Review: A Wilhelm Scream at The Borderline, London (March 15, 2014)

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Some gig reviews get written on the bus home. Some are written in an orderly way, the following morning with a nice pot of the black stuff, with a marshalling of the facts, a prosaic and faithful transcription of the show. Some are hurriedly scribed on the backs of hands before being finished, in haste, at 4am. But all are written – whether kindly or unkindly – from a place of arousal, with opinions being teased or tempted out, completed when one has emptied the mind of all it was provoked to say. That, amongst other truths, was utterly detonated by A Wilhelm Scream at the Borderline on Saturday night. Sitting down to write this almost 48 hours after the show, I am hampered by the total inability to feel – my sensibilities brutally, gloriously, majestically exploded. It is impossible to begin to get this show, to get near it, to enter its post code. The cliché is (almost) warranted: there are no words.

The Borderline is a scraggly place. A dusty, red curtain hangs behind the stage, framing the action like a poor school play. The sound is a little cruel. From anywhere other than five yards back, plum centre, it can sound a bit like a fart in a packet of Maltesers. But Gnarwolves, the featured support, fire gamely through, sweeping all away in the melody of the brilliant Community, Stability, Identity like a frenzied Menzingers, a proto-anthemic Parquet Courts.

No words, indeed. Let’s have a go. It’s owed. Opening with the tanking duo of Boat Builders and The Kids Can Eat a Bag of Dicks, the former from the headliners’ new album Partycrasher (No Idea, 2014), it’s clear we are all about to get hurt. The heat is incredible – sticky, aching heat through which A Wilhelm Scream have to carve rather than play. And how they play. Trevor Reilly and Mike Supina (the newest member of the band, having joined in 2008 after Chris Levesque, who captured some of the supreme work on Ruiner (Nitro, 2005), departed) swap frenetic glances, looks of delight, madness, endeavour, as they share orchestral fretwork and grinding palm muting, this kind of totalising guitar romance. A Dave Murray and Adrian Smith for punk rock.

Is this punk? Who knows. It’s fast. A 19-song set is kicked into the throat in just about 45 minutes. Their sound has all the jangling, gothic ephemera of Iron Maiden but all the snotty muscularity of Pennywise or Dead Kennedys. Their set is beguiling. They take liberal fistfuls of material from past albums, like The Soft Sell, I Wipe My Ass With Showbiz, 5 to 9 (the latter stitched together fiercely), with Partycrasher’s highlights like The Last Laugh and Born a Wise Man. It is uncompromisingly urgent.

Breaks are minuscule, to be taken only so as to take fluids and not die. And then it is on, forward, to something unreal. Brian Robinson is frightening all on his own, bass-playing of such a remarkable quality, so high a top drawer that most, including myself, just gaze at his fingering with eye seared open, almost forgetting to blink. (Speaking of fingering, overheard at the bar: “I saw Rage Against The Machine at Wembley Arena and I got fingered.”) Skid Rock displays all his powers, thundering along the fretboard, matched, pound for pound, by Nicholas Pasquale Angelini’s acerbic beats, his charging kick pedal. Nuno Pereira jumps buoyantly, grinning like an eight-year-old. Peak up, vest top, flinging himself like Pepe Reina, he looks thrilled to be fronting such a breathtaking unit, as we all are to be there witnessing it. But Pereira has chops of his own, growling like Chuck Ragan or Mike Ness, a quick-lipped Eddie Vedder. “Tie me up to the radiator! Trust the sweat, not the face it’s on!”

The technicality at this speed is simply something beyond what other punk bands can do. And it has long been known. A Wilhelm Scream, the band’s band. The band bands wanted to tour with, the one they listed as inspiration. But now, nearly ten years in, the Borderline caught the fusion of skill and deft songwriting that their recorded work had so often captured so sweetly: songs so catchy they seem to vacuum the air from the room. Come tomorrow night to Kingston, Pereira said, when it will really get “hot and nasty”. But this room is baking enough. Punters fly into each other, leap from the stage and hang upside down from the lighting rig. The King is Dead is followed by an encore of Hike and The Rip and we tread out, exhausted.

