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An aural overview of some of my favourite records of 2009 is now available on the Mixtapes page. Go forth safe in the knowledge that it is an Animal Collective/Fever Ray/the xx-free zone…

And in thinking back on another year that fizzed by, yet was again punctuated by many wonderful live music experiences, I couldn’t resist coming up with a list of those that seemed extra special. When I’m standing in a crowd, washed over by waves of sound, I often think that this is as close to religion as I’m ever gonna get. The shared experience with one’s fellow concert-goers (who in that moment don’t seem to to be the greedy, selfish, stupid creatures that many of us are), seeing, hearing, feeling what is arguably humankind’s greatest artistic expression (I’m talking about Music, not David Yow’s bodily fluids), well it makes me feel good to be alive. These are ten instances where that feeling came on particularly strong – if you were there, you know what I mean…

The Jesus Lizard, Dälek, Grails, Magnolia Electric Co, Sonic Youth

l-r: (top) David W Sims of The Jesus Lizard, Dälek (middle) Grails
Magnolia Electric Co (bottom) Sonic Youth

Dälek @ Sonic City festival, De Kreun, Kortrijk, Belgium (04 April 2009)
Over an early-April weekend, Dälek curated their own ATP-like mini festival in the Belgian city of Kortrijk, bringing together friends & heroes like 2nd Gen, Earth, Zu and Charles Hayward – but it was the curators themselves (assisted by buddies Oddateee and Destructo Swarmbots) that stole the show with their industrial-strength beats & dense rhymes smothered in an avalanche of noise.

Grails @ ATP: The Fans Strike Back festival, Butlins Minehead, UK (10 May 2009)
Highlight (one of many) of an ATP that delivered so much. Extra percussionist Dave Abramson allowed Emil Amos to switch between guitar and drums, and Sunn O))) soundman Randall Dunn manned the analogue synths, creating the sample-filled dronescapes that linked the songs into a single thrilling journey through exotic otherlands.

The Jesus Lizard @ ATP: The Fans Strike Back festival, Butlins Minehead, UK (10 May 2009)
The night before, the Lizard’s first show in some ten years, was something special for its sense of occasion and because the band delivered on all expectations. But this show seemed that bit better, like they rocked a little harder, a little tighter, a little shinier. But maybe only because I was able to properly focus on rawk-ing along, instead of standing transfixed like a mouth-breathing happy bunny caught fluff-fluffing in the headlights thinking “oh my god! It’s the Jesus Lizard!!!” …

Magnolia Electric Co. @ Primavera Sound festival, Barcelona, Spain (29 May 2009)
Good times in the sweltering Spanish sunshine. The ever-affable Jason Molina and his Magnolia cohorts ‘classic country rock’-ed their way through much of “Josephine“, and although you’ll never hear Molina revisit Songs: Ohia material, at least they delved into the recent past for nuggets like “Leave The City”, “Hard To Love A Man” & “The Dark Don’t Hide It” – and were demanded back by the baying crowd for an encore of “Hammer Down”.

Sonic Youth @ Primavera Sound festival, Barcelona, Spain (30 May 2009)
Wow! With Pavement bassist Mark Ibold in the line-up, Kim Gordon (one hot [gran]mama in ripped stockings) could switch between adding extra guitar attack-ack-ack or double bass thump to the Yoof’s swirling noiserock. The whole show thundered by as though a blissed-out daydream, the crowd seemingly surfing on an euphoric wave of energy. Songs from “The Eternal”  made up the majority of the set, but it was oldies like “‘Cross The Breeze”, “Tom Violence” and closer “Expressway To Yr Skull” that had my grin at its widest.

Neurosis @ Patronaat, Haarlem, the Netherlands (08 July 2009)
Launching with “At The End Of The Road”, Neurosis quickly constructed a towering wall of sound, but the intricate interplay of the instruments was never lost in the din. The set is “Given To The Rising”-HEAVY (prompting a positive re-evaluation of an album that sorta passed me by), the atmosphere dark and oppressive – not least because the band have it written into their agreement with the venue that all airco is turned off during their set, making for a sweaty & claustrophobic experience.

