Shining though the depressing morass of the now ubiquitous festival is a truly remarkable annual endeavour: Tilburg's ZXZW, now in its fourth year. Put together with passion, wit, intelligence and a fervent integrity and commitment to independent culture (the festival's subtitle), it redefines and simultaneously clarifies the potential for events of this ilk.
We arrive early Friday morning, find we're sharing a hotel with the cultural theorist Mark Dery and wander around the quiet and elegant town of Tilburg in something of a remarkably good mood. ZXZW seems to have fused with the whole place through osmosis - banners and venues are everywhere, from your conventional stage and fleapit hall to bars, pubs, warehouses and even a synagogue!
Tonight promises to be extremely noisy and this is clarified as Norwegian three-piece Arabrot bludgeon with a superior onslaught of doom-punk heightened by some surprisingly funky and complex rhythms. Religious Knives start off, incredibly, with a psychedelic tranc-ey sprawl; a tribal pulse, abrasive Doors-ish organ, backing vocals and a never ending but calm lead guitar. The second song has shades of early Jefferson Airplane but enough originality in its stuttering tempo to hold its own and assert their own presence. After this though, the remainder of the set disappoints, the sense of landscape feels less pronounced, song structures more derivative.
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DJ Spykidelic hails from Croydon via Oslo (naturally) and plays a truly inspiring set of dubstep and grime but rendered weirdly trippy and thus wholly unlike anything to be found in Shoreditch right now. I have to admit to feeling a little trepidation about tonight's breakcore extravaganza (four hours!), especially under the influence of Festivalitis (immediate alcoholism and insomnia). First surprise is that it's packed to the rafters from the get-go and proceeds to get busier. And my god, are these people up for it. As well as the expected sweaty convulse-like-your-life-depends-on-it dance, we have people throwing shapes, 'vogueing' (!?) and god knows what else. It's the most fun you could imagine. From the melee of acts, though, a few really stand out.
Perhaps the most exciting musically is Kid Kashore who beats all-comers by churning out a fearsome blitzkrieg of Indian saturated gabba-techno-nosebleed-mania complete with crazy mic shouting, Nazi salutes (!) and spiky stage movements. His sample use is a thousand times more innovative than anybody else tonight and whilst I was expecting fun, I wasn't expecting anything quite as original as this. Other highlights are Judith Priest who wins costume of the evening hands down by appearing in full religious garb and then unleashing breakneck fire and brimstone. DJ Speedranch is, of course, a veteran originator with his distinctive and fearsome end-of-the-world thunder. It's like every single sound and beat generated by rave culture being tumble-dried in a black hole and shot back at you at hyperspeed. At 4am I finally crumble but the rest of Tilburg seems happy to party on into the night.
Mutiny On The Bounty
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First act of Saturday is Total System Failure, who are a duo on saxophone and mixing/fx excelling in spacious and glacial epic ambient-noise that reaches such sublime clouds of sound that it feels like it's being generated by the dry ice and not the equipment. They reach a depth of sound achieved in prime time God and Techno Animal - not the kind of comparison to throw around lightly.
The Cul De Sac bar hosts Luxembourg's Mutiny On The Bounty and they take full charge of the absence of a stage. Whether it's my own encroaching age, or something in the water in western Europe, the 'Bounty look incredibly young and very happy. These four kids are so fast it's untrue. They take all the technicality of Tortoise and then soak it in infectious hardcore adrenaline worthy of prime-time Slayer. It's ecstatic and totally convincing: they don't break for a second and your body has to decide whether to be awestruck or to just embrace it. Speed-prog without the pretentiousness, it's a truly joyful noise and if they can translate that energy in a studio setting then this is going to be one band to watch.
Raxinasky follow Bounty and terrify the crap out of everybody. They comprise a semi-naked vocalist also playing mixing desk, a manic drummer and a dreadlocked guitarist with 'kill reggae' emblazoned on his guitar. Theirs is a furious noise entirely enlivened by the frequent descents into electronic noise, the contrasts creating a wild dynamic. Highlight of the day/year/decade has to be Saturday's Eurovision Noise Contest which is more hilarious and more intense than its already insanely-promising title implies. Three judges mark bands out of ten for noise, performance and fashion (the latter being a particularly inspired choice: one act is cruelly slated for wearing yellow socks).
Eurovision Noise Contest
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The battle ends with Norway's Sten Ove Toft and France's Sheik Anorak duelling it out for the title. Anorak generates huge intense drones from a laid-down guitar before turning to his drumkit halfway through and attempting to summon an early Armageddon. With only a guitar for company, the leather-clad Sten is much more mobile. His axe gets completely trashed early on in the 'set' but somehow continues to make a racket despite being in several pieces. It transpires that Anorak wins by a whisker, but DiS feels the night really belonged to Sten.
