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Past and Future

Gary Numan and Sunn O))) at the Roundhouse

20th December 2019

Allow me to ‘blogger' this up a bit and put my cynicism on hold for a second: London spoils an audiophile. Regardless of whether one likes feminist shibari industrial-inspired electropop (my best bootleg description of Brooke Candy’s performance last year), or sage-burning post-techno ambient experimental featuring surreal Yves Tumor spoken word samples (Croatian Amor’s showcase in the first quarter of 2019), or good old-fashioned masked-collective metal-grinding chain-whipping noise (Geography of Hell at The Glove That Fits in Hackney just a couple of weeks ago), this city’s lost rivers and gentrified council flat walkways light the way. Point being, I guess, that “everything goes with eclectic” - or however that old adage goes. In this sense, it’s actually not strange, although it felt slightly vertiginous, that I happened to see Gary Numan and Sunn O))), two acts musically, aesthetically, and generally different to the point of absurdity (but sentimentally equally important) in the same venue, the Roundhouse, in the same week, the last week of October.

Thinking back on these shows, I was surprised to find a thread beyond time and location that seemed to associate them, however vaguely; Sunn O))) seemed to represent a connection to the future, and Gary Numan - to the past. It was more a feeling than a thought, so I tried fishing for cognitive undercurrents.  Certainly, this ‘thought-feeling’ was, in large part, provoked by the vastly different styles of music associated with these acts, but there is also a visual element to it, and that, elusive as it is, ended up becoming the subject of this text. All live music performances have a visual aspect (and, by extension, the potential for visual communication). At big high-budget events like these, all design is intentional, from the exact angles of lights, to the intervals at which smoke machines come on, to the positioning of performers on stage. Both shows use these visual properties in a deliberate way which appears to correspond to my intuition about both past and future.

The Roundhouse, generally speaking, is an intelligently designed venue; the art historian’s sentimental affinity for centrally planned architecture and the audiophile’s natural bias towards the acoustically sound make a good team. More specifically, it was a good venue for Gary Numan because of old-fashioned stadium-type concert concerns, mostly visibility. It was also, arguably, a great venue for Sunn O))), whose usual columns upon rows upon walls of amplifiers, were modified into a semicircular henge-like structure within the circular space.  This worked well for sound reasons but also reinforced the ritual-esque aspect of their stage presence: the constructed, ephemeral sacredness of the stage as a literal and figurative space of sound, a stone circle of amps within which hooded figures emerge from the amorphous smoke and then retreat back into it.

Amplifier arrangement for Sunn O)))'s performance in Predikherenkerk (Belgium) 2009, (Photo: Frederic Minne, via Flickr)

Sunn O))) shows unite vastly disparate crowds: monotonous black metal snobs who consider them to be one of the few worthwhile bands outside the scene, Fantano-inspired turtleneck posers who flock to critically acclaimed artists because they like talking about music more than listening to it, and pilgrims from the electronic and experimental avant-garde who concede to brushing shoulders with the other groups, because being bathed in the sound of an actual megalith of amps is well worth it. The setlist was predictable in the best possible way. They played all the tracks from Life Metal (2019) except one, if memory serves, followed by one token track ('CandleGoat') from Black One (2005), probably their most well-known album, closing with an encore track off the newest project, Pyroclasts (2019), released only three days before the show.  

The warm-up act was Anna von Hausswolff, whose set was, as always, beautifully thought out and meticulously executed, all the while preserving an emotional immediacy that makes it look, if not easy, then at least intuitive. She is genuinely always so lovely; seeing her wear the signature Sunn O))) black robe towards the end of the night was an utterly wholesome moment. Last time I saw her, three or maybe four years ago somewhere in the world, she was alone with a distorted microphone and synthesizer (I didn’t know who she was at the time, but that show had made me look her up). Seeing her now with a two-person band was somehow simultaneously both more and less intense. The (as-of-the-time-of-writing) unreleased material she played during her Roundhouse set sounds interesting and new, without constituting a major stylistic departure. 