Oneida @ Paradiso, Amsterdam, the Netherlands (14 August 2009)
The Little “O” seemed to be having a particularly good time (pleased too that the Big “O” was playing the main hall downstairs at the same time), the positive energy emanating from the stage proving infectious. Oneida sure know how to work a rifftastic groove, and man can that Kid Millions play the drums.

Micah P Hinson @ Toutpartout 15 Years Birthday Night, Botanique, Brussels, Belgium (28 November 2009)
Micah P‘s self-confessional and intimate songs were perfectly suited to the amazing Rotunda room in the Botanique (situated in the botanical gardens of Brussels), surely one of the best live music venues around. He played plenty off covers album “All Dressed Up And Smelling Of Strangers“, paying tribute to his musical heroes & influences, including “coked-up airplane pilot” John Denver with a goosebump-inducing rendition of “This Old Guitar”.

Six Organs Of Admittance @ 10 Years of ATP festival, Butlins Minehead, UK (11 December 2009)
The joke round these parts goes: although I’m an appreciator of the axe-wielding babe-ness of Elisa Ambrogio, I’d much rather shack up with her beau Ben Chasny. Well there was no Elisa this time, but aided by Alex Nielsen’s expressive drumming and the baritone guitar of Andrew Mitchell, Chasny delivered the highlight of the festival – well, at least until Shellac came, saw & conquered two days later.

Shellac @ 10 Years of ATP festival, Butlins Minehead, UK (13 December 2009)
About as perfect as a rock show can be. They’ve got the tunes, they play together as though they’ve discovered the ability to mind-meld, shit there’s even choreography (Albini’s impression of a slowed-down-then-sped-up-tape is spot on). And inbetween the ‘minimalist hard rock’ songs that make you wanna bang your head, they are just fuckin’ funny – Shellac stage-banter is second only to that of Warren Ellis in laugh-out-loud comedy gold.

Todd Trainer: “Do I look like I can fuck??!!”
Albini: “He’s being modest – he’s a genetically-engineered machine designed to only fuck and play drums. He’s the result of a gene-splicing experiment conducted on Gene Krupa and one of those earth-moving machines…”

Neurosis, Micah P Hinson, Oneida, Shellac, Six Organs Of Admittance

l-r: (top) Neurosis (middle) Micah P Hinson, Oneida
(bottom) Shellac, Six Organs Of Admittance

Of course, this list omits many other memorable experiences. Sheeee-it, I saw The Jesus Lizard in three different countries, the always-awesome Shellac the same. There was Sunn O)))’s Atilla Csihar creating an incredible piece of performance art with his cloak of mirrors, lasered-claws and mesmerising mix of hellish growls, throat singing & Gregorian-style chanting. Sleep (temporarily) reunited! Nick Cave playing stripped-down versions of Bad Seeds songs (backed only by Warren Ellis & Martyn P Casey), interspersed with readings from his latest novel. Two fantastic ATPs with a Primavera in balmy Barcelona sandwiched inbetween. Anti-Pop Consortium transposed from Nieuw Haarlem to the Old. And many more great nights out in the various ‘poppodia’ in an around Amsterdam. Huge gratitude to all those that made these happen.



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mixtape (detail) - sakura snow


Although this time last year I relented to the whole end-of-year list thing, through a combination of laziness and principle I’ve decided to retire from that and instead focus on more practical list-making (e.g. “Top 5 Ways To Thread The Shoelaces Of My Work Shoes” or “Top 10 Items I Discovered In My Stool This Morning”). This is not to say I don’t very much enjoy trawling the various End Of Year Best Ofs that populate the interwebosphere every January – they are a great source of new listening inspiration, and can be a useful nudge in finally going ahead and procuring that ‘buzz’ album that you’ve been meaning to check out but haven’t yet got around to (but no, that Bon Iver chappie is not for me). Particularly those lists that attempt to add a little bit of context as to why a particular recording is worthy of attention, as opposed to those un-annotated lists which I myself was guilty of. This is one I like, or this… (and for group-compiled, consensus-based lists you could do worse that check this one out).

