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Past and Future: Gary Numan and Sunn O))) at the Roundhouse

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.

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).


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