Live Music + Gig Reviews

Chris Cunningham @ Royal Festival Hall, London

23 April 2010

Aaaahh, London’s beautiful Southbank Centre on a lovely Friday evening in springtime. The sun is dipping, the shadows are long and bird song fills the air. Is there a more fitting setting in which to find yourself plunged into darkness (both literal and metaphorical) and forced to confront the gibbering, screaming, red-eyed imagination of Chris Cunningham, one of the world’s most certifiably disturbing and confrontational film makers and video artists?

Nope, can’t think of one. Within the crumbling walls of Battersea Power Station during a howling gale? In the ruins of a sitting room after The Blitz? OK, maybe those…. The dry ice hanging in the rafters of the Royal Festival Hall already holds the promise of something special: it looks like smoke from a electrical fire, or the residue of fireworks.

But while we wait for the visual pyrotechnics, something sombre from BEAK>. Known, if at all, as the side project of Portishead‘s Geoff Barrow and featuring politely deranged multi-instrumentalist Matt Williams, aka Team Brick, they come on like a power trio operating at low wattage in a basement, a shuffling, nervous soundtrack from the fantasy 1970s of Open University and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Barrow drums like Can‘s Jaki Liebizeit and sings low and indistinct in the mix, while Williams and bassist Billy Fuller create hypnotic, monochrome grooves.

At times they have the snap and tension of prime Krautrock, the aforementioned Can or maybe Neu!in full flight; at others they’re reminiscent of Joy Division on heavier medication, or the night-bus nightmares of Clinic. After Barrow has muttered some thanks and been awed by the size of the room (“This is a HUUUGE fuckin’ place, innit?”) they unexpectedly roll out a growling, miserablist cover of Let The Sun Shine In from the musical Hair, transforming this bright, soulful hippies’ anthem into something that sounds like zombies moaning from the depths of a mineshaft. This, as it turns out, is exactly what the song should have sounded like all along. We are suitably primed for darkness.

The nervous chatter is overpowering as we gaze at the three hanging screens above a dark box of tricks, a walk-in TARDIS full of nightmarish images, the place where that man behind the curtain lives to conjure up Oz The Great and Terrible. The name Chris Cunningham still inspires awe and apprehension in equal measure more than a decade after he made his name with a handful of gleefully deranged and sensual music videos and adverts for everyone from the Aphex Twin to Madonna and Sony Playstation. His visual language is instantly recognisable, unapologetically confrontational, VERY in-your-face and often incredibly beautiful.

The dry ice machine has been going to town again, the better to show up the searing green lasers which erratically burst over our heads like visual punctuation points. The triptych of screens flicker into life with shots of cables, wires, hands scrabbling to plug things in and switch things on. Is this what’s happening with The Wizard Of Oz bunker on stage right now? We are certainly meant to think so. The crowd cheer the lasers like they would the notes of a familiar song as a band tunes up.

As the soundtrack turns gradually from a collection of clicks, whirrs and beeps into a deep, industrial thrum, the screens go dark and then barely perceptibly the massive, glinting head of Grace Jones looms into view, every bit as impressive and unsettling as anything from the mind of HR Giger. Accompanied by an increasingly frenetic loop of clicks and rattles, she begins to sing a touching a cappella rendition of Williams’ Blood from her last album Hurricane, while the camera swoops down on her naked torso. She slaps her belly and the room shakes with noise.

Next up, cut-up extracts from Flex, his Royal Academy installation of eight or so years ago: a naked couple hanging in space, attacked by mysterious probing lights (and by each other). The central fight scene is looped, chopped up and extended for an eternity, the ethereal Aphex Twin soundtrack replaced with a pounding industrial beat which eventually dissolves into Donna Summer‘s I Feel Love: the kind of sick joke Cunningham is known for. It goes on for a paralysingly, disturbingly long time, hardcore sex inserts periodically breaking the pattern on the two side screens. There are cat-calls and spontaneous bursts of applause, as well as the first of a small but steady trickle of walk-outs.

The megamix from a damaged brain continues: Samantha Morton, sweaty and confused, mutating into a many-tentacled beast under strobe lights from the video for The Horrors‘ Sheena Is A Parasite: Cunningham himself in a wheelchair and grotesque, distorting make-up from his short film Rubber Johnny. At one point the artfully distressed aesthetic is surprisingly disrupted by grainy, VHS-quality natural history footage of birds: it looks like his nephew has taped over his showreel, but of course this is just a different layer of artful distress as a beguiling, wonky soundtrack is unmistakably being provided by Cunningham’s best mates Boards Of Canada.

After a small child’s nightmare of invisible, probing hands and lightbulbs that seem to be possessed by aliens, the rumble of trains is heard and the ghostly, impossibly ancient face of Gil Scott Heron looms above the New York skyline. He’s singing New York Is Killing Me, while lights from the city’s subway strobe across his features, like the Stargate at the end of Kubrick’s 2001. It feels like this unique combo of crumbling blues and industrial drone and clank could go on forever. But as it rolls to an eventual stop, the place erupts as Cunningham’s tiny, shaggy-headed form staggers out of his TARDIS and gives a single wave as he heads backstage. Those who’ve made it to the end won’t forget tonight in a hurry, not for a long time. But it’s doubtful that they’ll have pleasant dreams tonight.

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