Barn Owl / Koen Holtkamp / A-Sun-Amissa @ The Lexington, London 01/05/2013
The last time I went to a gig at The Lexington it was to see the peerless and utterly bloody brilliant Enablers (not to be confused with Southern Lord Entombed-core poppets Enabler) completely captivate a packed and sweaty room of well-up-for-it humans ranging from twonks like me that also go to grindcore shows in grottier London pubs, to old Rick-Rubin-alikes that stand alone somewhere near the back in Can shirts. Pretty much the same could be said of tonight’s crowd, and maybe that says something about the venue successfully carving out a sort of niche for itself as the go-to place to see great bands that aren’t necessarily connected with any one clearly identifiable scene. I don’t know, but whatever it says or doesn’t say, the venue has consistently good sound and the staff are really nice, so more power to it etc. – especially in the wake of more and more of the slightly larger London venues being taken over by fucking energy drinks and completely turned to shit in pretty much every respect.
So first on are A-Sun-Amissa, who I could’ve sworn were supposed to be a three-piece, but for whatever reason perform as a guitar and violin duo tonight – both players accompanied by an expensive-looking number of pedals. To begin with they play a couple of pieces that sound like the quiet forlorn parts of Godspeed You! Black Emperor but less raggedly executed and without that ‘punk’ sensibility I guess. I think this is just about going to be the size of it for the rest of their set, but they go on to cover a lot of ground from almost straight neo-classical to minimal drone – all of it really pretty beautiful. The violinist also occasionally loops and layers some half-wailing, half-chanting wordless vocals which give those parts an almost religious resonance. They only speak once to say thank you to everyone for listening in probably the most sincere and hushed fashion I’ve ever heard come from a stage, which only endeared them to me more. A-Sun-Amissa played a really quite diverse set in terms of musical style, but it remained focussed in terms of mood and tone. I didn’t really know much about them before this performance, but they were probably my favourites of the night – and that thing of hearing something new that you love is one of the best bits about going to see live music.
Without drumkits or more than two people per act the changeovers were pretty quick so I just had enough time before Koen Holtkamp to grab another drink for me and my girlfriend (yeah, that’s right), and meet a mate who tells me he couldn’t make it to Desert Fest because a cricket ball had hit him in the parts and caused a rupture in one of his testicles – an injury which had left him pretty much unable to walk. Obviously this conversation was one of the highlights of the evening for me, but it was cut short by some po-faced little toss-worm (the sort that this kind of gig will draw out unfortunately) telling us to ‘shoosh’ even though Koen Holtkamp hadn’t actually started. Anyway, Koen Holtkamp did eventually start, and the first thing that struck me was that he looked like a very lazily imagined fisherman from a children’s storybook, trying to fix his macbook by using a much more dated piece of technology housed in a wooden suitcase – the contents of which was not visible to us. Holtkamp has recorded under the monikers Mountains and Aero, but tonight appears simply by his real name, and armed with laptop, mystery box, and guitar makes one sustained piece of Emeralds meets Fennesz electronic drone, mixing subtle pulsing melody with washes of noise. The whole thing is curiously relaxing despite the sometimes harsh edge added by the swathes of static. It plays out in such a way that it sounds more like the audible products of a man contentedly tinkering with machines than a ‘piece’ of music, but there is something really neat about having seemingly deliberately created that feeling of incidental sound.
Lastly it was Barn Owl – the band that I actually knew something about and the one I had really come for, but the Barn Owl that I knew and had seen at Supersonic Festival one or two years before were a completely different animal to the one that performed tonight. I was a fan of 2010’s ‘Ancestral Star’ album which was something like Earth’s noir desert music with a more spaced out Lichens feel to it; but Barn Owl have turned a sharp corner creatively, ditching the guitars and lonely cowboy vibes for a staggeringly complicated array of pedals and wires, and a much more strictly electronic sound. Arguably the same hypnotic aims still apply, and loosely it still operates within the same drone framework, but this Barn Owl is much more like Harmonia style krautrock via ultra dense, avante-garde dub and techno. The two men that are Barn Owl – Jon Porras and Evan Caminiti – each man a desk, and the two at work together look like a small but intensely dedicated team of old fashioned switchboard operators; pulling wires out and feeding them back in elsewhere constantly, and twisting and pushing assorted knobs and switches.
It’s pretty staggering to watch how busy and precise their process is, especially for music that is sometimes so monolithic or minimal. I have to say that on record I didn’t much like the new Barn Owl, but live it completely made sense, and it took on a really important physical dimension – the massive and ominous bass often literally pushing me back and rattling the stage itself. We were down the front for the set, and had to keep moving the collection of glasses and bottles that had gathered on the front of the stage whenever a bassline big and persistent enough made them rattle into one another. Barn Owl performed one uninterrupted piece that settled down and rose up in terms of intensity several times, moving between the soothing and almost unnerving while doing so.
For me, there weren’t quite enough ideas on show or enough real variation to warrant the length of the set really – but I don’t know to what extent they’re improvising each night, and perhaps it’s the case that it just peaked too early or played on the same dynamic device too often for my liking (my mate with the ruptured testicle thought so too I think, and left early). Having said that, a criticism about set length is a small one, and Barn Owl were sonically intense as well as interesting – both to listen to and to watch – and really I wonder if there’s something a bit cathartic and ultimately good about enduring music that intense and so removed from the notion of ‘song’ for a bit longer than you necessarily want to.
Scribed by: Chris Moore
Photos by: Abbi J. Davies