Friday, June 13, 2008

Si Schroeder, Matmos - Live @ Andrew's Lane Theatre, Dublin 12/06/08

Last night was a surprisingly good gig. So good, in fact, that I don't much mind now not seeing the other acts in the Future Days festival (Jape & Dan Deacon, Low and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy). I'd wanted to see Si Schroeder for a while now and didn't much mind who was on the top of the bill. Matmos looked interesting, but a bit like Xiu Xiu last month, I wasn't expecting much. (And like Xiu Xiu, this was Matmos's first visit to Ireland)

Andrew's Lane Theatre (A.L.T.) is a new venue in Dublin. The new hip venue, to be precise. A former play theatre, it's been revamped and redecorated with a new coat of purple paint and - inside and outside - graffiti murals by 'Maser'. It's shockingly hip - but apart from that greasy undercurrent of attitude, it's a perfectly pleasant place to spend an evening. The sound quality was very good - having heard some negative, but generally mixed, reviews on that front - especially as both groups on the bill could be considered audiophilic.

Si Schroeder, in the form of his debut album Coping Mechanisms, is one of the most talented and interesting Irish electronic/alternative artist around today. It's a sort of 'fits between' (for me) Xiu Xiu, Lungfish and My Bloody Valentine.

A review on another blog of his support slot for DeVotchKa was unimpressed by his solo show. I was hoping myself for the full band, as that's the way it works on the record and because live videos I had seen (such as this one for 'Lavendermist') with the band were indeed quite impressive.

As it happened, he came on stage for his first song alone. Normally I'm not too receptive to that sort of thing, but considering as well that the last solo guitar player I saw performing was Lou Barlow, I found nothing to complain about. I'm not sure what the song was - I've heard it before, I think - but he played well, attentively, even locking into a breakdown groove on his semi-acoustic. Then the full band came on, and they played a series of songs from Coping Mechanisms - 'C4' I think, 'Lavendermist', 'The Reluctant Aviator' and 'Eyes Wide' - followed by a couple of new songs. The latter were quite interesting; one with metallic, swiping guitar played off against a drum roll, another with waves of shoegaze-y guitar glancing off repeated waves of drums.

Permit me, since it was just my birthday, to try and coin a new - to me, anyway - term: post-shoegaze. Because that's what Si Schroeder sounds like to me; the whole waves of sound are there, but only towards the end. The band seem more interested in the quiet parts that lead up to and surround it, though not to any detriment to the end result, which is a seriously impressive and loud experience of ensemble playing. My friend and I worked out that the songs operated on a continous curve, right from finger-picking quiet to shuddering loudness - gradually increasing and never at any time dropping back down. It's a curious dynamic. but one that works to great effect on their songs. And live, which is where a band's sound can take on a really distinctive and vibrant form, it came into its shimmering, blissful own.

Si Schroeder, 'A Little More' (video) and 'The Reluctant Aviator', Airfield Sessions

Si Schroeder, being both singularly impressive and deceptively quite loud, allowed us to retreat from the floor for the interval in happy knowledge of a good gig so far. At this stage, I still didn't know what to expect from Matmos - which is often a good way to go into a show. A San Franciscan duo, who recently moved to Baltimore to continue their work, they seemed rather inexplicable. Their latest album, Supreme Balloons, was released this year and is being stocked in sweetbabyjaysus's record shop 'Under The Mooch' as "their latest offering of found sound scavenger hunt stylized schizophrenic video game soundtrack perfection". The AV Club review wasn't too positive, declaring the songs "jubilant... but slight in a way that suggests much of Supreme Balloon would have been a lot more fun to make than it is to listen to. That certainly applies to an ambient title track that goes nowhere beyond wiggly test-tones for 24 minutes - a long time to go nowhere, no matter the concept." (Reliably astute, an AV Club commenter pointed out that ambient tracks, by definition, aren't meant to go anywhere).

There was a lot of interest in Matmos, however, when we went back in to find the floor at least half-packed with people ranging from a few teenagers right up to one behatted man in his 70s with his wife (well, at that age, one presumes). On stage, in darkness, were the duo - joined by noted collaborator J Lesser, and dressed at least patially in suits, shirts and skinny ties. Various glows and sounds emanated - there's no other word for it, really - from their tables of equipment. A few initial adjustments were required - having taken apart some of their 'playhouse' to facilitate Si Schroeder, which they reckoned was 'well worth it'. Matmos were surprisingly personable chaps, which is probably a good thing considering their music.

They played four songs before an encore, each accompanied by stunning visuals. Stunning isn't the right word, quite - more like mesmerising, or mind-fuck. The first song - which built up from an initial assortment of totally alien, tactile screeches and bloops - was an inverted, almost motionless shot of a test subject, her eyes cupped and ears covered by headphones, apparently reacting to auditory stimuli. The second was a soft-porn video of a guy pleasuring himself in a hot tub - but with the grainy video distorted, chopped and generally messed around with, while aural destruction and aggravation went on around us (there's a live video of it at the end of the post). Ironically, because it is in fact the source of Matmos's name - "the seething lake of evil slime beneath the city Sogo in the 1968 film Barbarella" - this reminded of the scene from that film, where Jane Fonda is trapped by the evil genius in the sort of whole-body organ, which tries to play/pleasure her to death. You'll either know the scene or you don't, I'm not going to try to explain it any further.

The third song was probably the best, a bizarre blend of country and funk played out against a backdrop of maps of America, which was interesting right from the start but got seriously heavy and, um, funkalicious - J Lesser was performing duties on bass, by the way - for a large section. The following song, however, I have to describe as torturous. [Upon listening to it, I reckon this was the title track to the album.] It may have been the after-effects of my slightly less-favoured blend of malt whiskey, but the combination of bass frequencies and shifting matrix of black-on-white dots - fascinating to the mathematical mind, though - for the visuals left me feeling physically uncomfortable.

As the song unfolded, I literally spent five minutes following a conversation in my head about the nature of 'entertainment' and art - why one expects a gig to entertain you, but will read an uncomfortable book, watch a depressing film or play or even listen to a discomforting album. Here the experimental nature of the music, and the ambient nature of the music and visuals, come together into an artistic experience you have to decided yourself whether you want to enjoy or not. In a way, Matmos gives its listeners a profound sense of agency while appearing to alienate them. Reviews say you can't dance to Matmos, but I think you can; only when you're not, and you see people who are, you wonder what they hell they're doing.

It was at that point in the gig - coming up to 11 o'clock - that people started drifting out. I won't say I wasn't tempted to join them, but at the same time Matmos remained quite fascinating. Challenging, yes; and difficult, extremely; but musically, there is plenty there to interest you. (Perhaps less musically than sonically so, but there is a bit of both) The gentle exodus allowed movement towards the stage, and so I had a pretty good view for the encore, which involved a gong in Drew Daniel's lap. At this point, I realised that Matmos is something like Battles for advanced learners - devoid of almost all commercial accessibility, but still profoundly innovative.

While the gig had elements of science fiction bizarreness about it, man and machine, performer and audience coming together in a brave new music venue, there was still something touchingly human about it. It was enjoyable in the sense that it was an odd soundscape, tough going in parts but rewarding with some beautiful aspects.

Matmos, 'Exciter Lamp and the Variable Band' (video) from Supreme Balloon, and 'Public Sex for Boyd McDonald' (watch if you dare) with saxophone, live performance

The excellent Sigla Blog: Musical Room series: part 31 - Matmos (and also, Part 32 - Dan Deacon)

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