(live show) 23 JAN 2015 Cafe Oto, London [2015-02-15]Australian label Room40's 15 year anniversary is the occasion for a mini tour featuring label founder Lawrence English as well as notable label-mates Rafael Anton Irisarri and John Chantler. The setting of Cafe Oto for the UK leg follows on from previous appearances both by Irisarri and English where their singular brand of classical influenced drone and ambient music found a warm welcome at the venue among the capital's more discerning listeners.
Both those artists had new material to peddle with English's Viento coming hot on the heels of last year's widely acclaimed Wilderness of Mirrors. Irisarri on the other hand was re-emerging as such after a torrid 2014 which saw his entire studio set-up stolen during a move to New York. His EP Will Her Heart Burn Anymore was also stocked on the merchandise stall.
It was Chantler however who first took to the Oto's unpretentious performing space. Setting himself up behind his laptop with little more than a spotlight for company. His set evinced what would be a central theme of all the performances; a detailed concern with density and dynamics. His set began quietly with strange pings and squeals irrupting sharply on either side of his mix. Gradually other harmonics were added and the discontinuity of individual elements gave way to grander and more coherant structures. Chantler's recent records have explored the possibilities of synthesizers like the Buchla 200 and Serge systems, and his Oto set saw a similar focus on dynamics and pure synthesis. Never particularly atmospheric, nor even rhythmic, Chantler's evocations of sound appear genuinely alchemical and retain the interest all the more as a result. The occasional spike into more noise related territory might have been a jolt to those in the audience more accustomed to panoramic soundscapes but for the most part his twenty minute improvisation met with approval.
I remember Rafael Anton Irisarri's appearance at Cafe Oto in 2010 supporting Grouper, his shoe gaze influences were manifest by the liberal use of electric guitar as a source for his widescreen waves of droning distortion and harmonics. Tonight he stands guitar in hand and sets off a strange field recording of what could be a swamp at night, complete with frogs and buzzing insects. The calm is soon broken as he begins to layer heavily treated guitar loops building up the sound to a suitably epic scale. The sight of him carefully constructing his riffs, taking note of the rhythm and timing so to hit the end of the loop and feed it back onto itself before layering the next was a welcome counterpoint to the purely laptop orientated approach of the previous act. But just as the layering process was reaching its peak and the audience was suitably captivated by the massive scope of the sound being generated disaster struck. A sharp drop off in sound and then silence. His sound card had chosen the worst time to go and meet its maker. Without the supporting technology there was nothing to do but to throw in the towel. It was a highly promising six minutes of music hinting at a more guitar orientated direction far away from his classical and ambient centred records such as 2007's Daydreaming recorded for Miasmah.
But with the craft beer flowing and the audience in no mood for an extended interval Lawrence English quickly stepped up to begin his set. His recent output, not least last year's Wilderness of Mirrors has been influenced by a trip he made in 2010 to Antarctica. He makes special reference to the sound of winds that constantly lash that frozen continent and in particular to their physicality. This insight has been translated into a far more dense and aggressively dynamic sound than his previous work, which like those frozen winds suddenly well up from nowhere to quite literally blow you away. His set provided little new material than that heard on the latter record, but the power of the sound in a live setting coupled with sight of the man himself conjuring up these walls of dense electric reverberations was quite a spectacle.
Such exercises in meteorological harnessing might well be accompanied by visuals of storms, violent seas or perhaps the barren wasteland of Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf. But without these more obvious signifiers the mind finds itself upon more desolate territory. Without the fixed frames of reference the music appears that more strange and all consuming. English masters the ebb and flow of the electricity, well attuned to the moment when to unleash another level of relentless drone or when to shift the dynamics downwards, allowing space to think and for more subtle harmonics to weave in and out. Despite these moments of calm it is the reflections on sheer force that are clearly most important here. The set lasts over forty-five minutes with blast after blast rocking the Oto as if it were Captain Scott's wooden hut, alone against the elements of the frozen continent. It is perhaps fortunate that he ends when he does, the walls of layered field recordings and white out drone ambience subsiding as quickly as they arrived. It has a cathartic effect, not least like standing upon the edge of a precipice or vast vista, experiencing that feeling of overwhelming majesty tinged with terror that Immanuel Kant characterised as the sublime.
Despite the disappointment of Irisarri's technical failure the night was still an appropriate celebration of a label which consistently looks towards musical innovation and produces works of genuine interest.
Photo credit: Lawrence English taken by Andrej ChudyDuncan Simpson