard over the constantly mutating stream of roaring noise emanating from his tabletop effects spread. Cracked hallways formed by reverb, flecked with rivulets of static, lead to a wind tunnel symphony where the lower tones coalesce into a hallucinogenic chorus. Sentient squiggles hover in a wave field like dancing cobras or angelic voices.



Noise also plays a big part in the MIUC program, but so too does jazz, contemporary classical and free forms of improvisation; current curator Sean Baxter and original founders Ren Walters and Will Guthrie are all strongly linked to those scenes.

The Skepper/Harrison/Lewis/O'Hagen quartet open proceedings with their post-Electric Milesian avant-jazz. Chris Skepper's trumpet tone is faint air blowing to begin with over Andrew Harrison's distorted, pitch bended electric piano. Chris Lewis enters with extended percussion technique: resonant mallet-stroked cymbal like Tibetan bells, bending the tone by pushing down on the cymbal's cone. John O'Hagen lays down rapid flurries of contrabass riffing. Skepper's trumpet playing certainly resembles Miles Davis in various senses: the combination of distortion processing and lambent plainchant-inspired lines and in rapid, vertically contoured arpeggio runs; mercurial eddies of digital keyboard from Harrison suggest Herbie Hancock in his fertile post-Bitches Brew, pre-Headhunters phase. Chris Lewis isn't laying down any solid Al Foster backbeats, though; he's in constant motion, rapidly switching between conventional and extended techniques, playing all around the kit. There are constantly shifting groupings of call and response with tight conversational interplay particularly emerging between drummer, keyboardist and trumpeter. A mad, off-kilter swing passage led by Skepper has a piano solo that recalls Mike Garson channelling Cecil Taylor on David Bowie's 'Aladdin Sane', all cocktail hour block chords and scurrying atonalities. Then everyone starts getting more textural: the trumpet returns with low, sinister, distorted lines; much exploration of cymbal grain and arco contrabass; Harrison switches from skeletal, wah-wah bended e-piano lines to discordant synth strings for an ominous passage. Then muted trumpet over an aggressively smeared amplified bass line and exploratory drums (fluid patterns of rolls, tom tom & cymbal over steady hi-hat). A Monk-ish trumpet line sets the angular crazed swing mood off again which slowly winds down and dissipates. The quartet's second number sets the stylistic polarities of the first into even greater juxtapositional contrast, featuring swinging trumpet over a rolling, dissonant sea of lurching bass, rambling drums and jagged, tone cluster piano. The music proceeds to further describe and negotiate waves of propulsive interplay until finally crashing on its own shore.

Buggatronic is the duo of Daniel Beuss (percussion) and James Hullick (electronics). Beuss taps and then vigorously shakes a metal cylinder to generate echo patterns that turn into regular techno beats, these machine pulsations overlaid with toe curling distortion blasts: a siren tone pierces textured sonic fog in which some details are distant, others in your face. Elements of techno regularity drift in and out of the set, providing rhythmic hooks to leaven the pure noise element, which is insistently fierce in volume. Beuss shakes the cylinder over his mixers like a shaman. Subsonic tones rattling the speakers, piercing whistles falling into the shrieking void like screaming James Dickey air hostesses plummeting Earthwards or an octopus army of chainsaw-wielding bagpipe players on the march. The phantasmagoria eventually settles into a manipulated and patterned dronescape. Beuss plays a small metal box with springs in it: internal boings processed into a musique concrete of shimmers and explosive roars, gradually reduced to a whining tone with rotation, throwing out sparkles of ring modulated sound. Hullick drapes a golden shaker and metallic spheres over a stick and walks off the stage, shaking the apparatus ritualistically. Eventually, all details are subsumed into a pulsating matrix of feedback and overtones with perceptible features: a high pitched skipping tone; low end roar breathing in and out; other dimensional rustling and scrapings.

Pausa II featuring Ollie Bown on laptop, Brigid Burke on bass clarinet and Adrian Sherriff on Zendrum and trombone is a new media performance group with backgrounds in, according to the Australian Music Centre site, "contemporary classical, free improvisation, noise music, plunderphonics, algorithmic composition, non western influences and breakbeats" ( They came together through a common interest in "developing live works that reflect the role of the computer in instrumental improvisational contexts." This is a trio whose ambition for cultural synthesis bears favourable comparison with John Zorn or Jan Balke and his Magnetic North Orchestra.

They open with tumbling, hurtling interplay between Sherriff on Zendrum, played tabla-style with fingers and thumbs and Burke laying down skittish lines and growling multiphonics. Later she switches to kazoo to create duck calls that are then processed by Bown into molten streams like cellular log drums. Burke weaves a mixture of richly overblown and gently tongued lines around processed smears of piano string tones and samples of straightahead rock or jazz drumming reconfigured algorithmically into angular and mutable patterns. This multiform improvisational conversation between real time performance and cybernetic matrix casts off endless shades of invention: tendrils of disembodied piano tone mixed with weird clarinet overtones like didgeridoo; intangible, reverbed tones somewhere between guitar, harp and cimbalon; swirling low end sustained emanations and skittish thumb piano/marimba tone from Sherriff's Zendrum; disembodied laptop voices, ring modulated and timestretched, interplay with clarinet and mbira. Sherriff switches to trombone for some extended technique display, fluttering at the edges of tone, intermingled with Burke's high pitched clarinet bleats. Then a trio of Sherriff on shakuhachi, Burke on kazoo and Bown generating avian chirps; disembodied timpani strokes herald a passage of alien gagaku morphing into Barronesque science fiction soundtrack. Laptop percussion/birds/electronic pulsations move about in irregular Brownian motion until a Zendrum figure, initially off-kilter and distorted, enters and mutates gradually into a hypertense, synthetic funk. This sets the groundwork for the set's culminating passage, a thing of coruscating, levitational beauty. Spectral, plangent harmonies from the laptop float around the rhythm while Burke plays call and response with the desolate tones, adding her own elongated phrasing and skeletal melody. This form of shimmering ambient luxuriance over pulsating, shifting Zendrum figures is one particularly appealing direction for this talented trio, but by no means the only one suggested by their abundant range of improvisational strategies.


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