Have we been here before? Saturday night at the Meltdown festival sure seemed familiar with its cosy revisiting of the past, from the genre-defining short films of Derek Jarman dug out of the archive to the otherworldly influence of the late Coil frontman Jhonn Balance. For more than two hours, both were studiously – and often tediously – chewed, chewed some more and digested in the search for a nugget of intellectual or musical nourishment gone unsavoured over the past decades. Thankfully, the main course was served at last in the form of a stunning live set from the hermetic six-strong super group of Cyclobe – complete with a haunting cameo from this year’s Meltdown curator Antony, who dubbed the night ‘Albion – Hypnagogue – Ghost: Hallucinatory Queer British Paganism’.
Drifting onstage unannounced, the larger-than-life, Chichester-born Antony – garnished head to toe in a hefty set of black robes – approached the microphone side-on in an almost painfully shy way as he added his powerful wordless cooing to the dense haze of Cyclobe’s intense mash-up of futuristic and folk music. A full moon danced on the screen behind him as Antony unleashed his ethereal ode, before gliding offstage with as little preamble as he entered. Finally, the crowd’s patience was rewarded.
No Meltdown act has questioned the patience of its fans more than Cyclobe. After all, their festival call-up from Antony represented only their second live gig. Their first was way back in 1999. The core duo of Stephen Thrower and Ossian Brown joined forces through their association with Coil, both serving time in the band, before Balance’s untimely death in 2004. And while their dissonant and anarchic sound worlds bear some sonic similarities with Coil and fellow collaborators Current 93, Cyclobe’s ability to cannily fuse traditional folk instruments, such as the hurdy gurdy, border pipes and the wooden dudak flute, with the buzzing electric guitar drones of Thrower and Brown is remarkable. Playing music from their forthcoming album Wounded Galaxies Tap At The Window, each of the instruments remained clear in the mix and the panopoly of sonic assaults led to impressive conclusions – whether it was a barrage of breakneck riffs that stopped on a dime, or the drifting haze of a rumbled sheet of metal gently giving way to a squelchy squeezebox. This was sonic trickery of the highest order, which is perhaps to be expected from six dudes who could have easily doubled as college professors or sideshow magicians.
While Cyclobe managed to balance the musical tensions past and present comfortably on the Queen Elizabeth Hall stage, what preceded it was a rather more fraught experience. Watching Current 93’s David Tibet trawl his way through his emotional archive as he paid tribute to Balance was, at times, deeply uncomfortable. Balance’s death seems to have left no corner of this experimental British scene unshaken. None more so than Tibet who, through a film made by Davide Pepe concocted from a series of letters Balance penned to Tibet and images sourced from Coil frontman’s father, revisited the evolution and seeming dissolution of their relationship – be it physical, musical or spiritual.
With superbly-talented guitarist James Blackshaw, a violinist, accordion player and electronics wizard in tow, the quintet of Myrninerest unveiled their harrowing new work Jhonn, Uttered Babylon. Essentially, it’s a series of 11 cyclical tunes that provide a palette for the poetic explosions of Tibet, who may not be much of a singer, but does indeed command the stage with his verbal volleys. Often, his bellowed outbursts which puff out his braces and make his bare feet dance are daring word combinations designed for maximum impact, such as ‘fist in a lamp’, ‘the constellation that killed the stars’, ‘kiss the chaos’, ‘magic in the haunted air’, ‘haunted, haunted, haunted’ and ‘head hits the floor’ – all this in the tribute to the 42-year-old burly, bearded singer who died after a drunken fall from height. The final tune was almost a classical lament with its rich acoustic guitar line, with images of Balance singing for Coil hitting the screen as Tibet interred: “Cocaine, wine and speed/ beginning of World War 93”. From the images of the boy Geoffrey Laurence Burton to Jhonn Balance the daredevil musical prankster, to the flinchingly personal letters written to Tibet this was more of a funeral wake than a celebration, with Tibet left to wipe the tears from his eyes at the end.
Left to add a bit of light relief in between were the spooky super-8 films of Derek Jarman. His 1971 Journey to Avebury is a favourite with both Coil and Throbbing Gristle having created soundtracks to its landscapes. This time it was left to Myrninerest to add their woozy, dark touch to the pastoral psychedelia of cows, swaying trees and ominous rock formations.
Later, it was the murderous wedding party of Sulphur (1973) where crystal balls become the flash bulbs of greedy photographers, the gothic Edgar Allan Poe-esque Tarot (1973) and the lush gender-bending of Garden Of Luxor (1972) that separated the two live sets. And while the short films were vintage Jarman, and the pre-recorded soundtracks from Cyclobe decently effective, it wasn’t until the final act that the crowd finally escaped the clutches of the past and got a sense of the future’s dark majesty.