February 2003 – live reviews – House of Stairs label launch concert (evening 2) featuring William D. Drake, Cheval de Frise, Stars in Battledress and Miss Helsinki @ The Arts Cafe, Toynbee Hall, Aldgate, London; plus Delicate AWOL @ 93 Feet East, Shoreditch, London, both 17th February 2003 (“East End might mean left-field tonight…”)

19 Feb

Less than a week ago, the House of Stairs label put on their Camden launch gig at the Underworld: Max Tundra DJ-ed, filling the gaps with a spicy and witty mix of art-rock, prank techno and pop buzz. But tonight we’re out east in the pizza, pine and paintings environment of the Arts Café for the second, “quiet” gig – and Richard Larcombe is de-facto man-on-the-muzak, even as he bustles about setting up for his turns in two of tonight’s bands. Eerie shapes and twists of music waft through the busy air: the chatter at the bar is underscored by the filtering eeriness of Messiaen and the swooping rattling studio gulps of Boulez. East End might mean left-field tonight.

Miss Helsinki, bless them, display more pop bones in their body. Popping up from the wreck of the much-lamented Monsoon Bassoon, they feature both of the Bassoon’s singing guitarists (Dan Chudley and Kavus Torabi) plus the increasingly ubiquitous Larcombe on bass and harmonies. But they’ve lost both a drummer and Kavus’s keyboard-playing brother Bobak in the last month: and so it’s a stripped-down-and-unplugged Helsinki trio playing for us tonight, both aided and hindered by a backing tape. It’s only their third live appearance.

Frustratingly, they’re still lolling like a tall layer cake whipped out of the oven too soon. There’s something to be said for a bit of engaging pop roughness; and for Torabi’s endearing habit of boggling like Tom Baker at the end of a tricky lick. But although Miss Helsinki’s ambitions are clear, they’re still struggling to reach them. They have a tough act to follow, of course. One of the few bands to unite the approval of both London proggies and the NME, The Monsoon Bassoon wrapped a broad spectrum of ingredients (including Naked City, King Crimson and Shudder to Think) into their explosive, racing psychedelic rock.

Though Miss Helsinki retain some of those flavours, they’ve pastoralised them: the bursts of unusual chording and rampant arpeggiating are still there, but the thrashing intensity has been replaced by a sunny warmth and they’ve obviously settled on Andy Partridge as their guardian angel. But Helsinki music is a good deal more complex and demanding than XTC’s, straining the abilities of Chudley and Torabi’s affable, unvirtuosic boy-next-door voices as they hop over the cheerfully convoluted melodies like tap-dancing cats on a hot tin roof.

Despite this – and despite the fluffed notes and stumbles over the over-detailed backing tapes – ‘I Felt Your Arms Around Me’ is a bright little gem of spiky-haired art-pop, powered by the same giddy celebration of the best Monsoon Bassoon songs. Kavus (air-punching and doing triumphant kicks from his guitar stool) obviously knows it. ‘Surf’s Up’ – featuring a repeated chant of “silhouettes you know from fire” – takes them to places last touched by the psychedelic folk-science of Gastr del Sol; and the romping cowboy-pop of ‘Rodeo’ (“the world seems drunk, with a stetson in place”) ensures that they finish on a note of charm and enthusiasm. Miss Helsinki are a long way from filling the Bassoon’s busy shoes, but the signs are good.

With Miss Helsinki, Richard Larcombe is a deft, understated bass player. With his own band Defeat the Young – backed up by brother James – he steps up to become a witty, elegant frontman with tales of social absurdity and romantic scrapes. But tonight, for Stars in Battledress (an equal-partnership duo of both Larcombe brothers), he takes a step sideways. Up onstage, he cuts a quieter, more sober figure than he does with Defeat the Young. His sophisticated social-jester persona is mostly absent. His ready wit is intact, but here it’s diffused – more musing in its nature, leaning on subtle insinuations and surreal impressions rather than crackling wordplay. It’s also tinted with a peculiar, guarded English melancholy, and there’s an unsettling sense of loss and submission behind Richard’s refined and aristocratic drawl. “Blessed are all with vision unswerving. / Don’t watch me weep – go back to sleep…”

On Richard’s guitar – round about where people usually paste their dude-rock logos or political slogans – there’s a beautifully executed painting of a mallard duck, apparently snipped from a spotter’s guide. It’s appropriate. Stars in Battledress’ drifting tapestries of songscape take place in a watery never-land England of ponds and rivers and thin blue children, posh academies and school gymnasiums, the rituals of government offices and the embarrassments of public speaking; Cambridge water-meadows distorted by a lysergic autumnal haze. Someone in the audience mutters that Stars in Battledress are the best argument he’s ever witnessed against a public school education. I think he’s failing to press past the immaculate antique sheen of their surface. Theirs is a ghostly watercolour world of ruefully suppressed emotions with a tidal tendency to seep back up. Part Evelyn Waugh, part Syd Barrett and part Sea Nymphs.

