Have you no sense of rhythm?
—From All About Lily Chou-Chou
Last Saturday night I was sitting in the auditorium of Bristol’s miniature leftfield cinema and arts centre, The Cube, listening to ex-Third Eye Foundation member Matt Elliott perform some tracks from his new album, Drinking Songs (one of which appeared on The Wire‘s latest cover CD). With the aid of a few loop pedals at their feet, he and his performance partner (who will supply cello and/or drumming, at one point standing up in order to pummel his tiny drumset with manic concentration) will disembody themselves into the music being produced, their physical selves and instruments increasingly becoming the focus only of the eye as the ear is taken over by swathes of chanting, singing, and playing that crescendo with the guided power and complexity to match any orchestra. It was a superb gig—especially the closing drum&bass epic, which was so fantastically deranged in its sonic assault that you felt the only way it could increase in force would be to pass the line of no return and travel backwards in time, annihilating itself into silence as it went. It was a gig that messed with your ideas of intimacy and human presence in music, not to mention stretching the musical moment strangely: what he’s singing “now” is what he’s been singing for the last five minutes as well as what he’s singing now, and his fingers’ movement traces only a skein across the musical landscape of the instant.
Shortly after Christmas last year I’m in the car with my family on the way to Freiburg, the weather that strange wintery overcast which is oppressively dull without allowing shadow. Having momentarily prevailed, in the squabble for control of the stereo, over my Mariah Carey-soliciting sister and my mother’s Phil Collins album—my father just drives stoically, bless the man—I put on “Slit of Cloud” from Jaku, Japanese beat maestro DJ Krush’s latest offering. Akira Sakata’s traditional Buddhist chanting amuses my sister to no end, but it is his taking flight into bursts of free jazz on his saxophone that cause my mother to request the track be brought to an ignominious end. “But doesn’t it make you feel… free?” I ask in annoyed bewilderment, having just noted the similarities in tonal dilation between archaic, ultra-ritualised singing and rebellious contemporary playing. “That’s enough freedom for now,” retorts my mother.
For almost 20 years, the much-revered, Japanese alt-everything indie scene pillars Boredoms have been demolishing their way through categorisation, consuming pure noise, punk, prog rock, tribal frenzy, industrial collage, and a little Hawaiian strumming before vomiting it all back up again into riotous and often riveting new forms. Their wilful disregard for formal genre, their crazed messiah of a frontman Eye Yamataka (formerly of genuinely scary, projectile-vomiting, noise-performance group Hanatarashi) and the intensity of their gigs place them in the same category of dangerous allure as the Pixies, whilst their irresistible percussive onslaught make Slipknot look like pussies. Only two drummers? Since 1998, when the band started to focus its sound into a kind of freaknik tribal krautrock, the Boredoms have had three—one of whom, Yoshimi, was famously immortalised in title and lunacy by pop-punk oddballs The Flaming Lips as a robot-army-destroying saviour of mankind. Yoshimi also collaborated with a certain Kim Gordon in Free Kitten…
Ah, what the hell - they don’t take themselves too seriously (debut single was 1986’s “Anal by Anal”), they have at least as many side-projects as hard-to-find EPs in their discography, they’re punk enough to be signed to Warner Brothers and not care, they’re the cult band all your cult bands love. You get the idea.
Musically, Seadrum/House of Sun is two mammoth, 20-plus-minute tracks, one of which is utterly amazing and the other merely good. “Seadrum” was apparently recorded via the simple performance concept of spreading mics everywhere around (and indeed in) a stretch of beach, placing the drums on wooden boards, and then playing until the tide came in so far that the drums got wet. There is a shimmering phosphorescence about the track that suggests they commenced playing at dawn, though this may be entirely apocryphal. It’s also difficult to tell which parts of the glistening whole have been simply left as recorded, and which were toyed with, overdubbed or replayed elsewhere, from the wordless singing—which begins in silence with a beguiling air of carefree simplicity that, for some bizarre reason, make me thinks of black-and-white films from the ‘50s, only to ramp up in urgency if not in ugliness when the percussion cavalcade arrives—to the ever-sparkling piano and holy roller waves of almost agonisingly exhilarating drumming. The piece surges along an a hypnotic frenzy without ever losing an entrancing glow of inner calm; the group stops dead at around the 12-minute mark before reconvening a few seconds later into romantic yet energised lounge jazz, which is followed by a stretch of beatless, repetitive Susumu Yokota-evoking motifs.
Elsewhere there’s a brief stretch of quiet avant-jazz plinking and plonking, but what with the seamless dynamism involved in the shifts between tempos and approaches it’s perhaps best to go for an overall impression, which might be this: a ride of valkyries (and I’m talking beautiful semi-divine warrior women here, not Wagnerian pomp in a triple D breastplate—you can dress them as samurai and/or geishas if you want) charging through the surf to a score of heavenly live drum’n'bass, as performed by some terrifying sonic being with Kali’s body, Kieran Hebden’s brain, and the combined drumming skills of Steve Reid, David Grohl, and Guillermo E. Brown.
It really is that good.
I’m afraid you’ll have to buy the damned thing to come up with a comparison for the piano playing, though, because quite frankly I’m stumped.
“House Of Sun”, meanwhile, dilates warmly into the muggy golden depths of a sitar’s belly and then stays there, droning narcotically back into itself, for the entire 20 minutes - nary a drumkit in sight. Mesmerising it may be, and proof of the Boredom’s continued breadth of compositional ability it most certainly is, but in the presence of this year’s most ecstatically liberating piece of music it stands accused of failing to make me play airdrums as cathartic release whilst jumping around the room like a monkey in the throws of religious transcendence, and hence falls short.
I’m giving “House Of The Sun” a 5 and “Seadrum” a 10, which together I’m going to stick at an 8 (quibblers at my averaging ability can go and jump between two objects, one of them travelling faster than light, and compare their math to the collision). If you’ve ever felt suffocated by the rigid length and structure of today’s pop world, you have to hear “Seadrum” - as long as the Boredoms continue to defy their name in such spectacular style, freedom is in inexhaustible supply, and those robots will never stand a chance.