Mark Fell took to the Cafe Oto stage wearing a cap with the logo of the tractor manufacturer John Deere on it. Could there be anything more incongruous? Fell’s music is far from agricultural, being a repurposing of Detroit techno stylings, by way of the Sheffield electronic avant-garde. Come to think of it, techno in Oto is itself slightly out of place, although Fell’s is a particularly complex and challenging take on it. Intelligent Dance Music may be a Very Stupid Music Label, but Fell’s records (and those born of his partnership with Mat Steel, SND) do light up synapses that few others manage. Tonight at Oto he was joined by Ben Vida, another artist creating some experimental sonics, to complete a mind-expanding line-up.
Ben Vida may be better known as a member of Chicago post-rock troupe Town and Country, but his recent work has pushed him in a very different direction. His proficiency with analogue synthesizers is such that he recently featured on a split LP with one of its current Dons, none other than Keith Fullerton Whitman, on which he was by no means outclassed. His music features a great deal of automation, much like tossing pebbles into the water and letting the ripples interact, overlap and ultimately make beautiful and intricate patterns. The crisp sounds mutated gradually, an oscillation becoming a pulsation, and the pulsation in turn becoming percussion. He threw in a few more choice stones, the output becoming thrillingly complex and unpredictable, before the waves ebbed and fizzed once more to shore.
Much like Fell’s recent set at London’s Village Underground, he began here at Cafe Oto with what sounded like a section from 2010’s excellent Multistability album, the sound seemingly patting its head and rubbing its tummy simultaneously, flickering between two alternate states, with conflicting rhythmic patterns slipping confusingly in and out of phase. This music demands work from the listener; you have to, to paraphrase Coltrane, try to move your imagination toward the sound, follow its rhythms and its colours. Much like staring too intently at strobe lighting, this runs the risk of overheating the brain. Sounds (and synapses, perhaps) exploded, like fireworks across the full sonic spectrum, their patterns and trails bleeding into another. As the set progressed, Fell seemed to draw much more heavily from his techno influences, with electronic handclaps and synth stabs being aggressively sliced into the mix; again as he did in Village Underground, which was a slightly more receptive space (dark, subterranean, with visuals) for this sort of thing than the more relaxed surroundings of Cafe Oto. In the end, the incongruity was to be the set’s downfall, with the energy levels of the music unable to fully translate to the audience. Still, this was first and foremost a workout for the mind, not the body.