But this does not mean I’m above trying to foist my questionable tastes on others…

Each year I make myself a “Best Of…” compilation, trying to encapsulate the best of that year’s listening (and live) experiences over the course of a couple of mastered CDs. And so in a rare act of magnanimous generosity, I’m making that compilation available here for your listening pleasure.

NarcoAgent – Best of 2008 volume I
NarcoAgent – Best of 2008 volume II

If you’d like an aurally-tangible run-through of the releases that caught my ear in 2008, right-click, ‘Save As’ and put ’em on the portable music player of your choice . Hopefully you make some enjoyable discoveries (or at the very least supress those sociopathic thoughts for an hour or two – it works for me!).


mixtape (detail) - sakura snow 


This first NarcoAgent ‘podcast’ also marks the launch of the Mixtapes page where I’ll occasionally upload other collections for your listening pleasure.
Tracklistings & associated info to be found there too.


mixtape (detail) - sakura snow



After a day of parks, Catalan cuisine and modern art, it’s time to bring the noise with a night-long stretch at the ATP stage, interspersed only with a quick look at Devo ‘s entertaining middle-aged-men-in-short-pants schtick and a scuttle past Cat Power’s lacklustre blues. The intention had been to also catch some shows in the Auditori venue, but its limited seating capacity meant hour-long queues just to get a ticket for the right to then join another snaking queue for the performance itself. With too many bands to see and too expansive of a city to explore to waste time standing in line, I had to give up on seeing Bill Callahan and Portishead’s second performance of the festival. The concert hall acoustics would’ve no doubt allowed Beth Gibbons’s voice to take on more of a ghostly hue, and on finishing with “We Carry On” the band invited the audience up onto the Auditori stage, so it was surely a special show and a shame to have missed it.

ATP stage, Primavera Sound, 30-May-2008

 

The evening kicks off with Six Organs Of Admittance singing the sun down, now at the end of their European tour and playing with a togetherness and understanding that was missing when I saw them at the start. This makes for an incendiary performance, Ben Chasny’s alternately intricate finger-picking and paint-peeling riffs in complete sync with drummer Alex Neilson’s expressive percussion, all washed over with Elisa Ambrogio’s waves of distortion and feedback. They start with live favourite “A Thousand Birds”, whose second half throws up swirls of splintered noise as Chasny & Ambrogio batter their guitars into submission. Chasny has recently said how he is drawn back to the noisier stuff that he made as a twenty-year-old, moving away from the all-acoustic explorations of earlier Six Organs material – and the evidence is certainly to be heard in his live performances, with Ambrogio’s instinctively free & unfettered playing the perfect springboard for Chasny to unleash his own six-stringed savagery.

Six Organs Of Admittance, ATP stage, Primavera Sound, 30-May-2008

Songs from most recent album “Shelter From The Ash” are interspersed with oldie “Black Needle Rhymes” before Chasny & partner Ambrogio harmonise through Fleetwood Mac’s “That’s Alright”, another staple of their recent performances. Chasny then provides some eye-of-the-hurricane calm, running through two of his most affecting songs, just his yearning falsetto and stellar playing keeping the large crowd captivated. This is the start of a four-song-suite of “School Of The Flower” material (happily my favourite Six Organs release) that closes the performance. The title track of that album is introduced as “School Of The Mick Flower” in tribute to the Vibracathedral Orchestra‘s guitarist, Chasny urging us all to enrol, and it’s a treat to hear it played as it hasn’t featured in live sets for some time. All three band members conjure up a maelstrom of freerock that comes full circle, dissolving into Chasny’s repeating refrain before we’re comfortingly brought “Home”.

