Tonight’s venue is the small event space The Lab run by a non-profit organization in the Mission District of San Francisco. Its capacity is maybe around 200 and I’m going to guess there were around 125 people at the event. It is a low-key location, and likewise, it was a low-key crowd; especially if you compare it to the last time I saw O’Malley, which was getting sonically assaulted by Sunn O))) earlier in the year. This scene was more San Francisco locals on a Friday night than long hair, leather clad metal heads looking for some hearing damage.
Perhaps the most obvious comparison to the aforementioned act is the fact that it’s a duo. It seems, Stephen O’Malley likes to work with one other person and for this intimate gig sees the collaboration with François J Bonnet (aka Kassel Jaeger) in support of Cylene II which was recently released through Drag City.
The stage was set up with a pair of tables sitting together between the two artists draped with a cloth. An incense burner on the front edge suggested we were involved in a ritual or group meditation. The tables were littered with effects boxes, and on Bonnet’s side, modular synths. Bonnet also had a microphone on the table which he used when playing a mini pan flute at the beginning of the set to make layered wind sounds.
In this context, O’Malley used a gorgeous black Travis Bean Wedge which he played mainly with his fingers and plugged into two Fender amplifiers. Bonnet played a vintage Fender offset guitar running into an old Fender amp. They spent most the set facing each other, though Bonnet turned towards the audience occasionally while playing guitar. The volume was absolutely at a reasonable level that did not require earplugs. The PA system was dialed into the space and sounded fantastic.
The set of music was layered dreamscape of sounds. If not witnessing the sound being created, the listener might be challenged to know what the instrumentation was. Experimental music, by its nature, defies description. I can write that time signatures were ignored, and harmonic and melodic ideas were vaguely hinted at over the course of the forty-minute set, but what do those words really convey?
It’s perhaps more worthwhile to describe a non-stop wash of layered, ambient sounds that kept the audience silent and rapt in attention. O’Malley’s volume swells, mostly lacking in attack, though occasionally allowing the sound of fingers picking guitar strings, layered with the modular synth sounds of Bonnet would probably be this writers guess as to what I was mostly hearing. It is difficult to parse out the sounds of the instruments in this type of music exactly.
On the whole, I’d have to say the silent, still audience that sat transfixed for forty minutes is the best evidence of the successfulness of the set of music that the artists created.
Words & Photos by: Tyler Johnston