Dunedin Fringe Festival
Bruce Russell live
Text and photos by Reid Gilchrist
According to our Yanqui imperialist standards, New Zealand just seems like a wee tiny little thing but it is just about the greatest place on the planet. Packed inside an area roughly the size of Colorado is a vast diversity of scenery with a real "drool cup required" kind of loveliness to it. Furthermore, with a total population less than half of NYC, New Zealand has produced a music scene over the course of the last two decades or so that is the rival of any larger country in the world and the envy of many of them. So, yeah, size doesn't really matter too much. (Insert the obvious joke here if you must.)
That the abundant worth of NZ aural product has escaped the attention of mainstream consumers should come as little surprise. Most of these dullards didn't even know that New Zealand was in fact an extant nation until The Fellowship of the Ring came out. Tsk, tsk. Consequently, many of these musicians labor underneath a cloak of obscurity so thick that finding their releases can require some effort (though well worth it) and international touring remains a fundamentally iffy proposition.
Since I don't return from grocery shopping nearly often enough to find my favorite NZ artists making a racket on my balcony, I jumped right at the opportunity to see a whole heapin' helpin' of them at once during the recent Lines of Flight festival and Arclife showcase, both a part of the larger Dunedin Fringe Festival.
Due to the courtesy of this magazine's proprietors, I offer the following recap of the events. This is not merely meant as a series of gig reviews but hopefully as a partial overview of the contemporary NZ scene. All opinions as well as smart alecky remarks contained within belong to me. So, don't go yelping to them if any of my comments rub your rhubarb. If you have any further questions or want to know how to get your digits on this stuff, please email me at email@example.com. But first, allow me to explain something about my bias. Obviously, I am a real big fan of the music from this country if I'm willing to fly all the way over to see some of it. But I am not some kind of blind Kiwiphile that finds worth in anything out of the Antipodes.
Frankly, I don't care where anything comes from and a schmuck from Palmerston North has no more justification in wasting my time than a similar schmuck from Cleveland or wherever. New Zealand has a great music scene, not a perfect one. They can produce terrible music with the worst of them. (Lest we forget that Split Enz are still worshipped like deities in this place.) My point is this: If it seems like there are a whole lot of superlatives in my evaluations, it is because they are completely warranted, regardless of any geographical qualification.
Lyttelton. A nice, sleepy port town edging the volcanic mountains of the Banks Peninsula. Slightly famous for providing the backdrop for Peter Jackson's The Frighteners. But, of course, infinitely more renown the world over as the home of Bruce Russell and Roy Montgomery. (Although they don't live in the same house. Contrary to the widely repeated assertions of a famous reporter for Seventeen magazine, not all Kiwi musicians live communally in the same abode.)
The former can frequently be seen holding court and dispensing excellent Cuban coffee at the No. 6 Café on London St. Given how prolific his output of drone-y sweet guitar melancholy is, I imagine the latter spends most of his time recording at home.
Tis also the location of the Wunderbar, a solid contender for the coolest watering hole I've ever entered. The decorative scheme defies verbal description beyond an insane, kitschy combination of Mannerism, Absurdism and Surrealism. Pretty much worth the trip over just to drink yourself into oblivion at this place. I'm here to catch a pre-Lines of Flight warm-up gig by Polio/Eso Steel/Nick Hodgeson.
Polio is Peter Wright's Powerbook pseudonym, a sonic recycling project where he takes the analogue bits he dislikes and manipulates them into unrecognizable forms. According to the TA/W comp, "cheap bourbon" also factors into the process somewhere, making it the only known example of "Bukowski Electronica." The last release I heard, Gemini, is a collection of elegant, spacious, shifting drones. The perfect soundtrack for sitting in Middle Of Nowhere, Texas awaiting the inevitable alien invasion. (THEY have been watching us for years, you know.)
Tonight's shindig was a wee bit more erratic. A scattered laptop symphony for MPD sufferers. Structurally closer to the avant-classical clatter of Stockhausen or the tape shit disorientation of Tod Dockstader than any of his mouse-clicking contemporaries. Repetition was not the order of the day. This pleased me to no end. More pleasing is that this super hootenanny has, I believe, just been unleashed publicly under the title Soyuz and you can hear it for yourself!