 

Setlist: Six Organs Of Admittance @ Primavera Sound 2008, Barcelona (30 May 2008)
A Thousand Birds
Strangled Road
Black Needle Rhymes
Shelter From The Ash
That’s Alright (Fleetwood Mac cover)
All You’ve Left
Words For Two
School Of The Flower
Home

 

Having heard lots of buzz around Autolux I’d almost taken it for granted that they would prove to be my ‘discovery of the festival’. And I would have really enjoyed their performance had I completely missed out on Sonic Youth 1985-1995. As it is I can’t get past the fact that every riff sounds like it has been plundered from the Noo Yoik noiseniks back catalogue, not really adding (to these ears) anything new to the formula. That they actually manage to sound like Sonic Youth is achievement in itself I suppose, and if Autolux succeed in turning a new generation onto the joys of “Evol” or “Sister” then they’re serving a beneficial & humanitarian purpose, but it does not compute that this is considered somehow new & exciting. Of course most art builds on a foundation of what has gone before, but the revivalist nature of a lot of alternative music released this decade seems to these aged ears to be a case of cheap knock-off rather than an assimilation of influences in the pursuit of creating something new. That said, Autolux do entertain and they’re certainly no fly-by-night phonies – they’ve been playing together since the start of this decade, and although not exactly prolific (they’ve one album to their name thus far) have built a sizeable fanbase (as evidenced by the large & enthusiastic crowd here). Carla Azar is a powerhouse drummer, and really propels the band along – remarkable given that a shattered elbow following a stage fall in 2002 resulted in the prognosis that she would probably never play drums again. Eight titanium screws later and she continues to pound the skins with ferocious dexterity.

 

Polvo are a band revered by many, original proponents of dissonant math rock, all bent notes and complex time signatures. They existed for much of the 90s before disbanding – now reformed for a series of ATP-related festivals. They score high on the math test (ouch!): high-school classmates with some of Superchunk, releases on Touch and Go, recorded by Bob Weston, yada yada… – but don’t really do it for me. I like a good big dumb riff to get a hold of, and this is a bit too knowingly complex and fiddly, venturing into that no-man’s-land where the borders between punk and prog are unclear. For sure they still know how to wield their axes with intent and there is Eastern-tinged melody to be found in their unorthodox tunings and fluid fretwork, but I guess I’m too much of a big dumb lunk to want to study this further.

Polvo, ATP stage, Primavera Sound, 30-May-2008

 

Bristol-now-London duo Fuck Buttons are something I’ve been keen to see, and they don’t disappoint. The spirit of Suicide and a worthy history of noise bands inform the Fuck Buttons sound, and they have fun with turning it into the noize you can move to, be moved by. It has an elemental simplicity (and it seems eco-friendly too) which works well here under the stars by the sea. Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power stand hunched over their equipment, moving to the crystalline melodies submerged in the swarm of electronic noise, Power sometimes bashing out a tribal beat on a floor tom. While Hung seems pretty chilled behind his bank of old Casio keyboards, Power is the more animated, sticking the toy microphone into his mouth, screaming the distorted vocals while using both hands to shape the sound.

Fuck Buttons, ATP stage, Primavera Sound, 30-May-2008

Most of the set seems drawn from their “Street Horrrsing” album, although I think they may have played something new to finish. “Sweet Love For Planet Earth” is the highlight with its rainfall tinkle and pulsing drones building into a melodically abrasive shout out for help on behalf of this hunk of rock, Power howling into the microphone clenched in his jaws. For the rest, the tune-friendly, sometimes playful and at times downright-euphoric circuit-bent wall of buzzing synth sound makes for one upbeat noise party.

 

When news broke earlier in the year that drummer Chris Hakius had left Om I feared for the life of the mighty mantric metallers. Hakius and bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros had been friends & collaborators of some twenty years, playing in Sabbathian stoner-rock legends Sleep together before reconvening in 2004 for Om, and I couldn’t see how the band would survive the end of such a longstanding & close-knit connection. But Grandmaster Cisneros (he teaches chess when he is not captain of the shrine effulgent Om windship) quickly announced the continuation of the Om journey, and tonight he performs with new drummer Emil Amos (of Grails and Holy Sons).

