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State-X New Forms Festival: Day 2

img  Tobias

There’s a moment of stress for me right at the beginning of the second day of the State-X New Forms Festival: The performance of Fear Falls Burning has been brought forward from 10:45 pm to 09:30 pm! While I had planned on strolling through the building without haste and obvious direction for the first hour of the evening, I now find myself running over to the basement to make it in time.

Playlab International feat. Kim Fowley
And still I can count myself lucky I found out at all. For just until a short moment ago, I was still standing in the small hall, watching the “dirty old man act” of Kim Fowley conducting the Playlab Orchestra. Well, in fact, it looks like a regular band on stage, but there’s a trick to the line-up: It has never played together on stage before. Playlab is an idea rather than a group. For six years already, its organisors invite over five musicians for a meeting, an afternoon of rehearsals and one performance in the evening. After that, they will go their own separate ways again.

Equipped with harmonica, organ, cragged acoustic guitar and a rapper, Playlab develop a muddy, swampy and thickly flowing sound. Just the perfect basis for Kim Fowley’s lyrical improvisations. After one track is over, he quickly asks for the name of the next song and then builds instant American short stories from there, stories about dreams, desires, longing and lust. The band is completely under his command: They start and stop at his will, follow his directions in terms of dynamics and even their frontrapper delivers his rhymes at a wink of his little finger. Fowley turns into a father figure, who wants his children to do well and grow, but feels the great need for his advice. His act is not strictly surprising, but this man has such an utter presence on stage that one immediately forgets about that.

Fear Falls Burning
I leave the hall for a brief moment and then find out about the abovementioned change of plan. When I check in at the basement, I arrive to the last minutes of the second screening of “Dronevolk” (the documentary about the Belgian Drone- and Folk scene I’d watched in its entirety last night). When the credits have ended, the light goes on in a corner of the room, where Dirk Serries is sitting behind a bunch of effect pedals spread out on a blanket on the floor. “Hi. Welcome to the Guitar Drones of Fear Falls Burning from Belgium” he says, then plays two or three crunching, seemingly random chords on his guitar. All of a sudden, there is a change in the air, the pressure rises, everyone clusters in front of the stage and a deep, sonorous groove of tones begins.

The session begins with a haunting melody, occult almost, full of mystique and magic, floating on top of the distorted chords. At first, there are holes in the texture, bound together solely by the ambient atmospherics Serries waves into them. But more and more, he sews the islands together, smoothening out the gaps and billowing the resonance into the pounding heartbeat of a supernatural entity. This is a drone if ever there was one! The PA is not even that loud, but the various layers, which are being manually changed and adjusted, fill the entire room and hit the audience full in the face like a cloth soaked with hot water.

In stark comparison to other drone builders, there is actually something to enjoy on stage as well. There are neither dancers nor any kind of choreography whatsoever. But the way Dirk Serries, this two metres tall man, sits crouched and cringing on a tiny stool, his entire body folded over his guitar, his eyes fixed on the fretboard, his fingers gripping it as if it were a gun, leaning forwards, backwards and back again, gives him the aura of a Blues singer. The minimalism and purity, the broken beauty of a man with nothing but his instrument baring his soul is gripping.

In the second half, the Fear Falls Burning sound at first leans towards a more open mood, but Dirk Serries pushes through and unites the loose ends into a single stream. At the end, high, ascending bends, close to the sound of a boy’s choir, are pitched ever more upwards in a transcendental hallucination. Then the gig ends as suddenly and spontaneously as it had started. Serries pulls the plugs and I run back into the night again for the dark wonders of Motorpsycho.

