February 2003 – live reviews – House of Stairs label launch concert (evening 1) featuring Nøught, Foe and Defeat the Young, The Underworld, Camden Town, London, 12th February 2003 (“the Underworld fills with familiar London pronk and math-rock faces”)

13 Feb

Well-worn jokes about “first steps” line up at my door, to be kicked aside. Let’s not goof about. As the House of Stairs label throws its musical launch party, the Underworld fills with familiar London pronk and math-rock faces, fans and musicians grinning at each other as if it was the first day of a school trip. The still-friendly fragments of The Monsoon Bassoon, the occasional Cardiac, plus those particular paying punters who materialise like the genie of the lamp at the faintest hint of a twitchy rhythm or a whole-tone scale blasted out of a loud guitar.

For once, the records being played between the bands nudge and tickle the audience’s mind rather than simply provide aural cud to chew in the interval. When you’re lucky enough to have avant-prog, lo-fi techno wunderkind Max Tundra on hand to do your DJ-ing for you, you get more than the usual jukebox package – Peter Gabriel songs mingle with prank cut-ups of Tony Blair speeches, hilarious jungle-electronica renditions of ’80s pop hits, and ear-opening art-rock oddities whipped from rare vinyl. Priceless from any perspective.

Defeat the Young are the most literate – or literary – members of the House of Stairs stable by a country mile. They’re also the most demanding listen. Richard Larcombe‘s wit is complex and arch; his melodies are crenellated and mediaevalesque, pumped out of harmoniums, sharp-fingered guitars and hurdy-gurdies. Also, while there’s a distinctly proggy kink to his music (like Kevin Ayers cuddling up with Gentle Giant or William D. Drake), he’s drawn more to Havelock Ellis and Groucho Marx than to Tolkien or Carlos Castenada. Thank God for that. A faux-Edwardian English Zappa with highbrow kinks might not be to everyone’s taste. But it’s infinitely better than being subjected to another charlatan wrapped in suspect mysticism and stale denim.

Like a skilful card-trick, Larcombe’s wicked sense of humour also works best up close. In the cavernous rock cellar of The Underworld, he seems out of place – squinting against dim lighting in a venue more accustomed to thrash-metal and ska-punk than to his own rampantly sophisticated English stylings. I always seem to come up with flower metaphors whenever I try reviewing Defeat the Young. Tonight, the phrase is “hothouse flowers”. With two nouveau-metal bands roaring up from behind them, I’m worrying over whether the rarified and sophisticated humour in DTY’s music will wilt in this blunter setting. But they try hard, displaying a determined refusal to compromise. A long, scene-setting introduction (involving virtually the entire plot of The Marx Brothers’ ‘Duck Soup’) sprinkles conceptual theatrics back into the agenda, while (at the other end of preciousness) Jodie Scott’s feedback-heavy guitar adds some belligerent beef to the sound.

Still, it’s not until ‘Nothing from Something’ that things really get moving, as Larcombe gets to grips with his maze-y rake’s progress, bringing some deceptively drawling wit to bear. By ‘Natural Cash’ he’s in ebullient form, punching the air while his feet cycle his pedal harmonium and his lime-tinted vocal quicksteps adroitly through the tricky pitches. Propelled by his perverse and wayward imagination, he guides us through a risque world of sepia photos, elegant penmanship, social theorising and sexual quirks, all couched in a shower of beautiful golden language. Tonight wasn’t really quite his night, but Richard Larcombe is undoubtedly a major talent. He’s already way out there in that field where the erudite spectre of Oscar Wilde grabs the twisty bones of art-rock for a feverish waltz (and for a good snog, if it’s lucky).

The gap between Defeat the Young and the harder-rocking shapes of the rest of the evening should have been bridged by the violent, mordantly comical dada-metal of Lapsus Linguae, but for reasons unknown, they’ve had to stay in Glasgow. The evil smirks and the transmogrified Iron Maiden t-shirts remain north of the border tonight, to infest the queasy nightmares of pub-rockers who’d rather be dreaming of Joe Elliott. So it’s straight on to Foe – whose drummer Paul Westwood hardly gets a break from his turn on the drums and hammer dulcimer for Defeat the Young before he’s clambering back behind the kit for his main band.

If a change really is as good as a rest, he doesn’t need the break – the light percussive touch he uses for Defeat the Young has no place in Foe. Pop-eyed, Westwood lashes his way through this set like an escaped convict desperately hurdling fences. Jason Carty and Crawford Blair thread the gaps in his drumming with rapid intricacies of guitar and bass – a constantly shifting and jerking formation, pouncing in multiple directions. They’re not so much a power trio as a pared-down swarm. One part Don Caballero, one part double-duo King Crimson, and one part higher mathematics, Foe’s music sounds as if it’s been threshed out in cold areas of the brain until it finally lost its temper and exploded. Yet – Westwood’s controlled, wide-eyed intensity aside – Foe themselves are calm, observing their music and keeping it ticking busily until the time comes to dive in with all six feet for a burst of sudden violence.