And so to words. They come easily to Pereira whose barked aggressions fire into the Charing Cross Road like rockets but, then, unfathomable flair comes easily to this band. It is left to the reviewer, when words consistently fail to do justice, to feel. And that feeling, that emotion when you watch a band so tight, so energetic, so mesmeric that you feel your eyes tingle and the back of your neck burn white with anticipation, with the sense that time might have just fallen off its track, that feeling when you see such a ferocious statement of authority, when a gulf in punk rock might just have been ripped open, when you encounter what might be the best hardcore band since Black Flag, that feeling – if we can find but one word – is awe.

★★★★★

Reviewed for Punktastic

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Review: In-Finite Space at The Vaults Festival

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Are tweets spaces? Not many philosophers would want to answer that question. ‘Space’ is a term – like ‘narrative’ or ‘deconstruction’ – that while it has its role in thinking about humans, and has its philosophical antecedents, has now become impossibly ‘postmodern’ in the pejorative sense. To a philosopher it says imprecision, or worse: AHRC funding.

As for tweets, few philosophers have so far grappled with the questions of self in an age of digital self-division. It is often left to the arts to try and give meaning to human experience and so it is with the ostensibly non-digital realm of contemporary dance. IJAD, a London dance company, have continued their negotiations with social media (read: Twitter) in the third in a series of productions based loosely around temporality and space.

In-Finite Space, a project of choreographer Joumana Mourad, is notably concerned with transcending the gap between how the audience thinks about the work they are seeing, relating it to experiences of their own, and how, reflexively, the dancers can return interpretations of those experiences. The production, quite remarkably, relies on the tweets of its audience for its inspiration. It is brave art.

In this latest show at Waterloo’s magnificent Vaults, part of the Vaults Festival, the audience are asked to tweet their favourite space, that being in the perceived world, the digital world, the imaginary world, and so on. Many of these tweets are trite; answers like “Horizontal on cool grass” are clumsy but contribute to the problem with the production. (The worst tweet, which I saw from over a neighbour’s shoulder, was a space “on a train, travelling through a continent.”)

If the tweets here are to be honest accounts of one’s experiences, we ought to take into account, if we are to interpret them, the time-spaces in which these tweets are formed. The issue for IJAD is that a tweet occupies multiple digital and conceptual spaces owing to its availability to all people at all times. It takes on new meanings in new spaces. It has a history, a personality. I tweet about how I feel in the Vaults, but that makes little sense to my followers who aren’t all here with me, even though I’m using a hash tag to siphon off my tweets for this show. My knowledge of this – plus social embarrassment (and that not everybody uses Twitter to be honest) – might mean that I do not engage with the show as Mourad intends. Indeed, my embarrassment at being asked to think, an impolite request if there ever were one, meant that I shied behind tweets that were mostly self-aggrandising or merely took the piss. But the worry is that the production so rests on a dynamic that must be taken seriously. There is an irredeemable collapse between the audience and their honesty which renders the expression of their spatial relationships vague and unsatisfying. What isn’t explored is whether we need anonymity to feel the space we want in our multitudinously digital world. Why does Twitter only appear to have one dimension in a production, ironically, about time and space?

The phenomenal power of the movement (Alice Gaspari in particular involving herself in a nice nod to apples and Newtonian physics) is worshipful. The improvisation adopted to express the tweets is often extraordinary. But this second part of the performance is too short. I could gleefully have watched this for longer. Not much off of half an hour, it gets really exciting towards the end, which comes to soon, as all five performers move wonderfully in unison.

After the audience had been asked in the first part to explore the danced space with torches and tweets, this second part feels much more static. Spaces are demarcated between audience and performer. The tweets then function merely as source material. They could be read from a book. It matters not that the tweets are truthful or not, only that they are given in spaces that may require them to be truthful. Spaces house powers upon the tweeter and with IJAD, courageous though they are, this is lost. Tweets convey brief moments of agency but they are welded to the perceived recipient of the author and this production misses the vital component, therefore, of the digital self: dishonesty. Tweets are lies in space. And while this production rollicks with such a confident ingenuity, you can’t believe a word of it.

