Cafe Oto was packed out. And packed out with a slightly different crowd than usual. There was no jazz mafia block-booking the front row. Instead, there was a slightly younger, hairier crowd, with a number of young men wearing the ATP festival garment of choice: yep, the Sunn O))) hoodie. They were here to see a fully decloaked Stephen O’Malley, playing with the great drummer (and near-resident at Oto these days) Steve Noble, in the first performance of a two-evening tenure at the venue. I’m guessing it didn’t taken them too long to discover that a hoodie was a particularly brave choice of outfit for a packed out Oto on a warm Summer night. This was hotter than hell.
Speaking of brave choices, the support act probably pushed some of this uncomfortably hot crowd even further out of their comfort zones. The cellist Marcio Mattos (who I last saw at the Freedom Of The City festival, playing with John Edwards, Philip Wachsmann and Charlotte Hug as part of the Stellari String Quartet) played a solo set of improvised cello which made no concession to what was to follow: there were no periods of extended arco drone, for example. Instead there was a busy restlessness to his playing, and a focus on less common textures. Quite painful ones sometimes, like when he slowly scraped the strings with the sharp edge of a piece of plastic. After a dizzying section of fast pizzicato (someone in the audience actually passed out. OK, it may just have been the heat, but I like to think it was due to cello-related overexcitement) he began to deploy lots of echo, slapping the strings hard with his thumb to leave huge notes hanging in the humid Oto air.
Although Stephen O’Malley and Steve Noble have been members of Aethenor for some years, this was to be their first duo gig together. And, initially, it showed. The dominant Noble was off and charging a couple of times in the early stages, building to a furious clatter, before he realised that O’Malley wasn’t coming with him. The guitarist spent most of the gig frowning, stroking at the strings, coaxing monolithic roar and rumble from his instrument in Sunn-like fashion. Nothing Noble could do, from tossing cymbals around to beating on the skins with his hands seemed to distract him. When he gave up and opted to work in O’Malley’s sonic territory – scraping sticks across his kit, pressing cymbals down onto the drums – the set really began to work. Eventually, Noble managed to snare O’Malley with one of his hooks, and the two rampaged into some exciting free-jazz-metal territory, a loud tangled squall, brutal shredded riffs from O’Malley interspersing with some typically exuberant playing from Noble. The set closed with some intense bass from O’Malley, a deep Eleh-like pulse finally fading to black. This had indeed been hotter than hell, both atmospherically and – eventually – musically.