Eso Steel (A/K/A Richard Francis) has also donated money to the Apple Corporation but that has about as much to do with anything as the proverbial question about the price of tea in China. The actual sounds discharged most closely resemble the distant satellite rumblings from the deep space planet where machines reign supreme. As with the Borg, resistance is futile. If the term hadn't been co-opted long ago by individuals with highly questionable grooming habits, I'd call it "industrial." I mean, to my ear, the Eso Steel stuff sounds a lot more like a logical continuation of Throbbing Gristle et al than Nine Inch Nails or whatever rump-shaking electric boogaloo is going by this name nowadays.
Mr. Steel's actual methodology involves reassembling field recordings of city environments (along with the occasional-gasp!-musical instrument). A sort of "urban folk music." A novel approach indeed but novel approaches are a dime a frigging dozen in the "electronic music world." Like I could truly give a crap that Heiner Meiner Kunstkopf really did construct his technonazi album entirely out of the sounds of his can opener or that DJ Crab Dip works exclusively with the surface noise of ELO records if it bores me coming out of my speakers. What's important with Eso Steel (or Polio for that matter) is that the results transcend any mere novelty status. Neophytes would do well to invest in either Galleries 1-3 or Snake Processions.
For reasons only comprehensible to young men in their early 20's brimming over with excess testosterone, Mr. Hodgeson, best known as the leader of the beatifically brain-frying CM Ensemble, choose to ROCK OUT in git/drums powerduo style. Making music for men with mullets, Members Only jackets and aviator sunglasses that live to play air guitar in their underwear (Jockey, of course!) and bang their fists against the dashboards of Z28s. Since I had neglected to take my Geritol that morning (and had every intention of keeping my pants on), I had some difficulty in succumbing to the vibe presented. Furthermore, after the radical experimentation of the preceding artists, covers of "Brown Sugar" ain't gonna move me a millimeter anyway. Mr. Hodgeson is indisputably a very talented and energetic drummer (and, given my high opinion of the CM Ensemble, I really wish I could say something more positive about this set) but I believe it to be in his best interests to discontinue his association with this Aldo Nova impersonator as soon as possible. The fact that this guy wasn't attired in a cheetah jumpsuit is only a minor consolation.
The ride down to Dunedin was just swell. Good weather. Good company. Good scenery. All this and a detailed tour of West Timaru! What more could any human being possibly ask for? For the uninitiated, West Timaru is just the most exciting place! "The 8th Wonder of the World," basically eclipsing the other 7. The sight of the absolute wildest nights of my life. The details of which must be suppressed as their publication would cause certain legal complications should I ever try to re-enter New Zealand. I truly wish I were only kidding. West Timaru is just that kind of town.
Passed the "big fish" featured on the cover of Gate's Lounge. It's, um, impressive to say the least. For some reason, the ridiculously oversized roadside object is a bit of a Kiwi trend as I have seen the huge tomato, golf ball, apple, sandfly, fruit medley, etc. at various points about the country. Since I stop to see things like the toilet seat art museum or "Pilgrimage: A Journey Through The Life Of Christ In Wax" here in the States, I think this is just dandy.
Anyway, for the requisite local color, I can tell you that Dunedin is a charming college town of about 100,000 people. Founded by Caledonian settlers, travel brochure lit frequently promotes it as New Zealand's "Scottish city" although, truthfully, it is only slightly closer to Scotland than my ass is at this very moment. Right off, there isn't nearly as much in the way of kilts, haggis, or public drunkenness.
For some reason, it has been my lot to run into the most bizarre assortment of characters on the streets of this fair city, often leading me to wonder if there is a grossly under-funded asylum nearby. In this burg, I have encountered clairvoyant cabdrivers, drunken derelict dykes, yammering Yoda impersonators and other kooks that can't be described alliteratively so I won't bother.
But basically, I would have enough material just from these experiences to fill up this report without ever talking about the bands. A very stimulating and entertaining place. Needless to say, I love this town. Any city that hosts a Lesbian Sci-Fi /Fantasy Ball is alright by me. Now anyway, Lines of Flight is a bi-annual event put on by the fine folk of the Metonymic/Medication labels as an attempt to showcase the immense depth of talent within New Zealand's "free music" community. This was the second occurrence. Hopefully, there will be many more in the future.