★★★☆☆

In-Finite Space runs until Saturday, March 8 at the Vaults Festival in London

EP Review: Spineless Yes Men, ‘Better Side Of The Bar’

London band Spineless Yes Men are an interesting beast. This 3-track EP is short – very short – but long on effort and slathered in likeable charm. The band are tough to define. Not really punk rock nor indie nor pop, they traverse a substantial canyon between the three, slapping melodies about with abandon. At times like The Hoosiers or Scouting For Girls (wait, give them a chance), they also summon up the best sunny punk of The Bouncing Souls or Social Distortion, or like their compatriots Graveltrap or Not Katies. But this sounds disarmingly non-American. That’s not to say SYM are playing it all wrong. It’s still pretty rare to hear a UK band who pitch themselves as pop-punk and don’t suffer from the accidental So-Cal accent. Tommy Towers is an adept frontman, clever at harnessing the band’s traction energy and smartly keeping crunchy verses punchy and tense.

This takes the best of the early 2000s and squeezes in a load of pop. ‘Dickens Would Have Made You A Gentleman’ is a bit of a [Spunge] throwback. Catchy and well-paced, it’s a great example of what this band can do. ‘Raindrop Shadows’, though, shows the limitations of their sound. Occasionally, chorus lines can feel flat, rushed or under-thought. The lead guitar can also be heavy and clumsy, dashing in and out of vocal lines, a bit like ruining your chips by shaking too much ketchup on them. And there is not a great deal here that is really new. The poppier end of pop-punk has been all but sewn up by our friends from across the Atlantic who do it with more cheese and less shame. But where this band have real potential is in harnessing their indie touches. This record hints at something a little more Maccabees than MxPx, more Libertines than Lagwagon, and here they might find success in digging up some new ground. Promising.

★★★

This is a review for New Reviews, also available here.

Television, like history, is written only by the winners

At April’s annual Oxford-Cambridge Jack Wills Boating Festival of Blonde Quiffs on the Thames, a dangerous new form of protestor called a ‘swimmer’, or ‘breast-stroke Marxist’, disrupted the world-famous race, halting two very snazzy boats carrying lots of pointlessly muscly, pointlessly expensive people down a river. The BBC’s anointed correspondent for the sporting endeavours of the landed gentry, Clare Balding, whizzed up and down the Thames on her speedboat, telling us viewers how wickedly important it was that we watched the action (with Balding taking a watery break from her usual presenting haunt – standing next to some tiny, rich, white folks who crouch on horses and beat  the crap out of them and crash them and shoot them).

The BBC, like Sky Sports’ shouty football coverage, has a perpetual propensity for self-inflated chest-pumping. Auntie’s TV events are not events – they are Events. Indeed, like all TV – we can blame 24-hour rolling news with its debasing use of ‘breaking news’ – the BBC is a hearty supporter of the hyperbolic. Big events like the World Cup final, the royal wedding and, to a lesser extent, the Boat Race, get their own dose of super slo-mo HD introductions, usually some silly poetry, gloriously epic Hans Zimmer-esque music, and so on. TV sells TV like nothing else. These are glossy productions designed to sell you one (and only one) type of product: suburban, petit-bourgeois, pro-monarchy identity fetishism.

The Boat Race was watched by 3.3m people. A hefty chunk, yes – but that is less than 6% of the UK’s population. Now, no argument (not even with the cavalier brilliance of the first two paragraphs here) could sensibly suggest that the Boat Race has any great impact on British socio-cultural values. But it is, definitively, a chunk of something much larger – TV’s remarkable ability to anaesthetise us. Few question the weight of the ‘history’ or ‘tradition’ of the Boat Race – we just reckon Balding is warmly leafing through our own cultural fabric, saying nice things in nice ways about ‘pride’ and ‘passion’ and ‘institutions’ and seldom considering what we are being asked to swallow as history – as truth.

