Thursday, April 22, 2010


via @Kathrynwillis on yfrog

My knowledge of Chris Cunningham – and indeed Aphex Twin – doesn’t extend much beyond their collaboration on 'Windowlicker'. So tonight’s event especially in a busy month was not high on my 'must-see' list. But an on-the-day offer of a spare ticket plus curiosity at what this “hugely anticipated multimedia experience” would be like brought me tonight to Manchester’s Opera House ("now booking: Monty Python's "Spamalot").

I was especially interested to see opener Lonelady but sadly she pulled out due to illness. When established artists cite illness I become suspicious; when up-and-coming artists say it, you know it’s true. Speedy recovery to her .

So I missed the Fuck Buttons DJ set that replaced her and joined the evening for Beak. Portishead's Geoff Barrow has a fearsome reputation as a studio perfectionist. It’s good to see then that side project Beak is more of a jam band affair. That's not to say they are sloppy, far from it - but their tight krautrock rhythms almost revel in their fuzzy roughness when played live. The band is Barrow on drums, seated bassist and a third member on organ/guitar. Barrow also occasionally sang/spoke but his vocal mic was heavily laden with effects and low in the mix so it was like occasionally catching an echoing railway station announcer and wondering if the unintelligible mumbling was something significant. For some of the therefore mostly instrumental songs my attention did drift - they were best when they stuck to the classic bass-driven propulsive Krautrock grooves – but at least I was paying attention. Most people where I was sat seemed to be ignoring the whole set. I'd forgotten that *big* events draw people not really interested in the music or any support acts.

And what of the main attraction, film-maker and video artist Chris Cunningham performing live? Well we didn't have to wait long to find out. The central control deck of monitors, mixers and tall wire-strewn cabinets was already on stage beneath the three large screens – a larger central one and two supporting ones at the sides.

via @nowwave on yfrog

Without any fanfare or seeing the performer(s?) appear the lights went down and the PA system starting crackling to life. What followed was an image of a 13 amp plug going into a socket. As it was pushed home it was accompanied by a sharp, loud electronic thunder-clap - and we were off. For the next sixty minutes eye-blink rapid edits of the video images accompanied and matched a brutal electronica barrage. The early sight of a green laser shooting across the stage to reach the theatre's roof provided a little cheer (and a few whisphered Jean-Michel Jarre references) but otherwise it was savage.

I'm not able to unpick my Aphex Twin from my Autechre or even identify the bits that were apparently Cunningham compositions but the brutality of the music was matched, no emphasised, by the graphic imagery - the synchronisation itself was something to wonder at. A serene shot of a naked couple embracing led into a dizzying cut-up montage of the two in various configurations and holds. Was this sex or a fight, pleasure or pain? Ah there's the stream of blood flying across the screens. After a brief suggestion of rape, the couple, now fallen into a subterrenean well of blackness, started kicking shit out of each other, each thudding blow repeated in graphic detail. It was like a cross between gruesome torture-porn and the revenge movies of Korean director Chan-wook Park .

The procession of images moved on: a woman dancing so intensely her flesh started to come off (don't even ask what that was under her skirt), a tap-dancing Aphex Twin cast as creepy Californian lothario, a pig-tailed girl-woman talking to camera, Richard James again as wheelchair-bound alien snorting cocaine. About the midpoint a screen appeared saying 'Intermission' accompanied by some cheesy lounge music. It lasted 5 seconds before 'End of Intermission' appeared and we were plunged back into the dark hyper-reality of Chris Cunningham. Scary, scary stuff.

The final song was a stripped down 'New York Is Killing Me' from Gil Scott-Heron. Just vocals, atmospheric crackles and images of lonely late-night subway journeys. On any other occasion this would be spooky as hell. Here is was nothing less than soothing. And then under a spotlight with a wave of arm we saw Chris Cunningham (he was the only 'performer') for the first and also last time as he saluted the audience and left the stage and the house lights came on.

I was sort-of expecting what we got. But if was far more extreme and visceral - but also engaging - than I could have imagined. I'm not really sure what was 'live' and what was actually 'performed' but my main criticism was it was all one-way traffic. Normally seeing a band or performer you see their reaction to the crowd. Here there was no interaction; just unremitting brutality pushed at the audience. Within minutes of finishing, I heard deeply divided opinions of the event - will be interesting to follow how this gets talked up or down over the coming days. And whether anyone managed to get a good night's sleep after such a sinister assault on the senses.

Guess who:  on Twitpic
via @heymanchester on twitpic


Anonymous said...

Having been a big fan of Chris Cunningham's work over the years I was, along with many others, really looking forward to this gig. Unfortunately it didn't really meet expectations as his set only lasted about a hour (We had been there since 7.30) His work was good but a large portion of it was old work which we have seen many times before slightly remixed and I was hoping to see something new. There was no encore and the lights came on almost instantaneously when the set finished at around 11pm

The support 'Beak' were OK but really could have done with some visuals or even some lights as their stage presence was vitally non existent. All in all a very disappointing night and a quite expensive one considering the tickets were 30 quid each and then price of the drinks was shocking! Sorry to say I feel slightly cheated.

Anonymous said...

i agree with gary, or maybe i have put Chris on too high of a pedestal over the years that not even he himself can live up to it? I hope not.