The entrance to London’s newest venue wasn’t entirely what I expected. It looks like any other office building in EC1, walnut-panelled walls, and a little brass name plate at the side showing the names of each floor’s occupants. Househam Henderson, Architects, 2nd floor. Cadogan Hall this wasn’t. There was a functional little plastic table and chairs blocking the way, just where you’d imagine a bored security guard would sit, asking to see staff passes. When I was a space-obsessed child, I often dreamt of what it would be like to visit NASA, imagining huge rows of glowing lights and acres of humming supercomputers. In reality, the way in is probably through a mundane brown room with a security guard snoozing at the desk. Tonight, with Emeralds playing in the Basement at CAMP (City Arts And Music Project to its mum), the way down was indeed to be the route to the cosmos.
Neon Pulse started the countdown in fairly predictable fashion – given their name, there was little mystery as to what they would actually sound like. This short set began pretty well, sounding like some of the more ambient moments in the Oneohtrix Point Never catalogue, and finished pretty well too actually, with some lovely room-shaking, er, neon pulses of retro synth sound. In between that, however, he dropped a 4/4 beat so painfully inappropriate that, even though it only lasted around a minute, was so jarring that half of the crowd ventured out into the freezing October night for an early fag break.
They returned in time for Dean McPhee. McPhee is, and I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, possibly the finest guitarist to have emerged from Bingley’s experimental folk scene. He played the title track from his excellent recent Brown Bear EP (which I came across thanks to a tip from Matt), achingly slow guitar lines, with delicately bent notes, dropping into a bed of softly echoing loops. After lengthy retuning, the reasons for which became obvious, he debuted a new song, “Fatima’s Hands”. This seemed to be taking its cues from the same places as Sir Richard Bishop does, the tone and Arabic tunings reaching back as The Freak Of Araby did to the likes of Omar Khorshid. That focus on tone and precision of sound spilled into the closing “Cloud Forest”, McPhee coaxing tears from his instrument with raps to the back of its neck, and with ebowed slide. A real talent; I’m already looking forward to his debut album.
It was after 11pm by the time that Emeralds reached the CAMP Basement launch pad, but they made up for the delay by playing a short and punchy set. Well, as short and punchy as a set can be that contains just a couple of 15 minute synth and guitar odysseys. John Elliott bellowed “1-2-3-1-2-3!” like they were the kosmische Ramones, and they immediately tore into “Genetic” from most recent album Does It look Like I’m Here. Now I may have called that album their “pop” record (tongue slightly in cheek), but there was nothing pop about this performance at all: this was loud, savagely loud in fact, with Mark McGuire frantically stitching notes together like he was a sweatshop worker being paid on a piecework basis.
Emeralds are much younger than I imagined them to be from simply hearing their records; I expected scientific, almost dispassionate synth-gazing, and (the more studious Steve Hauschildt aside) got a youthful, dynamic performance, with Elliott headbanging and punching the air, and McGuire pulling guitar hero faces at the front. Behind them a DVD played (it surely should have been VHS or, even better, Laserdisc), a collage of nostalgic film and TV clips, the mundane mixing with neon-lit childhood visions of a future that never quite arrived, while the music began to wind itself into ever more complex patterns. As Elliot’s sequencer lit up like the outside of the Oxford Street branch of John Lewis at Christmas time, I figured that when I was young, this is how I’d have imagined the inside of NASA HQ would have both looked and sounded. And then, with a final rumble and a whoosh, they were gone.