It's amazing what you find under railway arches these days. Not so long ago, I found Thobbing Gristle under a railway arch in Charing Cross. Before that, Lydia Lunch cropped up under a railway arch in Lambeth. Tonight, we're under the main line into Liverpool Street. Commuter trains hum overhead, while down here, in the railway arch otherwise known as Resistance Gallery, art is happening.
I don't think Throbbing Gristle or Lydia Lunch are among us tonight - but then again, they might be. I wouldn't know. Half the people here tonight are wearing masks.
Tonight's entertainments form one day of the three-day Iconography Of Mask festival, an event designed to explore, celebrate, and investigate what happens when human beings cover their faces. Masks festoon the room: fetish masks, ballroom masks, masks as works of art, masks as exercises in rampant surrealism.
Talking of which, things are getting a little rampant and surrealist on stage right now. A choreographed fight seems to be taking place between an assortment masked avengers, superheroes and anti-heroes. There are no announcements, no introductions, so stop me if I'm getting this wrong, but I suspect the on-stage fracas is a show laid on by representatives of Lucha Britannia - a UK organisation devoted to the not-so-gentle art of Mexican masked wrestling. Whether or not aficionados of the sport as practised in Mexico would recognise the haywire riot served up tonight by the Lucha Britannia barmy army is a moot point. I suspect the actual sport isn't quite the male 'n' female fetishistic free for all that erupts on stage before us. But what the show might lack in authenticity it certainly makes up in high jinks.
Just about every indie gig in town seems to include a burlesque interlude these days, to the point that what was once exotic and cool is in danger of becoming ever so slightly ho-hum. But tonight, in the context of an event that's far more of a show than a gig, it's much more appropriate. Tonight's crowd is primed and ready to take in all the action on stage, rather than simply supping pints and waiting for the next band.
So, Lydia Darling finds herself with an appreciative audience as she flings dollar bills off the stage (the audience's appreciation even survives the discovery that they're not real) and proceeds to sashay, squirm, and bump 'n' grind her way out of her outfit.
It's a witty, humour-laden performance that strikes just the right balance between sass and send-up - because all the best burlesque is performed with an ironically raised eyebrow, metaphorically if not literally. Lydia's struggle to remove her stockings is an artful palaver in itself. She's taken a bow and quit the stage before it occurs to me that, with a fine disregard for the theme of the event, she wasn't wearing a mask. Nice gravity-defying hat, though.
Some time ago I recall I attended a gig by a reheated version of Sigue Sigue Sputnik at the Camden Underworld. The Sputniks themselves - down to one original member and frankly a rather lukewarm proposition - didn't impress me much. But the support band that night, a collection of masked punk-funk lunatics called Cantankerous, were quite wonderful. They were also downright scary, in a wouldn't-want-to-meet-them-down-a-dark-alley kind of way.
Alas, Cantankerous seemed to vanish off the face of the earth after that gig. However, tonight, Feral, the band's frontwoman, armed with nothing more than a backing track, a brand new mask, and plenty of attitude, is here to have another go at us.
She calls for the music to be shoved up loud - not, perhaps, a wise move, as some sort of volume limiter seems to kick in, leading to unplanned interruptions in the sound. But never mind the noise, it's the attitude that counts. Feral's got plenty of that. Stomping and squalling to the beat, she's a bad-dream diva, a punk rock prima donna who could have stepped out of a Peter Greenaway remake of Liquid Sky. Scariness levels are still suitably high, too. I can't help wishing this was a Cantankerous gig rather than just a bit of backing track business, but even in the absence of her band, Feral's just fine.
And now, anarchy. In a word, that's Gob$au$age. Diligent musicologists might describe Gob$au$auge, in several more words, as a pithy electropunk proposition - their download-only album, Below The Gumline, is a spiky and savvy slice of electropop with attitude. On stage, however, it's anarchy time. Gob$au$age take the brakes off. They also take quite a lot of clothes off, but hey, who needs threads when you've got silver body paint? And, anyway, when you've got your masks on you're never improperly dressed.
Tonight, there are four Gob$au$ages, all suitably be-masked, which is probably just as well. I mean, if their mums found out about this, they'd be in big trouble. Away they go. Guitar and violin are subject to unspeakable torture as the backing track thumps through the PA like a nightmare disco.
The two front-sausages, Miss Halski and her consort, Culture Yob (tonight fetchingly costumed as cultural icon Mr Blobby) strut and flounce and erratically swagger, all the while hurling an incomprehensible harangue in the general direction of the audience. Occasionally, the resulting din vaguely resembles those spiky and savvy slices of electropop; mostly, though, it doesn't. Mostly, in fact, the Gob$au$age stage show is unrestrained bedlam and a gloriously messy spectacle, but - paradoxically and fortunately - that's what makes it work.
I'm not sure if what Gob$au$age do on stage amounts to an experiment in art overwhelmed by anarchy, or if it's simply an exposition of the fine art of arsing about in a railway arch, but it's a whole lot of deconstructed, dangerous, fun. Never mind the iconography, that's my kind of masked ball.
Iconography Of Mask flyer by Jason Atomic.
For more photos from this gig, find Gob$au$age by name here.