Live Music + Gig Reviews

Nadja + Olan Mills + Aidan Baker @ Face Bar, Reading

13 November 2016


Nadja (Photo: Sam Shepherd)

Ambience is not the first thing you think of when you’re in a venue that’s strafed with bar-lights, but within moments of Aidan Baker taking to the stage, the glare suddenly seems dimmed and new worlds begin to seep from the speakers.

As one half of tonight’s headliners, Baker has been creating soundscapes since the late ’90s, and in a live situation he conjures immersive and sometimes haunting passages of music that are a joy (and occasionally somewhat terrifying) to get lost in. Stood next to a table full of effects units, he brings forth an almost orchestral swell, and beings to sculpt abstract passages of sound. What follows is a masterclass in nuance, as Baker introduces beats by tapping the body of his guitar, twists the signal carefully to wring every ounce of emotion from the aching sonic wall he’s creating.

What’s interesting is in watching cause and effect in action. Watching Baker live is not just watching a bloke twiddling knobs, it’s about watching someone composing in real time. He reacts to what he hears, makes adjustments, adds, subtracts and changes direction. Whilst the piece might be improvised and abstract in nature, this is a very focused and intense performance that allows the mind to wander and create its own imagery. We’re all in this together.

Olan Mills prefers to guide the narrative. Sat in the dark, with his laptop and guitar what follows is a series of drones, Eastern tones, and Tibetan throat singing. Where Baker encouraged new worlds to suggest themselves, Mills prefers to guide these meditative pieces with projected film. The post-rock projector show is in danger of becoming as clichéd as the Indie band & superfluous floor tom set up was a couple of years back (that died a death quick thankfully), but when done well, the creation of a soundtrack for a film can be breathtaking.

Tonight there seems to be a disconnect between the music and the film, maybe the point is being missed. The goldfish bring to mind waiting for a take out at a Chinese restaurant, the flock of birds causes a pang of regret that Planet Earth 2 is on right now, and the Blackpool donkey footage is a reminder of crappy holidays. So not exactly a journey into a magical realm, but there are moments of inspiration as the set progresses. When the bass rumbles from the stage and a dainty violin line rides it like a surfer towing in on a colossal wave it expresses a feeling of fragility and brutal power that an image of a Blackpool donkey can’t quite muster.

With Baker back on stage, this time joined by bass player Leah Buckareff, Nadja are ready to bring a little clarity to proceedings. Kicking off with Flowers Of Flesh things are initially sharper and more focused. Huge drums and gigantic riffs crash down with a power and precision that’s not been in evidence so far. As the doom fills the room like a drove of depressed Blackpool donkeys, it feels transcendent and all enveloping. Lungs struggle to cope with the bass frequencies, and consciousness begins to alter, things begin to get fuzzy around the edges.

Nadja too begin to lose the Godflesh-like edge that their set possessed at the start, and as they progress, the structures of their songs feel malleable. The doom remains, but it’s soft-focus, Baker’s guitar and Buckareff’s bass sound fill the venue like blackened smoke belched from Hades. Then suddenly, they sharpen again, like a punch drunk fighter steeling themselves for a final flurry of punches and just for a second, they channel a little prog-rock grandeur that Pink Floyd would be proud of and stars are visible through the blackened fug that Nadja has created. Tonight, they’re immersive, beautiful and threatening in equal measure and it is glorious.

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Nadja + Olan Mills + Aidan Baker @ Face Bar, Reading