Sunday, November 6, 2011

Recent Gigs – La Ruta Cosmica Fest

A big run of gigs this week in Barcelona. Mogwai played at Poble Espanyol on Friday night which I didn’t get to. But shows on Wednesday and Thursday were already enough for one week. The two nights belonged to the mini La Ruta Cosmica Fest (The Cosmic P
ath Festival) whose highlight was clearly Japanese psych freaks Acid Mothers Temple on Wednesday and then a back bill on Thursday headlined by Bardo Pond. But as we shall see they were outdone by Tokyo group Praha Depart and Tokyo-based Slovenian hip hop maverick N’toko who opened the show.

Acid Mothers Temple

The prolificacy of AMT on disc has tended to erode at their credibility somewhat, but anyone who knows or has had the chance to see them live will tell you that AMT excel more on stage than on record. Their ability to shift between states of awareness undetected, to continuously draw in the changing atmosphere and commune with each other’s musical vibrations makes their shows more like an extended sound scape and meditation than a collection of songs or just another overloaded psychedelic freak out. But what is striking is how many contradictions there are beneath the surface of the group. At the most obvious there is the hippie mentality burdened with all of metal’s tropes, the unification of two classic enemies. Within the sound there is always an excess of chaos married to a stable force, like their seminal and eternal classic “Pink lady Lemonade” which never loses its riff even as sheets of guitar noise and feedback grind around it. Then there is the humour, the in jokes and the celebration of joy, such an anti-intellectual poise. And yet their music is deeply schooled in ancient religious and academic traditions from Buddhism, to Minimal composition and Occitanian Troubadour music.

I have seen AMT at least half a dozen times since capturing their first ever performance outside of Japan when they played the Garage in London back in 1998. This wasn’t the best time I saw them; that honour would go to the 2005 show in Brick Lane later bootlegged as “Good bye John Peel”, played the day after his death. My friend Atsuko had gone down the front. After the show she appeared teary eyed wailing that “They go too far this time!” But it wasn’t the worst show either. A better sound mixer would have helped. For some reason he left Makoto Kawabata’s guitar down low in the mix. In the early tracks, Higashi Hiroshi’s synthesizer was too loud, but by the end Shimura Koji’s drums had come to overpower. Nonetheless, it was a typical vintage show. The group opened with several newer tracks which showed that with age the group have slowed down a little bit. Tsuyama Atsushi then baffled the Catalan audience with an a cappella version of “La Balanguera”, the local anthem for the island of Mallorca sung in Mallorquin, which is a dialect distinct to the island, blending Catalan and Spanish. This of course has roots and traditions shared with the Occitan language of Provence in which they sing on tracks like “La Novia” which closed the set. But before that there was still time for the mythical “Pink Lady Lemonade” with Tsuyama stealing the early thunder with a magisterial bass solo, while Kawabata and Higashi’s guitar duelling at the finale was special despite the mix. The band retired briefly to the DJ booth on the side of the stage, crouching down out of sight. While waiting for the applause and cheers to subside Tsuyama stood behind the decks pretending to mix with exaggerated gestures to the amusement of the crowd. For the encore the band began with “Dark Star Blues”, the opening chords inciting a rush of awe and a gasp of breath from the crowd. The crescendo was a medley of some of their more recognisable tracks, fading down gently into the vocal refrain of “La Novia” and then mouth drones. The last vibration before the band crossed the floor through the crowd to the bar was one of elation and luminance. Simply one of the greatest live bands to have ever played.

“La Balanguera misteriosa,
com una aranya d'art subtil,
buida que buida sa filosa,
de nostra vida treu lo fil.”

“The mysterious Balanguera
Like a spider of subtle art,
Emptying to empty her loom,
Removing the thread from our lives.”

For me seeing AMT again came at a moment when I had just gotten back into their music. They may be as prolific as ever, but this should not hide some important recent releases from the group.

First up is the vinyl version of “Pink Lady Lemonade” on Canada’s Alien8, something of a home for AMT over the years. The cover is one of the bands brilliant retro-porn sci fi collages and inside is four sides of coloured vinyl dedicated to the group’s signature song. A long hour version appeared a few years ago on the Earworm label and there are several liver versions, but this is the first full-length version on vinyl.

