Live reviews – ‘The Sound Of Satellite’ (featuring Sand, Lucha Libre, Yossarian, Karamazov, Heavy Q) @ Notre Dame Hall, London, Friday 9th October 1998 (“The Young Gods meet ‘Rugrats’…”)

13 Oct

This time, I’ve done it.

For once, I’ve arrived on time… and Notre Dame Hall is so empty that I reckon I’m going to be outnumbered by the bands. Above me, a glitterball spins very, very slowly. Off to stage-right, a slide is projected onto the wall back-to-front. Smoke drifts across from the other side of the stage, as if one of the boxes of gear has quietly caught fire. Horace Andy plays over the sound system. I’ve never noticed that squirmy edge to the sweetness of his voice; or how well it suits embarrassment.

No. It doesn’t go on like that. In fact, and independently of tonight’s acts, it ends up as one of the friendliest concerts I’ve been to in ages. But that first half-hour – of me as the lone non-label person in the house – gives me an idea of the risk which labels like Satellite take on whenever they put a night like this together. If you’re a mainstream label with a nice little crop of pushable guitar pop bands, and you want to hire out some dedicated pub for a concert party: well, fine, you’re probably onto a winner. If, alternatively, you’re a small label best known for fringe electronica such as Fridge, Rothko, and Add N To X (one of whom is DJ-ing tonight) and you’re hiring this big cinematic ballroom… then you must be trying not to sneak nervous, sidelong glances into the looming face of failure.

When I befriend Pete, the Satellite house photographer, he tells me that as soon as tonight is finished they’re taking the whole thing – lock, stock and barrel – over to Paris, to repeat the concert. Within the day. Gluttons for punishment. Or people who believe in what they have to offer.

* * * * * * * *

What they offer (or unleash) first is Heavy Q, whom I know from a single truly bizarre piece of experimental vinyl. He/she/it/they?… He. One Japanese guy, Lee Young Sin, in a glitterscaled wrestlers mask, hunched over a pair of samplers as if preparing to split them in half by sheer willpower (one of them, appropriately, is labelled “Quasimidi”). We’ll see him later as part of Lucha Libre, the other members of whom are tracing his every move with Handycams.

What he’s up to right now is squeezing out slice’n’dice anti-dance music as the hall begins to fill up; a scary dead-funk cyborg strop interspersed with cut-ups of Japanese telly chatter and cheering. At one point a sampled announcer burbles a bit of plain English – “breaking the earth for us tonight” – with the cheesy enthusiasm of someone who knows the next bit of hype which they can stick in their arm will be along in another few minutes. That same hysterically enthusiastic announcer will be weaving in and out of Lee’s music like a persistent hiccup; a glassy, untrustable ringmaster to his sonic circus.

Heavy Q’s second piece is a randomised assault of backbreaking drum sounds; drum’n’bass minus the calming balance of the bass. His third is a children’s chant, slapped up against a deathly brutal industrial tom rattle. As he moves over to rummage on his table of electronic debris, the sound runs on without him, mutating into Bollywood singsong, strangled by tortured electronics. By the end of it, Lee has turned himself into a vast, vulgar techno-god statue on top of the table. Arching back and moaning a deep thick bass vocal into his microphone, he’s almost at one with his sampler. He drinks from a sparkle ray-gun; he adjusts his electronics like he’s tying his shoelaces. Throwing a sarcastic cock-rock pose, he waves a theremin aerial around at phallus height.

Is this the answer to the problem of the personality void in electronica? Living up to the gigantic sonics by taking onto yourself the aspects of a monster movie?

* * * * * * * *

Talking of the personality void… things are working out contrary to expectations. At any given unpretentious, good-time indie gig, I’ll be out in the cold, a blip on the doorlist among self-satisfied strangers. Here, on a night that ought to smack of exclusive club, a night which you’d expect to exclude, I’m making ceaseless cheerful conversation. Buoyed by camaraderie, I and my new friends agree that, in contrast to Heavy Q’s theatrics, Karamasov have the slightly bored, stiff look of too many art-scene bands.

Perhaps it’s that old cliche of Teutonic cool: half of the band is genuinely German (guitarist/cellist Johannes von Weizsacker and stately blonde percussionist Berit Immig), while the London half (bassist Harry Rambaut and synth player Adam Stewart) aren’t exactly Essex ravers. Certainly their music’s lodged in European post-rock cool rather than Pacific rim commercial frenzy, their set opener wheeling along on Harry’s sproingy pre-jazz bass, Jonathan’s phased guitar scrub, and a lonely, farting-Dalek riff on Moogbass. They look at each other as if they’re setting up lab equipment; or preparing John Cage’s piano, like good little acolytes. Their second piece is something from the chillier end of Stereolab‘s science school, albeit with a few sniffs of quiet humanity appended. Echo-slapping cello effects, and skinny Moog squirts something like Philly soul strings, sketched and autopsied. The cello scrapes like a worn wheel; Berit’s oddly heavy-metal drumming is rookie-tense, but snaps tight regardless. On the beady-eyed Roadsnack, she switches to spiky organ against Jonathan’s piano-ping guitar.

