Archives for posts with tag: Birmingham

Michael Gira

An awkward silence hung over the Birmingham audience as Swans took to the stage, either too polite, or too intimidated to applaud the arrival of Michael Gira and his legendary New York Experimental/Noise Rock band. It was the last moment of calm and silence that anyone in The Library would hear for over two hours. As Swans’ sucked the air from the room, any traditional concepts of melody or rhythm went with it, and the very idea of verse-chorus song structure probably would’ve been met with a sly smirk.

They opened with Gira shaking the room with his impossibly deep baritone, chanting “there are millions and millions of stars in your eyes” over a hauntingly shrill and sparse rhythm, sometimes singing it off-mic as he drifted around the stage with his own eyes closed. The rest of the band met his volume as they violently snapped through “Mother of the World”, a panting menace of a song from The Seer, Swans equally demented 2012 album. They ripped into it with such fervour that several earplugless individuals immediately fled the barrier.

Swans’ six man line-up ranges from your standard stern faced rhythm guitarist, bassist and drummer, to the more nebulous and hard to define multi-instrumentalist. Thor Harris, who lived up to his name by playing bare chested, literally provided Swans’ bells and whistles, along with brass and fierce percussion. Chris Pravdica provided the punishing bass catalyst of “Coward”, coercing the rest of the rhythm section into the songs intense severity. Gira sang and spat out the unnerving lyrics amongst the troubled rhythms, shouting: “I don’t know you / I can’t use you / Put your knife in me”. He seemed to be aware of every noise and note that each of his band members were making or playing; he would repeatedly beckon to them for more volume, or place his guitar down and conduct their corrosive cacophony with his convulsive dancing.

They played long and unhurried versions of their songs, indulging in long abstract noise rock sections that frequently pushed song lengths well past the 20 minute mark. They would play the same earth shattering mantric refrains until the sense altering volume finally began to white out. After 90 minutes Gira said that there set was only half over, it’s hard to imagine he was joking, and he only found time for one more song before the 11pm curfew.

Their dirge of anguished violent noise was enough to set your brain on fire, engulfing it as it found a form of ecstasy within Swans’ transcendent onslaught, becoming enamoured and alive with frisson as their volume shook your bones, and Gira spouted what must’ve been demonic tongues. The awkward silence had transformed to loud applause by their set’s end, and the band relieved the haunting tension by taking uncharacteristically playful bows.

It’s so easy to call the noise produced by some of music’s loudest bands a ‘wall of sound’. Any band who push their volume far into the red have probably had their live set described this way, but for Swans it just doesn’t feel like an apt description. The noise they created on The Library’s stage didn’t feel like an isolating wall, it didn’t block out audience, it enveloped them. It felt like you were within it, hurtling with it through dark and unsettling scenes, becoming ever more willing to hand yourself over to its all-consuming power, not even caring that it was turning anything caught in its wake to dust.

5/5

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Kevin Shields

After brief stints in Asia and Australia, My Bloody Valentine have returned to play in the UK for the first time since Kevin Shields promised and delivered the impossible. This O2 Academy Birmingham show was a late addition to the UK tour, added after alternative music fans everywhere became swept up in the chatter leading up to the possible release of the band’s new album m b v. Many would have bet that by this gig the album would still be unreleased, but the Birmingham show improbably happened in a post m b v world, and while it wasn’t an official sell out, it was pretty damn close. Certainly not bad for a band who have disappeared completely several times, and whose most critically acclaimed album, Loveless, only sold 200,000ish copies worldwide.

The Birmingham audience was dotted with aging, deafened-veteran fans, but they were in the minority, some of those in the crowd seemed to be so young that not only were they not born when Loveless was released, they probably couldn’t even legally drink when the remastered version came out. The crowd was comprised of people that had discovered My Bloody Valentine’s amazing and truly unique music (unique before they inspired droves of imitators that is) at some time in their life, even if it was years after the fact. But some people had probably just been dragged along by someone else that had found the band’s music, and were about to get the shock of a lifetime.

