Disturbing Sounds in Birmingham, England – The Brooklyn Rail
The train station
Sly and the family drone
September 2, 2022
September 3, 2022
Sly & The Family Drone offer an extreme experience of catastrophic electronic density, of primitive analog origins perverted by intense manipulations and exaggerations. They appreciate the double power, with two drummers and two electronics, but only one baritone saxophonist, which could well be enough. They play loud, they improvise warmly, and they always vote to play in the round, preferably rooted directly to the ground, no stage allowed, and inevitably surrounded by their bandmates in a deep appreciation of the noise. This time, The Drone landed in Birmingham, home (almost) of Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Godflesh, Napalm Death, Slade, Con-Dom and half of Led Zeppelin. No other venue was needed for Sly Drone, as they chose to play The Station, a regular pub in King’s Heath, which is a few miles from Birmingham city centre. They agreed to be locked in his back room.
From London, The Drone arranged their gear in a tight circle, facing each other, their small but intense audience gathering, soon in the grip of a particularly abstract compulsion to bang their heads, the kind that always takes over the body when it is to experience free-form sounds of a heavy nature. This willful zombie response cleverly amalgamated the hook-impaling state usually invited by the completely abandoned forms of free jazz, manic electro-howl and sludge-a-boogie. This circle of slow, simultaneous druidic head movements gave off a whiff of primitive ritual, an alternative type of trance music.
The Sly set consisted of extended improvisation, moving through multiple personalities. The two button-sweeping electronics also fed their angsty vocals through their wiring tables, and one of them, founder Matt Cargill, also became a third drummer, with his periodic floor tom undercurrents. James Allsopp’s baritone sax provided the nerve for free jazz’s bestial eruption, hacking goblets of molten buckshot. Sly Drone swims through a huge echo, supporting its immense weight of bass, while Ed Dudley chops his voice through dark electronic pipes. Stick-men Will Glaser and Kaz Buckland create Burundian thunder, topped by the high-pitched squeal of the baritone. It’s elasticated bedding for a stretch of Lynchian slow dancing, becoming so soft a gourd shaker can be heard, before the megaphone shapes reconstitute themselves, and a large space Krautrockery springs into intoxicating motion.
The following night the action moved to Centrala, an art gallery in the former industrial area of Digbeth. Promoted by the Smear Campaign, it was a prime weekend in Birmingham for extreme sounds, as a quartet of electronics suppliers showcased their different approaches to an extremely broad genre. Regis DJ’d between “live” acts, opting for a relatively conventional techno pulse. Together with Surgeon he founded Downwards Records, and the duo have a long history in the Birmingham techno scene.
The opening hit came from FRAG, with Stephen R. Burroughs apparently performing under that name for the first time, even though it has conceptually been around since the early 1990s. Burroughs was the lead singer of Head Of David, a band important heavy that played mostly in the late 1980s. FRAG works on many levels of texture and tone, as if running a rack of cassette tapes and/or burnt records, a balance of oozing bass wood and results of rough dictaphones that mount on top of each other, rising and overloading. The mesh beats invited the ears to latch onto a particular stream, skipping possible subway trains, as the brain decided where to discover the accentuation of the pulsation. FRAG jet loops as volume levels are built. He must have been the extremist of the evening, as the following artists tended towards a more accessible expression.
Chromatouch was unusual, as it combed through its nest of modular synthesizer wiring, setting up a bullish techno, but using a setup more often found among abstract experimenters. His performance remained fully mobilized on the rhythm front, though still sounding at the end of a grumpy collapse into the disarray and decay of noise. Chromatouch (otherwise known as Leon Trimble) managed to hang on, white knuckles, and hard techno continued its distorted existence, not so rigid, but organic and variable in its sinuous interlockings. There was more space, more contrast and a total transformation into a dancing aura, no two movers on the growing floor were alike.
The final act was the most conventional, working from his laptop and mostly consumed by drum sounds, though they could be propelled into a larger existence. Apparently, Cut Hands’ latest works are inspired by Haitian voodoo music, but the reality of his palette seemed to spring from the big-screen beatbox of the 1980s and the beginnings of electronic industrial song. William “Cut Hands” Bennett was a member of Whitehouse, a pioneering band that began going into hiding in 1980, though they were deeply concerned about the rise of white noise during that time and beyond.
Birmingham, England remains strong in its underground music scene, with pockets of noise, drone, techno, free improvisation and squall-jazz spinning around. Whether in a bar or an art gallery, there’s constant creeping activity around the crevices where one style can lovingly infect another, spawning metallic syncopations or immovable walls of basalt bass. It was a typical Birmingham weekend with heavy picks.