The first thing that strikes me is just how good a bass-player Cisneros is – his fingers glide effortlessly over his Rickenbacker’s neck, the dextrous display somewhat incongruous with the bludgeoning vibrations that emenate from the speaker stacks. Early on, as I stand close to the stage, it feels as those vibrations will resonate inside my head to such an extent that it’ll explode, but I soon tune into the pre-dawn mantras, focusing only on the new rites of a Vedic sun to attend the blue horizon… The low-end barrage, cyclical rhythms, songs that seem to slow time, riffs fashioned from dark matter and chanted mysticisms (Julian Cope once called Cisneros’s lyrics “the kind of accessible pseudo-religious genius that started genuine religions”) all make for a meditative experience, albeit at arsequake volume – even if (to the uninitiated) the songs all sound the same. That Om plough the same groove is not something Cisneros denies: he talks of the music as being a singular continuous expression, with Om as merely the vessel that occasionally tunes into this one theme to make it tangible in our world (the 2004 debut album is aptly titled “Variations On A Theme”).

Om, ATP stage, Primavera Sound, 30-May-2008

Second song is “To The Shrinebuilder”, arguably Om’s most propulsive song to date, Amos adding even more weight to it with his hard-hitting percussion (you can download a live version of this song, recorded in Canada in 2006, from Holy Mountain here). Amos definitely brings a new dimension to the Om sound, his dynamic drumming is expressive and powerful, so it will be interesting to see how this translates to future Om recordings. They close with the epic “At Giza”, many fans’ favourite of Om’s thematic variations, the crowd going wild for the breakdown in the middle where Cisneros’s bass note hangs in the air before the song slowly builds again into a glacially heavy groove, the coming of the sun and that blue horizon a couple of hours away yet…

 

Setlist: Om @ Primavera Sound 2008, Barcelona (30 May 2008)
Bhima’s Theme
To The Shrinebuilder
Kapila’s Theme
At Giza
(well this is what I think it was… it was late & muchos Estrella later, so any corrections welcome…)

 

 

Utrecht, one of Holland’s oldest cities and the spiritual home of Dutch modernist design (the birthplace of Theo van Doesburg, Gerrit Rietveld and Dick Bruna), is also blessed with some great gig venues. The relatively small size of the city (population: 300,000) supports several perfectly-proportioned spaces (capacity: a couple of hundred at most) ideal for those ‘intimate’ shows I’d take over a stadium gig every time. So as a taster for the upcoming Primavera festival of delights in Barcelona (where both bands will play), in early May I twice made the 30 minute train journey to Utrecht to see Six Organs of Admittance (@ Poppodium EKKO) and Scout Niblett (@ Tivoli De Helling) do their thing.

The Six Organs Of Admittance show is the first proper of their European tour (following a special warm-up date in Latvia of all places) and unfortunately it shows. Drummer Alex Neilsen is rightly regarded as one of the best around but this night he lays it on too strong, filling in spaces that were best filled only with Ben Chasny & Elisa Ambrogio’s wailing twelve strings.

Listening to Chasny’s playing on record it is clear that he plays at a pace all of his own, not always beholden to what would be considered conventional timing or rhythm, and although Neilson is of course well-versed in improvisational drumming, too often they fail to quite mesh. But this is not to suggest that there are not moments of classic Six Organs transcendentalism: Ambrogio and Chasny transform “Hum A Silent Prayer” (on record, virtually acapella) into a droning noisechant and there are moments of blissed out freerock in “Black Needle Rhymes” when the three bandmembers connect. The “Shelter From The Ash” songs – like the title track, “Coming To Get You” and “Strangled Road” – are all tight , Neilson forced to be more economical by those songs’ relatively concise & conventional structures.