Out on the floor, meanwhile, we’re waiting for them to enjoy themselves. I know, I know; there’s a certain credibility to that kind of icily unmoved, Euro-scientific music creation. But… Karamasov come across so much better when they drop it, hang out, and just play. It’s probably not intentional, but Uneven Surface sounds something like Genesis’ Watcher Of The Skies filtered through Faust. Hmmm. ‘The Wire’ would have a fit; but the bass stabs and drum riffs are received with joy by the Satellite audience. Happy Hour ain’t the Housemartins (which would’ve been interesting, come to think of it), but sounds more like Neu! reinventing lounge music, as Berit tinkles out melodies on the vibraphone. Most welcome of all is a piece I didn’t catch the name of, in which the increasingly impressive Berit sings in a detached Nico murmur (not unlike Elizabeth K.’s interjections for Eyeless In Gaza) over a tune not unlike a relaxed cross between Levitation and A.R. Kane (with a bit of the brisk arty hoppiness of a warmer German band, F.S.K).

During the next interval, the DJ plays Egg and Soft Machine rather than some fearsome tranche of blunt improv. A definite feeling of thaw is in the air.

* * * * * * * *

Yossarian turns out to be both a band (two keyboardists out of a ’50s B-movie and a drummer) and a bald mad-scientist character, looking not unlike Alan McGee. This is Tim London – Yossarian’s prime human body. In a previous life, he was the slightly warped pop brains behind Soho (if you remember the Smiths-sampling ‘Hippychick’, not that there was much else).
These days he’s wrapping his cortex round far artier pop shapes. One piece – all drones, cymballine drums and organ – sounds like Mark Hollis knitting together Labradford and Spiritualized; a chorus of “I will call, and you will come” and an unexpected blaze of harmonica. Other pieces sound like late ‘60s Scott Walker sitting down hard on late ‘80s Pet Shop Boys, and others…

Vocoders, yet! Those pained machine voices are back, along with Air-style pretty melodies served with an avant-garde hiss and a cheesy Bontempi beat under the flagrant detail. What is this nut trying to morph into and sell to us now? E.L.P.? The Glitter Band? By the time I’ve decided that it’s a sort of electronica ‘Parklife’ with car-crash keyboards, he’s exploring bleak Bowie ‘Low’-ies and hitching them up onto Prodigy-style wall-of-fire beatoramas like an erupting Las Vegas volcano.

All of a sudden, I see Tim London revealed as electronic art’s own John Shuttleworth, and relax a bit. It’s an impression carried in his archness, in his taste for a classically creaky lounge-pop tune, his self- conscious anti-cool (“I’ve never played in that time signature before”, he drawls), his total deadpan approach to the ridiculous or to any intimations of hubris, and most of all in the way that, having thrown electronics at us all evening, he encores by – get this – playing the spoons. Respect is due. My old man’s a Cyberman an’ all that.

* * * * * * * *

Osakan noisefreak-fusioneers Lucha Libre have bigger hats than anyone else. They also have bigger presence, taking the stage like EMF used to do. They possess a double-brass frontline – one capering trombonist leader (Teruhiko Heima) in a Kiss ‘Destroyer’ T-shirt; one surreally dignified sax player (Akifumi Minamimoto). There’s also a transplanted heavy metal core in the shape of Takashi Sakuma, a sampler-wielding guitarist with long tartan shorts, a serious Van Halen fixation, and one of those hilariously literal Japanese sweatshirts. This one reads “Pretty Tough Sport”. Finally, they have a digital heart on frantic overdrive – everyone except drummer Jun Tsutusui seems to be doubling on synth.

By their seventh number their bassist (Lee Young Sin, back in a different guise) is walking on his hands and playing the synth with his head amidst a hurricane of Coltrane-meets-Black-Sabbath saxophone. Before that, we’ve been privy to a Donington’s-worth of heavy-metal axe abuse; a swelter of industrial goofing and salsa horns; and a stage act best described as The Young Gods meet ‘Rugrats’. We’ve also, as a responsible audience, totally turned around received notions about arty label nights by absolutely loving it to bits and yelling for more, as the twit from ‘Melody Maker’ shakes his head and frets about missing ‘Friends’. Lucha Libre continue their delightful murder of cool regardless.

Now they sound like ships coming into a drunken docking on Mars – big trombone blurts, the rattle and squiggle of electronic timepieces, and phenomenal yowls and divebombs from the metal kid. Now they’re on a big, spacious, tricky funk beat: Akifumi an oasis of reedy calm as a funky harpsichord riff pops up from keyboardist Soichi Murota and the band head into the slabby, tottering, Theremin-ized jazz-funk of the ‘We Have No Our Groove’ single. Next, they pull out in order to plait Led Zeppelin into the ‘Mission Impossible’ theme.

