"Ambient urban industrial noise as musical entertainment"
On what must have been the coldest night of the year so far, the management at the venue in London's Tottenham Court Road decided to keep the crowd outside waiting just a bit longer by putting back the door opening time by half an hour. Come 8pm and the respectable throng that had developed couldn't wait to get out of the freezing cold and sample the delights of one of Germany's trendiest electronica bands - in the sumptuous surroundings of the Embassy Rooms. With trendiness, unfortunately, go trendies. Thick-framed spectacles, goatee beards, lanky hairstyles and rucksacks were highly prevalent in the young audience. However, once inside my thoughts turned to more interesting matters such as music. The evening was promoted by The Wire magazine and (slightly worringly) formed part of the London Jazz Festival.
Adam Vert is a young Englishman and his mobile studio. For this first set, the front of the stage was given over to two large flightcases, surrounded by wires and cables. On top was a PC and a (musical) keyboard of some sort. A handful of wooly hat-wearing enthusiasts were assembled in front of the stage as Vert began to vent. At first the noises emanating from the equipment sounded as though there was a dodgy lead somewhere. The sound, starting and stopping, cutting out seemingly randomly. But the wooden digital percussion sounds gradually built up to form a jumbly rhythm track. Adam then turned his attention to his keyboard and began adding distorting bass chords and a simple hookline. As the tempo increased the piece became more frantic. The result was a cheesy soundtrack to a 70s Italian porn movie just before it reaches its climax. The audience clapped politely and slowly began to warm to this man and his machines. What followed was somewhere between the sound of honking horns in some horrendous outer-space traffic jam and the music the Clangers might choose to make should they ever have the inclination. The last five minutes of the set were rendered unbearable by the painfully sharp treble of snares and percussion screaming out of the PA, but by then I'd concluded that Vert offered an unusual diversion but little more.
It was unfortunate for Cologne-based FX Randomiz that his (another one man band) set began almost identically to that of Vert. Random noises through a dodgy cable were again the starting point but here the sound was more muted and bassy. Technically the set up was similar, although FX had invested in a laptop, which at least looked more practical than Vert's desktop PC. Clever brief runs of beeps and repeating patterns of sound were layered over one another, blending noises of various kinds into fractal music. That is, on the face of it, it was seemingly random but the patterns emerged once you listened a little closer. FX Randomiz by name and by nature then.
There was nothing to see in FX's performance beyond the expected knob twiddling, slider tweaking, occasional close glances at the laptop screen and the headphones going on once in a while, but that wasn't a problem. I came to hear the music - that is what is important after all - nothing else really matters. And I didn't care; for what developed could have been the perfect audio accompaniment to a cutting-edge and stylish documentary about spaceflight. After fifteen minutes of evolution a regular drum beat stepped in to take the floating composition in a new direction. The great thing about FX and artists like him is that you couldn't tell how all the different parts of the music were actually being made and that just adds to the magical quality that surrounds machine music. The half-hour composition (written specifically to fit tonight's slot) gradually morphed through an amazing range of tones, tempos and technology and mutated into a musical version of the background noise in David Lynch's Eraserhead. This was ambient urban industrial noise as musical entertainment and it was fantastic. As the audience roared their approval I dashed to the merchandise table to buy the FX album - but it had already sold out. Intellectually stimulating soundscapes to lift you onto a higher plane and the most exciting act of the whole night.
Mouse on Mars
Such was the typically German efficiency of the night that it was just ten minutes after FX Randomiz had left the stage when Mouse on Mars took control of the evening. A two-piece in the studio, MoM are joined by a third member who plays drums live, helping augment their studio sound. All three stood at the front of the stage for the first song - utilising two guitars and a bass. Everything else was on backing. From then on the drummer retired to his equipment and position at the back whilst Jan St Werner and Andi Toma switched between keyboards and guitars as necessary. Great musical names of the past like Kraftwerk and Can are often mentioned in the same sentence as Mouse on Mars (bugger, done it again...) and much praise has been heaped upon these young Germans as following in the ground-breaking and experimental footsteps of their forerunners. There's no doubt that MoM's sound reflects a staggering array of influences - from jazz to trance, drum 'n bass to dub, reggae to techno, rock through to 80's British electro pop. The end result is pretty unique but they are not entirely alone in their approach. But compared to FX Randomiz's half-hour sound sculpture, MoM's four and five minute instrumentals were far from what many would call 'experimental'.
The second track sounded like a song that never made it onto Japan's Gentlemen Take Polaroids album of 1980 - complete with a groovy bending bass, deep digital percussion and retro Roland synth sounds. Our musical journey even took in brief stops in steel-band territory, all the time wonderfully strange sounds pumping out of their two Nord synths and a variety of guitars and other keyboards. The majority of the first 45 minutes was pretty mellow with chilled out beats and wandering guitar lines. From that point on, MoM began to crank it up and the bigger beats, funkier guitars and faster sequencer patterns took control of events. By now the audience was responding with synchronised dancing - everyone on the floor moving in time to the beat and the edits of the colourful video projections. The climax came in an extreme sound of distorting heavy drum 'n bass, sustained organ chords and female vocoder voices. The crowd stood, limp and exhausted, but calling for more. With song titles like Grindscore, Tankpark, Auto Orchestra and Rerelease Hysteresis it was one of those occasions where the songs did live up to their names and the band their reputation. But for me, the star of the night was FX Randomiz and it is there that my money will be spent first.