Deconstructed beats

[Islam Chipsy, Vessel, Shackleton & Container – Bunker II @ The Island, Bristol 10/10/14]

I try to resurrect any latent memories of having ever been to a gig in an old Victorian police station before, but the only thing that springs to mind is having once been to a squat party in an abandoned bingo hall in Islington, emerging somewhat discombobulated at 5 in the morning to discover my bike had been stolen.

This is a first, then. I circumnavigate the Bridewell complex that houses The Island, a huge, gloomy edifice in Bristol city centre, at least once before I find the entrance and realise I’m in the right place. The friend who was supposed to come with me has bailed at the last minute, so I linger by the entrance a while, half-heartedly pondering whether I should try and flog the spare ticket, but there are few people around, and I can’t seem to muster the right amount of entrepreneurial spirit.

As I descend into the basement vaults of the building – complete with police cells that have transmogrified into toilets – and enter the main room, I see a bunch of men with pained expressions on their faces hastily trying to stuff scrunched up bits of toilet paper into their ears, a feeble attempt to lessen the potential hearing damage they are being exposed to, such is the barbarity of the decibel levels being emitted by Eek/Islam Chipsy, performing for the first time outside their native Egypt.

Their music is unlike anything I’ve ever heard before, and so The Island’s slightly foreboding environs make for a prescient venue. I can’t see how many musicians are performing, given that they are on the floor rather than on the stage, but I’d read that the outfit is comprised of a keyboardist and two drummers. Islam Chipsy is allegedly a classically-trained keyboardist who has purposefully mangled traditional approaches to playing his instrument, unleashing instead a ghoulish hybrid of North African Chaabi melodies mixed with what sounds like ’80s computer game music, created by slamming the keys in rapid bursts, set out in lengthy improvisations backed by the frenzied rhythms of the drummers. The immediate image that comes to mind is that of someone trying to play the Tetris theme tune through a set of out-of-tune bagpipes after having ingested a massive amount of ketamine at a rave in the desert. The music is so absurd it really shouldn’t make any sense at all. And yet it makes complete sense. The majority of the crowd, who are still doing a good job of preventing me seeing the band, are in a rapturous state, although I do notice a few shell-shocked individuals who are clearly struggling to process it all.

By the time Vessel begins his set, the screen behind him showing what appears to be a homoerotic black-and-white prison film, in which naked men wield various gardening implements suggestively, it’s already clear that the night is going to be extremely strange and intense. I’m a little more prepared for this though, having already been witness to his  performances at the regular Young Echo nights [which I have reviewed previously], of which he is a member. As is the case for the rest of the evening, the sounds he creates are beyond any descriptor of style or genre. He envelops the crowd in a dense, dangerous wall of sound that rotates around two axes. Firstly, industrial artefacts: drones shot through with stabs of contorted metal, testament to the homemade instruments – chopped up bike frames and the like – he created for his second album, Punish/Honey. The second axis is an extremely dense palette of kick drums and sub bass, so that overall, his set pivots between dark, introspective head-nodding and all-out thrashery.

The arrival of the enigmatic Shackleton on stage coincides with the collective coming-up of a large chunk of those in attendance. The brooding, antagonistic energies summoned forth by Vessel begin to soften and fall away as a massive wave of MDMA infuses the collective bloodstream of the audience – which is now peppered with some notable faces of the Bristol underground, including several members of the Young Echo crew, Pinch and Peverlist.

This sudden wave of euphoria has come at precisely the right time. Shackleton appears to be on a mission to deconstruct any assumptions about what electronic music is, was or should be; disassembling the tropes of previous systems of categorisation like ‘dubstep’ or ‘techno’, rendering these words entirely redundant and meaningless.

The bodies and mind states of most of the people at the front of the crowd sufficiently loosened, his set feels like it is forever teetering on a massive drop. He begins with ‘Blood on my Hands’, one of his signature tunes, but from then on, his MIDI-only approach allows for bass lines, kicks, and intricate percussion all to interact with each other in a free and disembodied way, as though he is creating a live Cubist painting in sonic form: taking existing song structures and rearranging them so much that the end product has little or no resemblance to the original, but creating something  transcendent in the process. At its peak, the energy in the basement is nothing short of staggering, though at other points, it seems as though some of the dancers are looking around for something solid to grasp on to, so unfamiliar is the terrain they find themselves floating over.

I only see a brief snippet of the final set, that of Container. What I hear is a shift back towards darker vistas – hard, bleak industrial soundscapes, jutting and oddly cyclical – the first few tracks he plays are entirely in ¾ time. The bluntness and harshness of his beats  quickly become a bit much for my senses. I make my exit through the discarded beer cans and wraps of cellophane, through the highly congested smoking area, which is virtually a club in its own right, and make my way back on to the Bristol streets, my mind slowly readjusting to consensus reality after the bewitching spectacle I have just witnessed.

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