It’s with a faint sense of trepidation we hike forever upward toward Alexandra Palace, not least as the sweltering trudge seemingly represents the metaphoric arrival of festival season which begins in earnest in but a few short weeks’ time. It’s the time of the season for early starts and later nights, lager glugged from the moment morning stumbles into afternoon as liver, lobes and inner ears quiver as one. Which painfully reminds me I’ve neglected to bring the old in-ears. Shite.
Though Karen O & co. haven’t opted for anywhere near as ruinous a line up as ATP and Mogwai contrived to curate about this time last year, and as such the decibel level never menaces persistent ringing. It’s more a distant thrum come the evening’s close, though there’s plenty of this year’s I’ll Be Your Mirror worth reflecting upon in the meantime.
Of course the name itself was first etched into the flipside of The Velvet Underground’s ’66 single All Tomorrow’s Parties and although yet to interpret any which work of Lou Reed et al., the self-acclaimed ‘First Lady of Invada’ Anika is only too appreciative of seminal 7″s. It’s more or less all she’s got in her morose box of tricks, though this isn’t stated in an any way derogatory manner. It’s merely that groggy covers sodden in a sticky kind of reverb have long since been her stock in trade. In keeping with factuality, she’s unfortunately been shoved in the wrong room at the wrong time: two years ago, she stupefied the impenetrable darkness of the today defunct West Hall although this year inaugurating the Panorama Room, it’s far too bright and indeed early for her idiosyncratic brand of gloomy woe. Her stark features illumined by opaque daylight, there are however intimations of a shift in general disposition: she sports a vivid tangerine dress, while a commensurately striking reworking of The Crystals’ He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss) sounds lustrous as the afternoon currently unfurling outside. And that, in spite of its lyrics of seduction by way of domestic violation.
Though it’s not merely a new EP she’s today flaunting – one from which the fizzing vibrancy of In The City is lifted – as she’s a newly formed backing band in tow. It’s one lacking in Beak> with the incisive bass lines of Billy Fuller cut loose though Twinkle’s Terry sounds proudly bulbous as ever, tumbledown electronics buzzing about Anika’s incidentally arid vocal. Though whether it be the heat, or the infelicitous time slot, or due to the deplorably niggardly gaggle here congregated we’re standoffish as the music itself. That said, the onetime journo does little to engage nor grip, as she merely whispers inaudible nothings away from the gauze of the microphone at highly irregular intervals. These are punctuated by deep exhalations and deeper gulps of air – for such negligible exertion, she appears utterly exhausted – as well as a lone Freudian slip midway through. “Thank you! Sorry, I didn’t mean to say that” she shushes though mercifully, she adopts a disorienting audacity when singing, particularly when set against this steadfast reticence. It’s a studied attempt at enigmatic mystery; the abstruse and the obscure which isn’t exactly aided by this blinding lightness, but fits in with the fact that we’ve as yet only heard a couple original takes. It’s apparently all the more facile for Anika to hide behind songs that weren’t written by her fair hand as she stands dislocated from her band, and indeed disassociated from those that scrutinise her so. She smirks as Yoko Ono song Yang Yang suffers a false start, squalid guitars adding texture and an hitherto unprecedented depth to an otherwise purposefully flat and monochromic redux, while Ray Davies’ I Go To Sleep sounds thoroughly robust and rousingly so. Dylan’s Masters of War meanwhile, still dubby though abnormally inert, is brimming with atmosphere though at that same time sounds lifeless as the room itself. Then, as Eric Woolfson’s Sadness Hides The Sun dawns, darkness befalls the room as our igneous star perturbingly recedes behind the cloud at the exact moment she quotes its title, thereby establishing herself as some omnipotent, spectral popstrel supreme set to reign over the parallel musical universe that is ATP.
But ironic as it may well be, never does she sound more potent than on songs composed alongside Geoff Barrow, with the paranoiac No One’s There and grizzly soliloquy Officer Officer garnering action and so too reaction, rabid howls greeting the latter as its author strangles her stiff mic stand as if possessed by some sadistic young sprite. Rarely do acrimony and apathy combine to such invigorating effect, for dub’s been good to her.
