Archive: Walking in darkness

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By ’87, we’d had enough of London. Its streets had turned out to be paved with just enough gold to take out a mortgage on a small house at a substantial remove from work, from where it was at, and from the kind of green fields that somewhat older children would probably want to frolic in one day if they weren’t to eventually succumb to a life of dissolution and hard drugs. We felt hemmed in, and worried that one day, my brother would bounce himself out the window of his tiny bedroom. And so, with a cunning little manoeuvre that saw us kids stay with relatives before arriving at a miraculously-furnished new house, we moved.

Perhaps this clever ploy explains why, for many years, I had dreams of hidden trapdoors and mysterious tunnels, Narnia-esque wardrobes and loose bricks into underground caverns. Or perhaps, given that I thought I knew how to think myself into flight and could hardly sleep for fear of the cybermen hiding under my bed, I just had an over-active imagination. Goodness knows we needed one, in those heady days of two-colour text adventures and Sylvester McCoy as Doctor Who.

Darkness

My home, in the dark

Or perhaps the house itself inspired such thoughts. I wasn’t the only one to have them. It was bigger and older than the London house, and while publicly I scoffed at my brother’s unwillingness to go up the stairs alone after dark, I did so myself with some trepidation. There was a haunting aspect to the way the shadows clung at the walls, a solidity and an age to the darkness that may not exactly have menaced, but boy did it know how to loom. It was a darkness that demanded to be taken seriously.

But I was not easily cowed as a child, and over time I came to an arrangement with the dark. What made it mad, I figured, is that although it had been there first, it was still forced to flee on a regular basis by these four persistent, fidgety beings on their meaningless nocturnal perambulations. Pretty unfair really, a concept that the young me understood all too well. So rather than shoo the darkness away with my blundering invasive presence, I swam through it, my hands learning to follow the wooden detail on the wall that started out at head height and sank over time to my waist.

Even now, I still prefer to walk the house in darkness. Sometimes, because I’m grown-up and sensible now, I tell myself that it’s because I don’t want to wake anyone. But the house and I, we know different.

From here on September 9th 2013.

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Archive: A cabaret of grotesques

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Flames of Hell

A little known addendum to Dante’s Inferno adds a tenth circle of Hell: Appalling Table Manners

Hell is other people, in a Wetherspoon’s at Victoria station, while hamstrung by an enormous backpack.

Across from me, a woman stares blankly into the middle distance, occasionally starting at the world as if she had forgotten it was there. With her is a boy I can only assume is her son, although she pays him no mind. He is grabbing grubby fistfuls of spaghetti and propelling them towards his mouth, with limited success. Once in a while he surveys his T-shirt, to see if enough has accumulated to make a mouthful.

On the next table over is a heavily made-up, harshly blonde woman, in Russian-accented histrionics. Sounds like someone’s stood her up. You say you here at 12, why now you say 5? Is no respect! What I do now, you make fool out of me!

The boy finishes his meal and the mother notices him for the first time. “Wipe your mouth and let’s go love”, she says. The boy obediently drags his sleeve across his face, and with that they leave. Blondie starts sobbing into her cappuccino 

Can’t run, can’t hide. Just another few hours…

From here on August 27th 2009.

Archive: Front Line Assembly & Stromkern

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Front Line Assembly

Front Line Assembly bring the apocalypse

I couldn’t get into support act Stromkern, much as I tried. Fusing hip-hop and industrial is certainly valiant, and there were flashes of something interesting in there, but… I dunno. Just as I thought they’d reeled me in, they’d go insipid again and I’d be back to hating the guitarist’s idiot gurning. They ended on a high with ‘Heretic’ (listen here), a righteous industrial stomper that shook the roof and finally got my ass moving, but on balance they were pretty missable.

But then we weren’t there to see Stromkern. The anticipation levels were pretty high after a ten-year wait since FLA’s last London appearance, but from the moment they launched into opener ‘Buried Alive’ (from new album ‘Artificial Soldier’) it was clear we were in for a treat. Against a video back-drop showing a suitably dark and corrosive vision of the future, the five-piece cooked up a dance-or-die sonic onslaught, underpinned by some highly impressive live drumming.

