Image Credit: Side Stage Collective Flickr
Bristol record label Howling Owl have often-times in the past been a staunch reminder that independent music can still align itself with a fiery backbone when it's done with the deft touch of sincere passion and energy, and their annual New Year// New Noise event is the most organic kind of showcase of that. With it's third installment held at the snazzy, new age Arnolfini Gallery at Bristol quay side, some naysayers might judgmentally point fingers and shadily bring out their "hipster" based jokes; sure, the venue itself is a flashy landmark, but both its atmosphere and artistic countenance seem tangible. The bizarre costumes and big-screen videos that roam around and occur in between musical sets might seem outlandish, but in truth their no more man-made than the song-craft on offer her tonight. If anything this evening serves as a staunch middle finger to the notion that anything with a collective but niche identity bows to that rather superfluous counter culture.
It's perhaps dubious to indulge in thoughts of a band's successes and flaws on the basis of three songs, especially in a live context, but REPO MAN's twisted noise-rock is in its fully ambidextrous element tonight. Raw but exhibitionist at the same time, their Jesus Lizard- covering- free-jazz oeuvre seems to have a cacophonous depth. Even if understanding of their off-kilter time frames and tortured sax solos seems to fall short of some of the punters, the band seem constantly in control of their own art.
That last assertion can be applied a-thousand-fold to brutalist techno duo CHRONONAUTZ, whose thunderous kick drum fires in to action almost instantaneously after Repo Man's set. On their 2015 debut Noments they seemed to combine a core element of righteous danceability with sometimes formless experimentation, and wisely it's the more banging and fluid element to their sound that they choose to emphasize tonight. There's no telling whether this is the debuting of solid new material or improvised variations on studio-prepared work-outs, and although there's screeching abrasiveness in spades the sound levels are set at the perfect dial to pick up the texture in their music as well as dance like there's no tomorrow.
Sandwiched between two furious bouts of severity, RHAIN's lilting piano balladry may seem on paper like a slowing of momentum, but her spell-binding performance is anything but. The fact that she reduces pretty much the entire room to complete and utter silence while playing is a testament to the fragile beauty of her art, especially during the likes of 'Pavlova' and 'Tall Ships'. Structured perfectly at 5 songs in length, her set and inter-song chatter is crucial in highlighting the very human and down-to-Earth atmosphere of the entire evening, despite it's potentially pretentious connotations on paper.
SPECTRES (pictured above) arrive on stage forty minutes after they're initially scheduled to, and truthfully if it wasn't for the God-send of friends alerting me to the joys of Uber, I wouldn't be writing about them. A couple of days prior to this they uploaded a studio video of them performing new track 'End Waltz', a melody-less, terrifyingly violent racket of a tune. Tonight they begin with the mighty 'Blood In the Cups', and right from the off the band's energy and presence discern's the song's motorik and almost punk-rock artistry through the searing feedback.
Things are only to get more abrasive though; as the band pummel out new material from forthcoming album Dead (out in March via Sonic Cathedral), the sometimes head-splitting intensity points towards more wild and savage affairs to come. It's often hard to distinguish a melody, but this is an exercise in volume designed to lift the audience out of their bodies and in to a state of paralysed bliss. They begin penultimate track 'Sea Of Trees' in a faithful manner to the original album version, before turning their set in to a proper occasion by inviting a plethora of friends and fellow musicians to join them in their quest for extremity. With seven guitarists and four drummers onstage, it brings to mind Oxford math-rock/poppers Foals' party-centric finale of 'Two Steps, Twice' at the O2 Academy a couple of years previously, but this is celebration in a far more primal and, by default, human form.
They close on 'Lump', one of the most forth-rightly nasty moments from their debut, and as the vicious proceedings are brought full circle it's hard to feel anything but a ringing sense of ecstacy. For both Spectres and Howling Owl, and indeed venue proprietors The Arnolfini tonight has been a wonderfully executed occasion. Bristol's heritage as a swooning hub for music and decadence is long and rich, but tonight is a reminder that, as easy as it is to be cynical about aspects of the music industry, things produced out of sheer enjoyment can still have a large and personal impact.