James – strumming and fondling snowfall arpeggios from his piano and contributing apple-bright harmonies – provides most of Stars in Battledress’ colours, picking up on his brother’s words and extending them outwards in rippling classically-inspired musical inventions. Richard plays some understated, skeletal guitar and trundles a harmonium through the queasy distress signal of ‘Haunted Hotel’, but mostly he stays out at the front, clasping the mike stand like a sad, dapper figurehead. There’s a break from this in the roaring-’40s guitar-waltz of ‘Hollywood Says So’, as Richard delves hilariously into ludicrous showbiz gaudiness (“drive fast cars, play guitars, win prizes / – girls in every port, in all five sizes”) but ends up spat out in a wad of comic bitterness. (“I’ve been over-directed, I’ve been cut in one take. / I’m a dated two-reeler that no-one will make.”) Their cryptic finale – the hummed, valedictory ‘Women from the Ministry’ – hovers in the mind like the flicker of antique cinema light, images of lost houses, withered photographs.

Cheval de Frise are… plain remarkable. Bare to the waist and sporting Trotsky glasses, Vincent Beysselance studies his drumkit with a jazz warrior’s eye, his lean expression and sculpted moustachios lending him the air of a razor-sharp beatnik. Guitarist Thomas Bonvalent looks as if the Taliban have booted him out for excessive zeal. Sporting an enormous bushy chest-length beard, battered clothes and an expression of sincerely crazed intensity, he’s twitching visibly even before he plays a note. His nylon-string acoustic guitar has been modified – or de-modified, with both the sound-hole and the pre-amp controls crudely and defiantly smothered with duct tape. As he plays, biting on a pick, his face seethes beneath his beard.

“Pastoral acoustic mathcore” was what someone wrote on the Cheval de Frise packet. Ah ha, ha, ha – I don’t think so. Pastoral acoustic mathcore would be very nice – perhaps a Guitar Craft picking exercise, pared down by post-punk minimalism and softened by visions of green fields. Are Cheval de Frise like that? No. For the first seven minutes or so, Cheval de Frise seem absolutely demented. After that – and once the broken seizures of drumming and the intricate splatterwork of guitar has had time to get to work on your brain and your reflexes – you start to understand. Although your body will make the connection before your mind does.

Right from the off, Bonvalent’s playing is disturbingly wild; slamming down obsessively on a single note or isolated interval, or spasming music up, down or across the neck of the guitar. Beysselance’s drumming is a boiling whirl of ideas and instincts, acted out with a brinksman’s forcefulness, with enough breakneck substance both to keep the duo’s momentum and to craze it with brilliant stress fractures. People cram to the edge of the Arts Café’s tiny stage, swaying like a wheatfield in a whirlwind, and yelping approval.

Behind the apparent free-scene chaos, Cheval de Frise have serious intentions. The drums have their melodies as well as their upheavals, and although Bonvalent’s open-mouthed drooling visage suggests a man in terminal acid psychosis, he frequently rips into hyperspeed, hypertonal spirals of intense picking which John McLaughlin would be proud of. Every now and again, in the midst of a free section, the two Friseurs exchange a quick cue-ing glance and then slam into perfect alignment, calling a rigorous Zappa-style composed music module up out of memory. Bonvalent’s playing might often parallels the spewing, disjointed clicking noises of the post-Derek Bailey improv school, but the musician he’s really closest to is the iconoclastic lo-fi jazz rebel Billy Jenkins. Deliberately or not, Cheval de Frise ‘s music is a hyperactive flamencoid strain of Jenkins’ “spass” approach – a slew of intense musicality in which ugly sounds, wrong notes, anti-technique and smash-ups in timing and phrasing are as part of the great spontaneous inspiration as skill, structure, complex ambition or the beautiful moment.

It is, also, an intensely devotional music, as burningly thrilling as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s qu’waali shriek, a gospel choir tearing the roof off the sucker, or the closer-to-God whirling of a Sufi dervish. Bonvalent’s physical abandonment (at points close to ecstatic convulsions) is religious in its intensity. As pieces skid to a halt, he bobs his head thankfully to the audience, smiling and almost moved to tears. If it’s like that onstage, it’s not that much less intense down here. Being up close to music this inspirationally driven raises the hairs on the back of the neck. When Cheval de Frise finally peel off their instruments and stumble into the crowd, the feel of the audience unclipping themselves from their joyful tenterhooks is like a dam bursting.