The band has already begun as I enter the big hall and are in the middle of a long improvisation. I am standing at the back of the room and because I have accidentally broken my glasses in the afternoon, the only thing I can see from back here is a huge screen with flashing images in spectral colours and some vague figures marking time and shaking their long hair from left to right. I ascend to the highest balcony to get a better view. To my complete surprise, I find out that there actually just three musicians performing. Motorpsycho have played about any style imagineable over their long career, from garage rock to psychedelic pop, but tonight their songs are long, meandering symphonies full of modal moves and sudden switches in tempo and arrangement. It beggars belief that this small trio could be responsible for this orchestral sound, but the evidence is standing right in front of me.

Quite a bit of that can be attributed to the incredible drum performance. Kenneth Kappstad has built up his drumkit on a red carpet and it really looks as though he were playing in a world of his own. His style ows a lot to the great Jazz drummers, is filled with myriads of minute shuffles and fills, yet never looses the big picture. Guitarist Bent Sæther, meanwhile, plays fuzzed out chords through an array of stompboxes, enriching the functional bass lines of his congenial partner Hans Magnus "Snah" Ryan. Their communication is wordless, yet tight, their frail but piercing voices joining into lustrous choruses in between the instrumental excursions. Motorpsycho are recreating an illusion of the 70s that is all the more exciting because it is infused with futuristic technology.

While Motorpsycho are a telepathic unit and the crowd are airdrumming and headbanging along as if there were no tomorrow (and for the State-X New Forms Festival, that is actually the truth), the sound leaves a lot to be desired. Blurry and opaque, hardly a riff comes through clearly and the vocals all but disappear behind the frayed-out wall of noise. Probably the band wants it that way. In the moody ambient passages, their sound actually impressively approaches the drone genre, the guitar chords echoing into themselves and eruptions of harmonics exploding on top. But the heartfelt version of “Vortex Surfer” at the end shows that Motorpsycho do not need to hide behind their effects and makes one wish for just a little more acoustic openness next time around.

After half an hour, it is time for yet another three-piece to make their appearance at the State-X New Forms Festival. Jesu is the latest brainchild of Justin Broadrick and after his mindblowing and seminal work with Napalm Death and his industrial fantasies in conjunction with Godflesh, he now seems to have found his own personal spot. Jesu is all about heaviness and frailty, it is an objectively futile search for resolution that is rewarding merely for its own sake. On stage, the show consists of nothing but Broadrick hammering out the riffs to a stoic bass and the powerful and triumphant drumming of Ted Parsons, but Jesu build a deep ambiance of yearning and desire, circling the same painful spot forever.

Again, I am watching the band from the balcony high up above and it is remarkable how stripped-down the performance is. The instrumentalists never ever leave their assigned spot, their immobility mirroring the loop-character of the music, which is built around simple, but emotionally charged, repeating chord progressions. Even though Justin Broadrick is clearly the frontman of Jesu, driving the songs with his painfully bare and naked vocals, it is the sludgy and overwhelmingly dense sound that the band creates as a whole which turns this into a memorable act. The songs are astoundingly similar, but it is this very feat of never reaching one’s goal which makes Jesu so strong: In its constant suffering, the band reaches an emblematic uniqueness, which sublimates their outwardly easy guitar/bass/drum exercises to art.

Scout Niblett

After this exorcism, I am in need for something slightly more tangible and concrete before the doom mass of Sunn O))) begins. I return to the small hall, where British-born US resident Scout Niblett has already started her set. Niblett has just recorded an album with famous producer Steve Albini and it is easy to see why this combination should work perfectly. Scout is an angel and a devil up there, a creature of love and goodness, of envy and deceit. Her pieces are song-made fantasies, sometimes consisting of little more than a few simple words and the demand to “put on that dress!” Her melodies are sweet and lenient, yet interrupted by sudden outbursts of contradicting emotions half-way, as if Niblett were haunted by Tourett’ean visions. Somewhere between punk and folk, singer/songwriter and associative poetry, her style finds a niche inhabited by noone but herself. Of course, the fact that she is supported by a male drummer will have many calling this a reverse shot of the White Stripes, but Scout Niblett has enough stamina to put her own stamp on things – including a voice which can go from whisper to meticulously exact screams in a fraction of a second.

