Wednesday, November 12, 2008

It's Not Just Politics.

So, apologies to some, and a relief to others I'm sure. But the fallout from the weekend has been the catalyst for driving me headfirst into more immersive distractions. At very different ends of the sonic scale, two men tucked in the fringes of the music community have provided more solace than most.

Matt Middleton is an institution in Dunedin, and a man who bears the burden that comes with the man/myth/legend status and for good reason. He's spent good tracts of time as a fairly comprehensive and compulsive bridge burner, a man who seemed hellbent on sub-conscious self-destruction. In his early twenties he landed a release on the already fading but still notorious Flying Nun imprint, as Crude, the most prolific / noted of Middleton's monikers I suppose, and 1997's Inner City Guitar Perspectives was a compilation culled from earlier cassette releases. Two years later, Middleton's trash-rock / swampfest / garage trio The Aesthetics had their debut LP My Right To Riches issued by Thurston Moore's label Ecstatic Peace. Kansas-based label Mental Telemetry (now Invisible Generation) - home of Six Organs of Admittance, The Magic Carpathians and fellow Dunedin headfucks The Futurians - have also lent support to a swag of Crude/Aesthetics releases half way around the world. So how, more than a decade on from being dumped on the doorstep of New Zealand's self-styled indie/lo-fi godfather label, is this man still so unremarked upon?

Because this is Matt Middleton who wouldn't bother getting on the plane to go to gigs. The man who would tear a sign down and throw it through the window of the casino restaurant. The man who knocked himself unconscious mid-set by smashing his head into his microphone. The truth and the legend blur constantly, of course, but the end result is that the myth is the prominent lens through which people see and read him, and sadly that often means that people don't take the time to listen to his music, which is truly sad, because by 2008 the man and the music have matured to the point that this truly feels like a pivotal point in the Middleton ouevre. More than in any time I can remember, he is attacking the music with a fury that finally fits the searing stomp-skronk-wail-riot of the sonic vision.

A one man vaudevillain, crooning demented lounge ballads over thumping electro freakouts, and taking charge of the saxophone like it's some kind of man possessed, needing to be tamed and tamed it shall be.

It is easy to forget when people are making music that doesn't fit into handy three and a half minute blocks, stacked mile high; music that eschews form in favour of function, that sets about digging cavities into your frontal lobe so you never have the option of returning to a life like you led before you heard, frontal assaults on the mind and body, that the whole often obscures the musicality that flourishes within it. Crude's jazz background, a clarinet player initially, is what holds it together, stitching anarchic improvisations together literally by a thread. It is also the real flourish behind him, pausing hesitantly, hovering over a fret board, then lurching suddenly into scratchy trills that pierce the swampy depths below. It's not always easy listening music, and don't expect to be let off lightly either by the production of the music or the live performing of it, this is stuff you need to digest, but thanks to the way Middleton can so effortlessly cast you under his fidgety spell, the challenge soon gives way to a spatial-temporal realignment before your very eyes and ears, taking you to a jaded post-apocalyptic overpass, howling at the moon to no avail.

Crude is Crude, but Crude is also The Aesthetics. Often unfairly labelled simply as a Crude band, they belong to two very different spaces. The trashy regurgitation of Motor City rock n roll filtered through the rising pretense of New York No Wave - live at least, references to The Contortions finally seem valid again, thankfully - sets The Aesthetics apart from the future worlds Crude inhabits. But Middleton is an auteur, and while it is negligent to deny the impact of the list of past influences and band mates, there's no denying that the scope of the sound can still be boiled down to one man. Same goes for the far more infrequent works of jazz-freak rogues Anomie Ensemble.

Matt Middleton is a small man who makes a lot of noise. Auckland composer Warwick Blair could not be closer to the polar opposite of this. An imposing figure, dressed largely in black with a formidable paw for the shaking. For such a giant of a man, Blair's compositions have deftness and subtlety that are astonishing. Much like Middleton, you are also unlikely to see his music videos pop up on C4, or on the radio. His projects are highly conceptual, and seem more at home in a gallery space than at a pub. He is comfortable with the term composer being substituted for songwriter. His latest epic, Stars was written with a gallery space in mind, and it made it's full length debut here in Dunedin a few weeks back. Simply, it was one of the most stunning, and more importantly immersive, musical experiences I have ever had. In short, it's an ambient composition that plays uninterrupted for 24 hours, but around the room is an accompanying ambient film by astronomer/artist Paul Moss, in real time: clouds and rainbows during the day, starscapes at night. The stars are a bit too static, says Blair. It's a work in progress. At the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Blair played his 24 hour opus from 4pm on a Saturday to 4pm on a Sunday. The gallery remained open all night, and you could come and go as you pleased. I went back six times.

Hearing Warwick Blair talk about his music you could be forgiven for thinking it was the work of a man more interested in the programming than in the songwriting. The day is broken into eight movements, each exactly three hours long. Then, each three hour section is broken into eight movements, each 22.5 minutes long. Somewhere roughly in the middle of each of these drops the central motif. I use the word drop rather lightly here. Echoing digital percussion rings out clear over lush rolling ambience, more hypnotic perhaps than engaging. And then, out of nowhere, comes the incredible haunting voice of classical Indian singer Sandhya Rao Badakere, sitting on a pile of cushions in the middle of the room. You can't even see her breathing, but the voice that comes out of her belongs to another world and another time. And then her twenty-two and a half minutes are up, and she is gone again. Not before a dislocatingly human hack out in the foyer.

For logistical reasons, it is difficult for Stars to be presented in its entirety, although a four-hour preview version has been produced in Wellington. It's not something you can digest in one sitting, a la Warhol's Empire, but it is a truly beautiful treasure, in a time when it is more difficult than ever to use the term sincerely. If you missed it, don't worry, he is bringing it back to the Dunedin Fringe Festival next year, and an expanded version (with screens on the roof and ceiling) will be showing at Galatos in Auckland for the Fringe early next year. It gets better. After this is an eight stanza opera - ruminations on love, death, sex, drugs, dance etc - with a jazz singer, two opera singers and a folkie, with three multi-instrumentalists. The 'Dance' section is a tempo-mapped remake of New Order's 'Blue Monday', the biggest selling 12" single of all time.

Escapism, pure and simple. Don't take on an empty stomach, and if problems persist, consult a physician. In times like this sometimes only prescription medicine can numb the pain.

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