Six Organs Of Admittance - live at Poppodium EKKO, Utrecht, 12-May-2008

Unfortunately the performance is cut short due to the enforcement of a strict (public holiday) Monday night curfew (why don’t promoters/venues get the support acts on earlier if there is a danger that the headliner will have to play a constricted set?!). As I headed into the still-faintly-lit Dutch night I hoped that by the time they hit Barcelona the band will have better mindmelded, Neilsen taking a more subtle approach to fleshing out the twin-guitar cacophony of Chasny & Ambrogio, and I looked forward to the next Six Organs experience being all the more powerful for it.

 

Scout Niblett plays on the packed bill of Distorted Channel‘s 5th birthday celebration (headlined by Health) so it’s another performance that ends too soon. But we get “Wolfie” after Scout asks the audience what we want to hear next, the reflective “Wet Road”, a TLC cover (“No Scrubs”), and she and drummer Kristian Goddard take us through “This Fool Can Die Now”‘s best songs, closing with the monolithic desert rock of “Nevada”. Scout has also started a Shellac-style mid-set Q&A session, although the question quality was low, only eliciting the information that Scout likes dogs and isn’t particularly bothered when it comes to cats…

Scout Niblett, live at Tivoli De Helling, Utrecht, 17-May-2008

It is another intense & exposed performance from Scout (I’m sure she can’t do it any other way), heart on sleeve and amp turned up to the max. So with appetite suitably whet, bring on Barcelona!

Having once been a relatively enthusiastic proponent of the end-of-year ‘best of’ list, a few years ago I stopped putting these together in favour of just creating an aural review of releases I particularly liked in the form of a CD compilation. I suppose I rejected the idea of trying to rank the year’s releases, to come up with the ‘best album’ of that particular year, as this was forcing me to evaluate the music on a critical/intellectual level that doesn’t work for me – for me music is about feeling; from wanting to bang my head or creep myself out, from getting goosebumps of euphoria to twinges of melancholy… But I suppose it is sacrilege for a music-related blog to come to the end of a year and not attempt some sort of round-up, so rather than create a ranked list justified by socio-political contexts or clever meta-musical references, these are the records (in no particular order) and live performances that have rocked / droned / folked up / brokebeat / hiphopped my world in 2007, that have made me feel



Top 25 Albums of 2007


NarcoAgent Top 25 Albums of 2007

from top, l-r:

Magnolia Electric Co : “Sojourner” boxset (Secretly Canadian)

PJ Harvey : “White Chalk” (Island)

Angels Of Light : “We Are Him” (Young God)

Low : “Drums And Guns” (Sub Pop)

Liars : “Liars” (Mute)

Mammal : “Lonesome Drifter” (Animal Disguise)

Grinderman : “Grinderman” (Mute)

Boris with Michio Kurihara : “Rainbow” (Pedal/Drag City)

El-P : “I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead” (Definitive Jux)

Vic Chesnutt : “North Star Deserter” (Constellation)

Nina Nastasia & Jim White : “You Follow Me” (Fat Cat)

Om : “Pilgrimage” (Southern Lord)

Scout Niblett : “This Fool Can Die Now” (Too Pure)

Shellac : “Excellent Italian Greyhound” (Touch & Go)

Epic45 : “May Your Heart Be The Map” (Make Mine Music)

Magik Markers : “Boss” (Ecstatic Peace!)

MIA : “Kala” (XL)

Sigur Rós : “Hvarf-Heim” (EMI)

Stars Of The Lid : “And The Refinement Of Their Decline” (Kranky)

Jesu : “Conqueror” (HydraHead/Daymare)

Alela Diane : “The Pirate’s Gospel” (Holocene/Names/Fargo)

Six Organs Of Admittance : “Shelter From The Ash” (Drag City)

Bracken : “We Know About The Need” (Anticon)

Future Of The Left : “Curses” (Too Pure)

Earth : “Hibernaculum” (Southern Lord)




Top 5 EPs/Singles of 2007


NarcoAgent Top 5 EPs of 2007

l-r:

Efterklang : “Under Giant Trees” (Leaf)

Zonderhoof : “Zonderhoof” EP (Sound Devastation)