Even with the focus on their new material being at an all-time high they opened with the melodious duo of “I Only Said” and “When You Sleep” from Loveless. The woozy synth leads from both boast two of band’s biggest hooks, and for ten minutes people seemed to forget that the band has a new record out. As “New You” started they were quickly reminded, Shields played his oscillating guitar line with head almost pressed to his speakers. The band stood in front of video loops that were as cohesive as their production is. The images were marked with the same corroded and kaleidoscopic beauty that defines their songs. It was only upon seeing “New You” live that it finally became clear that it’s Bilinda Butcher who provides the sweet lead vocals. Her and Shields androgynous vocals were just as similarly inaudible as they sound on their studio recordings, almost to an irritating extent. It becomes a noticeable problem with their music when you lose the intimacy of headphones or home speakers, getting the right balance between quiet-but-audible vocals and louder-than-hell guitars must be close to impossible in a live setting.

They became the ear shredders that legend foretold with “You Never Should”, which completely did away with the laid back serenity of “New You”. They started the Isn’t Anything track with a significant volume bump to what was already a loud show. The legends must have spread, because this gig’s audience had the highest percentage of people wearing earplugs that I’ve ever seen. By the time Shields’ liquid slide guitar on “Honey Power” started, people were likely thanking the pieces foam in their ears. The addition of some aggressive and lesser known early EP songs made for a nice mix of sonically varied material that continued throughout their set, and it was a testament to their new material that m b v’s songs fit so seamlessly next to older and beloved tracks. With “Only Tomorrow” the volume somehow seemed to increase again, the warbling guitar drop and pained outro licks shook the stage.

Except for Butcher, the band members’ gazes were still fixed firmly upon their shoes; only Bilinda looked out at the crowd, as she softly sung with her guitar hanging motionless at her waist. It was the band’s lone acknowledge of their audience, and with the vocal mix being what it was, it was hard to tell whether Shields had said nothing, or merely little, to the similarly sedate crowd. He seemed to be lost within his guitar sound during a dissolving “Come In Alone”. Colm Ó Cíosóig’s snare queued up the wonky “Only Shallow”, with its guttural bass and reanimated six string squeal. Their set’s final visits to Loveless’ came in the form of the gorgeously muddled “To Here Knows When” and its stomping post punk closer “Soon”. The two songs bookended and overshadowed a messy version of “Slow” that seemed to leave the crowd unmoved.

They began their final act with the scraping slam of “Feed Me With Your Kiss”, an excellent blurry rocker with a dual vocal lead that trades between Shields and Butcher. But even midway through it you could feel people gearing up for the much hyped “You Made Me Realise”, with its supposedly apocalyptic and famed ‘holocaust section’ wherein the band play one note for as long and as loud and they can endure to. The beginning of the song came with another, possibly imagined, increase in volume, but the beginning of the holocaust section came with a definite and undeniable increase that redefined your definition of ‘loud’. As they dropped into it from the main riff you could feel the rays of sound tearing through your body and shaking your nervous system. Some of those without earplugs wisely covered their ears and others threw their hands above their head to fully embrace its might, as the volume slowly climbed past Jupiter and beyond the infinite. It sounded as if a rocket’s thrusters were burning and reverberating through the venue, conjuring visions of a hectic speed of light re-entry into our atmosphere.

For me, it provoked one of the strongest reactions that I’ve ever had due to live music or music in general, if ten minutes of intense distortion can even be counted as music. I was in disbelief that something so simple and theoretical had hit me so powerfully, that something so monotonous could be so beautiful and invigorating. Its frightening volume was probably the loudest thing I’ve ever experienced in person, definitely for such an extended period of time. That such a colossal, all-consuming noise was created by a small group of people with nothing but pedals and guitars is simply incredible. I feel bad for anyone that didn’t experience what I did within its blissful, troubled cacophony, and when the ten minutes were over my body was tingling.

