This event wasn’t originally due to be held at Cafe Oto, but in Bush Hall on the other side of town. Would the stately Bush Hall, with its elaborate Edwardian plasterwork and ornate chandeliers, have been any place for a band like Æthenor? Its members – Stephen O’Malley, Daniel O’Sullivan, Kristoffer Rygg and Steve Noble – may draw from genres as disparate as jazz, metal, prog rock, and electronic music, but they are essentially an experimental music band, one increasingly drawn to the idea of live improvisation, and as such it felt right that they played at London’s improvised music venue Cafe Oto, with its pockmarked concrete floors and single 60 watt lightbulb swinging above the stage.
Alexander Tucker was a natural choice of support, having played in a duo with O’Malley, and also with O’Sullivan in The Stargazers Assistant and Grumbling Fur. But which Tucker would we get? The one who coated O’Malley’s wall of guitar in thick layers of black cello? The eldritch folk artist of recent Thrill Jockey release Dorwytch? Or the yeti suit-wearing tape manipulator? While the hot weather may have prevented the costume getting another outing, tonight’s performance used similar techniques to those Imbogobom shows, with Tucker creating a dense collage of sound from some disks full of samples and a table full of effect pedals. Like Æthenor, the reference points are wide-ranging – from radiophonic experimentation to drone metal to industrial noise in his case – but his vocals don’t fit into any of these frameworks, and take the set somewhere else entirely. It is Tucker’s singing, sometimes distorted, sometimes unamplified, but constantly trying to reach for some unknown (he always seems to be asking questions of the song’s subject, and/or himself, or be in search of distant memory) which create the structure and give it direction, dragging the piece out of the uncertain moments where it feels like he is finding a sound by accident as much as by design. Behind his voice are distorted samples of what sounds like throat singing and chanting, as if Tucker is in fact leading an entire haunted choir on a quest with no known destination.
As their set rumbled into life, with the mixture of dark power electronics, vocal drone, scraped cymbals and O’Malley dragging a chair across the floor, Æthenor’s journey from studio band to fully-fledged improvising live unit felt complete. Their excellent recent album En Form For Blå was a collection of cuts culled from live performances in the famous Norway venue. Here we had one long and seemingly (mostly) spontaneous piece, full of strange textures and – of course, given some of the participants – immense volume. Steve Noble, an Oto regular, was at times beating his kit with a ferocity he doesn’t get to deploy too often, as if determined to leave the stage covered in the same charred, shattered metal that the band were seeking to create sonically. Yet even in London, there remained something of Blå in the sound: O’Sullivan chopped and manipulated like Deathprod when he wasn’t adding ominous Ståle Storløkken keyboard grumble, while Rygg’s electronics fizzed and sparked like Pan Sonic.
Noble is, it is probably fair to say, the most accomplished improviser of the group, and he felt like, if not the captain, then at least the rudder of this ship, always setting a direction that someone else could get behind and give impetus to. It was a weighty vessel though, and changes of course from one which was set through pulsing waves of electronic noise and feedback, to another plotted through pitching and rolling rock rhythms, were like turning a tanker at times. When it broke down to just a couple of members, the interaction was more nimble, as when O’Malley and Noble pitched out of the raging broth, the drummer chopping into the billowing mist of reverb-heavy guitar. At Noble’s insistence, they all finally steamed back to a familiar port, the ending having echoes of the opening section, before they stalled the engine amongst confusion and miscommunication. Rather than attempt a restart, they wisely walked away, leaving the ship smoking, the concrete floor shaking and us still entirely drenched in the last reverberations of their torrid sonic spray.
Photo credits: Stephen O’Malley by Scott McMillan, Steve Noble and Alexander Tucker by Mike Winship