Newcastle’s Tusk Festival is quickly becoming one of the essential weekends for those interested in leftfield and experimental music. Previously split across two venues, this year’s festival was concentrated in one building, the rather more industrial surroundings of the Star and Shadow cinema. Other than the Friday night, each of the weekend days was split into three sections. After 6pm the events were purely focused on music, while earlier in the day there were short sets, followed by talks curated by The Wire magazine, and a film programme.
The music evenings featured a fair number of artists whose sets were based around improvisation. The standout performers were Michael Morley, Steve Noble and Gary Smith on the Sunday evening. This trio had, amazingly, never performed live together before, but it didn’t show nor matter. Smith discharged a series of ruptured and aggressive guitar licks that complemented Morley’s slight and delicate guitar tones. The driver though was Noble, whose quick and diffuse sketches of percussion focused the set. Noble’s tight control of rhythm allowed Smith and Morley to expand into the space that he left behind, allowing the audience to wallow in its haunting ambience.
Other improvisers included Pelt, whose set on the opening night began with Mikel Dimmick smashing the life out of an upright piano before building through a series of swirling violin notes and fractured percussion. The stage setup at the beginning left an empty chair in the centre, a poignant reminder of the sadly departed Jack Rose; this absence seemed to concentrate the band’s efforts and possess the music. As Dimmick unleashed a series of barely discernable chants and incantations, the music grew into a drone of soaring strings and repetitive percussion, leaving the air thick with reverberations and catatonic harmonies. Pelt’s music is heavy with the weight of the past, of archaic folk riffs and words, yet their interest in microtonal sounds and repetition of rhythm sounds fresh and modern in its use. It’s at this junction of new and old that Pelt find their space, which explored live makes for a wonderful event to behold.
On Saturday, Michael Morley’s Gate explored similar avenues of drone and repetition, albeit via a much sparser approach. Rolling guitar drones mixed with his occasional growls in a sketch-like manner at first, but the set slowly grew in stature and volume, finishing with a thunderous all-consuming blast. Morley was pretty busy over the whole weekend, joining forces with Pelt and Part Wild Horses Mane On Both Sides on Sunday morning for a purely improvised set using a gamelan, whose array of percussive timbres were blended with the players’ own whistling. Pelt’s Mike Gangloff quickly found a rhythm, setting up a rudimentary groove that allowed the other players to be a bit more esoteric and delicate in their approach, and when, by accident or design, everything joined in harmonic unison, it felt like you’d were let in on some great cosmic secret – every sense heightened and filled with joy.
This being Tusk, it’s easy to flit between subtle and surprise-inducing improvisation to pure noise. The chief exponents of the latter were Pain Jerk on Saturday evening and Hild Sofie Tafjord on Sunday. The former created a visceral body of noise, thrashing a metal box of strings with a steel brush, creating an aggressively metallic noise. Looped through his laptop, this continued to build until every ear in the crowded room was abused. Despite the aural thrashing, the audience cheered and celebrated each change in texture as if they were witnessing a DJ set. Tafjord’s set was equally intense but less aggressive and a more evocative and immersive experience. With a base level roll of drone and noise coming from a laptop, loop and pedals, she played a heavily treated French horn over the top. The acoustic rooting managed to filter through the clamour and provide a warmth to the proceedings, and even as the set built towards a complex din, Tafjord never lost sight of its subtle sonic building blocks.
All of which probably explains why Keiji Haino’s Fushitsusha, who closed the festival on the Sunday evening, left me a little cold. At times it felt a little too disconnected, as though it were three individuals fighting for control, where of course there could be only one winner: Haino. The guitarist’s unbridled energy spilled out, uncontrolled and with obvious passion, but perhaps I’d been spoilt by what I’d seen earlier in the weekend.
Antidotes to the noise came in the form of more rustic and acoustic artists that littered the bill. Meitheal (an Irish word for a work team or gang), a trio of Mike Gangloff, Vicky Langan and David Colohan, played folk songs, tinged with ancient lore. Prior to singing, Lanagan and Colohan passed between them an old folk songbook which they used for direct inspiration and the set had the feeling of something ritualistic, with each member taking the lead for one piece. The semi-improvised cries slow harmonium drones, while Gangloff’s violin was allowed to sweep and soar.
Cian Nugent, another Irish artist, played a set of Michael Chapman-influenced solo electric-acoustic guitar songs. A campfire like crackle emanated from his amp and perfectly complemented his rural and unprocessed sound. Nugent’s technical prowess never outweighed the warmth and originality of his songs and their everyday subject matter added an extra charm. Richard “Rock ‘n Roll” Dawson, who kickstarted each day as compere, should get a special mention for his folk singing, which was both heart and gut wrenching. His song ‘Killing of a Horse’ was a graphic tale of three local men trying to butcher a horse made all the more harrowing as Dawson sang through the heavy veil of a hangover, spitting each word and coiling over in apparent shared agony with the animal.
Outside of the improve/noise/folk axis there were further variations. Desert Heat, the trio of Steve Gunn, John Trucsinski and Cian Nugent brought a dusty frontier sound to the blues – Gunn’s effortless guitar playing whipping up a raucous backdrop for Tucsinski’s focused percussion and Nugent’s pretty acoustic riffs to entwine. Bringing some light relief on Saturday afternoon, local trio The Unit Ama blended their cerebral rock ‘n roll with off-kilter vocals, duck-squatting stage moves and surreal punk humour. The Tense duo meanwhile, deconstructed the American dream through a series of scratches, looped samples from old TV shows and fragmentary sounds from a lap guitar and bugle. With these playing over a fractured VHS film showing at the centre of the stage, it was like watching a David Lynch pop video at half speed. Friday night’s conclusion with Hieroglyphic Being offered a similarly mixed bag. A thunderous mix of beats blended into a live electric horn, but only really came alive when tribal chants were revealed, imbuing the set with a thrilling momentum. The pressure was on, as he freely admitted, having watched improv greatness from the previous acts and perhaps he tried a little too hard to do something different live.
A final special mention must go to The Shadow Ring founding member and Kye label owner Graham Lambkin. His Sunday lunchtime talk with The Wire’s Derek Walmsley was both amusing and illuminating. Lambkin’s obsessions with the mundane might not seem like the ideal topic of conversation, and he made Walmsley work for his answers, but the descriptions of his DIY approach, hard work and artistic inspiration from everyday life should make required reading and listening for anyone who gets bored with “the everyday”. His set on the Sunday evening might have been troubled with some technical issues (mainly due to partner Jason Lescalleet’s complex set-up), but the slowly building wall of loops and treated sounds that ended in an indefinable barrage of noise. And that works as a nice allegory for the Tusk Festival as a whole: a constantly shifting array of music that’s anything but mundane.
Photos courtesy of Mike Winship.