It was awesome in the rarely earned non-hyperbolic sense of the word, an overwhelming and physical experience that no review or video will ever be able to faithfully capture or prepare you for, even I expected everything I’ve heard about it to be a ridiculous over positive appraisal of something that had to be a self-indulgent boring mess. But I’ve never been happier to be wrong, and for almost a quarter of an hour “You Made Me Realise” turned their good set into a great one. The section is completely dependent on its teeth shattering volume, and to turn it down would be to fatally defang it. Anyone who endured it without earplugs is dumb, but they have my respect. When the band returned to and finished the actual song part of it, it actually seemed quiet in comparison.

They broke tradition by not finishing with the song, and instead closed with the live debut of “Wonder”. Cíosóig left his drums and picked up a guitar as the pre-taped jet fuel percussion was piped into the Academy, and Shields’ unnerving vocals struggled to drift through the rumbling guitar layers. Following the distorted behemoth of “You Made Me Realise”, it was an unneeded but welcome addition to their set. It showed that My Bloody Valentine can still create loud and formidable anomalies that deafen you in the best way possible, even if their release dates are now twenty something years apart.

4/5

Foals

You’d probably guess that Foals are Sixth Form favourites judging from the predominantly youngish and enthusiastic crowd that was gathered to see them in The Institute. But upon closer inspection you’d notice a varied audience, and it’s easy to see why. The artsy, experimental sheen of Foals’ music is lightened, and made more accessible, by their aggressive pop hooks and dancey guitar lines. These elements make their music easy to sing, or drunkenly chant along to, and have likely caused the band to be embraced by general music lovers and laddish bantering students alike (these two demographics would probably make for a fun Venn diagram). Foals’ brand of Indie Rock/Pop will probably work for you whether you want to bang your head or dance your heart out. You can either slam along with the band’s measured aggression or simply let it move your feet.

The excitement noticeably erupted in the Birmingham venue as an intro tape of Anna Meredith’s “Nautilus” filled the room to announce the band’s arrival. They opened, aptly enough, with “Prelude”, the opening instrumental from their new album Holy Fire. Jack Bevan’s crisp percussive snare strikes and the looping textural guitar didn’t prepare the crowd for the song’s surprisingly sharp breakdown, which still worked even though it hit long after the crowd had pre-emptively gone nuts. After a brief pause their set shifted as Yannis Philippakis played the near-signature guitar line of Total Life Forever’s “Miami”, changing its definition from classical to post punk as the song progressed.

An early set appearance of “My Number” seized and converted any members of the crowd who weren’t already feeling it. Even as the excitable crowd slammed, crashed and careened into one another they still managed to generate as much noise as the band, by loudly singing along to the chorus as the air was squeezed from their lungs. It’s a song that is so catchy, and greeted so enthusiastically, that you’d think it was a much bigger hit than it actually it. After all it was even deemed to be funky and stone cold pop enough by gold standard Popists Hot Chip, who recently honoured the single with a neat remix. The infectious song hit the crowd and generated enough energy to make you believe that even the people outside of the venue, like in the song’s video, were dancing in the street. And you’d never be able to prove otherwise, unless you had the same unnervingly fluid, wall ignoring, Evil Dead II-like camera that was used to film said video with you.

As the song ended the transitional heartbeat bass drum of “Blue Blood” pulsed far slower than the majority of the circulatory systems on the dance floor did. The band almost lost momentum as the carefully allowed “Milk & Black Spiders” to build, but then they forcefully ripped it back with a glistening and galvanic middle section. They thrilled at half speed with the cruising smooth funk undercurrent of “Late Night”, which Yannis ended with a neon guitar solo. It was a paced and relaxed moment that Foals quickly dismissed with a violent looking stage dive that Yannis took during the dance floor fury of “Providence”.

Large chunks of the crowd tried to sit down during the serene opening of “Spanish Sahara”, which was probably so they could give the band the standing ovation they deserved as they furiously beat out the outros solid tempo. When they were back of their feet, people were jumping and ready to lose themselves again, even before the band kicked into the breakdown of “Red Socks Pugie” from their debut album Antidotes. The straight New York-like Dance Punk of “Electric Bloom” saw Yannis partly joining the rhythm section, whilst still fronting the band with an unhinged Byrne-ian energy as he brandished a pair of drumsticks and stormed through the refrain. Corrosive waves of distortion crashed through the venue and suddenly cut out at maximum volume as the song crashed into its ending and the band left the stage.

