At 7.45pm, John Chantler was playing drums to accompany Richard Skelton and his score for a Charles Linehan dance piece in Greenwich (I saw it on the Wednesday; very lovely indeed. Quite stripped back for Skelton, but with a huge, chaotic finale. I don’t really “do” contemporary dance, but Linehan’s interpretation of the piece seemed suitably dark, even violent perhaps). After an hour of scraping and rumbling, and a cab ride across the city, he was playing modular synth with Lawrence English in Dalston as Holy Family, in support of their fellow Australian Oren Ambarchi. That is quite a night, by anyone’s standards.
Chantler and English faced off against each other, fingers gripping dials like they were chess players hanging on to pieces, thinking about their next moves. In chess, I can just about get my head round openings and endgames, but I find the logic of the complex, tangled mid-section much harder to follow. And so it was with this set, which began with a gentle, low sine wave gambit and quickly became a pulsating 60Hz attack. English gradually reshaped the source material into something quite savage, so much so that an unbilled percussionist then joined in, by which I mean all the empty amplifier cases stacked in the corner of Oto started to vibrate in time. Chantler’s synth began to spit out an ever-greater variety of fantastic noises in English’s direction for him to knead and mash into the huge ball of sound; it became so dense that it was impossible to identify individual contributions any more, both were tweaking and twisting at dials, the combined unit producing ever more alien textures. Finally they started to remove material from the board, gaps began to open up, and that bass came back through to claim a big, big win.
Where it was impossible to see exactly where the Holy Family sound was coming from, Oren Ambarchi’s set was thrillingly physical. You could see every cause and hear every effect, his feet flicking at pedals, his hands wrenching at knobs, a flick of the shoulder unleashing a wave of feedback. It was a masterclass in sound sculpture. The first half contained a similar microscopic examination of the less-utilised potential of the guitar as sound source to that on his Touch albums, hum and groan picking up clicks and squeaks, loops and echo filling the long spaces. Everything felt purposeful, every sound had its own reason for being there. From there it went into entirely different territory. Blocks of shredded guitar noise tumbled from the huge amps at the back of the room like rocks down the sides of mountains, reminding you that as well as the more minimalist material, Ambarchi has been known to perform in the mighty Sunn O))). The rocks crumbled into fragments, small round fragments spinning on a china plate, as Ambarchi returned to his more studious and precise mode at the end, rounding off a forty-five minute set which felt like about twenty minutes. Quite a performance. Quite a night.