Next up was ‘Vigilante’, from the guitar-heavy ‘Millennium’ album. The crowd was already more than happy to go crazy, but the hits kept on coming. Although I was disappointed not to hear some of my favourites from ‘Hard Wired’ and ‘Implode’, each song played was so blistering that it has become a firm favourite in the weeks since the gig.

The set finished with ‘Plasticity’, with the guitarist switching to take on second live drummer role. At this point my grin must have been wider than my face – the one thing I love more than live drumming is crazed apocalyptic live drumming played to a room-full of rivetheads. Great stuff.

Naturally we didn’t let them get away without an encore, and they returned to two Tactical Neural Implant tracks, ‘Gun’ and ‘Mindphaser’. And then, triumphant, they were gone. Here’s hoping I don’t have to wait another ten years to see them again.

From here on September 15th 2006.

Archive: Taiko drumming at Rhythmsticks

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Taiko drums

Tools of the trade

Taiko (太鼓) means ‘big drum’ in Japanese. The drums come in a variety of forms, ranging from small, tuneable shime-daiko to the giant o-daiko, which can be as large as six feet in diameter. Taiko drumming has its origins in shrine ritual and ceremonies connected with the natural world, but has developed over the latter half of the twentieth century into a powerful performance art. Perhaps the best-known Taiko drumming ensemble in the West is Kodo.

I played taiko for two years when I lived in rural Japan, joining a local (but quite accomplished) group called Netaro Daiko. Although I didn’t have any background in percussion, I was fascinated by the thunderous, primal sound of the drums, and by the intensity created by the tempering of fierce aggression with serene, assured control. I begged them in my halting Japanese to let me join, and they kindly accepted.

Over the next two years I trained with the group every Wednesday evening, thwacked the hell out of my sofa at home, and performed at numerous local festivals. I wouldn’t say I was very good, but I did master the ancient Japanese art of ‘poker face’ – mistake, what mistake?

My passion for taiko drumming remains undimmed, and I never pass up an opportunity to see it performed live. Last Saturday (July 22nd) the Rhythmsticks Festival turned its attention to Japan, with the Taiko Master Series. This series features three leading lights in Japanese music: Japanese taiko percussionist Joji Hirota, US taiko master Kenny Endo, and US shakuhachi virtuoso John “Kaizan” Neptune.

Having spent several fruitless weeks trying to get even a sound out of a shakuhachi, I can’t help but marvel at John Neptune’s mastery of, and ease with, the instrument. The shakuhachi is a bamboo flute, with a sharp notch cut into the top producing the sound when blown over in a certain way – a certain very particular way. It’s not an instrument for playing tunes, but has a remarkable range of pitch, tone colour and dynamics, which makes it extremely expressive. To me it seems a very human instrument; the sound is liable to escape in unpredictable directions, to falter and to gather strength again. In the hands of a player as skillful as Neptune, these qualities can be harnessed to create a very moving and thought-provoking sound.The taiko drum is similarly raw and natural-sounding, and the larger the drum skin the more open it is to manipulation.

 

Kenny Endo makes full use of this, playing with the drum’s voice by varying the angle and strength of his strikes, controlling the pitch by placing pressure on the skin, utilising every surface, calmly controlling the sound until it’s time to let it thunder out unchecked. Joji Hirota takes a quieter approach in his solo, creating a beautiful and enveloping atmosphere which subtly tugs at the heart-strings.All three are keen explorers of the full spectrum of musical possibilities, fusing thorough mastery of traditional forms to non-traditional influences – “Tradition as a Basis for Innovation”, as Kenny Endo puts it. At no time is this clearer than the trio’s cheeky nod to Dave Brubeck, a jazzy drum groove overlaid with snatches of the famous “Take Five” melody, played by John Neptune on an Indian Jew’s Harp. With some snatches of South Indian singing thrown in for good measure. It shouldn’t work at all, but in these hands it’s clever and undeniably compelling.

 

This piece in particular has me grinning from ear to ear, but it’s only the highlight of a performance which is both inspired and inspiring from start to finish. Thoroughly recommended for anyone with an interest in Japan, percussion, jazz, fusion, performance art, or just a plain old love of damn good music.

 

From here on July 30th 2006.