Sunn O))) are always ‘on’; everything is perfectly calculated without neurosis, especially the slow hand gestures preceding every synchronised strum that reverberates and howls, amplified and transformed, for minutes afterwards and into the next. Their recognisable appearance (the robes and the architectural amp constructions) is immune to the frequent tweaks in line-up for live shows. Be that as it may, I’m not sure how I feel about Attila not being there (he was and likely still is on tour with his metal band, Mayhem). Focusing on the positives, they didn’t just play instruments in a performative way, they also performed for the aesthetic, like partaking in an on-stage sacrament by hyper-reverently passing around a red wine bottle. Malcolm Jack’s Guardian review of their Glasgow show earlier in October, which was posted the morning of the London show, and which I clearly remember reading on the tube on the way to the Roundhouse, hits the nail on the head: “Much as one may be entitled to ask if Sunn O))) should lighten up a touch (…) it would be unfair to surmise that they take themselves too seriously. After all, you’d need a sense of humour to go to work dressed like a gothic monk. At one point, synth player Steve Moore brandishes a trombone ridiculously aloft like a sacrificial lamb, before blowing a fanfare so mournful it makes you wonder what any other sad trombone ever had to complain about.” For the record, the trombone made the same appearance in London, its fanfare just as mournful.

Steve Moore playing the world's saddest trombone

Sunn O))) at the Roundhouse (Oct. 28th 2019)

One of the apparent paradoxes of Sunn O))), is that they’re simultaneously analog and futuristic. Another, is that they have somehow stayed futuristic for about two decades. It’s not the sort of performance that could ever make good use of a screen. However, with an overwhelming amount of smoke and a light design team whose task I don’t envy, they almost managed to transform the entire space of the stage into a screen, with coloured light dissolved through smoke in shapes and colours almost perfectly recreating the cover of Life Metal. I’m not sure how to sufficiently emphasise the mind-boggling innovativeness of this move. There is definitely a borderline academic urge to talk about how modeling three-dimensional space after a cover artwork questions and maybe somewhat collapses the space between digital release and live performance. But from the point of view of temporality, the important thing is Sunn O))) are staying true to a known and beloved live show strategy, with the robes, the dark ambiance and the self-aware humour so refined that it becomes easy to miss, but they are simultaneously using the venue, in its maximal spatial-visual potential, to point towards innovation in live performance (conceptual rather than technical), and to their newest work.

Meanwhile, Gary Numan’s show used visual design to reinforce a certain sharp minor nostalgia that seemed to permeate the whole night, a nostalgia not at all tragic and even somewhat hopeful. For starters, it was a concert in the full definition of the word, one with clearly identifiable songs which have lyrics and follow one after the other with the occasional banter break; more of a connoisseur of the broken glass and distorted samples side of things, the customary concert format in itself reads vaguely nostalgic to me. Compared to Sunn O)))’s four tracks, Numan had already played around twenty songs before the long encore. 

Visually, a lot of it was also in traditional concert format, with glowing formless lights and spotlight focus on Numan and his band. The two textbook- nostalgia songs, 'Are Friends Electric' and 'Cars', were handled very differently. 'Are Friends Electric' showed simple neon-blue tetris-style visuals on the screen, and was performed with a focus on audience participation: singing along to the chorus, hand-waving and so on and so forth. During 'Cars', the colour scheme of the stage lights was mostly red, with the screen showing a triangle outlined in red, somewhat reminiscent of the black pyramid with an inner red glow sat innocuously on a wooden table on the cover of The Pleasure Principle (1979), where 'Cars' first appeared. Within the triangle, sections of the original 1979 video for the song were projected. The fact that the projection was in black and white, even though the original video was in colour, seems to confirm what other elements have been more tentatively suggested: there is a visual language of nostalgia and flashback at the core of the performance’s communicative potential.

