This was a line-up beyond leftfield, one for which the word “challenging” might have been dreamt up especially. The three acts strutting their stuff tonight make music that is not chiefly known for its singalong choruses.
Take opening act Team Brick, the very end of whose set we just about caught. Here is a man from Bristol who is as happy to wander around the room chiming bells and bellowing as he is playing a clarinet through an FX pedal. Somehow, none of this should work, but the rub is, you never have a clue what he might do next. And he keeps you guessing.
Napoleon III, if I remember my history lessons correctly, was not France’s last king, but he was France’s last monarch – as Emperor in the mid-1800s. On the evidence of tonight’s set Napoleon IIIrd has aged well, sporting a sprightly collection of chin bristles that are about the same length as his hair. To his right, a drummer gonzo in a yellow Mr Bump t-shirt wears ginormous headphones and waits grinningly for his cue to ecstatically bang things. Behind him is a another blast from the past – a magnetophone straight out of Tricolore French class. This contraption gently spins a backing track of vocals, plonks and bangs that sounds like it was recorded by a drunk in a scrap yard.
Occasionally, Boney 3 – he calls himself James these days – brandishes a noise-making device of doubtful name. One of these is a faded plastic blob that, Fisher-Price-like, has four big colourful buttons and a hose and makes a noise a bit like “SCHHHHHRUBBBUBBBUBBB” when he tickles it. He has a guitar that looks like it was moulded from The Blob by a designer on drugs. Apparently Bernard Butler has one too.
He has song titles like My Superiority Complex and The Casual Terrorist Vs The International Board Of Wishing and The Comformist Takes All. Boney multi-tracks his vocals and this, combined with his instrumentation, makes his music sound like there are lots of him round a camp fire. He can be poignant too, with the stripped down warble of Kate’s Song. But he saves the best for last, with Hit Me For Schmooze’s refrain: “This is not my life, it’s just my day job, the way I pay the rent.” He reminds a little of Adem – well versed and able to press anything that makes a noise into musical service. Quite the experimental everyman.
Andrew Broder’s Minneapolis based Fog are signed to Lex Records, home of Scroobius Pip. Until recently they fused turntable samples and hip-hop into their sound. For new album Ditherer the band have become a fully-fledged traditional rock three-piece, with Broder’s baritone commanding lead vocals and his hands occupying themselves with FX-laden guitar. He’s backed by Mark Erickson and Tim Glenn on bass/keys and drums. The record features guests including Andrew Bird and Low and tonight is something of a UK launch party for it, though there are no guests present.
Hardy souls hanging around for Fog’s set witness something of a melange of music rather than a collection of songs. Each piece seagues almost seamlessly into the next with scarcely time between to acknowledge applause – it’s almost as if Broder is used to a lack of it. And it’s all terribly earnest – at no point does Broder crack a smile or a joke. So it’s possible to lean back against a wall, shut eyes and dream up one’s own visuals to the noodling which is the stuff of subconscious soundtracks rather than drivetime radio. Broder, even when rocking, never really rocks. He nods. But in the meantime he’s making live loops and twiddling pedal nobs and orbiting somewhere between Explosions In The Sky and Radiohead at their most experimentalist extreme.
Immediately afterwards, I struggled to recall a single musical phrase of any of Fog’s songs. In part that’ll be because I’ve not heard their new record, but it has a lot more to do with Fog being one of the most challenging bands I’ve seen in ages. Their songs tonight seemed almost hook-free. And on this occasion it was a struggle too far to get them, but they did enough to suggest further challenging examinations would be necessary.