Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Big Audio dynamite


ATP celebrated its tenth birthday last year (and I was fortunate enough to be there), and now it's the turn of its miniature Oxford equivalent. Over the past decade, Audioscope has been responsible for bringing the cream of leftfield talent to our humble parish with their roughly bi-annual events - everyone from Oxes, Part Chimp, Shit And Shine and Don Caballero to Pram, Kid 606, Clinic, Electrelane and Damo Suzuki. In 2005 alone Deerhoof, The Drones, Explosions In The Sky and Fourtet visited the city under Audioscope's auspices. And, what's more, the gigs have not only benefited local music-lovers but also housing charity Shelter, for whom they've now raised over £20,000.

So, how to mark reaching the milestone? How's about with two all-dayers on consecutive weekends, plus Wire's first Oxford show in nearly 30 years? The second all-dayer, headlined by SJ Esau, takes place next weekend, while for this first one various names from past Audioscope line-ups have been invited back.

The sense of tradition and nostalgia means the organisers' mob SUNNYVALE NOISE SUB-ELEMENT, reformed for the occasion, kick off proceedings as they did for the first seven or eight Audioscope all-dayers. With a drum machine rattling away and a heavy bass doing the bulk of the work, it's like Sonic Youth scrapping with Big Black's misanthropic machine music.

That early earbashing pales in comparison to MEPHISTO GRANDE, though. This is my first glimpse of the band formed from the ashes of local legends Suitable Case For Treatment, and not one I'm likely to forget in a hurry. After some fucking about with an array of trumpets, the trio get down to business - namely aggressive, schizoid, pantomimic blues-metal which would have Mike Patton clapping like a seal but which to those of a more sensitive disposition is quite frankly terrifying. "The bells are ringing", growls Liam Ings-Reeve in a voice that could eat Tom Waits for breakfast, his thousand-yard stare capable of ripping out your liver, before delivering a hefty boot to his amp when it has the temerity to cut out.

After which ROME PAYS OFF are a soothing balm. This is ex-Rothko chaps Mark Beazley and Crawford Blair's debut gig, and the pair are seated in intense concentration, with no time for smiling. The delicate interplay between their basses, with guitar drones overlaid, is gently hypnotic and there are gathering clouds but no storm.

I'd been looking forward to Julian Cope-endorsed psych-rock outfit Qaa - the evidence of the influence of years of Primavera on Barcelona natives - but sadly they've had to cancel, so next up are THE ROCK OF TRAVOLTA. Their big break came way back in 2001 with a support slot for Radiohead at South Park. Frustratingly little has happened since, but now they're back, black-clad and bristling with renewed vigour and confidence, on the verge of releasing new album Fine Lines. So it must be a deflating experience to discover their enthusiasm for the new material isn't reciprocated by a supposedly partisan home crowd, myself included. The post-rock of yore has been supplanted by fast, jerky hooks and rock star moves that seem all the more poseurish in the wake of Rome Pays Off's sedentary performance. A bit awkward and disappointing for all concerned. Best to move swiftly on.

I'd suggest that NOUGHT take us off in a different direction, but it's not so much one as several. Linearity is anathema to these jazz-metal mentalists, who since 1996 have been making music so disorienting that you feel like a passenger in a car driven by the Mars Volta trying to negotiate Spaghetti Junction with only a malfunctioning satnav for reference. Mephisto Grande drummer Pete Ward is once again behind the kit, but the focus of attention is the Bobby Gillespie lookalike on guitar, who somehow manages to work 70s hard rock and Stooges riffs into the melange.

Pondering how they can possibly perform, learn or even write such pieces, we nip off to Posh Fish in preference to watching the Half Rabbits, our need for sustenance being greater than our need for semi-noir indie histrionics. But we make sure we're back in time for THE OSCILLATION, and a damn good thing too. For anyone troubled by Nought's inclination towards tangential diversions, then this lot are the antidote, the polar opposite, fixed steadfastly on a single course. The usual roll call of influences for this sort of thing - Spacemen 3, Krautrock - are immediately discernible but there's such unswerving dedication to the art of the locked groove that you can't help but admire it. Accompanying the music are live visuals, slides of different coloured inks mixed together by a plastic-gloved accomplice and then projected onto the stage backdrop.

It's the day's penultimate act, though, who have been the biggest draw for both myself and my companion. Back around the turn of the millennium BILLY MAHONIE released two fine albums, The Big Dig and What Becomes Before, and benefited from the post-Mogwai vogue for instrumental bands before disappearing off the map. Turns out they were still active, but with different personnel - tonight, though, sees the original quartet reunited. While to an extent they're on nodding terms with the more leftfield members of the Dischord roster - Q And Not U, Faraquet - Billy Mahonie's main objective seems to be polishing off the abrasive dissonance of Shellac and Slint and buffing them up into smoother, sleeker, lither beasts. Indeed 'Dusseldorf' - "the other one more than three people have heard of", quips drummer Howard Monk - has a positively funk strut. Wired from the energy drinks he's downing, Hywel Dinsdale accidentally clocks guitarist Gavin Baker on the head with his bass, but even that doesn't change the fact that they're the first band of the day willing to show they're genuinely enjoying themselves. Frenetic set-closer 'Watching People Speaking When You Can't Hear What They're Saying' is further evidence that it's been more than worth the wait.

Which leaves DIETER MOEBIUS. As a veteran of Cluster and Harmonia, Moebius' influence in the sphere of experimental music and electronica is hard to overstate. So it's probably a treasonable offence to suggest it's like watching a retired maths professor trying to programme a DVD player to record Countdown only to accidentally mangle a Daft Punk song instead. Silent Words Speak Loudest: turning sacred cows into beefburgers since 2002.

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