Finally, a technical hitch assists the most haunting set of the festival. Norway's Arabrot spin-off This is Music Inc. are restricted to just their singer/guitarist by a gremlin in the works, and he delivers a fragile, naked set reminiscent of Keiji Haino in introspective mood. An affecting turn and a surprising end to a spectacularly noisy day.
It's Sunday, the sun is shining and ZXZW have not only provided a roller skating rink soundtracked by uplifting soul music in the centre of the town for the kids, but also an outdoor venue offering both headlining acts of the festival (The Sun Ra Arkestra and Wire) for free, along with a full day's programme. In a nutshell, it perfectly reflects the spirit of generosity, openness, lack of cynicism and commitment that pervades in Tilburg. Understandably, it's busy, and we're greeted with an unforgettable image as The Sun Ra Arkestra take to the stage for the sixth time this festival. It's an incredibly poignant moment created by a group of musicians who abandoned any pretence of a normal life many years ago, and who still refuse to surrender their beliefs to the post-modern age. The energy might not be as volcanic as it used to be but their entirely unique fusion of tradition and freak-out still stands as one the most vibrant and profound artistic projects that this sorry-ass planet has ever witnessed. There are kids dancing on the stage, middle-aged parents, hordes of doom-metal fans, stragglers, pensioners and, over to the left, the astonishing and legendary John Sinclair, manager of the MC5 and founder member of The White Panthers. Talk about diversity.
The Sun Ra Arkestra
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Moved beyond words, we head over to local record shop Sounds who provide food, beer and smoking facilities. This apparently is normal. So, it would appear, are the two guys dressed in Mexican wrestling costumes enjoying all the facilities to their utmost! Black Napkins are an astounding home-grown trio and one of the finest acts that we see all weekend. Their initial forays are insectoid scrabbles, scratchy fragments - drummer Gerri Jäger scrapes at his skins, pulling out a chain, finger nails and a coffee foamer from an arsenal of sound generators. Jasper Stadhouders clicks, chops, strikes and dampens and cuts every noise short on his guitar the instant it happens whilst also brandishing a variety of found objects. On trumpet, Sanne van Hek initially blows so gently as to be almost inaudible. Black Napkins truly play their instruments, every part becoming a source of sound. Amongst all the itchyiness, though, everything coalesces and they get right on one; a solid beat and huge blocks of noise that always startle after the quiet that gave rise to them. Yeah, it's jazz if you want to call it that but you could call it many other things and be partly right but still never get there. They are the first of three acts at Sounds who play with such an astonishing preternatural and democratic understanding of each other that this single afternoon could justify the trip here by itself.
Pu:ppkakkbaggrlull (try telling that to somebody who asks you who you watched today) also make use of a battery of sound generating equipment and are equally fond of silence. They fill the room with glacial ambience, billowing drones and noisy outbursts, but nothing sounds forced. It's a sound that just seems to take shape in front of your eyes, entirely organic and completely mesmerising at the same time. Then Talibam take to the floor. I had been forewarned - and now you are too, but it won't help you if you encounter them in future. Garishly attired, Matt Mottel plays synthesizer and Kevin Shea does something to drums whilst sporting huge white glasses. Mavin Kett (as they collectively are known) talk over each other, forget what they're doing, stop sentences half way through; in the middle of a proclamation of some sort a jagged blast of synth noise kills the others words. And then without warning you're in the middle of cartoon thunder: drums faster than the Apocalypse, keyboards as abrasive as a cheese grater on skin. Talibam take that moment in 'Sister Ray' when John Cale decides to kick the shit out of Lou Reed as their starting point. They rock the shit out in every way imaginable: fury and fun, performance and presence. Talibam are a punk Coltrane, noise as affect - everybody in the audience is left smiling.
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Kylie Minoise strips down to his pants, turns out the lights and straps feedback-generating devices to his hands. Our intrepid lensman Stu valiantly fights to get a picture as Kylie screams and bounces off the walls. I cowardly move backwards only to find ten minutes into the set that Mr Minoise is lying right between my legs. And then it's over. Short but... well, just short. By this point, we're done.
As we head back to the hotel, we're already planning next year's visit. This festival truly is the most remarkable experience and needs to be witnessed by anybody who genuinely loves leftfield music and still holds a torch for the idea that independent culture can exist without having to compromise itself or secrete itself away in an elitist hidey hole. In a word, then, ZXZW is incredible.
Find the festival's official website here
Photos: Stuart Green