The lineup of the festival was pretty tremendous. Almost everyone from the last one made a return appearance.
Alastair Galbraith's recent move to the North Island excluded A Handful Of Dust performance. A shame as the video I saw of their '00 show caused my gobs to smack but good. Quite possibly the best thing they've ever done. A CD of this, under the title Mare's Milk Mixed With Blood, should hopefully see release sometime before the end of the world. Assuming, of course, that our President doesn't destroy the planet sometime before next week.
Crude's relocation to Auckland has similarly prevented his reprise. Aside from being a big fan of his beautifully warped music (think Tony Bennett's bastard kin on a bad trip covering Chrome and T. Rex simultaneously), I can't think of a single human being that is more reputed for zany hijinks on and off the stage. I wanted to compare the reality to the rumors.
A few new additions didn't pan out. Australian tonal drifters Dworzec, who've released 2 superb CD's of swelling AMM-esque scrape, couldn't get the plane funds.
Antony Milton is an upstanding young man whose development as a practitioner of "everything INCLUDING the kitchen sink" home recording has been truly fascinating to witness. Alas, other travel plans prohibited an appearance by either his real self or his "fucked-up hillbilly folk music" alter ego Swagger Jack. (Think a non-crazy Kiwi version of Hasil Adkins crossed with the Residents.)
And, like so many people, the Dead C. literally changed my life by being one of the greatest bands in the history of recorded music and Gate gets my knickers in a twist with regularity. So, Michael Morley having a baby and not playing in either was a wee bummer. (O.K., so his partner had the baby. Though an exemplary musician, to my knowledge, Mr. Morley has not been able to defy the laws of biology that prohibit a man from literally bearing a child.) Since all of these fine fellas have profoundly impacted my recreational moments many times, twas disappointing. But I can't complain much with everyone that was there.
Anyway, walked about town for a while. Passing thru the Octagon (a structure strangely not named for the Chuck Norris/Lee Van Cleef film about ninjas and shit), I spied Birchville Cat Motel supping with the Sandoz Lab Technicians. Exactly the kind of celebrity hobnobbing that makes Lines of Flight the Cannes of the music world. The paparazzi were naturally quite thick. After watching Mr. Motel clobber a few particularly irritating photographers (Cherubic appearance aside, this rogue isn't called "the Sean Penn of free noise" without reason.), I headed over to the Arc Cafe for the commencement of festivities.
K-Group is also sometimes referred to as Paul Toohey, known for his work with the fantabulous Surface of the Earth. As some of you may be lucky enough to know already, S.O.T.E.'s massive, buzzing, trancelike feedback artistry will pin you to the nearest available wall with great force and conviction. More importantly, you will not only welcome the experience but also beg for more.
Earlier K-Group offerings drove down a different street in the highly desirable neighborhood. This is both hunky and dory. And these elements do remain to an extent.
By this date though, Mr. Group's shivery electronic tweaking has progressed to a nonpareil style that challenges such facile referencing but I did use to have an extremely loopy girlfriend that endlessly fantasized about being immersed in a bath of warm maple syrup. Personally, I prefer soap and water. Call me weird.
I mention this because the spacey, reverie-inducing aspects of these ornate soundscapes were so soothingly euphoric that it might function as a suitable sonic substitute for my ex's atypical hygienic ideas and it is decidedly less messy.
It's staggering to consider that this represented Mr. Group's first foray into the realm of public performance. He played with the skill of a seasoned professional. My breath is appropriately bated for his next release.
For me, Flies Inside The Sun have always reconciled the seeming contradiction of a beautiful apocalypse. This is the way the world ends. Neither with a bang nor with a whimper per se but in series of caressing explosions. (Or explosive caresses. Take your pick.) Sublimely unusual patterns emerge out of the chaos, quickly dissolving until the next pattern evolves. Crescendos are reached, held until they burst. To the uninvolved listener, it might seem unhinged but a more concentrated perspective reveals an uncommon clarity of vision. I don't know if you'd call it rock, jazz, noise, or whatever. I only know it's not just for breakfast anymore. Seems mystifying that the "standard" trio format of guitar/bass/drums could be responsible for such revolutionary results. I mean, these are the same instruments used by a googolplex of totally ordinary bands the world over. For reasons unknown, a local youth chose to express his enthusiasm in a mélange of wildly interpretative dance moves. The exact content of these interpretations remains a mystery.
