Cafe Oto, London
24 April 2012
This triple bill of artists—improv./noise musician Kevin Drumm, sax/synthesist Thomas Ankersmit and London’s HELM—are all represented on the PAN label, here following up on a successful two-day festival held at Oto in January (I reviewed the second night here) with another label showcase.
Luke Younger, who opened the night with a performance in his solo guise as HELM, may be better known as one half on the noise/drone duo Birds of Delay. His sound was a sort of industrial ambient, at first gritty and enervated, but building in intensity with layers of percussive clangour held together with muted, regular beats. Landslides in scrap metal scree disturbed a thunderous bio-mechanical heartbeat; all cut through by a single sustained high, thin tone.
HELM developed a sequence of variations on the same sonic imagery, with a few surprises pitched in: beats stark and loud punctuating a deep machine throb to the accompaniment of swirling electronics; a rhythmic pulse not unlike a synth bass; a quease-inducing whorl of filtered pitch tones; obfuscatory rumblings. For my money the set’s overall narrative wasn’t coherent, and I wasn’t gripped by it, but HELM’s sound-shaping was absolutely immaculate.
Both Drumm and Ankersmit are renowned multi-instrumentalists, with Drumm having made his name playing adapted guitar while Anksermit combines electronics with alto saxophone. At Oto, however, both played purely electronic sets. Ankersmit went first, focusing on acute adjustments to the connections and controls on the face of an analogue modular synthesizer, from which he produced alternately pure and stridulating high tones and channelled surges of dis/connected raw electrical power, taking his sound down to the level of low-end flutter-thrum or up to piercing sine wave pitches.
As he made apparently random tweaks to synth or soundboard, Ankersmit gazed out across his audiences’ heads, his head cocked attentively to the quad stereo setup Oto had specially installed for the evening. And those apparently random tweaks, which took high-pitch Morse flutters down to a deep static hum, or aero-drone to surging thrum, constructed a subtly balanced and finely nuanced web of sound that was utterly enthralling, drawing musical order from potential chaos. Ankersmit’s control was never more evident than in his steering the set to its end in an abruptly clipped climax of increasingly distressed sonics.
Kevin Drumm restricted himself to the potentially quad stereo PA’s cross-stereo capabilities, but made brutally efficient use of it. Playing dual tone generators, he unleashed a magnificent, foundation-shaking reverberant noise with all the harshness of a pneumatic drill. Muffled detonations and eruptions of static interference were tweaked into violent effect and spiked with jolts of eardrum-rending ultrasound or punchier blats of what might have been warning frequencies. Put the worry of permanent auditory damage aside, and Drumm’s practice is as enthralling and evidently just as astutely controlled as Ankersmit’s.
Drumm and Anksermit toured as a duo just last October, so it’s a shame they didn’t find time for a joint encore, but the night was running late as it was. No matter. The night was nicely curated to tease out PAN-commonalities in the three artist’s juxtaposed aesthetics, and to demonstrate the enduring vitality of the more interesting practitioners of electro-acoustic noise.