Sounds familiar? Consciously or otherwise, the all-instrumental Foe parallel the current Crimson’s cerebral-metal approach, apart from refusing to sweeten it with the occasional pop tune. Blair’s grinding bass is as brutal and pitiless as a giant clock ticking, but also carries their complex whole-tone melodies up and down the scale and across the contorting tempi. Carty’s metallic creative/disruptive guitar acts as dissector and illustrator – raiding the harmony and timing of each piece and asking the tricky questions before rocking out into triumphant predatory riffs, pulling the whole band into line with it. Sometimes Foe hurtle like speed-metal Rock in Opposition; sometimes they spend a couple of seconds pinging and pulsing like free-jazzers; sometimes they slam into unyielding hardcore for a few bars.

“How do I play this again?”, yells a mock-baffled Carty, during a break in the action. He’s chuckling – he does remember it, but it’d be easy to get lost in the wanton folds and traps of this music. It’s a real lark’s tongue-twister; more Cuneiform than uniform. In spite of that, there’s a woman dancing in the front row. Incredibly, she’s performing a delighted bump and grind to Foe’s music – her pelvis and body twirls and undulates in perfect time to their constantly altering rhythms. So much for this being brain-only music.

She turns out to be the girlfriend of Nøught‘s drummer. Which explains a lot. Nøught themselves emerge onstage shadowed by conflicting reputations. They’re not actually a House of Stairs band at the moment, but they could be so easily. For evolutionary rockers, grumbling hopefully over their CD players, Nøught are a beacon band – assimilating the instrumental ideas of King Crimson, John McLaughlin and R.I.O., then marrying them to the urgency and directness of punk, grunge and hardcore. But their constant line-up and instrumentation changes (perhaps driven by James Sedwards’ need to bring a variety of tools and voices to his music) have tended to scupper the band and dip it into inactivity rather then renew its energy. Today’s Nøught are a conventional rock power trio plus keyboards, dispending with the second guitarists or Theremins of past live outings. They could be an octet with triangles, euphoniums and bagpipes next week and it wouldn’t surprise me too much. I’d just be happy so long as they kept playing, and stopped disappearing.

Sedwards himself is surrounded by guitars. Two of them are impeccably-finished Les Pauls mounted on flat racks, their strings prepared with objects and blocks (as if John Cage had infiltrated Yes ‘ road crew.) But his guitar of choice is the trashy, rhomboid Fender Jaguar: a Kurt Cobain favourite. It tells you a lot about his approach. Yes, Nøught do like to make a lot of noise. Sedwards’ reticent, un-rocking look (like a young Rowan Atkinson) belie his talents as a fierce, assertive guitarist. And then some. Nøught’s music leaps out of his guitar in a series of bucketing, challenging jumps: a boggling harmonic steeplechase, leaving few notes untouched. Imagine quickfire origami, performed with steel sheets, and you get some idea of how Nøught work.

Their raciness also brings to mind King Crimson’s ‘Red’ gone mutant mariachi. There’s constructive dissonance a-plenty – Sedwards revels in throwing flamboyant, startling chords into his majestic grand designs, catching us off guard. On record, Sedwards revels in the use of choppy strings and blazing big-band brass, and though there’s nothing of that here, there’s been a renaissance in the keyboards department. That muscular undercurrent of organ (triumphant chords supporting the widening paths of guitar and wiry, driven bass) brings an unexpected rhythm’n’blues feel back to the music. Touches of Hendrix or Muddy Waters roots to blend in with the Fripp roars, the John McLaughlin jumps and the Sonic Youth smashes, bringing a different grittiness to Nøught’s aggressive playing. The band has never sounded so human, so assured – and it’s a good balance to those industrial moments when Sedwards assaults his flat-mounted guitars with drumsticks or runs the screams of whirling power-drill chucks through the pickups. Whatever else Nøught’s downtime has provided, it’s brought them a sense of roots and placement that was so lacking in the wall-of-noise incarnation that rattled the walls of venues a year or so ago.

This is an undersung gig, to be sure – a half-full (though comfortable) Underworld suggests that half of the art-rock community in London haven’t even heard about the concert – but there’s a definite sense of homecoming heroes to this one. Good foundations for a strong new house of deserving players, I hope.

Nøught online:
Homepage, Facebook, MySpace, Soundcloud, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Qobuz, Tidal, Spotify, Amazon Music

Foe online:
MySpace, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Amazon Music

Defeat the Young online:
(2022 update – no links available. See Lost Crowns.)

Max Tundra online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Instagram, Mixcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Tidal, Spotify, Amazon Music

House of Stairs online:
(2022 update – there are no longer any web pages for the House of Stairs label, although there is a discogs.com page)

One Response to “February 2003 – live reviews – House of Stairs label launch concert (evening 1) featuring Nøught, Foe and Defeat the Young, The Underworld, Camden Town, London, 12th February 2003 (“the Underworld fills with familiar London pronk and math-rock faces”)”

  1. Dann Chinn November 15, 2022 at 9:00 pm #

    Originally written for Tiz Hay’s ‘Evophonic’ webzine (hence the proggier slant). A little under twenty years later, I recovered the text and slotted it into the 2003 section here.

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