Seeing this set, I was quickly reminded what a seriously fucking good guitar player Brian Crook is. The man appears to be a master at any idiom handed to him. As fond of his other work as I am, he really should spend a bit more time making a racket. He's awfully damn good at it. With Kim Pieters moving to Christchurch, this was likely the last performance of this Flies lineup. Twas a suitably grand finale but the band will allegedly continue in a different form. Though I will sorely miss Ms. Pieters and her frantic bass running, personally, I also can't wait to see what surprises the next phase will offer.
In the cosmology I've invented for myself, Omit stands as nothing less than a God. Granted, I doubt such a belief system will ever achieve sufficient strength to supplant that Jesus guy. But it has worked wonders for my life and can do the same for yours. Furthermore, this theology deserves more adherents. Why Clinton Williams isn't an international celebrity remains beyond my understanding. The inventive, meticulous nature of his ominous sound sculptures makes many trendier options in the field look like the watered down Depeche Mode it really is in comparison.
Omit's extensive use of analogue devices (many of his own design) does put his stuff into the same galaxy as such early '70's Teutonic electronic pioneers as Tangerine Dream, Popul Vuh, Conrad Schnitzler, Cluster, Kluster, Klaus Schulze and the like. But this ain't no rote retro Komische revivalism. Williams's work stands firmly outside any definable temporal context. Or any context of any kind whatsoever.
His music merges darkness and beauty like the aural equivalent of watching a raging thunderstorm or walking thru a creepy, dilapidated house covered in gargoyles and decaying vegetation. You know, kinda spooky but you don't want to avert your attention either. The sort of tuneage that requires no hallucinogens, eliciting a psychotropic response even when you're stone cold sober. Best of all, there is absolutely nothing calculated or affected about these creepy/druggy auras. I strongly doubt Mr. Williams gives much thought to either. It just comes out the way it comes out, most unpretentious.
As with so many of the festival's participants, Williams used the forum not just to rehash prior efforts but also to launch into whole new areas of exploration. For example, one track actually contained enough of a forward moving beat (something of an Omit first as most of his beats just kinda hang there statically) that it could almost be called, excuse the foul language, "techno" if the term wasn't a serious insult. Put it this way, if that genre sounded more like this piece, then perhaps my buttocks would jiggle with more regularity.
The Sandoz Lab Technicians concluded the 1st programme with definitely their last gig for the foreseeable future, possibly ever. What with James Kirk gravitating to Wellington to achieve blender-metal superstardom with Wings of Vengeance (easily the most gloriously absurd ensemble I've heard since, um, I dunno, Faxed Head or something), practice will be impractical. At least until Mr. Kirk gets ahold of a transporter.
Anyway, their performance. Allow me to explain by digressing for a moment: When I lived in Boston, I had a café down the street that made the best muffins in the whole of muffindom. A friend of mine ate one and gasped "Jesus! That's so good it's fucking scary!" She summed it up exactly. There is something essentially vexing about encountering this type of pure perfection within a particular form.
Admittedly, the trademark Sandoz confection of ethno-splatter folk, lethargic raga rock, ambient jazz, improv discombobulation and whatever else strikes their fancy will likely never appeal to as many taste buds as a blueberry muffin. But these boys have reached a similar pinnacle in their individual craft. Their stylings are so fully realized by now that they don't sound like anyone but their own bad selves and the quality is so superlative that it induces the good kind o'gooseflesh.
There remains something tangibly "not quite right" about the Sandoz sound and that's just about the rightest thing about them. As Nick Cain once wrote about the Shadow Ring, "nothing is where it 'should' be, everything is where it 'is.'" That can sum up these jokers as well. If you don't recognize the utterly complimentary nature of such a proclamation, then I suggest that you return to the collection of baseball cards, as you will undoubtedly find it a more satisfactory pursuit. (and while we were at it, slugger, I just inherited a rookie season Whitey Ford that I'm willing to auction off.)
Going home, I ate at Great Wall Takeaways, which a friend tells me is the only takeaway that can be seen from space. ("Takeaways" are NZ fast fried food stands FYI.)
See Part two of the article
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