Thursday, January 17, 2008

Empty Vessels make the most noise


My first gig of 2008, and my first visit to The Cellar too. Just off Oxford's main shopping thoroughfare Cornmarket in Frewin Court, it's (as the name might suggest) a dingy, insalubrious underground dive - in other words, just the sort of venue I like, and a great antidote to the clinical, corporate unpleasantness of the Academy, which, incidentally, I heard referred to today as "the Cardiac" (you work it out...). OK, so the beer's by no means great, but at £1.50 a pint it's like being a student all over again, even if Real Life and the world of work await tomorrow morning. Easy does it, then...

Musically speaking, the proceedings don't get off to a very promising start. As a relative newcomer to the city, I don't want - metaphorically speaking - to throw open the saloon doors and pick fights with the locals, so let's be diplomatic and just say that Von Braun aren't very good. 'Mare Frigoris' is typical - drab, ponderous and not a little pretentious, referencing grunge, classic rock and Bends-era Radiohead all at once without doing any of them justice - and when at one point in the set the girl in front of me exclaims "They've played a new song!", I get the impression it's occasioned less by a sense of delight than by one of sarcasm-laden surprise.

For a small, quaint, genteel city that's historically been (and in many ways still is) at the heart of the British establishment, Oxford seems to have a refreshing affinity with severe aural abuse. Not only are there two experimental / noise promoters - Permanent Vacation and Poor Girl Noise - but there are also enough local bands for them to put on (Traktors, Euhedral and Elapse-O, to name but three) that Drowned In Sound has carried an article largely focused on the city's scene.

Named after an obscure Anglo-Saxon goddess and pronounced "Hretha", Hreda are the first of the scene's underground heroes that I've seen - and they're more than enough to whet my appetite for more. Like Von Braun, they're comprised of two guitarists and a drummer (tonight, at least - sometimes they're accompanied by a cellist), but the difference couldn't be much more pronounced.

On 'KHTC' in particular, the trio, clad in what seems to be a uniform of plaid shirts, demonstrate that they've got the gorgeous shimmering weightiness of a certain mob of Glaswegians down to a tee, before cutting loose with a fast and furious passage towards the end that represents a reaching-out beyond math-rock to post-hardcore and gestures towards the intricate guitar interplay of some of their other songs. It's tremendous stuff, and easily convinces me we'll be seeing each other again - just don't know where, and don't know when...

In truth, though, tonight's out-of-town headliners are even better.

Just back from recording their debut LP in Minnesota (they're open to suggestions as to what it might be called) and featured on the cover of the latest issue of Artrocker, multi-instrumentalist Leeds quintet Vessels are pretty much jacks of all trades when it comes to post-rock. Swoon as they do Mogwai's brooding piano-led electronica ('Yuki')! Marvel as they manage to combine Explosions In The Sky's ethereal reverb, Do Make Say Think's fluidity and Fridge's rhythm and top it all off with a fuckload of eardrum-bothering distortion, all in the same song ('Two Words And A Gesture')!

If all that sounds a bit like karaoke, then that's partly because it is. Still too in thrall to their influences and in need of their own voice they may be at the moment, and there's also a bit of work to be done in weaving the more electronic material more fully into the fabric of the set, but Vessels nevertheless have that unmistakeable air of being on the brink of something very special indeed. The question is: can they take that undeniable potential and go further? One thing's for sure: I'll be following their progress with keen interest.

Turns out that the gig was part of Big Hair, a club night which appears to take place every other Thursday. The bands busy packing up, the temptress of a DJ persuades us to stay for an ill-advised extra pint by kicking her set off with My Bloody Valentine's 'Only Shallow', The Jesus & Mary Chain's 'The Living End' and Death In Vegas's 'Aisha'. 'Touch Me I'm Sick', 'Sliver' and 'Freakin' Out' follow soon afterwards. Something tells me I need to take a Friday off work one week to be able to enjoy it properly...

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