I don’t envy William D. Drake – a onetime Cardiac songwriter with a joyous genteel-gone-berserk keyboard style – for having to follow that. But I’m going to have to leave him to it, as I’m double-booked for gigs this evening; and so I have to slip out of the Arts Café to stride the Spitalfields half-mile or so over to 93 Feet East, to see Delicate AWOL on a rare London visit. I’ll just have to promise to catch up with the Drakey magic next time he plays… I will, really…

93 Feet East turns out to be an over-pleased-with-itself Brick Lane bar, milking the wobbly momentum of trendy Shoreditch Twattery while it still lasts. It also has the rudest security staff I’ve ever met. Not five minutes after the music stops, they’re in your face; all but digging their chins into your shoulders, dangling heavy barrier chains in one hand with the bored and arrogant stance of animal stockmen, yelling at you to move out. Regular punters must really want to come back to this place.

It’s a sorry way to end an evening, especially after Delicate AWOL have been exercising their luminous charm on you. Walking in on the band mid-flow, the first thing I see is Caroline Ross joyfully bouncing tiny beaters off the keys of her little glockenspiel. Its fairy tingles resound in the air as the rest of the band keep up a stiff-swung groove behind her. Delicate AWOL have been drawing connections between Latinate ’70s fusion and limpid Tortoise-school indie art-rock for a few years now. These days – extended from a guitar-rock indie four-piece to a more ambitious sextet featuring Ben Page’s swishing textural synths, Jo Wright’s Chet Baker-ish trumpet commentary and Ross’ own multi-instrumental enthusiasm – they’re in a much better position to cook up their jazzified stew.

Inevitably, the enchantingly gamine Ross is the focus, smiling beatifically from beneath her shaggy russet bob and swapping between percussion, flute and thoughtful slide guitar. There’s also her soft spring-thaw of a voice: a gentle but commanding stroke to soothe the ruffling from the craggier guitar of husband Jim Version and the dogged Can-ish rhythm-section circling of Michael Donelly and Tom Page. Rising above the hum and the wind-rattle of ‘That Terminal’s Down’, brushing against the reedy melancholia of a melodica, drawling through a sleepy-lidded chant of “your breath goes slow”, she’s hypnotic, bringing a hint of Scottish lullaby into Delicate AWOL’s sleepy mix. Alongside the Pram-like tinkles and kitchen-table craftsmanship, the woozy instrumental Americana of ‘The China-Green Prairie Tribunal’, the southern-border dance-steps of ‘Broken Window in a Mexican Bank’ and the doughnut-bulging space-groove they hop into for ‘The Rolling Year’.

One of Delicate AWOL’s greatest strengths is their ability to wander open-armed between these varied inspirations without ever inducing the suspicion that they’re simply trying to fill their basket with crowd-pleasing nuggets. Their intelligence is of the gentle kind – simply enjoying their explorations rather than ticking them off on a list and practising their traveller’s poses afterwards. Surprising, this takes them further than a ruthless musical ambition would – as does the way they flit disarmingly between other-worldliness and neighbourly charm, most evident in Version’s professorial enthusiasm and Ross’ affectionate, amused handling of fans and hecklers alike.

Even in the grubby concrete shell of an average indie-circuit venue, Delicate AWOL can get a campfire atmosphere going. A rewarding thing on a cold February night, especially with the impatient rattle of a chain behind you. If I ended up being treated like cattle, at least I got to spend half-an-hour home on the range beforehand.

Cheval de Frise online:
Homepage, Facebook, Soundcloud, online store, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Amazon Music

Stars in Battledress online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Tidal, Spotify, Amazon Music

Miss Helsinki online:
(2022 update – no links available. See Kavus Torabi and Daniel Chudley Le Corre)

Delicate AWOL online:
MySpace,Last.fm, YouTube, Spotify, Amazon Music, Wikipedia entry

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 2) featuring William D. Drake, Cheval de Frise, Stars in Battledress and Miss Helsinki @ The Arts Cafe, Toynbee Hall, Aldgate, London; plus Delicate AWOL @ 93 Feet East, Shoreditch, London, both 17th February 2003 (“East End might mean left-field tonight…”)”

  1. Dann Chinn November 15, 2022 at 9:08 pm #

    As with the previous House of Stairs launch concert review, this was originally written for Tiz Hay’s ‘Evophonic’ webzine and has been unavailable since that went offline many years ago. The Cheval de Frise section had a bit more of an afterlife, since it was picked up by band and fans and made it into some fervent forum discussions (about the band, not about me). I’ve now recovered the text and slotted it into the 2003 section here.

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