Important Records has also been another label with whom the band have had a good relationship. The label has seen the recent release of “Live as Troubadour” which is a live album recorded with all acoustic and traditional instruments and is thus an important document of the bands diversity and ability to adapt their sound to the palette of the instruments. Last year the label also released “In O to infinity” a double vinyl set of long ambient jams and heavier workouts. The artwork may be more restrained, but not the music.


I was in the toilet looking for paper to plug my ears when N’toko started. My first thought was that it was strange that the DJ had decided to put on a hip hop record for a rock crowd. When I came down the stairs I found Miha Blažič on stage to a near empty crowd. Blažič is a Slavian rapper also known as N’toko and vocalist for Moveknowledgement. A few minutes into the show and I was ready to forget any incongruences between his music and what was to come. Blažič is a brilliant performer and clearly a seriously intelligent guy. Several times Slovenian freestyle champion, he has also lived state side and now in Japan where he has learned Japanese and settled down into a strong relationship with local musicians. His appearance tonight was down to his sharing a European tour with next act Praha Depart. Blažič’s music is pure cut and paste mastery, shifting jaggedly and suddenly between styles in such a way as to catapult the rhythm forward in continuous unbalance. He raps over some tracks, sometimes English, other times Slovenian, on others he sings and samples his voice. The beats thrash and dart like fish, mostly hip hop, but then sculpting themselves into geometric IDM patterns and finally, for the crescendo, rushing conveys of four-four techno. It is like UK’s Rephlex label remixing the Anticon label To make it work, Blažičn needs a lot of movement and rapid thinking, which might explain his lean physique. His movements are deft and yet not practised, perfection isn’t necessary as he is quick enough to turn error into new texture or momentum. The crowd was heavy by the time he left the stage, but hopefully they didn't miss too much of an entertaining show.

Praha Depart

Few bands have made such an immediate and positive impact on me as Praha Depart. Without ever having heard of the group or their music I couldn’t help but be blown away by their show. Hailing from Tokyo the trio consists of Junpei Yamamoto on drums, cutting a Reni-esque figure with his round spectacles and floppy fisherman’s hat; Tsukasa Kameya on guitar and somewhat reminiscent in style and sound to Ichirou Agata of Melt Banana; and Mai Yano the bass player and vocalist who is clearly the prism from which Praha Depart gathers its colours. Yano is the perfect performer. She is technically proficient on bass, tone perfect with her fiery voice, even at velocity or volume, and her charisma is blinding. She projects sexiness, intelligence and outsider fashion into a maelstrom of ferocity and power. The group’s music is jazz punk rock, drawing from John Zorn and Mike Patton while also harking back to the classic days of Japanese indie, such as the car crash instrument pile-ups and heavy riffing of Musica Transonic, the heavy haiku glyphs of Melt Banana and Otomo Yoshide’s Optical*8 project as well as the dark forces of groups like Shizuka and Fushitsusha. A brilliant spectacle live and with outstanding songs like “Dot” from their recent CD on Call and Response, you can only imagine and hope bigger things for them. Astounding.

The good old days: Otomo Yoshide’s Optical*8 with drag queen singer Hoppy Kamiyama.

Bardo Pond

By the time the headliners hit the stage it was almost unnecessary. Two good shows already and we would have gone home happy, no matter what happened. As it turned out, Bardo Pond were pleasant, but hardly impactful, so better to not have had to hang our hopes on them. Despite opening with the potent Tony Conrad-esque drone feedback of “Limerick”, also the opening track from “Amanita”, the group then diverted to the lighter, country sound of their recent material. But things were a bit hit and miss. There isn’t much stage presence with Michael Gibbons resembling Michael Moore a little too much, while his brother John sways and stares at his feet. Bass player Clint Takeda and drummer Jason Kourkonis were happy buried at the back beneath the squeal of guitars, sharing their own jokes and not attracting the gaze of the public. Isobel Sollenberger’s played flute occasionally and sang better than ever, but unmoving and with eyes closed. Her in-between track banter was totally lost in the mix. At times, the group struggled to gel, as if losing control of their own power and volume at slow speed. But at times, they showed why they have endured over the years. Some of the build ups were truly spine tingling, with closing track “Await the Star” from the 2010 eponymous album on Fire a particular highlight. They did manage to butcher a version of “Tantric Porno” for the first encore, one of my favourite tracks, but again, I could redeem them by throwing on their albums at home where the shine brightest.

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