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Ahead of the highly anticipated release of Scintilli, the first studio album from Warp stalwarts Plaid since 2003’s Spokes, comes their collaboration with Javanese gamelan musician Rahayu Supanggah as part of the Ether 09 festival.
Support comes from Coldplay-sampled Jon Hopkins - whose anodyne electronica admittedly sounds far better when accompanied as it is here by the fantastic, psychedelic animations of Vince Collins – before Andy Turner and Ed Handley of Plaid take to the stage. Surrounded by the impressive array of an unmanned gamelan orchestra they embark on a short solo set, spacey, cold ambience bleeding into Arabic-influenced breakbeat. This section ends with a gentle guitar-led piece that comes perilously close to Light Programme-style easy listening. An uncomfortable blend of the jaunty and the creepy, it had your reviewer entertaining nightmarish visions of an old-school holiday camp that will never, ever, ever let you go home. Disquieting as that was the tension was somewhat offset by the sheer tedium of watching two men nodding affably to one another as they gently adjusted knobs and exchanged occasional comments behind their laptops. The debate about the visual aspect of laptop-driven music is as old as the form, and it seems a throwback to a justifiably unmourned past to be contemplating the back of someone's fold-down screen without even a lightshow for distraction. It'd be all right if everyone was dancing, but this isn't that kind of gig.
While Plaid's solo section must be considered something of a disappointment, the collaborative part of the evening is of another order or merit entirely. For starters, two blokes on laptops surrounded by nine gamelan players become instantly more engaging on a visual level. Then there are the projected visuals of Shoreditch-based video artists Minivegas to enjoy, whose first ever work was for Plaid (they've since made videos for Bloc Party and Daniel Johnston, among others). Their contribution here is initially impressive. As the 'Ladrang Geger Sekutha' (the traditional piece of welcome) rolled over us, a sleek black shape on the screen pulsed organically in time to the sound of multiple gongs, xylophones and plucked strings.
Watching a gamelan orchestra at work is its own reward. The intricate patterns of hammers against gongs and cymbals are mesmerising to watch, and allied with the music played here, chimes and thudding bass stabs raining down on the subtlest of electronic sound-beds, the overall effect is to highlight just how much experimental electronic music, from Aphex Twin and Plaid on through to the Asiatic-influenced dubstep of Kode9 and Flying Lotus's hybrid glitch-hop is influenced by gamelan. That's not news, admittedly. After all, electronic artists are merely the latest in a long line including Benjamin Britten, György Ligeti and John Fahey to incorporate gamelan into western styles, but it's illuminating to see artists from these two genres working together directly rather than, say, hearing The Prodigy embedding a gamelan sample in 'Hot Ride'.
Wisely aware of this, Plaid are admirably restrained in their performance, adding scrims of synthetic texture and delicate loops to Supanggah's compositions. On 'Goyah' and 'Kartini' in particular the effect is bewitching, muffled synth lines arching over twinkling percussive melodies and the thudding beat of the larger gongs deepened and augmented with echo and delay. By the time the performance reaches its conclusion with the eerie layered dissonances and minor-key sampled string glissandos of 'Mubeng' Plaid, Rahayu Supanggah and his orchestra have all earned their sweetly diffident bows.