Review: ATP - 'Ill Be Your Mirror', Altona - Day 1
There’s a school of cultural theory that didn’t really get off the ground in academia but it perfectly explains music festivals.
They call it neotribalism and it’s the theory that we’ve modified a very old practice (sticking together) to deal with our increasing isolation in the modern age. So we now have Facebook where once we had a village; we’re brought together by taste and personality and our appearance, our jobs, our downtime and our family heritage, and we’re seen differently in all these different and overlapping settings. There’s no fixed ‘us’ anymore, instead we congregate around things and in places -- online and off; not because we expect everyone in this new tribe to be exactly like us all the time, but because of an elusive and fleeting sense of shared value and meaning. One weekend, we’re all festival attendees. The next weekend, we’re five thousand other things.
There are layers upon layers of this at work in the concerts of London based promoters All Tomorrow’s Parties, it’s acknowledged and encouraged. But the weekend’s Australian event I’ll Be Your Mirror Melbourne (IBYM) was aimed at an atypical set of values and beliefs: it looked to attract those music fans who don’t often find themselves at music festivals. Everything from the venue - an old and kitschy entertainment centre on Melbourne’s suburban outskirts - through to the Drones-curated line-up of Day 2, through to the dressing and consideration of space at work within the festival grounds, all of these things aimed to corral and soothe and entertain and reassure people that this was, for the most part, who we were for the weekend. It wasn’t entirely successful, in the doing, but the concept was completely on show and it seemed a wild but plausible idea.
Saturday 16th February - Day 1
I expected my first journey to the site to be a serious problem and had secretly hoped as such, wanting something dramatic for an opening anecdote. In reality I just caught a train, then a free bus, then lined up for a moment and that was it. From there I made my way to the main bar, waited two minutes to buy a beer with cash money for eight dollars. I took this beer to Stage 1.
Thee Oh Sees
Inside, the elongated psych-garage of Thee Oh Sees sounded punishingly loud and at first I couldn’t really get my bearings: a long dark space, perhaps an indoor soccer field, curtained off floor-to-ceiling with black drapes and every bit as humid as that sounds in thirty-plus degree heat. I don’t remember much of Thee Oh Sees but I was assured later that a drum solo was involved. I took note of this, mainly because in my own personal philosophy, that’s never supposed to happen. I also think someone was wearing shorts onstage as well. They must have been good, for us to forgive all this.
The following act was the recently reformed New York noise-rock band Swans and they proved both a festival favourite and something of a technical marvel. I’ve been going to shows for twenty years and it’s not all that often I see a rock ensemble do things I don’t understand from a production standpoint. That happened a few times during parts of their set and the sound was as monstrous as it was disorienting. Yet I’m extremely curious as to why this band is enjoying a second-coming now? To my ears, Swans 2013 sounds more in keeping with bandleader Michael Gira’s Angels of Light project than the band who wrote ‘Raping A Slave’. And when was that Swans back-catalogue ever that bankable? I’m a fan but it’s not a brand I could ever have imagined people embracing like they do now. Why is this happening? I don’t know. Are we all so desperate for affect now that we’ve resorted en masse to this, the sonic equivalent of BDSM, administered by an old master?
(I just want to note here that percussionist Thor Harris was one of maybe two people at the entire, boiling hot event that had his shirt off. I don’t understand the significance of this but it feels important. Feel free to unpack it on your tumblr or in the comments below.)
Swans preparing to go on stage
The afternoon performance from Montreal post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor was an interesting one, mainly because we all expected the four horsemen of the apocalypse and instead received what I read as something like a quite uplifting set of songs. Brash and forceful in places, and coupled with the band’s grainy analogue projections, the whole show seemed to say, Everything got as bad as we always thought, but don’t give in. Then again, it was also as hot as the future of global warming in Stage 1 so after two sets of this bleak territory, maybe I just needed to feel buoyed by something. I might have made this up, but I doubt it.
Sliding in-between those two acts was my favourite performance of the day by Iceland-based Melbournian Ben Frost. Just a shadow in the fog, Frost unleashed some ungodly electronics on Stage 2’s hotted-up P.A., a beast of a thing located at one end of a crisply air-conditioned ballroom. Drawing all the heaviest and most bombastic material from his last two albums, Frost found that middle ground between ominous drone metal and ominous club sub-bass and worked it meticulously back and forth. While much would be made later in the day of My Bloody Valentine’s brutalising volume, this was the most dense thing I heard all weekend by far, my vision blurring on one particularly bracing drop.
As dusk came on, I flitted around and did other things (ate dumplings, lounged in a bean-bag, if you must know) while catching bits and pieces of these bands:
New War: A long road trip of synth and dub, coupled with a totally engaging singer.
HTRK: Bleak, slow, formal, though gloriously so at times. I couldn’t really deal with it at that point, which seems like a compliment now.
The Dead C: A great band who deserve better than this but everyone who knows, knows such a thing when it comes The Dead C. I took in about twenty minutes of their guitar lava flow and on-the-fly drumming and it made me wish the remainder of the day somehow found more of this swagger in the nooks and crannies of ‘serious music’. Of course, this is a patently ridiculous idea but it was felt more than understood at the time.
And then there was the headlining act, the reformed My Bloody Valentine playing their first show in Australia in over twenty years. An obvious point perhaps, but this was a huge moment for the people congregated in this weird complex; I was late getting over to Stage 1 and the halls and side-rooms of the venue where completely deserted as I came through. It was almost eerily still.
What unfolded was a bit of a train wreck. Firstly, the performance they gave wasn’t very good. In addition to which, the sound - which was pristine for Swans and GY!BE and their extravagant twenty-plus input demands on the P.A. - evaporated into an incoherent mess for MBV. Everyone I spoke to had a different mix: no vocals, not enough vocals, no volume, too much, too much drums, a bit too much drums, lead guitar breaks that annihilated the entire song. One punter told me she expected something overwhelmingly lush and soothing but instead reached mentally for her safe-word (which was ‘Santa’) as the band bombarded her with jarring changes, perhaps ruining both Loveless and Christmas for her forever.
Meanwhile, many fans found the whole thing completely satisfying. Anyone who thought Loveless a touch overrated in contrast to Isn’t Anything seemed particularly chuffed by how well those songs shone through. I heard this a lot, too much to write the whole thing off completely. I have to admit I was fairly unmoved mys