The crowd was wild enough by this point that not playing an encore just wasn’t an option. Yannis returned alone to open the encore with a solo version of “Moon”, which he introduced as a “twisted little number”. The song is a slow burn and he temporarily lost the still hopped up crowd, who began to chat amongst themselves during the pretty but sleepy number. He instantly won them back with an unimaginative but effective shout of “Are you fucking ready?” as his bandmates returned for a venue shaking rendition of “Inhaler” that hit with a supersonic force. A call from Yannis of “Let’s desecrate this building” prepped their closer “Two Steps, Twice”. It layered and layered and dragged the perfectly willing crowd through a final sweaty crush and dance along.

Foals play many of their songs live in a fashion that is far more vicious and thrillingly ill-mannered than any of their studio recordings, and the band was clearly loving their growing successes as they fed off of The Institute’s crowd. A crowd that couldn’t quite decide how to react to the music, but clearly loved it. The exhausted and beaming fans filed out of the venue to the sound of AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long”, which is probably the only song that could keep the party that Foals started going.

5/5

Even before their set began Converge’s Jacob Bannon stalked around the stage, getting used to his surroundings as the 4th drum kit of the night was assembled. There were enough opening bands that a fenced off area, which blocked off the venues second bar, was required to house the vast array of various drum equipment. Their request for help with the problems with their hi-hat microphone and monitors went completely unanswered for several minutes but the band remained in a playful mood until someone finally arrived from the absentee sound crew, greeted by Bannon asking the audience to “Give it up for the employee”. You’d never guess he was in such good spirits just seconds into their set, as he lets loose his aggressive snarling energy. His tattooed neck veins bulging with ferocity, moving so much that every live photo of him is probably blurry. He only lets his intensity waiver as he says his surprisingly polite thank you’s over Kurt Ballou’s guitar distortion.

As the front section of the crowd goes wild, the crowd surfers are only momentarily airborne before being mauled over the barrier by security. Seeing this Bannon is quick to call the barrier a “buzzkill” which “doesn’t make this a Hardcore show”. Bannon overcame his gripes with the barrier by performing the majority of the first half of their set stood atop it. Unleashing his guttural bark whilst lying on the heads of the first few rows, pausing to shove the microphone into the faces of the most diehard, crushed and bruised fans. Allowing them to inaudible shout along during a fevered version of new album opener “Aimless Arrow”. The fans at the front were the most eager to embody the definition of a Hardcore show, and a wide gap in the crowd separated the violent throb of the front section from the remaining crossed armed, beer sipping others. Bannon moved back to the stage during the second half of the set, crouching next to his monitors or swinging and slamming his microphone hard to the floor or into his chest.

The drumming of Ben Koller was faultless throughout, and the toughened riff/snare ending of Jane Doe’s “Bitter and Then Some” was a ragged toughened highlight. Bassist Nate Newton provided furious backing vocals along with Ballou, and the shouted near ‘harmonies’ of Axe to Fall’s “Worms Will Feed/Rats Will Feast” added an ever darker edge to the crushing and bleak epic. The slower new album title track “All We Love We Leave Behind” demonstrated some progression in Bannon’s vocals, as he eased into its full power after the agonised bass intro.

It was a thrilling but exhaustive set, and the audience shouts for “Concubine” despite them opening with it, suggest that even their most diehard fans have difficulty distinguishing between their tearing Hardcore songs. These songs form a convulsive and brilliant set, but it’s hard to ignore that it is at times a little samey and that not all of the guitar work can be as memorable as the melting, mournful guitar croon and coarse riffs of “Sadness Comes Home”. Many seemed to have had their fill even before the pre-encore set was finished, and several people began to leave before the band returned for a second helping. It comes down to too much of a good thing, but I suspect that many would subject themselves to having their mind fried again by Converge’s excellent, suffocating barrage.

4/5