"For some reason, Sunn 0))) are the band to catch live at present, and consequently the Paradiso was packed with chattering Industry types fresh from the Meeja jungle. The whole thing was akin to that Emperors New Clothes fable. Lots of bright things who normally wouldn't be seen dead listening to avant garde noise were hanging around the door of the main hall, telling each other how long they'd lasted the sonic assault…"
Tegentonen Festival – Paradiso 3/3/06
(featuring Sunn 0))), Earth, Sir Richard Bishop, Espers and Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice)
I might as well cut to the chase with this review by telling you that Sunn 0))) headlined the Tegentonen festival. In fact, I could leave it there. You have all the information that you need to know. Sunn 0))) live in the Paradiso's main hall. But I am a charitable man. And, if I'm being honest, this festival threw up other delights that have stayed long and fresh in the memory.
So, to business!
Doors were quite early, 7pm to be precise, with Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice up first. The band itself comprised at first glance three people and a suitably Wiccan-looking lady singer, the others being a drummer, keyboardist and bass player. I was astonished at the sheer volume of sound they produced until, on moving closer to the stage I noticed two additional musicians knelt on the floor, engaged in earnest twiddling and thrashing motions; coaxing whatever noises they cold from guitars and pedals respectively. The music they produced was pretty good actually, albeit the usual atmosphere-heavy stuff you tend to expect from these kind of acts. Crescendos were reached, guitar squalls were created and quiet and reflection would, from time to time, descend.
Next it was upstairs to take in Sir Richard Bishop. In stark contrast to the pedal-heavy set up downstairs we were confronted with a simple stool, an acoustic guitar and the fleshy figure of the artiste, ready to entertain us with his sumptuous strumming skills. Not much value in watching someone playing an acoustic guitar you might think, after all, the trains are full of these kind of people... especially when Bishop began a medley of Beatles and show tunes. One half of the audience were puzzled, puzzled in extremis almost, not to say deflated. Hey, this is Tegentonen, right? And we're supposed to be getting noise and drones, right? And true, a long and meandering display of guitar playing did seem at somewhat out of step with the evening's intentions. One or two of the more impressionable members of the audience left after five minutes, muttering that they could get the same kick from watching a busker. More fool they, as this was simply spellbinding stuff. Bishop, by virtue no doubt of incredibly fast hand work, built up epic passages of acoustic sound; sometimes consisting of choppy almost brutal rhythms, often juxtaposed with quicksilver, graceful streams of finger-picked notes. At other times the high speed strumming created an almost abstract texture that seemed to exist almost as a separate entity, floating in the air above its hunched creator. The performance was quite simply stunning, there was even a gentle comedy moment when the amp lead conked out, and Bishop stuck on what sounded like a New Age CD whilst repair work was carried out. Fabulous. I entreat you all to seek for his work.
Its time to walk downstairs once again, because the next act on the main podium will be Earth - a band renowned on the underground circuit for their long and minimalist music. For those unacquainted with their style, it is best described as the exploration of sound and mood through repetition of a single shatteringly loud guitar riff. These riffs, a different one for each song, are played very clearly and without any effects whatsoever, the deafening volume providing any additional spice. It is as if you are listening to Hank Marvin licks played at 16 rpm. The overall effect is, (once you become accustomed to the sloth like pace) calming, almost pleasingly hypnotic. I suppose the whole experience is meant to conjure up antediluvian imagery, after all, the band's name hints at a preference for things timeless – maybe a herd of brachiosaurs ponderously munching their way though the lush Jurassic vegetation. Earth's display was ponderously, deliberately, methodically impressive. What was also enjoyable was the band leader's girth. A girth that was clearly born of some titanic drinking bouts. A girth that supported his guitar almost effortlessly by itself. The only disappointment in the whole show came when the gentleman in question came to speak. Instead of a grumbling, stentorian rumble, his voice was a rasping, wheezing squeak, quite out of character with the whole set up. Still, you can't have everything in life.
Once Earth had rumbled off into pre-history, it was time to trudge upstairs again in order to take in Espers; a folk group hot out of the US. I was quite looking forward to this set, as I had previously purchased and thoroughly enjoyed their single Riding, a pleasing take on Fairport Convention or the Incredible String Band. Visually they weren't that far away either, straggling unkempt hair, flowing dresses and stooping, shuffling gaits being very much in evidence. And, despite the vocals being just about audible for the first couple of numbers, they were a very pleasing proposition indeed. The songs were dreamy, with the odd bit of restrained, almost embarrassed feedback thrown in to break up the tempo. At times, their song's structures were very delicate, almost gossamer thin, their melodies very patiently spun out. Now and again, a band member would glance up at the audience and then shyly look away to give their fullest concentration to playing whatever instrument they had to hand. All too quickly the set was over. Yes, this kind of thing has been done before, many times in fact; but Espers are, on this evidence, well worth listening to.
And so, finally it was time for the main event; Sunn 0))). Frankly I wasn't really looking forward to this. It's not that I dislike Sunn 0))), not at all. Rather, even when played at low volume on my stereo, I find their music brilliant as a meditational aid. It's textural richness and sheer bloody mindedness of vision works really well in this (admittedly homely) setting, and can create something really special, but I couldn't see how these qualities would successfully translate into their live set. In addition, as readers of my review of their LP Black One will know, I find their music a bugger to describe adequately. Anyway, back to the live gig. Friends of mine had seen them in England and assured me that when the time came I'd be blown away... Say no more... Mysterious, huh?
To begin with, we had mystery in spades, in that we couldn't see the band due to the viscous plumes of dry ice that smothered the podium and crowd alike. Then we were deafened. For there is one thing we can say, Sunn 0))) are very, very loud indeed live. So loud that the mere act of them actually seeing them playing them playing their instruments seemed negated by the sheer volume of sound, the sheer weight of presence of the noise they created. It seemed as if some kind of ceremonial masque was being enacted in front of us. The masque in question seemed to involve a number of hooded men occasionally waving their guitars in the air, then stooping over, as if carrying an invisible bag of coals. It got too loud. I went out.
Funnily enough, whilst paying a visit to the toilets, I noticed that the sound was, at this removed point, perfect. In fact I loitered round the bogs taking in the noise, marvelling at how fabulously rich and crisp it sounded. Just like the CD version. Quite frankly, Sunn 0))) sounded brilliant in the toilets.
For some reason, Sunn 0))) are the band to catch live at present, and consequently the Paradiso was packed with chattering Industry types fresh from the Meeja jungle. The whole thing was akin to that Emperors New Clothes fable. Lots of bright things who normally wouldn't be seen dead listening to avant garde noise were hanging around the door of the main hall, telling each other how long they'd lasted the sonic assault... They won't be at the Tony Conrad/Faust gig in April, I can tell you. There also seemed to be a competition amongst the record execs as to who could hold out the longest without ear plugs...
As I entered the foyer I noticed that the space just outside the main hall was full of increasingly desperate looking people, grinning maniacally whilst reassuring one another that they'd go back in the hall in a minute or so. I took this as a cue for an honourable exit. I got my coat and left.
So, in retrospect, Tegentonen was a top, top night out. Not wholly what I'd expected, but that's the way I like it.
Words: Richard Foster.