Music derived predominantly from the guitar can attract feelings of fatigue and disdain from time to time, possibly more so than any other single instrument, but those present at Cafe OTO tonight saw three performances that demonstrated how it can still be used to produce music that stimulates and excites.
Opening was Yorkshire-based Dean McPhee who recently received praise for his fine album Son Of The Black Peace. Tonight saw him focus on the different possibilities offered by the electric guitar. It was a typically adept and unassuming set that began with a slowly rising piece that saw guitar lines reach out like beams of light travelling towards the horizon. He may have only played for just over 30 minutes tonight but his set contained enough nuanced variety to make a clear, lasting impression.
Next up were A-Sun Amissa. Tonight they include bass clarinettist Gareth Davis and (tonight’s headliner) guitarist Aidan Baker amongst their ranks. They play a set which on the surface appears as two pieces (although later is revealed to be parts of the band’s new album You Stood Up For Victory, We Stood Up For Less as well as other material). Their sound primarily rests on bowed guitar and violin but the inclusion of bass clarinettist Gareth Davis adds another dimension tonight. The flickering images of space exploration that are projected on to the wall behind them (along with their shadows) visually give the performance a Godspeed You! Black Emperor feel.
Musically, they share certain components but Davis’ taut, compressed bass clarinet radically re-orientates their sound. They open in silently imposing fashion, at times recalling post-chamber pioneers Rachel’s, but the music moves in a more forthright and confrontational direction the longer they play. By the end of the set they’ve gone some way to reconciling elements of free jazz and doom-laden dark ambient. They encounter occasional technical issues tonight but these are ultimately overcome and they confirm themselves as a name to watch out for in 2013.
Much of the crowd don’t initially realise headliner Aidan Baker has started his set, as he discreetly forms a pacific, lulling drone from his guitar. Soon quiet is restored however and the music builds patiently, first with the reintroduction of Gareth Davis on bass clarinet and secondly with (A-Sun Amissa member) Angela Chan on violin. It very much marks them out as being a like-minded, fluid musical collective as opposed to individual bands.
The music is characterised by its restrained beauty and stillness, not dissimilar to Stars Of The Lid in certain ways. It is unconcerned with reaching any peaks as such, more content to explore concepts like movement and accumulation of sound. Baker’s mastery of detail and focus on minutiae, so evident on albums like Closure Axioms and Lost In The Rat Maze, also manifests itself tonight. Initially this appears in the tiny bell-like patterns that emerge during the early part of the set and later in final track Our Needs Bear No Relation To Our Desires, its crystalline guitar melody and hushed vocals ensuring it remains in the minds of those present at tonight’s show long after they have left the venue.