Sound and spectacle

[Flying Lotus @ The Roundhouse – 07/11/14]

As I stand in line outside The Roundhouse, I watch a couple of touts walking up and down Chalk Farm Road doing a steady trade in used tickets; the steps outside crowded full of people sneaking their last few sips from cans of beer and bottles of wine before security confiscate them. I go through the ignoble ritual of having my ID scanned – a practice which has snuck into large London music venues largely unchallenged – and make my way into the huge vaulted interior of the venue, a converted Victorian railway engine shed which, with the lights low, resembles a space-age amphitheatre.

As I enter, I notice that the DJ spinning a set of jungle and footwork is none other than Hyperdub founder and bass emissary Kode 9. It doesn’t feel quite right having a producer of his stature, someone who could probably sell out the Roundhouse himself, as the warm up act. But then Soundcrash, the promoters of the gig, who have a near-monopoly on large electronic music events in London such as this, have a tendency to throw acts together seemingly at random, often with little fanfare or introduction.

A while after Kode 9 winds down, the stage is taken over by regular Flying Lotus collaborator Thundercat, who warms up the audience with a set of his signature 6-string bass wizardry, heavy with squelchy wah-pedal sounds, and helped along by a keys/synth player and a drummer, whose sticks skitter over the snare like tiny pebbles skipping over ice. The bassist’s surprisingly high-pitched vocals take in some of his own and FlyLo’s material, setting the following act squarely in a jazz context.

Flying Lotus arrives on stage, suited and booted, to cheers from the audience. He immediately admonishes someone close to the front: ‘put your fucking Ipad away! You’re not going to need that. Try feeling something instead!’ It’s an interesting start to his set, because toying with screens is one of the defining elements of his show. Starting out with some of the darker tunes from his Until the Quiet Comes and Cosmogramma albums, it quickly becomes clear that the night ahead is going to be very much an audio-visual experience heavily weighted towards the visual.

The visuals are otherworldly, and for much of the night, the tightly packed crowd stands transfixed; a thousand or so faces staring at the giant flickering cube that FlyLo is playing behind, an expansion of the Layer 3 technology he has used in past shows, together with Brainfeeder label-mate Strangeloop. Earlier in the day I had seen youtube clips of both psychedelic philosopher Terence McKenna and sci-fi author William Gibson, both of whose work is heavily engaged with cybernetic landscapes and possible evolutions in human consciousness. Perhaps this had put a bit of a sci-fi spin on my thought processes that day because the visuals – dense space station landscapes, undulating fractals, images of Buddha metamorphosing into Chinese astrological animals – made me wonder how an alien intelligence might process 21st century human culture. I imagined an advanced non-human life form swallowing up all of our visual and sonic culture, and spitting it out again in a dazzling stream of images, mirroring the dense, disjointed beats.

As a spectacle, it is a stunning thing to behold, and showcases Flying Lotus’ talents as a visual artist as much as a musician. But I couldn’t help feeling that there was an odd kind of circular irony at play. Modern audiences, reared on instantly streamable MP3s and accustomed to consuming music online as much as through any other medium, are searching for new ways to experience live music that is increasingly made using computer software. Artists like Flying Lotus respond – finding novel ways to present music in ways that might well have seemed unimaginable to his musical forebears, Alice and John Coltrane. Maybe it was because the venue was full to capacity, making it difficult to move, let alone dance, but I can’t help feeling that the intensity of the images has pacified the crowd, made them strangely inert. Flying Lotus himself remarked on this at one point, uttering ‘damn, you’re pretty tame for a sell-out crowd!’ That Flying Lotus is one of the most talented and forward-thinking artists of his generation is not in doubt. But what of the experience of feeling live music? Will this become secondary to the quest to find ever new ways to create exciting spectacles to behold, stare at and consume?

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