The Boat Race and royal wedding, like the Olympics and Jubilee coverage will be, are part of a national infatuation with a sort of uniform faux-heritage. TV Event narratives – read by a Huw Edwards or a Gary Lineker – always tap in to some collective sense of identity, usually national, but often white, or middle-class, that are designed in some way to make the viewing unit (the family, the couple, the futon masturbator) feel attached to the national, communal whole. That’s hardly an outrageous statement: TV has been used for propaganda since its creation. What is outrageous is that it is still so prevalent now, in 2012, in our crunched, creditless times, in the shows we watch and the coverage we absorb and that a particular brand of ideas and values can be so unchallenged and can permeate our living rooms in such an unassuming way.

In the United States, tradition is a potent weapon in political rhetoric, far more so than in the UK. In Whitehall, much like Alastair Campbell’s assertion that New Labour’s would not ‘do God’, since the mid-90s one would struggle to find continued, explicit references to national identity in either the manifestos, press releases, policy statements or conference speeches of the mainstream parties. Contemporary political discourse simply does not ‘do Britishness’. Chest-thumping, Rule Britannia love-ins are the product only of the media. We’ve known for many years about how the newspapers use constructed notions of identity in order to whip up tensions – and sell papers. (The Daily Mail and the Daily Express are almost single-handedly responsible for the EDL and the BNP.) But these identity straw men are also stitched into the lining of televisual ‘culture’.

The Hunger Games, out in cinemas at around the same time as the Boat Race, was a brilliant, if slightly nonsensical (200mph super-trains, dresses made of fire – but no guns?) fictionalisation of how a politico-X Factor would run the world. Think The Voice with Lenin and Ceausescu on the panel. I know, I know – it’s fiction. And the novel is atrocious. But the film is excellent, and a fictional reductio ad absurdum is not always worthless. In the film, ‘heritage’ and ‘tradition’ are used to justify the subjugation of the rural poor to the will of the urban elite, with a game, for the entertainment of the ruling class, in which the poor must fight and kill each other for the ‘glory’ of their particular district. Now think about the X Factor. No contestant is being told to give their life in the arena (only their productive labour power) but the show’s competitors are predominantly working-class, painted as proud [insert region]ers, doing it for their mates at the local or for their families. The poor are plucky nobodies whose heartfelt tales are gently piped into Surrey living rooms, the Saturday audience of the eye-wettingly mawkish.

Television owns, builds and propagates a comfy idea of Britishness, not unlike in fin de siecle Europe. From the middle of the nineteenth century, the British upper class created the pomp and circumstance of the monarchy. Pall Mall, Trooping the Colour – we associate these traditions with centuries of heritage. But, in reality, they were created in the lifetimes of, at most, your grandma’s grandma – in the last one hundred and fifty years. And yet, we take it for granted that the monarchy, with all its ceremonial farts and flag-waving is part of our DNA. It isn’t. It is no more a part of us than a hairstyle or a jumper.

Like television, history is concocted by whomsoever is powerful enough to do so, by whoever the hell needs us to believe that the English bravery is in our blood. For the glory of our people, never ever shall be slaves, and so on. TV is the organ of the elites. So when Sue Barker or that bloke who does Formula 1 are grinning at us all summer with hours of saccharine Olympics coverage, and they start talking crudely about ‘strength’ and ‘passion’ and ‘patriotic spirit’, you’ll think about The Hunger Games, won’t you? The festival of Britishness will include only those whom television producers wish to include. If you are not that kind of British then you are not a winner. And you are not invited.

(This is an article for the fantastic Limbo Quarterly, which is out now and available here.)

Voltaire, ‘Candide’, (1759)

A biting, snarling, hilarious deconstruction of vain, lofty philosophising and the lunatic extremes of clumsy a priori reasoning. It predates attacks on the Whig theory of history by over a century, but acutely destroys ahistorical fetishisms of the present. Like Bradbury, Voltaire is concerned with the rollicking argument, with discord and the progress of civilisation through disagreement, discussion, resolution and, most profoundly for Voltaire’s times, with the coming of European revolutions – through democracy.