Faith No More front man Mike Patton has been dabbling in the outer reaches of experimental metal as part of supergroup, Tomahawk, since 2000. 60-year-old Fred Frith, meanwhile, is best known as a prolific avant garde, improvisational guitarist and composer who was part of pioneering band Henry Cow during the ’70s.
So what happens when you put these two creative free spirits on stage together at the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of this year’s Meltdown festival? Well, the best way to sum it up is simply: abstract noise.
Patton tweets birdsong style chirrups through a mixing desk and beatboxes while Frith plays a guitar with a violin bow and drags random objects across the strings. Whether it’s inspired creativity or merely pretentious racket making is a matter of opinion but this certainly seems to be an exercise in noise rather than music. Stockhausen springs to mind as the extended track evolves with no discernible tune or melody present.
The bass rumbles like a fleet of Lancaster bombers and while the overall sound touches upon ambient at times (imagine Brian Eno in hell), it is firmly avant garde and uncategorisably experimental. There’s not a chord or a melody in sight. God knows what staunch Faith No More fans make of it but perhaps they have been prepared for this sonic onslaught via Patton’s Tomahawk project (apparently a recent influence on The Knife‘s Karin Dreijer Andersson).
The second composition sees Frith play his guitar with two paintbrushes to build up an apocalyptic beat while Patton spills electronically mangled vocal effects over the top and hits an upside down microphone on the table to create a springing bass effect. The result has the feel of some kind of nightmarish bad acid trip, Patton skatting down the mic as the effects pedals hooked up to Frith’s guitar create a rumbling backing.
Patton does sing a few notes but never words; his voice used as percussion while the guitar is used as a drumkit one moment and a source of a multitude of out-there noises at others. A mellower section brings some relief as birdsong mixes with the sound of Frith chucking a stone at a metal plate he’s placed on top of his guitar. Whether this is creative genius or the height of self-indulgence is genuinely hard to decide.
The third movement sees the duo joined by highly talented beatboxer, Shlomo. His jacking beats and scratching add some much needed form to proceedings and the trio’s combined interjections make for the first genuinely enjoyable moment of the night.
The encore begins sweetly with some searing chords, Frith plucking his guitar as Shlomo sits on the floor singing and tribal chanting. This brief moment of musicality doesn’t last long, however, as more freeform jamming sees the track darken, grow more menacing and build into a horror soundtrack. Shlomo’s heavy beats thud down as Patton screams over the top but the effect is as beguiling as it is disturbing.
And that’s it, all over. The performance may have lasted just over an hour but how much longer could the audience’s nerves handle? That said, their reaction seems positive and enthusiastic. It was certainly interesting and clever but large parts of the performance certainly weren’t pleasurable and overall this was more of a sound experiment than a gig, a memorable exercise in stretching the boundaries of music itself.
With jazz icon Ornette Coleman curator of Meltdown 2009 though, the possibility of him playing it safe with his line-up selections was remote to put it mildly. Tonight’s performance was at the very least a worthwhile spectacle.