Light design during Gary Numan's performance of "Cars" showing original video segment (Oct. 25th 2019)

The screen was also used for the expected (but still necessary) political moment. During a moving rendition of 'Dead Sun Rising', various images of oppression and violence, from aggressive homophobic marches to crowded refugee camps, were projected on the screen, which gradually zoomed out so that, by the end, multiple small scenes formed a cacophonous grid of injustice. Partially because of the vague and general, though completely benign, nature of the statement, rather than pointing towards the future, it appeared to reinforce a connection to a long and valuable (though just as vague and general) tradition of resistance, urging for its continuation in the form of living history. The lyrics also suit such an interpretation.

 

Even though the five-track encore focused on work in progress from a mysterious new album, apparently in the works, the whole show including and up to the end felt retrospective in the best possible way. “I’ve been doing this for four decades but I will keep doing it as long as you keep showing up” felt like the epitome of that.

A lot of big London shows have already been announced for 2020. My personal top three (so far) might be: Einstürzende Neubauten (September at O2 Forum Kentish Town), Swans (May at Evolutionary Arts Hackney), and Current 93 (February at O2 Shepherd’s Bush). 

One major event outside music to look forward to next year is Tom Stoppard’s first new play in a long time, the uncharacteristically personal Leopoldstadt (opening January 25th at Wyndham’s Theatre).

Previous:

Björk is Dead,

Long Live Björk

8th November 2019

Split into many parts

Splattered light beams into prisms

That will reunite

~ The Gate (Björk/Arca)

For anybody vaguely aware of music as a phenomenon during the last 25 years or so, Björk doesn’t need an introduction. Instead, I’d like to reproduce a comment made in an interview with Rolling Stone by one of her closest collaborators in recent years, Arca (Alejandra Ghersi if you’re nasty): “When I met Björk, (…) it was like an oxygen you get from a person you only can exist with symbiotically. It’s one of the most beautiful relationships I’ve had.” ‘Symbiotically’ is key, since Björk’s career has been defined by the intersection of self-expression and collaboration. Common logic dictates that it takes a lot of the former to consistently engage in the latter without losing recognisability. There is no real ambition to this text other than to showcase some of Björk’s most iconic recent visual collaborations. Rather than a hot take or an expose, it feels like a love letter.

Still from The Juniper Tree; 1990 (dir. Nietzchka Keene)

One of the fields of visual collaboration any celebrity is bound to engage in is, of course, photography. Björk has worked with a plethora of A-list photographers and magazines, but rather than recount them in listicle form, I’d like to make the best of editorialising and revisit a personal favourite: the 2007 squid ink pasta Juergen Teller photoshoot. Teller has frequently worked with Björk, and is responsible for some of her most well-known photographs, but Spaghetti Nero, aside from striking an aesthetic chord with your humble columnist, also happens to relate to the notion of continuous transformation strengthening rather than dissolving individuality.

Björk in Spaghetti Nero by Juergen Teller (2007)

There is something immediately arresting about this image. It shows an idiosyncratic, somewhat unexpected Björk. But ‘unexpected’ is the quintessential expectation audiences have of her at this point. It’s almost as though her many superimposed faces coexist with a certain permanence, an ‘always face,’ a kernel of being-herself-ness that is difficult to verbalise. This photograph was shown in the exhibition Aquatopia: The Imaginary of the Ocean Deep, first staged in 2013 as part of Nottingham Contemporary, then moving to Tate St Ives. [The show was a thoroughly fascinating project that deserves to be periodically revisited; the accompanying publication is also well worth reading.] In an interview for AnOther magazine, interviewer Laura Allsop specifically asked Alex Farquharson, the then-director of Nottingham Contemporary and current director of Tate Britain, about this image. He had this to say: “What I really like about that image is that it’s almost bestial, kind of metamorphic; it’s like she’s undergoing metamorphosis and becoming squid herself (…) the black ink contrasts brilliantly with her black hair, which is flecked with squid ink. (…) In the exhibition this particular image sits next to a beautiful, very tiny Lucian Freud painting of a squid that looks like an odd, misshaped human nude and it’s also leaking its black ink – so there are these little correlations throughout.” In a seemingly paradoxical way, there is something fundamentally human about these transformations.