This apathy being mirrored by a largely seated and universally sedate throng is perhaps of little surprise, given that as was with that Slayer day of yesteryear, there’s enough evidence to suggest every other artist on the bill is to be considered but an auxiliary diversion from the main event: the fluoro flamboyance seen on the way up the hill, or the imitative shrieking heard throughout the whole thing provide glimpses into an undying adoration with the day’s curators. These be the resolute disciples of Karen, though rather than read the Gospel’s every chapter there are fairly patently a fair number keen to thumb straight through to its final chapter.
I sit outside a moment, squinting toward a London splayed out across a belatedly verdurous horizon. The Shard, scarcely perceptible against a nebulous blur of sky pallid as Anika herself, scratches stanzaic capitalist mantras into the clouds overhead although the spindly thing seems a world away from All Tomorrow’s Parties geographically, as well as ethically. For ATP is an organisation that, over the past ten years or so, has become synonymous with innovation and ingenuity in the live arena. It’s an ethos its architects Barry Hogan and Deborah Kee Higgins have clung to come what may and whatever its cost: for better or worse; for richer or for poorer, they’ve kept to it immovably. Valiantly even, and believe you we – the newly announced concluding of their holiday camp shebangs this coming winter is something of a seismic catastrophe in the world of independent music.
Though take nothing away from I’ll Be Your Mirror, for today serves as the third highly reputable bash in as many editions: Portishead’s two shows in the one curation were sets committed to that slate of memory which can never be wiped clean, while those equivalently indelible performances last time of asking courtesy of the likes of Codeine, the Melvins and Sleep are some from which my ears are still gently reeling. But a glance about Ally Pally, and it this year appears to be in a similar state of reconstruction to ATP itself with the restoration of its Victorian colonnades painting it in a similar state of patent flux. It’s an illustration of instability in an age of uncertainty, and one which is not only all-pervasive but so too perturbing. And with both venue and event in commensurate changeability, it seems apt that once inside the positively vast Great Hall it should be fragranced with the eternal stench of fetid meats for which Butlins, Minehead will always be fondly, if repugnantly remembered.
In keeping with little else on offer, however, is bounce queen bee Big Freedia who proves that bit more uncomfortable still than even Anika as slathered in Union Jack, there’s “azz” absolutely everywhere. ‘Twerking’ then becomes the order of the early afternoon, as a college cheerleading vibe prevails. New Orleanian Freddie Ross, a dead ringer for Jay-Z in an M.J.B. weave, contrives to clear the floor like a fourth song when (s)he calls for a couple “London boys” to shake that thing. One readily obliges; another somewhat more reluctantly, meanwhile Beyoncé’s choreographer – backed by heaving entourage – throws some impressionistic shapes about the place. As for the music itself, I’ve little to no recollection of what any of it sounded like aside from the omnipresent blare of chart-friendly klaxons, which I can only imagine to be a bad thing.
And while the concept behind Prince Rama’s ditzy LP of yesteryear, Top 10 Hits Of The End Of The World, may be in itself rather unforgettable (they then set about channeling the spirit of one of ten demised and entirely fictitious apocalypse-pop bands for its each and every composition, if you weren’t already aware), live they wind up sounding like little else, if with it pretty nothingy. The Great Hall becomes a makeshift church for a moment or two, Taraka Larson donning the customary veil to stride down the centre of the room atop shoulders toward a glowing bulb of stained glass. It’s performance art that’s valid as the da Vinci capolavoro covering up her torso, though they go heedlessly fertilising a primary qualm I’ve long since nurtured and it’s that which concerns the sincerity of it all. They perform as though entranced this afternoon, although they lack credence and with it conviction. “Ecstasy! Ecstasy! Ecstasy!” Taraka and sister Nimai puff in chorus, though Exercise Ecstasy lacks real high and such is the Larson’s ADD jitter that the prescription of amphetamine seems a persistent necessity. They too fall prey to an unfortunate billing, their synth whimsies somewhat lost in such an unforgivingly cavernous expanse.
