It had been close to 18 months since I'd first seen Appliance on a Mute Records' 'new' artists night (along with Add N to X and Hovercraft) at the Garage. This evening's sell-out event at the ever so trendy Institute of Contemporary Arts looked like it had the makings of a memorable night.
Bridge and Tunnel
As the last strains of Gangster's Paradise faded out, a static projection of the interior of an all-American trailer flickered into life on the large screen at the back of the stage. Looking every bit the natural inhabitants of the mobile home behind them, the three-piece Bridge and Tunnel walked onto the stage. Their blue and red check shirts and voluminous sideburns only added (deliberately, surely) to the white trailer trash image. I half expected one of them to pull out a stone whiskey jug and start blowing, so the laid back, melodic art rock they sprang on us came as something of a surprise. Relaxed instrumentals of sampled sax loops, cheap Casio organ chords and masterfully blended bass guitar and drums were combined with equally slo-mo, but noticeably more 'traditional' MOR-based numbers - yet still the guitar solos were noticeably (and thankfully) absent. The latter songs more like the UK space rock of Alphastone or Spiritualized but without the guitar wash feedback. "That's our rock/pop song." singer Nathan Bennett pointed out - as if sensing concern in the audience that the remainder of their set was going to fall back on American rock music traditions to get them through the night.
The reflective keyboard lines and mellow guitars created a chilled-out environment that was juxtaposed by the singer's heavily-tattooed forearms! As the heart beat tempos continued the odd twang of gee-tar was the only real clue to the origins of Bridge and Tunnel's sound. Time floated by, then they cranked up the pace and suddenly after relaxing to Air-like warbling space synths, we were jerked into virtual metal territory for five minutes. Fortunately, this was merely some sort of self-effacing, post-modern statement or something. But it did the trick. You were on your guard from that point forward, but time was running out. The muscular guitars continued - joined by a doom-laden bass synth. The final track's monstrously relentless (fleetingly Mouse on Mars) jam session finished on a high and the London audience loved it. Bridge and Tunnel sound like a UFO landing in the heart of an American redwood forest. It's an odd audiovisual experience but, somehow, it touches down pretty convincingly.
Having gone all electro on their latest album Imperial Metric, I guess the stripped-back, minimalist technology occupying a small space on the ICA's stage, should have come as no surprise. However, having seen them before when it was a Krautrock-inspired, guitar-powered show of strength, the sight of two tiny Akai S20 samplers provided lots of novelty appeal. Of course, the guitars were still in attendance but the synths were given centre stage as much of the set was given over to the new Mute LP. Trying to ignore some really annoying people 'dancing' near the front, I attempted to focus on the set.
The band's decision to build their own studio and fill it with new technology is what led to the more overtly 'electronic' tones of Imperial Metric. This much was understood. I hadn't realised that Appliance have more than just embraced their shiny new gadgets, but had become obsessed with their squelchy possibilities. Jumping in at the deep end of the new material, kicking off with plinky plonky discordant pianos, the response to the first song by many in the audience was, if you'll excuse the pun, 'muted'. There were clearly a sizeable number in the audience who believed that synths and samplers had no place in Appliance's instrumental armory. Well, "Fuck 'em" I say, and I think the Appliance lads would say the same. But those blinkered individuals need not have panicked. When lead singer James Brooks swapped synth for guitar there was an almost palpable sigh of relief.
Still, the overall effect now is one of Kraftwerk shaking hands with first album Verve. Yet Personal Stress with its twangy guitar (reflecting Bridge and Tunnel earlier) and droning keyboards kept them in the extended family of Spacemen 3, Alphastone, et al. As they switched between the new and old material some sort of balance began to emerge that appeared to keep most of tonights sell-out crowd contented. There will be those that will say "Sorry lads, you've gone too far" and turn their backs on Appliance's recent developments. Others will take this natural progression in their stride and revel in the almost surrealist juxtaposition of diggerydoos, painful guitar feedback, astonishing drum machine beats and impressive sampling techniques. It was as though Appliance had made a conscious decision to rewrite the music for the Mos Eisley cantina in Star Wars, and pulled it of with aplomb.