Björk’s long-running Iris van Herpen collaboration has brought her unique approach to (performative) fashion to new avant-garde depths. [In the words of self-made internet fashion critic and most honourable sister Luke Meagher, “Iris van Herpen invented haute couture.”] The designer confirms what other Björk co-creators have been saying over the years: “She’s never really saying to somebody: ‘make this’. She gives a lot of freedom, and that’s what’s so beautiful about working with her.” Björk has worn Iris on red carpets, during live performances, and on the cover of Biophilia (2011). However, there is one look everybody’s already talked about that we absolutely have to keep talking about: 'the Cornucopia dress' aka 'the Orchid dress' aka 'the Sphaera dress' aka one of the most memorable instances of custom wearable art in recent memory. 

 

Not only does it continuously change shape together with the performance, it works as a de facto light installation whose luminescence harmonises with the movements of both the body and the garment. It is a collaboration between van Herpen, Björk, and light/installation artist Nick Verstand (some of his more accessible work can be seen at last year’s Lumiere Festival in London). This really is one of those rare cases where individual artistry emerges more rather than less clearly through collaboration with other sui generis creatives. Rather than the age-old question of the performing artist and the dress and who is wearing whom, Björk and the Cornucopia dress can be said to wear each other, and both are somehow even more strikingly themselves for it.       

Björk in the Cornucopia Dress by Iris van Herpen (2019)

Before Utopia, innovative make-up might have eventually come to mind in relation to Björk, but it definitely wasn’t an immediate association. Hungry (@isshehungry), a Berlin-based experimental make-up artist and drag performer, changed that. Hungry was the artistic director for the cover of Utopia, and was responsible for Björk’s makeup in the Blissing Me and Utopia videos, several photoshoots (including W Mag and Time Out), as well as the Utopia Tour in the spring of 2018, and the still-ongoing Cornucopia Tour. The character Hungry painted on Björk was essentially the singular vision of three people: Björk, Hungry, and James Merry, whom we’ll return to shortly.

I remember the moment Hungry’s involvement was announced. The majority of the makeup-as-fine-art community agreed the pairing would make history. So rather than try to interpret it away, which is always a terrible approach to the whimsical, I’ll leave a moment of silence for the bird flutes.

Björk in her promotional look for Utopia by @isshehungry

Of course, some of Björk’s most iconic collaborations are with other musicians. Remember that time she did an orchestral-show tune-style song with Thom Yorke? Who doesn’t? However, these fall outside the scope of visual collaboration (the subject, however tangentially, of the present discussion). I would only like to quote Arca again, from that same interview she did with Rolling Stone, as a sort of confirmation-from-within of what has been said so far: “On the professional level, there’s no other word for me but genius. There’s just a degree of proficiency in every single aspect of how [Björk] wants to express herself. She can do her own string arrangements, but at the same time, she is the most generous and easiest collaborator.” Arca’s key role in Vulnicura (2015) translated into equal, perhaps even greater involvement, in Utopia (2017).

What has Björk been up to since? Other than touring the world (twice), she’s been reimagining (the theme of reinvention and reincarnation seems inescapable in the Björk context) some of her recent work through the lens of new technology. On September 6 this year, she released Vulnicura VR, a set of immersive virtual reality music videos for songs from the 2015 album. This was, unsurprisingly, a collaborative project. The concepts were created together with artist and designer James Merry, her co-creative director from Biophilia to the present. [Originally a student of Classical Greek at Oxford, Merry is individually responsible for the custom masks and headpieces she’s worn over the last ten years; in his spare time, of which there is very little, he embroiders flowers on vintage streetwear.] Björk has referred to him as “my co-pilot”, and there is something inherently beautiful in that idea: of having to learn to fly ‘it’ together, ‘it’ being… the whole thing. In an interview with the Guardian, responding to a question about audience reception of Vulnicura VR around the world so far, Merry said, “It’s so beautiful seeing tears coming out of the bottom of a VR headset.”

What a time to be alive, especially if you happen to be Björk.

The complete Vulnicura VR is available as an individual immersive experience at Otherworld, a virtual reality bar in Hackney, until the end of the year. VR headset owners can purchase it digitally on Steam.

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