But another reservation over the album had to do with the sonic disparities, or a lack thereof, to differentiate the ten figments of figurative imagination they reputedly constructed for its conception, in that Nu Fighters sounded indistinguishable from, say, Goloka. Though Guns of Dubai’s Blade of Austerity cuts through a rusted clunk today, before Taraka and Nimai become a bipartite rap troupe as they recite the estival shimmering of Rage Peace’s So Destroyed: in bespoke Rama caps, they strut in synchrony to its joyous mating calls and scintillating guitar though it’s when they hesitantly trill, “We’re from New York” that the illusion is irreconciliably shattered to smithereens. The veil has already been stripped, and here with it goes the mystique. And to make matters worse, they’re joined by a zombified entourage during Those Who Live For Love Will Live Forever as Axel Willner’s preferred B-side, The Misfits’ Night of the Living Dead is brought to life in what is a stilted lumber too far. Prince Rama are needless to say exhibitionists, and that much is rendered evident by the gravitational pull of a magnetising flashmob performed in the middle of the floor in the closing moments. The thing is that whichever of their ten guises they were channelling today, the music is all too infrequently the main attraction…
A similarly unanticipated hysteria is then unlocked next door, as King Khan & The Shrines whip up ersatz fervour ahead of the jazziest blitz the day sees, or indeed hears. As we ooze ourselves into the afternoon, performance, the depth of perception and persona become incontrovertibly common tropes, much of which is executed with a shamefully flimsy superficiality. The same can of course be said of Mark Sultan, as he this time slips into little other than a feathery headdress and flaxen silk cape and as was with Prince Rama, King Khan seems a manifestation of persona overpowering person with a considered stylisation of ramshackle rawk glammed up to the nines an insubstantial compensation for a lack of perceptible substance. Itself a thinly veiled ’60s revivalism lacking the soul Khan implores we unlock and let loose, there may be yet more azz jiggling (this time of a “skinny white” variety), but this particular King is far from all-powerful.
The Field, aka Axel Willner and cronies, instead opt to dredge up the undead and heavily electronically affected brutality of Fuck Buttons over in the Main Hall, their reverberant explorations stentorian so as to engender a simulation of how it must feel to detect your brain coming uncoiled. It’s thoroughly pulverising in the best possible sense, though at that same time it’s an inopportune scenario Willner similarly finds himself within. It always would’ve been, for he’s on at four and while ante meridiem may well have worked alright this is the afternoon and it’s as such the likes of Over The Ice and Comenius Garden are met with yet more ambivalence.
As was with Anika, Axel would’ve doubtless benefitted from the booking of the considerably less sizeable, though substantially more atmospheric neighbouring West Hall where visuals may well have been incorporated into the inaction, though no matter. For as a disinterested prepubescent sat on the floor at the front slogs out hyper futuristic Pokémon battles, Willner inadvertently provides their consummate soundtrack with the pulsating synergy between the manly thrust of a live rhythm section slotted in acutely among a mesh of electronic accuracies. The necessary intimacy for which the music thirsts is thus unnecessarily blown away by the sheer size of this immense setting, and the experience is consequently nowhere near as involving as it so explicitly needs to be. And in starkly black and white tones, it’s all to do with the A as opposed to any form of V which is all the more bizarre when we come to contemplate the purpose of a stage of this stature. Its convergent aspect aims to hone our attentions in on a sharp centre though when there’s little to nothing on which to transfix thy gaze, it leaves you feeling more than a little bewildered. And although still immersive given its highly metronomic pulses, his hour is never quite as impactive as it could’ve otherwise been.
Which makes me deliberate a moment as to how dance music can be employed to such devastating effect in such resonant surrounds as these – a Guetta type, or an analogous drone-alike all of whom seem to inconceivably thrive in enormodomes the length and breadth of mainland Europe. But maybe in order to fill an arena like this there needs to be no substance cluttering the sound. That is to say that in order to succeed, the music must be proportionately soulless to the environment in which it’s performed. And although still all too brilliantly illuminated, the still closeness intrinsic to the Panorama Room seems the perfect setting for Alex Zhang Hungtai’s introspective, reverb-addled experiments in disquietude and derangement.