By the encore, Teruhiko is hammering out a torn tom tattoo on a commandeered chunk of Jun’s drumkit. Stuck horn drones giggle at him; the sax thrashes – squalling and wailing – in a cauldron of frenzied bop, and Takahashi fires Heavy Q’s abandoned raygun into his guitar pickups. It’s like seeing a particularly extrovert software virus trash your screen, in blazes of grinning colour. As they settle into a long final lope, razzing trombone carrying the melody over the clipped sax and Durutti guitar picking, the air inexplicably fills with a powdery scent of flowers. This is some sort of Lucha Libre Japanese magic, I guess: the sort of thing which that passionately confused nation throws up so well.

* * * * * * * *

With a massive wall of dry-ice fog and a sound like Satan belching (it’s some sort of conch, in fact), Sand prepare to close the evening. A massive mound of frizzy dreadlocks hoves into view and starts growling Andean death-metal at us. Crops wither within a three-mile radius.

This thing is – to stretch the Trades Description Act a little – Sand’s singer. Whether it’s possible to declare a force of nature part of your band is a matter for Sand and their lawyers. They used to be called Germ, which is an understatement and a half. They should have been Epidemic. To put Sand into perspective, they are something of a return to normality after Lucha Libre’s mad playground display, even if they do both feature upfront trombone. Sand are also, by far, the most assured band on tonight – elastic harmonic bass from John Edwards, the precise touches on Rowan Oliver’s looping drums, the wash of ravishing electro-gale off Tim Wright’s keyboards: a bit like Rain Tree Crow with a trombone, but only if they’d been fronted by David Sylvian’s monster-from-the-Id. This is something which the Sonic Youth-style drumsticked drone guitar and the ‘Bitches Brew’ mute on Hilary Jeffery’s trombone only accentuates.

The monster on vocals – whose name is, apparently, George – evidently knows harmonic overtone chanting. His reverberating rasp blends in with the trombone’s blare, the slipping geological sample and the Bruford threes which Rowan is now shooting off the top of his kit. The mike slips deeper into that mane of dreads. From the unseen mouth the Devil pukes noise, sprawling and rolling: echoes of Diamanda Galas, balled’n’bassed up, or of Magma. If many of the smooth dream-rock tones of Sand suggest a vigorous muscle-flexing tone-up, that voice feels like being rolled hard in the gravel afterwards. Among other things, Sand offer a crushing world-music for the ever-so-slightly masochistic.

“You can dance to the next one,” comments band spokesman Hilary, draining the spit from his trombone as John brings on a double bass to play… well, some salsa from hell; the guitar and keyboard filling up the spaces in the music with an inspired patina of drone-trash. As another Sand piece forms (a reedy melodica, skullclick percussion, a lost wail from Mr Mountain as the band traverses a flat, disturning plain of atonal movement) you wonder whether this band would ever really make you want to dance. Why should you want them to, when instead you can suffer the perverse enjoyment of feeling Sand twitch the crust of the earth from under your feet?

* * * * * * * *

I don’t care. The liberating, socialising force of dance was the one aspect of electronic music that was ignored tonight; possibly because it was redundant. In between writing my notes I’ve filled my ears, had a doughnut, leafed through vinyl stalls, and spent an evening in the belly of the art-beast, chatting away to some of the nicest people I’ve met in ten years of making up gig numbers.

I finally let my tired eyelids swell, and turn my weary ankles homewards. Satellite are packing up, engrimed with cigarette smoke and fired up on the warmth of the evening, making ready to ship it all across the Channel to the City of Light.

This time, I don’t fear for them.

Sand online:
Homepage

Lucha Libre online:
Homepage

Yossarian online:
Homepage

Karamazov online:
Homepage

Heavy Q Connection online:
Homepage

Satellite Records online:
Homepage

(2018 update – after twenty years, it’s no surprise that most of those bands and projects have long since ended. Post-2001, Satellite Records was mostly reabsorbed into its ongoing parent label, Soul Jazz; and the Satellite, Yossarian, Lucha Libre and Heavy Q links above connect only to discographies. Yossarian’s Tim London (a.k.a. Tim Brinkhurst) now works as a film-maker, as a music lecturer at the British & Irish Modern Music Institute in Birmingham, and as producer, most notably with Young Fathers. The members of Karamazov are still friends and collaborators, working together in various combinations in The Chap and Omo. Sand also continues in various forms and names, generally helmed by Tim Wright and Hilary Jeffery. It’s unclear what’s become of the members of Lucha Libre, although saxophonist Akifumi Minamimoto did also put some time in with “jazz/R.I.O. progsters” Djamra. Meanwhile, Notre Dame Hall ended four decades of musical history covering beat pop to punk to avant-gardery in 2001, when it became first the Venue theatre and then the Leicester Square Theatre.

Oh – and sorry about the lack of pictures. When I got friendly with Satellite’s photographer, it clearly didn’t include me blagging post-concert photos out of him.)

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