Sunn O)))
I can unfortunately not see the end of her set. The time has now come for the biggest event of the evening: The celebration of the drone by Stephen O’Malley’s Sunn O))) (see picture) Just a couple of years ago, this band was nothing but an obscure footnote to the Doom Metal genre. By now, though, they have ascended the ranks of the experimental scene. For me, this is the first time I will witness one of their concerts live and after several accounts of what to expect, I am still unsure whether or not this is going to be a pleasant experience or not.

I hurry back to the big stage again, where the Sunn O))) fans are already piling in. I make my way to the front, where you can feel the anticipation looming everywhere. Already, smoke is being blown onto the stage, obscuring one’s site of a gigantic wall of amplifiers, stacked upon each other like a work of modern art. The light is down, the spots are a blackish green and blue, the pressure’s up. Then five figures clad in monk’s robes enter. One of them carries a trombone. He takes his place in front of the microphone, then starts to play.

At first, there is nothing but a pentatonic melody, reverbing cathedral-like through the room. The motive takes on stray notes, gets more abstract, ghoulish, bizarre. Stortorous echoes are interspersed with the main theme, turning the music more textural and elusive. Bass notes trickle in, loose at first, then developing into formations, clusters. A morbid air of nothingness is spreading pervasively, as the sweet smell of smoke reaches the outer capillaries of the lungs, but there is a strange sense of beauty lingering in this picture as well.

And then it starts. From way behind, a deep resonance amasses, working itself into a low register attack. The sonorities get broader, more spacious and wider. Gradually, the whole piece is transformed into a landscape of pulsating waves, hitting the audience again and again.

I can feel my ear plugs moving, shaken by the music. My body is put into different sorts of vibrations, as the chords change at intervals of minutes. There are long, soothing vibrations and shorter ones, constant, breathing frequencies as well as those turning into a stutter towards the end. All around me, people are staring in disbelief, but hardly anyone is leaving the room, transfixed by what is happening on stage. Whenever they are not playing, the monks are raising their arms towards the ceiling, waiting patiently before delivering the next blow. There is something ridiculous about the image, but noone’s laughing. The work lacks any kind of recognisable structure, works exclusively with pitched down power chords. It takes a short break with broken guitar splinters at the middle, before diving into the deep again.

The music of Sunn O))) is sort of Rock n Roll insider joke. In the world of Metal, the quest has always been to be harder and more brutal than anyone else. Sunn O))) has now taken this to the max: Beyond this border, there is nothing but pain. On the other hand, the outcome of this approach is a daring experiment as well. On a physical level, music is nothing but manipulated airpressure and the band is making it felt. As the piece develops, you can actually sense yourself judging the next chord on the merits of its impact on your body, instead of its value in terms of music theory. Just like Francisco Lopez (whose subsonic tectonics are also placed at the frontline of what is still audible), Sunn O))) have taken an improbable idea and turned it into a reality. Taken on its own, their work defies categories and can no longer be rated with the regular means at our disposal.

It’s not an easy ride: After the last note has subsided, I feel elevated, relieved and a little bit seasick. The public, however, thanks the band with a long and emphatic applause, which the monks relish with arms upraised.

Moving Ninja & Goodbye
I then pay a short visit to the crunching digital drum n bass of Moving Ninja, who has the small hall in ecstacy, before again taking the nightbus home. This evening, with its emphasis on amplifiers and drones, has numbed me down as much as it has thrilled me. The constant synaptic attack is certainly making itself felt now. Other than that, however, I know I have just experienced something special here which will definitely remain with me for quite some time. The convergence of styles the State-X New Forms Festival is aiming at has worked out organically and impressively and I certainly hope to return again next year. For now, though it is goodbye to The Hague again with thanks going out to the hospitality of the organising committee!

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: State-X New Forms Festival 

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