Live, Dirty Beaches is far more loop-based than anticipated, and the outcome is all the more claustrophobic because of it. Brutally minimal as his for the minute native Berlin, it’s a city which seems to be keeping Hungtai keen by treating him mean. “It has no limits. You just gotta know your own limits” he avows moments in and as is his personality, the show itself can seem pretty splintered. Born in Taiwan although brought up elsewhere, he’s inhabited everywhere from Honolulu to San Francisco and Shanghai, and is yet to find a home geographically, or indeed musically. He openly admitted as much when we spoke some weeks ago, and back in the here and now he channels the psyche of some beaten up beatnik with considerably more persuasive assurance than the sisters Larson some hours before. But back to the show and the now, and it’s split astutely as it is acutely into two wholly symbiotic halves: the first rattles along to the abrasive pace of a savaged pawnshop guitar, while the second centres around a corrosive motorika that’s all the more synthetic. United by fulmination, it’s that latter during which he stumbles about a petrified audience as if freshly pummelled, steaming drunk or indeed punch-drunk. Ravaged by Berlin, an extended coda of sorts during which he covers Vancouver songstress Cindy Lee’s Holding The Devil’s Hand serves as a sort of afterlife that’s vulnerable as a comedown, but it’s the irrepressible vivaciousness of before which sticks: Hungtai’s unapologetically scratchy fretwork initially epicentral, the windows quake in time with his gloriously pained yelping. “Don’t look back” he snarls, unwittingly reminding us of another ATP endeavour to have alas, seemingly fallen by the wayside somewhat.
But as previously inferred, he’s a man living for the now and he’s doing it quite alright, sounding like Goldfrapp on no sleep one minute and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club bolstered by strapping bollocks the size of prickly cacti lining the wastes of the Midwest US on I Dream In Neon alone. It’s raw, and it’s raucous though above all it really seems to mean something. Alex looks as though he’s undergoing a violent exorcism at points, tugging viciously at his plain white tee and he only becomes increasingly aggressive as the show wears on. He’s hauled off elsewhere by the music itself, which in turn calls upon a loose lethargy you’re best urged to behold and cling to like weatherbeaten soles on bar brawl floorboards encrusted with innumerable shards of glass, and all manner of other ambiguous gunk.
Though make no mistake: there is again a definite aura of performance lingering around Hungtai, and his live show is an unmistakably avant-garde work of extremist discomfort. Aurevoir Mon Visage, during which he yowls and bays aggrieved atop intensely manipulated industrial rhythms, is a work of perceptive despair while the guttural thudding of Casino Lisboa proves invigoratingly psychotic as it’s powered by much fist-pumping as he rallies against a faintly tropic dementia. It’s certainly humid, and so too is it heavy as Hungtai implores we “say goodbye to the past; say goodbye to yesterday.” You can forget breaking the mirror, for this is a highly fragmented glimpse into Alex’ mind with the meticulously compiled image before us a case of fact refracted through a prism of fiction. He plays a part; a destructive caricature who acts oblivious to our presence, though who is of course impotent without it. “I don’t need you; I don’t need this place” he seethes, before reassuring us somewhat by proclaiming: “It’s just an image!” Whether this is indeed reality or a premeditated reconstruction thereof it’s thoroughly potent, and this time convincing stuff.
That bit more terrifying still are The Locust, the sight of whose teeny mouths flapping about beneath their trademark makeshift Spider-Man garb is enough to make skin crawl from skeleton and stalk back toward Wood Green though again musically, the returning grindcore pests lose focus. Theirs is the sort of set to call to mind the Pet Shop Boys’ What Have I Done to Deserve This? if not in tone, then tenor for although about as far removed from tranquil electro-pop catharsis as is possible, it’s a punitive forty-five we put up with. For something so intense, so many seem intensely disinterested which I guess is just about justifiable really, as shredded riffs get caught up in a web of distorted tape deck garble. As a solitary point of positivity, drummer Gabe Serbian plays with a rare dexterity that can conceivably only be achieved with at least six limbs, although even this isn’t enough to distract from its utter tunelessness. Then Jah Shaka, considerably en retard, quite literally shakes the place though that’s only the Panorama Room and nowhere is that indescribably dislocated festival sensation of hearing haze, though never even so much as seeing a stage better emulated than in the almost unfeasibly humongous Main Hall in which the The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion physically seem miles away and, proverbially speaking, sound similarly removed from my tastes.
