October 2012. The Booker Prize is awarded to a ‘readable’ sequel to a Booker-winning historical novel instead of a more deserving stream-of-consciousness, punctuation-indifferent single-paragraph amble. Damien Hirst defecates a pregnant Britannia onto the Devon coast. A gargantuan monument to... what? Filmafterfilmafterfilm of Tim Burton goth-gloss starring HelenaBonhamCarcass. A movie documenting the dullest chapter in the history of Led Zep. Mile after mile of bloody Mumfords. Was there ever a recession so vanilla? There are always ripples beneath the insipid surface, however. James, for example, finalist of the Great British Bake-Off, with his free-jazz improv approach to cake-making. The shape of patisserie to come?? We thrust ear-plugs into our pockets and head to a Custard Factory in the hope of feeling something, anything, for a taste of the experimental, the inspirational, the innovative, the... Hey, look, Free School are wearing lambs-masks! They loop their “Hello” intro over synthy bustles. It’s all going well ‘til a vocalist with a black lambs-mask shows up and they regress to New Order: The Ecstasy Years. It recovers when he wanders through the crowd banging a tambourine in his fingerless gloves, leaving the band to their own devices. Elsewhere, Devilman are unleashing warped, throat-throttling bass riffs over 'Scentless Apprentice' drum samples accompanied by two static gentlemen in shades resembling computergame yakuza hitmen. The Modified Toy Orchestra - five wry Men In Black - manipulate children’s playthings for kicks. It sounds like Sid from Toy Story’s torture chamber. It’s both cute and sinister, and the disparity between the toys and the men operating them, the gap between blissful innocence and jaded maturity that they simultaneously reinforce and demolish, is strangely moving. For Saturday’s performance Sir Richard Bishop has “New strings just for you kind people”. His worldly nimble-fingering alternates between calm and frantic. He remains seated, as do most of his audience. The illegitimate offspring of Dylantherabbit and ShaggyoffScoobyDoo talks too loudly at the back. Individuals intermittently turn their necks in disapproval. Nobody says anything, including myself. Perhaps we’re afraid he might tear off our faces to reveal the fairground owners below. He settles down. Then he sits down, to be mesmerised by Bishop’s massive hands. Regrettably, Dylan Carlson proves the weekend’s dampest squib. His guitar work is as solid as ever (his solo piece is a joy), yet the vocal accompaniments are cringeworthy. The first couple of numbers are backed by dystopian laptop beats with posh-girl spoken-word samples. Then he’s joined by a charmless pagan-witch who stands wailing behind a lectern in a shoulder-padded jacket. It feels less like a concert than a sermon by the young Hilary Devey. “This next one is about a witch”, says Dylan. Oh god. It’s ‘Wicked Annabella’ by The Kinks. It’s not very good. Somebody needs to put a stop to all this anglophilic folklore nonsense and bring him back down to........... Earth are slow, Bohren & Der Club of Gore perhaps even slooooooooooooooooowwwwwer. They’re also jazzier. They sound great. They probably look great too, except we can’t see them because there’s so much dry ice. We seem to be watching a gig by John Carpenter’s The Fog. Are we gonna be okay? MERZBOW’s reputation precedes him and he doesn’t disappoint. He’s got a furiously resilient live drummer, various wires and boxes, and even an intriguing thick-stringed homemade noise-banjo-thing. Eugene from Oxbow shuffles on - as far as someone so intimidating can ‘shuffle’ - to supply anguished wails before shuffling off again. Later, Oxbow’s Niko adds some fuzzed-up guitar. The man next to me is mashed off his nut, wearing a sea captain’s hat, actually trying to dance to this rhythmless onslaught of white noiszzzzzzzz
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------ In one of the few quiet lulls the sea captain bellows “ROCK ‘N’ ROOOOOOOOLLLLLLLL!” at the top of his voice and the noise kicks straight back in ------
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If this set has been recorded for posterity, I do hope the sailor’s jubilant holler will be clearly audible on any commercial release. Like Bohren, Hype Williams are barely visible. They begin their set as the crowd is still filtering into the pitch-black, smoke-filled room. The shadowy, faceless figures are blindingly strobe-lit from behind. Chris Corsano drums on their intro. At least it might be Chris Corsano, it’s hard to see, it certainly sounds like the best drummer in the world. Dean Blunt appears to sit at a desk, stage-right. Inga Copeland appears to be centre-stage, singing and swaying. Stage-left there appears to be a woman sitting on what appears to be a motorcycle for what appears to be no reason. Their disjointed, arty take on dance music should be utterly spellbinding, yet the wilfully obscure lighting, presumably intended to retain the group’s air of mystery and focus attention on the music, is actually kinda distracting. In contrast to Hype’s lo-fi performance piece, The Bug ends the night with a slickly professional set complete with guest rappers who implore us to “Make some noise for The Bug!” His groovy WOBWOBWOBbing is essentially all the same song... but what a great song! Yes, we will make some noise for The Bug. Six Organs of Admittance’s Ben Chasny is accompanied by Comets on Fire’s powerful rhythm section for Sunday’s set. Letting the crazy horse within him gallop freely, Chasny lets rip with one blistering guitar solo after another, interspersed with the occasional vocal verse. There’s no huge sonic variation (mid-set acoustic ballad break to let us catch our breath, Chasny?) but it certainly doth rock hard. Gnod have two bassists presumably pilfered from a Levellers commune with a dapper singer who has probably owned a Jim Morrison poster or two, still their phat, spooky krautrock gets heads nodding. In the context of such an out-there festival, an old-fashioned no-nonsense rock ‘n’ roll group can appear positively radical and Dope Body are, like, a proper band. Akin to contemporaries METZ and The Men, they play catchy songs in a messy, rumbling, exhilarating way. Writhing mop-headed frontman Andrew Laumann utilises the Mark Arm raptor gurn, sexually harasses the mic-stand and frequently hits himself round the head. Taking his top off - not in a vain Biffy Clyro way, more like the manic, feral David Yow - he urges the crowd to remove their coats and DANCE! His persuasive charisma triumphs. “Getting better, getting better, seeing some movement in there”, he acknowledges. I CAN’T STAND THE TIM HECKER LIVE EXPERIENCE #thereIsaidit. Either I play Hecker too softly at home or Hecker plays himself too loudly at festivals. In my living room his ambient soundscapes are darkly tranquil; here it rumbles, jars and discomforts. Hecker in the shadows, sitting behind a table, is also intolerably dull to watch and Ufomammut’s proggy metal proves the superior, more popular option. Amid a bill of toy-torturers, jazz fogs and noise banjoists, Kim Gordon might be nothing short of pop royalty, though she’s willing to give any avant-garde act here a run for their money. Body/Head, her duo with Bill Nace, is not for those who booed Sonic Youth at ATP 2000, not for those that skip ‘Contre Le Sexisme’ to get to ‘Sunday’, not for those with crossed-fingers for a folk-cover of ‘My Friend Goo’. Gordon plays guitar with a drumstick, exchanges skree with Nace, sporadically breathes cool beat-poetry. The hour’s most exciting moments occur in the first half; Kim wandering to the back of the stage, strumming while lying horizontally on a row of amps; the duo manipulating their guitar leads/outputs with Kim looping her vocals over the lively crackling. Their momentum diminishes towards the end; Kim resorts to nonchalantly yo-yoing her mic on the floor. The kicking-in of a drumkit might have lifted this latter section. Where’s Chris Corsano when you need him? Probably still coughing up Hype Williams’ dry ice in the pitch darkness somewhere.