There are numerous John Cales, depending on when you catch him. The classically trained musician who cut his teeth with the U.S. avant-garde then threw his lot in with The Velvet Underground; the sound-artist painting in minimalism and drones; the producer of proto-punk set-texts by Patti Smith, The Stooges and The Modern Lovers; the chamber-pop poet behind the magnificent Paris 1919 or the masked, confrontational art-rocker.
Latterly, we’ve seen a Cale who has thoroughly embraced technology, citing G-Unit and Pharrell Williams among his inspirations, make the electronically-driven, sample-heavy likes of HoboSapiens (2003) and blackAcetate (2005). Just a few years on from 2012’s bizarre, funky Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood, it’s this John Cale, coupling the black tailcoat of the classical pianist with brown boots and skinny jeans, who walks onto the circular stage of London’s Roundhouse, his recently pink hair faded back to white, with a band for the evening that features occasional collaborator Nick Franglen of Lemon Jelly, alongside regulars Dustin Boyer on guitar and Deantoni Parks – once of The Mars Volta – on acoustic and electric drums.
Part of a series of gigs presented in the round, tonight’s show comes shortly after a recent re-issue of 1982’s long-unavailable Music For A New Society. Stark, harrowing and written by a Cale in the grip of substance abuse, the new edition is accompanied by M:FANS, a re-working which renders the chilling and spacious arrangements of the original album all but unrecognisable amid auto-tune and industrial thud.
From the opening Time Stands Still, driven by booming bass drum and insistent hi-hat click, it’s a set of similarly radical re-imagining, yet there are some arrangements which offer interesting perspectives on a pleasingly diverse selection of material. Ghost Story, from solo début Vintage Violence, has its reedy Basement Tapes organ replaced by choppy, soulful guitar, while a brasher Buffalo Ballet, from 1974’s Fear, is transformed by Boyer’s diving tremolo arm. Boyer’s guitar work unmoors The Endless Plain Of Fortune – from Paris 1919 – too, recasting it as what sounds like an out-take from Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), a hat-tip towards David Bowie which is echoed later on.
The material from M:FANS, however, fares less well, with the driving, rocky Changes Made – always a little out of place even among the original album – sounding a little processed, with the vocals rather lost in the mix and Close Watch, de-constructed and shorn of the new version’s warped vocals and beats, a bit of a mess and heart-breaking in all the wrong ways.
Only Back To The End, a lost track revived for the redux, succeeds, thorny and haunting with Franglen reshaping the sounds as they’re played and Boyer wrenching abstract noises from his guitar, connected to a daunting array of synths which make him brassy and discordant or create microtonal, Arabic drones throughout Shifty Adventures’ Hemingway.
There are some great high points, though, with Cale picking up a guitar centre stage for an excellent Perfect and Ship Of Fools, while Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend is given the straightest reading of the set, in a thundering take augmented by an ornate, hallucinatory piano solo from Cale but complete with wonky, stop-start guitar and fierce vocals.
Meanwhile, the closing Gun is gutsy, with Cale back on guitar and Boyer adding leads evoking the good bits of the maligned Tin Machine, and segues into a tumultuous cover of The Modern Lovers’ Pablo Picasso, the 73-year-old demonstrating his ongoing commitment to glorious, glorious noise. Perhaps it was the same John Cale all along.