Though they’ve been selected by tonight’s curators and of course headliners, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, for nostalgia’s sake if nothing else. They were, as Karen O later intones in that inimitably screeched vocal of hers, the first to take she, Nick Zinner and Brian Chase to Europe and beyond, and there’s a sense that this evening they’ve been recompensed in full. There is thereby a niggling sense of reverence by now surrounding this, the trio’s first ATP curation in some seven years and though they’ve since deemed themselves “bigger than the sound”, tonight they couldn’t possibly be. Beginning with Sacrilege, there may be no gospel choir though it sounds brilliant, bombastic and bloody enormous. Nowhere short of sodding godly, in short. It has to be in order to fill the place, though that it should do so while glistering like Karen’s sequinned lapels under blistering spotlight is testament not only to its raw power, but also to its sense of nicely refined restraint. And as was with Anika long before ’em, in a C.S. Lewis-styled cupboard filled with the “silks and linens of yesterday’s gowns” and “a hand-me-down dress from who knows where”, one carved by Hogan and Kee Higgins, Yeah Yeah Yeahs are the quintessential pop band; an undisputed paragon of utmost supremacy. They’re as though the guardian angels of this bloody glorious establishment known only as ATP, although there’s a devilish glint to Under The Earth for which O sheds tarred wings and dons a headlamp. Naturally…
If dubby on record, it sounds wondrously dirty in real life as it burrows into your very being to chisel away at your insides. Elsewhere however, minutes sapped from Mosquito don’t fare quite so favourably with Subway chugging past almost unnoticed, our attentions albeit obstructed by endless babble. These are acutely retuned by the time they compute with Zero, as Karen duly slips into an oily leather. We’ve our 1’s up, and the It’s Blitz! obliterator is of that order of the binary code.
From the preceding LP, Gold Lion breeds We Will Rock You handclaps with Zinner’s ferocious Fender thrash which, inflatable eyeballs ‘n’ all, sees the band stride into full swing with Karen in full control, as she whimsically fires off foot-powered confetti cannons left, right and stage-centre. This is a band at the peak of its powers, and surely not one would doubt them nor contend they don’t deserve it – all of it, and every one of us in unwavering appreciation.
Soft Shock tonight sounds ludicrously well polished, and stands out a sharp moment of genuine indie ingenuity from a more recent album lacking the impassioned urgencies of their earlier work. And so it’s as they revert to a trio, touring accomplice David Pajo duly departing for a feisty run-through of a razor-bound Y Control, that they masterfully up the ante. It’s impishly excellent, as is Maps – a sparkly, all sorts of tingly lesson in self-discipline which is proceeded, as per, by a predestined exodus.
It’s a doltish thing to do, not least as we’ve still a Date With The Night, its cheapjack trash incendiary and indeed revitalising as it ever was though this premature evacuation is perhaps symptomatic of the reprehensible way in which we now elect to digest live music. And a deplorable byproduct of a shift in etiquette is the omnipresence of the blasted iPhone. Despite the band’s abhorrence of what is fast becoming a societal convention, a sea of smartphone ripples overhead throughout and they’ve arguably shot themselves in the foot with a teeny iSight lens in erecting such a photogenic, and so too iconic YYY backdrop. Yup, they’re absolutely right this by now default MO is unspeakably intrusive and becomes increasingly vexatious even as the evening elapses and gradually extinguishes itself. Though this irrepressible desire to document is indicative of nothing, if not our adulation of one of the greatest alt. rock bands that ever did subsist on the scraps flung out from Country, BlueGrass, and Blues.
One thing which can be distinguished of the show even with the naked eye, however, is how Zinner and Karen O appear increasingly divergent souls who’ve nigh on incidentally convened onstage, though theirs is a diluted chemistry most bands would doubtless do anything to extract and inject into their very own formula, for they continue to complement one another strangely consummately. And they’ve arguably been able to do so by remaining forever true to what they always were. Pajo may be a new addition when compared with the days of Fever To Tell, the record which continues to stand out as their defining effort, while the oversized inflatables may be a vainglorious addition which eases the band’s transition into an altogether more overground awareness; a conforming to stereotype which belittles their upbringing in the NYCounterculture. But the red fingerless glove remains, as does Zinner’s Brylcreemed bird’s nest and that same vim to have overwhelmed the début aforementioned. They’ve yet to compromise unjustifiably, and the same can be said of ATP – whatever happens next. And Barry? If you’re reading? They don’t love you like I love you.