The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2022

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NOV 2022 Issue
Music

Sly & The Family Drone: Disturbing Sonics in Birmingham, England

Sly & The Family Drone. Photo by John Convery.
Sly & The Family Drone. Photo by John Convery.

The Station
Sly & The Family Drone
September 2, 2022
Birmingham, England

Centrala
Cut Hands/Regis/Chromatouch/FRAG
September 3, 2022
Birmingham, England

Sly & The Family Drone offer an extreme experience of catastrophic electronic density, primitive analogue origins perverted via intense manipulation and exaggeration. They appreciate doubled power, boasting two drummers and two electronicists—but only one baritone saxophonist, which may well be sufficient. They play loud, they improvise heartily, and they always vote for performing in the round, preferably directly rooted to the floor, no stage allowed, and unavoidably surrounded by their acolytes in deep noise appreciation. This time, The Drone landed in Birmingham, the home (or almost-home) of Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Godflesh, Napalm Death, Slade, Con-Dom, and half of Led Zeppelin. No alternative venue needed for Sly Drone, as they elected to gig at The Station, a regular pub in King’s Heath, which lies just a handful of miles outside the Birmingham city center. They agreed to be locked in its back room.

Up from London, The Drone arranged their gear in a tight circle, facing each other, their small-but-intense audience gathering around, soon in thrall to a particularly abstract compulsion for head banging, the sort that always takes over the body when it’s experiencing free form sounds of a heavyweight nature. This willing zombie response cannily amalgamated the hook-impalement state usually invited by fully abandoned free jazz, manic electro-shrieking, and sludge-a-boogie forms. This circle of simultaneously slow banging druidic head motion held the whiff of primitive ritual, an alternative type of trance music.

The Sly set consisted of an extended improvisation, moving through multiple personalities. Both of the knob-sweeping electronicists also fed their anguished vocals through their tabletops of wiring, and one of them, founder Matt Cargill, also became a third drummer, with his periodic floor tom undercurrents. James Allsopp’s baritone saxophone provided the gristle of animalistic free jazz eruption, hacking out gobbets of molten buckshot. Sly Drone swims through immense echo, holding up its immense bass-body weight, as Ed Dudley minced his vocals through dark electronic pipes. Sticks-men Will Glaser and Kaz Buckland create a Burundi thunder, topped by the high squeal scurf of the baritone. It’s an elasticated bedding for a Lynchian slow-dance stretch, becoming so soft that a gourd shaker can be heard, before the bullhorn shapes build again, and a grand space Krautrockery sets itself in heady motion.

The following night, action moved to Centrala, an art gallery in the formerly industrial zone of Digbeth. Promoted by Smear Campaign, this was a prime Birmingham weekend for extreme sonics, as a quartet of electronic purveyors presented their varying approaches to an exceedingly wide genre. Regis deejayed in between the “live” acts, opting for a relatively conventional techno pulse. Along with Surgeon, he founded Downwards Records, and the pair have a long track record on the Birmingham techno scene.

The opening stab came from FRAG, with Stephen R. Burroughs apparently performing under this name for the first time, even though conceptually in existence since the early 1990s. Burroughs was the vocalist in Head Of David, a significant heavy outfit who mostly gigged during the late-1980s. FRAG operates on multiple texture and tone levels, as if he’s running a rack of cassettes and/or burnt discs, a balancing act between seeping bass lumber and scratchy dictaphone findings mounting on each other’s shoulders, heightening and overloading. Meshing beats invited the ears to latch onto a particular flow, jumping subway trains possible, as the brain decided where to discover the pulsation emphasis. FRAG jetted looplets as volume levels built. He was set to be the evening’s extremist, as the following artists tended towards a more approachable expression.

Chromatouch was unusual, as he combed through his modular synthesizer nest-of-wiring, configuring a bullish techno trounce, but using a setup more often found among abstract experimenters. His performance remained fully mobilized on the rhythm front, though sounding ever on the end of a cranky collapse into disarray and noise-decay. Chromatouch (otherwise known as Leon Trimble) managed to hang on, knuckles white, and the hard techno continued its deformed existence, not so rigid, but organic and variable in its curvy interlocking. There was greater space, further contrast, and a total transformation to a dance aura, no two movers on the growing floor aping alike.

The last act was the most conventional, working from his laptop, and mostly consumed by drum sounds, even though they might be boomed up into a grander existence. Apparently the latest works of Cut Hands are inspired by Haitiian vodou music, but the reality of his palette seemed to spring from the widescreen beatbox of the 1980s, and the beginnings of electronic industrial song. William “Cut Hands” Bennett was a member of Whitehouse, a pioneering group that began their lurking in 1980, although they were deeply concerned with the ascension of white noise during that period and beyond.

Birmingham, England, remains strong in its underground music scene, with pockets of noise, drone, techno, free improvisation and squall-jazz running around unhinged. Whether in a bar or an art gallery, there is a consistent creeping activity around the crevices where one style can lovingly infect another, breeding metallic syncopations or immovable walls of basalt bass. This was a typical Birmingham weekend of heavy choices.

Contributor

Martin Longley

Martin Longley is frequently immersed in a stinking mire of dense guitar treacle, trembling across the bedsit floorboards, rifling through a curvatured stack of gleaming laptoppery, picking up a mold-speckled avant jazz platter on the way, all the while attempting to translate these worrying eardrum vibrations into semi-coherent sentences. Right now he pens for the Guardian, Jazzwise, and Songlines.

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The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2022

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