Until this evening, in the four and a half years that I have been a single parent I have used a babysitter precisely zero times, but when the boss man reached out and asked if I could cover the Bristol date of Steve Von Till’s intimate solo tour, it seemed like an opportunity that was too good to pass up.
I was probably 16 when I first heard the terrifying Through Silver In Blood from the man’s most famous musical vehicle, the genre-melting Neurosis. Since then, I have been captivated, not only by the Oakland avant-garde band’s ability to redefine the metal landscape, but also by the far-reaching projects of Von Till himself which include material recorded under his own name, but also that performed as Harvestman which encompasses folk, Americana and drone.
Touring on the back of 2020’s moving No Wilderness Deep Enough and 2021’s A Deep Voiceless Wilderness, the tour has comprised of ‘various statuesque and unusual venues’ rather than your regular club gig spots.
Fyfe Hall is located upstairs in the Trinity Centre in Bristol, a Grade II listed former church that is now an arts charity and community hub, which has hosted many a cool gig in the larger downstairs space – my last visit being the Therapy? Troublegum 20th anniversary show which the nagging voice in the back of my head I’m trying to ignore tells me was some 9 years ago…
The smaller room is backdropped by a huge, impressive stained-glass window that framed the events of the evening. A seated affair that allowed the performers to hold the reverent audience in a hushed and captivated stillness, broken only by hearty applause. Having got a decent table in the second row and dead centre, I was relieved that even at a seated gig I can find the tallest member of the audience and be sat behind them, something which thankfully did nothing to dull the experience.
Devon traffic meant that despite the best of intentions and pushing the speed limit, we arrived minutes after local act Fuck Authority had concluded their set. Comprised of one man wielding a double bass and theremins, it was only the morning after I discovered that I had actually seen the former ex-Big Naturals member opening for industrial titans Ministry on their AmeriKKKant tour just down the road in SWX in 2019.
While some attendees of that gig may not have always appreciated the ominous drone, esoteric string sawing and eerie electronic noises, in this setting, it would have been the perfect atmospheric opening and I am sad to have missed it.
Up next was Belgian double bassist and composer Pieter-Jan Van Assche, a member of Church of Ra who also performs solo under the moniker of Innerwoud. Having released his second album Furie in 2023, ‘the kid’ as Von Till would affectionately refer to him when we spoke later, channels ambient and neo-classical influenced drone through his instrument of choice, layering each composition with dense loops.
Keeping the interaction confined to the humblest of bows to denote the end of a piece, Van Assche cuts a focused figure as he manipulates the strings and creates percussive sounds, extended by the array of pedals at his feet. The mournful bends and rhythms fill the room, matching the grand setting, holding the crowd in the moment, defying classification, but at once beautiful and somehow unsettling.
Following an interlude which included several moments that felt like it had perfectly captured ‘the brown note’ and animal noises that grew in power, it was time for the man himself to take the stage. Accompanied by Dave French (YOB/Brothers of the Sonic Cloth) on synths, guitars and percussion, Braden Diotte (Faust, EXO//ENDO, Pinback and Tarantula Hawk) on organ and modular synths, and the returning Van Assche handling the low-end, the atmosphere is relaxed as Von Till warmly greets the audience and remarks on the beauty of the building, noting it’s history from a shell of a Church, to home for ‘crusty old punk shows’, and now an arts centre. He invites people closer, to relax and submerse themselves as they will be playing ’80 or so minutes of music’.
The Fyfe Hall itself feels like a fitting place to host this almost divine spectacle of intense, but otherworldly tranquillity. From the moment the man’s cavernous, gravelly voice echoes and soars in that commanding, yet soulful manner as anyone familiar with his work outside of Neurosis is aware of, it fills the room and holds the audience in the palm of his hand.
As the music swells and evolves, reverberating with gentle swirls, subsonic, forceful drones and synth changes, the sheer force of seeing the band live and being in the presence of the man, calm but emanating energy like a beacon, makes listening to the albums seem almost lightweight in comparison at times.
Playing a mixture of his solo material such as older numbers like Birch Bark Box, My Work Is Done and interspersing this with brief readings of Harvestman poetry and cuts from the stunning No Wilderness Deep Enough like The Old Straight Track and Dream Of Trees, it almost doesn’t matter what songs were actually played in this rapturous moment.
Von Till’s hybrid of haunting folk and ambient gothic ebbs and flows, washing over you with deft orchestral subtlety, adding an all-consuming gravitas as with eyes closed, gripping the microphone as if it is the only thing holding him up, he intones lines like ‘Bleeding all over our lives’. When the band builds to the slow-moving, yet dramatic movements of climax at various points during the set, it is enough to move you to tears.
The material grows emotionally heavier over the course of the time, even when Von Till dons his glasses to recite brief passages of poetry and by the time they conclude on Known But Not Named the stunned silence is almost defeating for the briefest second and then the catharsis is released and the audience breaks into grateful and enthusiastic cheers and claps.
Afterwards, Von Till came to mingle with the thinning audience, graciously giving time and respect to all who approached him rounding off the tone of the evening. After being a fan for thirty years and never having had the chance to witness him live in any capacity before, this was a truly special occasion in a setting that complimented and enhanced the experience.
If you get the chance to catch any of the upcoming dates, you will be seeing one of the scenes legendary artists in the most unique and rewarding manner.
Words & Photos by: Mark Hunt-Bryden