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Two Australians and an American walk into a church… Wait, that’s a different tale. I’m supposed to be recounting the final St John Sessions concert in London. But don’t worry, the punchline is just as good.
Bowing out on a high is something the punters at the Church of St John-at-Hackney should now be well accustomed to, thanks to the relentless stream of noiseniks and sonic pranksters playing fast and loose with the huge domed-room and its unusual acoustics. It’s a broad church where the sound plays tricks on you. It moves and swirls, sometimes slipping through your grasp, other times pressing into your skull in a deeply uncomfortable and claustrophobic way.
The latter was the vibe that the Australian-born South Londoner and modular synthesizer master clearly aimed to achieve. Perched up in the gods, he patched his modular kit into the church’s mammoth 1950s Mander organ. But if you were expecting Bach, you were in the wrong century. Instead, Chantler rigged the organ to act more like a drone generator, locking it into a spiral of deathly rumblings and wheezes as the sound of its pipes battled with slabs of pre-programmed sub bass. It worked. But 40 minutes of its oppressive force was enough.
Stripping things back to the bone was American minimal pioneer Tony Conrad (pictured). He’s played with the likes of John Cage and La Monte Young and is a confirmed legend in the world of improvised music and experimental filmmaking since the Sixties. He took the masses on a one-man solo violin journey to hell and back wracking the wooden instrument into submission with a cellist’s bow or whacking his drum pad sporadically to knock out a few meaty beats. He played the dancing minstrel in a jolly hat behind a sheer white sheet capturing his shadow while he coaxed every last drop out of his instrument. It was a masterful lesson in how to take a small musical idea and make it seem massive through skilful manipulations of tone and volume – and he seemed nothing short of delighted with the results, emerging arms aloft from behind his gauzy shield to rapturous applause.
Neither of these acts would have prepared the congregation for Ben Frost. The high priest of electronic sleight of hand arrived onstage, opposing drummer Thor Harris’ full kit. And just when an expectant hush descended across the room as the lights went down the pair launched into a blazing pugilistic dual, with Harris battering his processed floor tom and kick drum as Harris manhandled an electric guitar and twiddled knobs. And then, as quickly as it began, it stopped. Lights out. The music gradually resumed to beckon the dawn of Frost’s latest album, AURORA, which emerged from behind the stark white lights and haze dry ice. If Frost was attempting to conjure up the morning mist of his adopted Icelandic home he succeeded as the double team trudged their way through the volcanic nooks and cracks of Frost’s barren digital landscape.
For sheer power, the set packed impressive displays from Harris who did most of the heavy lifting as Frost often seemed content to push buttons and rock back in forth in his black vest. But percussive fireworks and euphoric blasts of noise aside, there were just not enough ideas in AURORA’s locker to be deemed great, even when blessed with the ideal acoustics. Even in the quieter moments the tunes seemed to disintegrate over the 70-minute set without a compelling thread to bind their sonic excesses.
Ultimately, it summed up a night that was blessed with a lot of high art but very few musical ideas. The joke, however funny, was clearly on us.