Joanna Newsom : “Joanna Newsom & The Ys Street Band” EP (Drag City)

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy : “Ask Forgiveness” EP (Drag City/Domino)

Jesu : “Sundown / Sunrise” EP (Aurora Borealis/Daymare)

 



Top 10 Gigs of 2007


NarcoAgent Top 10 Gigs of 2007

Future Of The Left + Infants @ The Luminaire, London (10 March 2007)

Josh T Pearson @ ATP festival, Minehead (27 April 2007)

Nick Cave / Grinderman @ ATP festival, Minehead (28 April 2007)

Dirty Three @ ATP festival, Minehead (29 April 2007)

Scout Niblett @ Bush Hall, London (21 May 2007)

Isis + Boris @ Koko, London (02 July 2007)

Liars @ Madame Jo Jo’s, London (03 July 2007)

Six Organs Of Admittance @ Paradiso (bovenzaal), Amsterdam (12 August 2007)

Sonic Youth do “Daydream Nation” @ The Roundhouse, London (30 August 2007)

Jesu @ Paradiso (bovenzaal), Amsterdam (05 December 2007)


Correctly guess which picture was taken at which gig and I will send you a copy of my “Best of 2007” 2CD compilation (once I’ve pulled my finger out of my ass and actually made the thing). Use the contact form on the Disclaimer page to submit your ‘entry’.



A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
Things have been deathly quiet in NarcoAgentland the past two months or so, largely as a result of me having continued to straddle two countries* whilst I go in search of free love . Normal service will hopefully be resumed soon, but for the moment I’d like to travel back in time to the weekend of 11/12 August, which ushered in my first live music experience(s) in Amsterdam.

First up, it was a chance encounter of seven-piece all-female country/folk band Oops-a-Daisies , who performed an unplugged set outdoors at the Blauwe Theehuis in Vondelpark on the Saturday afternoon. Although they dismiss themselves as a ‘novelty band’, Oops-a-Daisies played an enjoyable set of country & bluegrass standards, very "Flowers In The Wildwood ". Then that evening it was to Subbacultcha @ Bitterzoet to catch the energetic Check 1-2 headlining a benefit gig to raise funds following an accident that destroyed their van and much of their equipment. Venerable Dutch indiepoppers Bettie Serveert were also on the bill, but we arrived too late to see them. Bitterzoet is located just around the corner from my new home so hopefully there’ll plenty of good stuff to see there in the future!

On to Sunday, and the ‘main course’: before my arrival in Holland I’d clocked that Six Organs Of Admittance would be playing at Paradiso ‘s small bovenzaal at the very sedate time of 4pm, and so had earmarked this as being my inaugural Amsterdam gig.
Paradiso is a large converted church, close to Amsterdam’s ‘party square’ of Leidseplein, and the upstairs bovenzaal (upper hall) proves to be an excellent live room: intimate size, great sound, stage raised to a good height, and replete with stained-glass windows. The support band Jean Parlette (from the northern Dutch province of Friesland ) impresses – a Friesian Tunng , with their warm vocals and glitchy folk (or as described on their website : ‘huis-tuin-en-keuken-elektronica’) – but I’m impatient for Six Organs’ Ben Chasny to take the stage (move over Albini, Broadrick, Sparhawk, Falco et al , the NarcoAgent has a new guitar hero…).

When Chasny does appear, he is accompanied by a primly-dressed woman, hair tied-up in school-marm fashion – this (as it turns out, enchanting) young lady is Elisa Ambrogio of Magik Markers , and if I’d known anything about Magik Markers beforehand I might’ve been prepared for what follows a couple of songs into the set…
The first song is Chasny solo, his impressive guitar playing conjuring up the sound of several guitars and a bass, not just a lone instrument. Ambrogio fiddles with her amp then stands watching impassively, guitar in hand, before joining in for the second song. As soon as she hits her first power chord she becomes a woman possessed, bashing out swathes of noise to a confounded audience who no doubt expected something more wallflower-esque in the folk venacular.

