As bands were being added to the bill of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Nightmare Before Christmas, I began to forget who was actually curating this festival. Was it Godspeed? Was it The Wire magazine? Was it The Liminal? The selection of artists for this year’s festival pushed it into much more avant-garde waters than ever before; the contrast with next weekend’s unashamedly twee Bowlie Weekender could hardly have been greater. While there was song, improvisation, metal, kosmische, sound art and more, this weekend was dominated by the drone, a drone so hard, so immense, so monolithic that it would take a team of 5,000 people armed with diamond-tipped drills more than three days to smash it into brick-sized chunks that could be used to build a giant temple of drone which could accommodate five thousand people armed with diamond-tipped drills for three days.
Godspeed started the drone which just kept on ringing throughout the entire three days. They started it as people were still filing in to see the first of their three 2.5 hour-long shows – yet amazingly, they still weren’t the band who played for the longest duration over the course of the weekend. They piled on droning guitars, electronics and strings for a good forty minutes – a rumbling drone so magnificently menacing that it was almost a shame when they dropped that first beat. They could have stretched that out for ten hours, as long as Oneida were jamming for in the Crazy Horse venue, as far as I was concerned. Given that when Sonic Youth played a hit-free set some years ago it nearly caused a riot, that was always pretty unlikely – indeed they followed this with huge chunks from Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennae To Butlins, I mean Heaven, to the delight of all those who missed out on seeing them first time around. The music sounded almost as exciting as it did all those years ago, aided by a visual backdrop of revolutionary slogans; given the current mood of anti-government sentiment in the UK and elsewhere, it felt like perhaps their time had come again.
The drone was carried on elsewhere in other forms. Godspeed’s Constellation labelmates Land Of Kush did arabic and electronic drone, while Emeralds opened their set with ten minutes of three-way vocal drone – a stunningly beautiful version of “Passing Away” in tribute to Throbbing Gristle’s Peter Christopherson. Looped vinyl crackle and drone also featured more heavily than usual in the set of Philip Jeck, sections of mournful classical music and crackly country song fading out to leave rainy ambience and a disconcerting stillness, a stillness which was only broken by Jeck insolently grating the needle over the record and sampling it to make glitch. It was even there in the set of Marissa Nadler, albeit not by design: she had the misfortune to be playing in the venue under Godspeed as they were starting their third performance of the weekend. As she sang a heartbreakingly slow version of “Dying Breed”, the drone began to develop overhead like storm clouds forming.
One thing that was obvious from the power and beauty of that Godspeed set was that ATP have upgraded the PA system significantly since last time I was here. The bass drone was supported by an arsenal of woofers and subwoofers that could be taken into battle and used to flatten entire cities. Not everyone knew what to do with the extra firepower, and too many sets in Centre Stage required earplugs to make them just about bearable. Tim Hecker’s set was a prime casualty, the top end lopped off to leave an ugly, violent corpse; the glistening beauty of pieces like “Chimeras”, or anything from his excellent and focused new Ravedeath 1972 album being unable to penetrate the foam barrier. Elsewhere, Growing and Black Dice seemed to use the volume to hide the fact that they didn’t have many interesting ideas. As a fist-punching jock screeched “PARTY LOCKDOWN!”, I googled to check just how much time had elapsed since Beaches And Canyons: eight years. How far Black Dice have plummeted since then. Only the Dead C really made fruitful use of the sonic potential, their set being primarily constructed from low-end feedback anyway, they truly revelled in the chance to produce some long, splintering (and genuinely interesting) earth-shaking sounds. It felt liked being repeatedly punched in the face, but after a very pleasant anaesthetic had been administered.
The number of top drawer jazz and improvisatory acts that Godspeed chose was particularly welcome. Given his past form, appearances by the great US drummer Chris Corsano would be expected – his duo with Mick Flower (which piled ecstatic crescendo onto ecstatic crescendo, by far the best performance I’ve seen by them) impressing far more than the slightly underwhelming Rangda – but Matana Roberts? John Butcher? Keiji Haino? Was this ATP or Freedom Of The City? The solo saxophone performances of Roberts and Butcher contrasted greatly, the former pure of tone and steeped in Chicago blues, the latter wholly unconventional (pops, clicks, shrieks, feedback, extraordinary sections of circular breathing), but they had one thing in common: they were extremely enthusiastically received by their audiences. As were the batshit guitar antics of the now-very-blonde Keiji Haino, who wrapped up strands of jagged guitar like coils of barbed wire and invited us to vault them.
One of the upshots of all the experimental music on the bill was that a stage – Crazy Horse – which the festival has struggled to find a use for over the years, seemed to really find its niche: installations and sound art. As well as Oneida’s impressive marathon (the section I heard, with members of The Sadies and Deerhoof, sounded like Hawkwind’s Silver Machine slowed down so that it would last ten years, and I mean this as a compliment), the venue played host to sonic explorations by the likes of Charlemagne Palestine, Francisco Lopez, Sick Llama, and Daniel Menche. And if you ask anyone who saw them, these were some of the sets of the weekend. Francisco Lopez’s incredible performance is worthy of special mention: anyone who blindfolds their audience and subjects them to the sound of explosions, almighty storms, and hellish clanking sounds, so much so that they begin to feel like they are rowing a prison ship through a storm, and they almost have an actual panic attack, earns my admiration, if not actually my affection.
The contribution of Daniel Menche in Crazy Horse was in fact the last thing I saw all weekend, and one which summed up this overwhelming, physical, strange and yet strangely enjoyable weekend. I’m a huge fan of his Kataract album from last year, but any disappointment that he hadn’t installed an actual waterfall in the venue soon dissipated when he clambered onto a table, placed a contact mic attached to a strip of metal to his throat, and began to build up layers of growling vocal drones. He then hit the metal end repeatedly with a pair of sticks, adding huge waves of clanging percussion to the mix. He clearly completely lost himself in this maelstrom of sound, ending with a primal roar, then bursting into song, and running several laps round his table. I know exactly how he felt: this great climax to the greatest ATP lineup so far had left me feeling similarly euphoric, and completely in thrall to the undeniable power of the drone, a drone which still plays on in my head days after the event has ended.