New Year / New Noise @ Arnolfini, Bristol – 17/01/15
On arrival in the auditorium, the first thought that crosses my mind when I glimpse the solitary figure of Gareth Turner aka Salope, – bedecked in a black hoodie, his face covered by a black scarf – is that he has detached himself from a black bloc at a demonstration and snuck into an art gallery. Alone, and facing an arc of motionless, silent onlookers, the electric upright bassist – who also plays with Bristolian psychedelic noise-mongers Anthroprophh – casts sonic shadows over the audience, emitting swathes of rippling drone, containing just about enough higher frequencies so that the bass occasionally sounds like a sitar. It’s a quietly demonic spectacle, as though those assembled are watching some kind of hermetic mage at work in his cave.
This is the opening act of the Howling Owl record showcase at Bristol’s Arnolfini art gallery. Since arriving in Bristol, I had come upon the name often, but knew little about it other than it’s reputation as one of the city’s most distinguished purveyors of experimental music. A product of the DIY ethos that underlies much of Bristol’s creative output, Howling Owl emerged in 2011 as a tape/zine project before expanding into a record label and promotion vehicle for left-field live music events.
The quiet vulnerability of second act Wenonoah couldn’t be more different from Salope, and highlights the breadth of vision of the organisers. Another solo project, the singer’s voice is both fragile, sounding as if it might crumble at any moment, and incredibly strong, dipping down to surprisingly low octaves. Accompanied by the most minimal of keyboard lines, the first few tracks sound like warped Irish folk songs, full of squelchy bodily imagery and frequently touching on female sexuality. Her funniest tune, contains lines such as ‘she’s so fucking precious/I’m sure that she shits diamonds’, delivered in a wavering pseudo-aristocratic falsetto. It’s a brave and intense performance, and gets the strongest applause of the night.
Killing Sound – One of the many permutations of the Young Echo collective – was the act that had initially drawn me to the event. Appropriately signed to Berlin-based label Blackest Ever Black, the trio of Jabu, Vessel and El Kid dissect the tropes of soundsystem culture, raising volume levels considerably in the process. When the crowd is hit by the first walls of noise, a number of people step back, as though in shock. It is the most violent and alienating act of the evening. Highly abrasive sonic textures bombard the ears of those in attendance; in other contexts it would be torturous. Yet beneath dense, mangled layers of oscillating frequencies, the subtlest of beats become detectable. Meanwhile, an MC delivers spoken-word tracts about finding his landlord in his kitchen tinkering with his tumble drier. When fully tuned in, it is the most hypnotic performance of the evening.
The last two acts of the evening are probably the most accessible, bridging the worlds of guitar-led post-rock and electronica. Young duo Vision Fortune utilize sparse drum samples to underpin their disjointed, at times discordant tracks, seemingly informed by a art-school, Krautrock sensibility. The night is topped off by label successes The Naturals, channelling youthful energy, reverb-saturated vocals and bouncy 4/4 kicks to deliver the only fully danceable act of the evening.