I have seen Mogwai hold a one-band festival in a car park next to the Clyde; a dozen-plus bands (including Manchester’s aptly-named sons Barbarians) destroy a rehearsal studio in Maryhill; attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion (sorry); even then, the Oval Space is still a novel venue to me. A warehouse-like venue and art space off Hackney Road, it’s the neighbouring gas works that stands out, the venue looking out over a field of concrete domes and steel framework. The curious mish-mash of art and harsh functionality makes it an appropriate setting for tonight’s first, and for many primary, attraction.
Bringing together Hungarian free-drumming monster Balasz Pandi, Swedish sax machine Mats Gustafsson and the king of Japanoise, Masami Akita, a.k.a. Merzbow, is no mean feat and the early onslaught of static and piercing feedback is just as overpowering as such a line-up could expect to be. They successfully obliterate all external factors, the world reduced to so much cymbal battery and white noise, and it’s only when Pandi begins to switch his emphasis, pushing forth tribal, tom-heavy rhythms, that anything resembling form or substance begins to emerge from the sheer fog. It’s still incredibly focused, and as Merzbow dials up the frequencies with a perverse lack of restraint that’s worthy of an inquisitor, it stops being aural and takes on more physical qualities. Put simply, it destroys.
It’s so full-on that Pandi resorts to using four sticks to fully render his barbaric expression. When Gustafsson switches to baritone sax, the sounds are like the dying cries of a wounded herd animal, bleating and desperately vying to be heard, stranded as it is amidst the desert soundscapes of Akita. As for Merzbow, at times he seems to be striving to make this impossible. He comes armed with pedals which can sharply escalate his range to ear-perforating frequencies with physical ease and while he is sometimes meticulous and deliberate, working with his partners to create monumental discord and filling the gaps between their own rhythmic exultations with diversity and a palette of nightmare-derived sound, at others he seems to want nothing but to obliterate their existence, attacking his instruments with manic intensity; at these points it seems like the other two might as well just sit back and have a breather.
Despite having this option literally at his fingertips, for the most part he seems content to be part of the team, sometimes dimming the light to let Pandi’s unpredictable battery take over and sometimes merging with Gustafsson to alternate their constructive and destructive tendencies, the three striking up an odd sense of synchronicity. They don’t try to mix their noise and jazz tendencies because they don’t make any distinction between the two, and while it never becomes any easier to take, it’s still staggering to witness.
When Tim Hecker was touring the UK some years ago, he made the rounds of churches and cathedrals, using their impressive acoustics and ambiance to amplify his own airy aesthetics. From this standpoint, these industrial surroundings couldn’t be more different but when Prisms rears its hissing, crystalline head, the effect remains the same. Hecker draws upon this industrial framework and complements his own with its help, the jarring melodies and washes of static drone forming a cocoon which envelopes the vast room; in the absence of physical light, his sounds form their own warming glow.
While there’s a definite emphasis on Virgins, a return is made to Ravedeath, 1972 with a full rendering of In The Fog which works just as well as it did in those places of worship, his battling between shade and light still as beautifully controlled and absorbing, though now with an added physicality thanks to an impressive sound systems that fills the air with a rumbling undercurrent of bass thrum and rendering the rising swirls of synth as pricks of brilliant sonic light. With few exceptions, people are transfixed, and with the dim light most are resorting to closing their eyes and drifting where Hecker wants them to go.
As the set progresses, the distinctions between songs diminish, which seems in keeping with the spirit of the evening. It doesn’t make sense to break up a performance like this and Hecker’s lush constructs work much better in this format, intermingling and flowing from emotional dips to subtle climaxes and all the way back, smoothing and reducing the more jagged and abrupt elements to outcrops in a vast ocean of sound. In its emotional resonance and reliance on tonal control, Hecker’s work is a notable departure from that of his support. It relies on the audience’s own participation and interpretation, more personal and less cerebral, although both certainly had a physical component. While they are almost completely separate, it does feel like Hecker had the biggest impact tonight though. Perhaps it’s because the first set was something to be witnessed, the second to be experienced. Then again, maybe it’s just fatigue and post-gig bliss that are saying this. Either way, both performances were incredible in their own unique fashions.
Scribed by: Dave Bowes