Six Organs Of Admittance live @ Paradiso (12-08-2007)

Although much of the Six Organs output appears superficially to be delicately fingerpicked folk songs, there is an undercurrent of noise and drone to most of Chasny’s work (check "Black Wall" from "The Sun Awakens " as an example), and tonight he and Elisa get to explore that to the full. Together they transform "Hum A Silent Prayer " (on record near-acapella, albeit with an ominous drone hovering in the far distance) into a frightening psych-rock dirge. The rest of the set fits perfectly with the Chasny/Ambrogio duelling guitars dynamic – songs like "Home" and "Sum Of All Heaven" having their drone-drenched innards turned inside out to compelling effect, with Elisa giving form & meaning to the phrase "letting your hair down". She and Chasny seem perfectly in sync, and the sight of them fronting up to each other, straining as they wrench beautiful noise from their instruments, is an exhilarating one.

Six Organs Of Admittance live @ Paradiso (12-08-2007)

All this sturm-und-drang noise-und-drone is sharply contrasted with moments of fragile beauty, like "Words For Two" and "All You’ve Left" where Chasny’s expressive voice and amazing playing cause some sort of reaction in me which could only be described as spiritual in nature (it may be in part the setting, my first proper gig in my new home, the smell of sense-heightening substances on the air… but this Six Organs experience brings tears to my eyes). In Buddhist doctrine the six organs of admittance are the five senses plus the soul. Chasny’s take on this is that the sixth organ is not the soul, but rather the active imagination that accesses the ‘mundus imaginalis ‘ (coined by Henry Corbin ), "that place where visions and prophetic dreams exist between the corporeal world and the world of the spirits."

Six Organs Of Admittance live @ Paradiso (12-08-2007)

Halfway through the set Chasny offers up a new song from forthcoming album "Shelter From The Ash" (out 20 November on Drag City ), which as the name suggests is more darkly apocalyptic than his previous work (too much time spent hanging with David Tibet no doubt, although to give Tibet his due there’s no escaping the fact that we are all fucked! :). The set ends with a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s "That’s Alright", here transformed into alternating passages of delicate vocals and wigged-out guitar noise in keeping with what has gone before (I used to have a childhood crush on Stevie Nicks but Elisa Ambrogio can now step in – what’s not to love about a woman who can wield a guitar with such twinset venom?). Definite contender for gig of the year (Bruno Banani – who was one hell of a lot more prompt in getting his review up – concurs ).

 

Here is a ‘live on air’ version of "Thousand Birds" from the "Gold Leaf Branches " compilation on Digitalis .

 

Six Organs Of Admittance – Thousand Birds (live on air)

 

Recent Six Organs Of Admittance recordings can be sourced directly from Drag City . Older Six Organs recordings are available on the Holy Mountain label, where you can listen to some sound clips.

 

PS: check out the "cookbook" section of the Six Organs Of Admittance website for some interesting recipes – I particularly like this one from Chasny for "Butterfly Wing Cakes":

  • 1 cup Flour
  • 2 cups Redwood Forest Mud
  • 8 Black Butterfly Wings for garnishing
  • 3/4 cup Brown Sugar
  • 1/2 cup Water from a Broken Well
  • 1 Tibetan Horn
  • 2 Eagle’s Eggs
  • Skull of Cattle
  •  

    Mix mud and flour together. Give 3 blows on Tibetan Horn. Loud like the shrill of a dying crustacean. Pour in Well Water. Mix. Smash something that bothers you. Proceed to mix eggs and sugar in. Mix well. One long blast from Tibetan Horn. Loud like Thunder through a Marshall. Talk to Skull. Tell it you are not scared in the least of Death. Pour into cupcake pan. Cook until done. Garnish with Black Butterfly Wings.

     

     

    * this reminds me of a quaint expression used by Afrikaner South Africans to describe their English-speaking countrymen: soutpiel (literally "salt cock"). The soutpiel has one foot in South Africa and one foot still in England, with his cock dangling in the salty sea…

     

     

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