I've decided that gigs are like buses. You wait forever for one to come along and then several arrive at once offering you too much choice. I'd not been to a gig at the ULU for something like 15 years then, before I know it, I'm there twice in less than a week! (See Mouse on Mars review.) This time it was for Japanese techno artist Ken Ishii supported by Speedy J.
A DJ spun some contemporary electro whilst Mr Speedy set up his Apple notebook, mixing desk and plugged in a few cables. There was an anticipatory air as fans strutted impatiently around the hall. The thumping bass of the DJ was making my eyeballs vibrate to an alarming (an uncomfortable) extent. The unassuming Speedy J finally strolled onto the stage and began his work. I know some industrial enthusiasts have had good words for Speedy J in the past and I could immediately see why. Harsh white noise distortion was filtered and tweaked for ten minutes before any discernible rhythm emerged let alone a 'beat', which made its arrival all the more powerful. Only, it then quickly developed into far more accessible beatz and lost all semblance of risk-taking.
Up until now most everyone there seemed a little perplexed by the lack of any 'music', but I was having a good time. When the switch to old skool techno was made everyone else cheered, whistled, jumped up and down, arms waving - the lot. Now, I wasn't having a good time. This was all far too predictable, rave-like retro for those uncomfortable with going out on a limb. After the challenging first ten minutes the remaining hour was a bitter disappointment.
Pioneer of three-deck DJing and known for his penchant for early 80s European leftfield electronic acts like DAF and The Normal, Japan's Ken Ishii was joined by an unidentified percussionist and huge video projections in this one-off UK performance.When compared to Speedy J, Ishii is in a different league altogether. He'd a variety of hands-on equipment instead of relying upon a computer and keyboard alone. Likewise, the percussionist had a staggering array of instruments at his disposal - prompting thoughts that perhaps they'd broken into and cleaned out a drum store earlier that day. Most of the percussive instruments were hidden - making identifying them difficult, but Ken's live partner enrolled the use of drum sticks, hand slaps on digital drum pads, marraccas, tom toms and cheap drum machine sounds creating a wide palette of drums, beats, thuds and thumps.
Photos L-R: Speedy J, Ken Ishii, Ken Ishii
"Moonquake", "Stairs", "Bitter Bump Blaster" and "Extra" - these and other words appeared on the image wall behind the two performers. Song titles perhaps? Or were they simply words that Ishii liked the look/sound of? "Bitter Bump Blaster" reminds one of the Japanese desire to add street cred to products by having English words slapped onto everything from car tyres to cosmetics. The words don't have to make any sense together - just sound or look good when combined. Ishii's own name appeared in large letters several times throughout the evening adding a slightly corporate branded label to the night. This was an intense ride - like someone on LSD flying into space. Atoms were vibrating, rockets took off, brightly coloured patterns swirled about, truncated missile explosions, dramatic shifts between calm and storm. Was this performance having some distorting effect on time? It seemed to go on forever, but was enjoyable nonetheless. If Hutter and Schneider of Kraftwerk saw Ken Ishii live and witnessed his combination of sound and visuals then they would probably give up for good. Only when Ken switched off the visuals and went more hardcore did he weaken his grip on my attention. Once again, the more familiar path, particularly after what had already been discharged, was less enthralling.
The design of the live 'look' was dazzling. Everything from synchronised CGI swimmers and floating cherry blossom in the projections to the primary colour co-ordinated tops of the performers - Ishii in lime green, the percussionist in strawberry red. The hi-res CGI projections were treated with old-fashioned optical effects like fish eye and multiple image lenses creating an odd combination of retro 60s/70s images with cutting-edge CGI. Ishii and percussionist were also interesting to watch as they flitted between machines and instruments utilising different playing techniques. As the set progressed, the percussionist let his hair down (literally) and unzipped his top and went for it big time. Sweat pouring off him, this was the most compelling techno I've ever seen live. Ishii creates organic music - constantly evolving, tribal at times, reliant more upon the complex composition of many elements rather than falling back onto a heavy beat to carry it along. A remarkable talent producing some remarkable music.