Live Music + Gig Reviews

Frankenstein vs Dracula @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

21 November 2010

It’s well past Hallowe’en, but tonight’s entertainment selection maysuggest otherwise. Arguably the two most resonant and recognisableicons of Gothic horror are being resurrected in the QueenElizabeth Hall for the purposes of bringing the 2010 London JazzFestival to a conclusion, and at first glance the two genres appear tobe an odd fit. In what way can the exultory improvisation and soulful,smooth ‘authenticity’ of jazz combine with the fogbound wastelandsand wide-eyed rictus grins of horror?

To ask such a questionpatronises both genres and reveals more about the sceptical listener’sprejudices than it does about the inherent natures of jazz or thehorror film. Wasn’t Miles Davis exploring and expressing’horror’ on On The Corner? Isn’t ‘soul’ the very theme thatmotivates the most chilling Gothic tale?

Gary Lucas, guitar improviser extraordinaire and erstwhilecollaborator of Captain Beefheart, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Jeff Buckley and many, many others takes the stage in abattered Fedora and jeans and regales the crowd with the strange taleof how he came upon the Spanish-language version of Tod Browning’sDracula. In an era when studios made foreign language versions oftheir films on the same sets, with the same costumes, but at nightwith different casts and crews, George Melford’s Latin version is nowoften thought of as superior to the Browning/Lugosi version: lessstilted, more passionate, eerier, and generally more innovative andexciting to watch.

With this in mind, the air fizzes with electricityas Lucas’ shimmering, waterfall guitar plucks out the chords ofTchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (Dracula‘s theme music) as the haplessRenfield’s coach rattles its way over a Carpathian mountain pass.Lucas darts from motif to motif and texture to texture as the actionprogresses: eerie, luminous sustained chords to suggest themesmerising effect the Count has on his spellbound victims, tense,sardonic, almost-folk melodies to underpin Renfield’s mountingapprehension, and stuttering, staccato distortion to announce thepresence of Dracula’s cohort of undead beauties.

Lucas has done this sort of thing before, with the silent horrorclassic The Golem. What makes this different is that this film doeshave a soundtrack and the lustily-enunciated dialogue, hystericallaughter and blood-curdling screams from the film vie for attentionwith the live music. This sometimes works against the concept, sinceLucas tries to paint music into every corner and nook of the film’srunning time (much as a silent-movie pianist or pit-orchestra mightdo), only occasionally slackening the pace when the film’s ownatmosphere is overpowering enough, or the inflections of the dialogueneed to be heard.

Occasionally the constant stream of melodies andeffects works wonders, as when he has his guitar echo Eva’s swooningscreams as she is possessed: other times, however, the constant burbleof melody can serve as a distraction from the hypnotically energeticperformances on screen (the incredible Pablo Alvarez Rubio inparticular manages the not inconsiderable feat of making Dwight Frye’sfrenzied take on Renfield look subdued). But for the most part, theiridescent sound-world that Lucas conjures complements the cobwebbedarchways, craggy mountains and storm-lashed sail-ships on screenperfectly. If only someone could release a new DVD of the film with anoptional Lucas soundtrack…

Experimental film-maker Bill Morrison is about as farfrom the overheated passions of Spanish Gothic horror as one couldfind, more interested in the way the physical texture of found footagecan convey meaning. His film Spark Of Being is ostensibly a retellingof Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but a retelling where found footagewith no direct connection to the source is painstakingly constructedto form a narrative (of sorts). Soundtracked this time by trumpeterDave Douglas and his impressiveKeystone quintet, thefilm is divided into chapters whose titles suggest the action ofShelley’s novel, while the film itself conveys fragments of similarbut unrelated action, as though someone is remembering the novel in adream.

After a mournful, wryly doom-laden instrumental prologue, thefilm begins with The Captain’s Tale: grainy, monochrome footage ofmassive ships breaking through Arctic ice floes, a dog teamapproaching from the white distance, while Douglas’ muted horn freezesthe very air itself. Haunting images of (nuclear?) blasted landscapesand the trappings and minutiae of scientific research are augmentedby Gene Lake’s rolling, splashing percussion, while Adam Benjaminturns his Fender Rhodes into a staccato Morse Code generator, or takesoff on a flight of improvised fantasy, little rivulets of melodyrunning down the screen here and there as white zigzags ofelectricity arc across it from top to bottom.

Douglas keeps a steady hand on the tiller, as Morrison’s filmerupts into what could be described as visual acne, burn holes anddecaying celluloid melting and oozing across and obliterating theimages like an attacking virus. It’s an extraordinary visual analoguefor how Frankenstein’s creature is beginning to experience histerrifying new world of sights and sensations. Within and betweenthis flood of disturbing visuals and hectic music are extraordinarymoments of pastoral beauty and calm.

A naked couple running in slowmotion into each other’s arms as Geoff Countryman generates a blissfulwash of electronic tone that would sit easily on a Boards OfCanada a record. The Beauty Of Nature is signified by a tollingbell and Marcus Strickland’s sax emerging quietly, as though heardfrom a long way off. The Doctor’s Wedding is a sardonic, discordantparody of Bavarian wedding music as dresses pirouette endlessly,hypnotically on screen and moustachioed men in lederhosen slap, kickand caper, while the music suggest it is all a mechanistic, joylessritual.

After the film and the music have brought us full circle, to thatArctic tundra and that mysterious dog team, Douglas regales us with alengthy trumpet workout which soon hits an irresistible groove whenthe rest of Keystone jump in. Strickland, Benjamin and bassist BradJones all shine here, as Lake underpins the whole thing with arestless, ever-shifting grassland of percussion. A warm, invigoratingcoda to a chilly evening of unique pleasures, terrors and wonders.

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Frankenstein vs Dracula @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London