Maybe it was the sub-zero seaside air, the long drive down or the particularly vicious cold virus with which at least three quarters of the festivalgoers seemed to be infected, but the first of ATP’s two Nightmare Before Christmas events this year felt, at times, like something of an endurance test. Curating this time round were Canadian post-rock trailblazers Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a fitting choice as ATP’s year-long 10th anniversary celebrations come to an end with this weekend and, just a few days later, Bowlie 2.
The opening act was indicative of one “strand” of the programming. Dreamcatcher were a duo that would evoke dreams of only the more tortured and nightmarish variety: alternating shrillness of synth with anguished drones and glitches, in a harsh, abrasive and often forbidding start to a set often seeming deliberate and explicit in its dissonance. Similarly, New Zealand veterans The Dead C, on Saturday, brought inchoate groans, nihilistic noise assaults and juddering, relentless atonality to the, erm, party.
Possibly the most hardline, challenging (yet still strangely bracing) act of the weekend was Keiji Haino. The Japanese free improvisation and noise merchant took us from moments of actual visceral terror (his roars and screams more frightening than anything in a slasher movie) to oases of calm and sometimes even transcendent beauty: the curious, unearthly falsetto vocal that he deployed at one point was a showstopper.
It could even be argued that the popular Flower/Corsano Duo, featuring uber-talented and near-ubiquitous improvisatory drummer Chris Corsano also had large portions of their set where the noise seemed more excluding than inclusive. With Corsano incendiary on drums, and Michael Flower (Vibracathedral Orchestra, mv/ee) on japan banjo/shahi baaja providing wild arpeggios and nimble-to-frenetic flights of fancy it was, nevertheless, not until the weekend’s second Corsano appearance – in his incarnation as one third of Rangda – that he really, definitively “clicked”. Flanked this time by Ben Chasny and “Sir” Richard Bishop on guitars, here – at last – was a set with structure, numbers with form, with which the ear and the emotions could properly engage.
Curios, as ever at ATP, abounded. Josephine Foster, battling against poor amplification and loud background chatter in the (smallest) Reds venue, failed to successfully get across her witchy, mannered whoop of a vocal; while the beginning of White Magic‘s set – same venue, better sound? …or better audience? – was arresting and dramatic. When singer Mira Billotte was subsequently joined by the rest of the band, the effect was disappointingly diluted and softened. Berg Sans Nipple on the central Pavilion stage provided a gentler take on ambient/electronic fare, with whistles, loops, echoing vocals and a narcotic, dubby vibe. Mahjongg failed to live up to their thrilling programme description (“neo-noise-punk-hippie hullabaloo” …”shamanic party trance” &C.), providing, rather, a rather befuddling and unfocussed blend of occasionally turgid, sometimes brilliant, often cheesy ’80s inflected dance music. Weird Al Yankovic, meanwhile, was simply cheesy, crass and corny throughout.
The most enjoyable acts, often, were the rock, post-rock or even (whisper it) metal bands. Bardo Pond played a blistering set, their stoner rock rising at times to incredible levels of squally crescendo, all swooping guitars and hypnotic, drowsy vocals. The main attraction Godspeed You! Black Emperor played three two-hour sets – each different from the one before: an admirable commitment from the curators, if one that did slightly compromise the diversity of the line-up. That gripe seems petty, though, when a band delivered, as they did, such all-encompassing, open, intense, emotive and somehow warm-hearted music. This was music that most people at the festival had been waiting many years to experience live and the unscientific straw-poll that we conducted after both the Friday and Saturday sets would indicate that that wait had proved worthwhile.
Another highlight came (twice) in the two performances from Neurosis. The intensity, clarity and impact of their compelling music – loud and heavy, yes, but with a quite masterly use of dynamics for maximum impact – made for an impressive bludgeon of a set on both occasions that they played. On the Sunday, Wolves In The Throne Room took to the stage, as dry ice mingled with the cloying odour of gas-lanterns. Only identifiable by the blue lights built into their guitars, they launched into an unrelenting barrage of surprisingly nuanced black metal. With no let up as double bass drums pounded tender heads, and growled vocals rumbled from the speakers. Like a lot of the music this weekend, this was intense – so much so, that there was a definite possibility that heads might explode around the venue.
Tindersticks are very much an acquired taste, but with a line-up as experimental as this weekend’s they found themselves in the peculiar position of being the light relief. The band’s morose nature and vocalist Stuart A Staples‘ habit of sounding like a terminally depressed club singer, became positively joyous in these circumstances, delivering a set full of much needed, achingly beautiful songs.
The gap in the first day’s schedule caused by the sad death of Throbbing Gristle / X-TG‘s Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson having been filled by a simple tribute involving the loud playing of some of his recorded music, it was left to Emeralds to offer additional respects. Their set-opening extended, drone performance of Passing Away was dedicated to him, and was befittingly sombre – long, sustained but with at times almost unbearable latency and tension.
Another unavoidable schedule change meant that those turning up for a stranded-at-the-airport Daniel Higgs got to take in Tim Hecker‘s set an hour early. And what a set it was: ambient drone with a sinister edge filling the venue, with no light other than the glow of Hecker’s laptop screen. Hecker’s material is, in the right circumstances, utterly beautiful; here in the hotdog stench of centre stage it felt out place. With no visuals, no light and not the best sound, it was a disappointing end to the first day, though in another place and at another time it could well have been amazing.
Special mention must go to Oneida, who pulled of the quite remarkable feat of playing a full 10 hour jam / collaborative gig (joined, at various points, by other musicians from Deerhoof, Tall Ships, White Hills and more) and – incredibly – sustaining the gentle, washed out beauty and soporific heart of their music for all this time. Dipping into and out of their Crazy Horse performance was undoubtedly one of the joys of this festival that was overall, perhaps, stronger on darkness, difficulty, and confrontational or challenging sounds than on the aforementioned beauty and heart.