Cult with No Name
Reproduktion 13 @ The Roundhouse, London
Saturday May 4 2013
I don't know what happened to the previous 12 Reproduktions - perhaps I missed them, in which case the cool kids can laugh at me now - but this Reproduktion sees a motley assortment of 'classic electronic' bands take over the Roundhouse Studio Theatre for a night of electronica in suitably un-rock 'n' roll surroundings. The Reproduktion krew, it seems, occupy similar territory to The Electricity Club - but at the alterno-fringe end of things, rather than the pop zone.
Either way, that's an interesting phrase - 'classic electronic'. As I've noted elsewhere, we're now a long way from the enforced primitivism of the late 70s and early 80s, when electronic music sounded the way it did because the limitations of the technology made it so. Now, that kind of style has become an aesthetic, an artistic choice.
It's wilfully un-cutting edge, but that in itself makes it paradoxically contemporary. You've got to have a certain maverick artistic vision to go so resolutely against the flow as tonight's bands do. And if there's one thing I've learned in my time hanging around the weirdo fringe of rock, it's that going against the flow can take you to some interesting places.
So let's see where Mild Peril takes us. To the city in Bladerunner, it seems - or some similar wide-screen version of the retro-future. Mild Peril is one man and an array of techie kit, which he pokes and prods and manipulates and picks up and puts down, maintaining an air of studied control all the while.
This serves to generate a sweeping sci-fi soundtrack that sounds like the kind of slow-build classical electronica that would play over the opening titles of some dystopian cinemascope vision of the future.
It's very Vangelis. A bit Jean Michel Jarre around the edges, even. Lush and warm and many-layered. Which is interesting in itself, given that a more usual point of reference for old-school electronica tends to be cold-eyed alienation.
Mild Peril takes a different route through the electro-cosmos, and you know he's got a first class seat on the intergalactic shuttle. Now all we need is for someone to make the movie.
John Costello is, apparently, the man behind this entire event, and an alumnus of the old school electronic scene. I have to confess (and here the cool kids can laugh at me some more) that I've never heard of him. But then, according to his Facebook page, he "...has been tinkering with electronic music on and off since the mid-80s. He has released two cassettes and appeared on several compilation albums" - which isn't a huge work rate, let's be honest. Still, there's lots of his stuff all over the interweb, which probably counts for more than cassettes and compilations these days.
Tonight he's one third of a three-piece band that includes - gasp! - Actual Guitars, while John himself, boffin-ish in the approved manner, stations himself behind the electronix pile in the middle. We're immediately in the zone of classic old-school influences - not least on 'Artist Architect' which is so Kraftwerkian I think John Costello could probably run for mayor of Dusseldorf on the strength of it. I'm willing to bet he's a big fan of the first two Human League albums, too, for there's also a lot of 80s Sheffield in the sound (I'm sure tonight's event isn't called Reproduktion by accident).
But although you can hear John Costello's influences - frankly, they leap out at you, pulling faces and waving their arms around - he does good stuff with 'em. He has a winning way with wistful, pensive songwriting, set to sparse, uncluttered arrangements. The performance, it must be said, is somewhat hampered by the occasional need to ask the sound engineer to roll the backing track - c'mon, John, the Human League never did that. They just pressed the Go button on their on-stage Revox B77. Don't tell me twenty-first century technology has no equivalent! But, when the band pile in to 'Lock Load Aim Fire' - a vintage Slimelight industrial stomper, featuring 'nuff guitars - the show kicks up a gear and barges to a convincing finish. Plot a triangle between Dusseldorf, Sheffield, and London and you'd find John Costello plumb in the middle. But he occupies the territory well.
The two gentlemen of Cult With No Name - one sitting at a keyboard, one elegant behind the mic stand - are suited, booted, and very Bryan Ferry.
The singer remarks that the band are currently working on their sixth album. I have to admit I don't own any Cult With No Name albums, and I suspect I'm not about to rush out and buy any. Because Cult With No Name's lounge balladry, although performed with impeccable sang-froid, isn't my thing.
I dare say there's a market for an MOR version of the Pet Shop Boys - let's face it, if they're up to album number six someone must be encouraging them - but I find the Cult With No Name experience to be rather too smoothly anodyne for comfort.
It's not like I want every band to be full-tilt punkers, you understand, but there's something a bit too background-music about Cult With No Name for me. I like my music in the foreground, if not actually slapping me across the forehead.
And here's the slap across the forehead. There are, it seems, umpteen bands called Naked Lunch - including an indie covers band from Kentucky, a hard rock band from Austria, and a Steely Dan tribute band from Dallas. None of which, fortunately, are on stage now. This Naked Lunch formed in London in 1979, and thus have unimpeachable post-punk credentials. They also sound very now, of course, since post-punk, twenty-first century style, is very much the soundtrack of today.
Naked Lunch push the electro envelope: they have guitar and drums in the line-up, and this gives their sound a tough, don't-mess edge, particularly when the guitar digs in to a bout of no-shit riffing, and the drums set up a relentless, economical syncopation. It's chunky, punky stuff, underlined by the guitarist's bristling attitude and constant stalking around his area of the stage. Naked Lunch manage to exude a hint of back alley danger even as they construct clipped, brusque electro-dance thumpers with the offhand skill of a bunch of scaffolders going up a tall building. In the world of electronic music, where most bands adopt the image of studious technicians or contrive an air of cerebral detachment, Naked Lunch are rock 'n' roll, but pithy with it. I like their lean, mean, groove.
Lights down. Here comes Attrition. Like an electronic band styled by Aubrey Beardsley, Attrition inhabit their own world. There wasn't anything like Attrition when the band first emerged from the new wave undergrowth in 1980. There isn't anything like Attrition now.
Martin Bowes, Attrition's main man, around whom umpteen line-ups and collaborations have revolved over the years, cuts an enigmatic figure in his swirling cloud of joss stick smoke. The music is a swirling cloud, too, out of which emerges a deep, dark, freight train rumble of bass. Beats skitter like fidgety kittens. Sampled strings swoop and jitter. It's all analogue ambience, but naggingly danceable at the same time; a surrealist, sepulchral disco. Martin Bowes growls a vocal that sounds like a 45rpm record being played at 16, while his co-vocalist, TyLean, pulls fragments of forgotten operas out of the atmosphere.
There's new stuff in the set, from The Unraveller Of Angels, Attrition's 21st album (beat that, Cult With No Name), and older songs that have obviously been given a good going-over by the mechanics. 'Acid Tongue', an Attrition live fave for years, has been souped up into a mighty thing now - prowling like a big cat, it's a slice of killer boogie, all the more effective for being delivered by a band so matter-of-factly defiant in their glorious oddity. Attrition seethe and swoop and convulse in the smoke, and if you let yourself be drawn into the band's serpentine flow, the sepulchral disco is a great place to party.
Nope, there's nobody else like Attrition. They might've called tonights event Reproduktion - but some things, you can't reproduce.