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The Spectrometers
An Experiment On A Bird In The Air Pump

Shoreditch Church, London
Thursday September 11 2008

An Experiment On A Bird In The Air Pump




The church of St Leonard's, Shoreditch, wears the scars of four hundred-odd years with implacable grace. The exterior looms with classical grandeur above the thrumming traffic of Shoreditch High Street; the interior, dusty and time-worn, still retains the atmosphere of those long-gone centuries. And, after tonight, I dare say the dear old place will have a few more scars to its name, because this evening the house of the Lord plays host to the devil's music.

An Experiment on a Bird In The Air Pump fill the church with insistent rhythm. Their sound seems to expand to fill the space, a rolling thunder of bass and drums and voices that culminates in a sound like mutant Motown hits put through a wringer and hung up on a punk rock washing line. That's a compliment, by the way. 'Saints Don't Cry' is the big anthem tonight: that fuzzed-out garage bassline tumbles out of the PA and goes stalking up the aisle like a preacher looking for sin. The Birds' secret weapon, of course, is that they can do that mysterious Proper Singing stuff, so even when the music gets its minimal grind on, as it does to great effect on 'The Past Between Us' (all noise-bass and tribalism, like Throbbing Gristle if you marooned them on a tropical island) there's a crucial element of control that makes it all accessible.

KASMsWith a wail and a batter, KASMs send their clattering racket bouncing off the sixteenth-century plasterwork, the sound so dense and physical you could almost carve it into shapes. Vocalist Rachel Callaghan's voice seems a little worse for wear tonight – an occupational hazard, I suppose, when you're the shriek-supplier in a shriekbeat band.

But the mash and crash of the KASMs sound is still in full effect, all sharp points poking through tumbling rhythms, sheets of guitar billowing like washing on a clothes line on a blustery day. 'Taxidermy' is stuffed (hey, see what I did there?) with powerhouse drumming and vocal yelps and hollers, vital and tribal, a song that encompasses what KASMs do in one handy, rackety nutshell.

There are, of course, sundry forays into the audience on the part of Rachel Callaghan, which result in several impromptu vocalist/punter interfaces. For KASMs, the performance area does not stop at the edge of the stage (or, in this case, the steps up to the altar). I recall when I saw the band at the Old Blue Last recently I remarked that this business of plunging into the crowd at regular intervals could end up as a case of diminishing returns after a while. But here, where there isn't any kind of formal stage to start with, Rachel's tendency to take her art to the people (whether the people want it or not) does actually work. We're all in the performance space here, and any of us could get co-opted into the show at any The Spectrometersminute, even if our assigned role will invariably be 'slightly shellshocked stooge for shrieking singer'. The more informal the setting, the better KASMs work. This improvised rock 'n' roll venue that has been carved out of the house of God tonight suits them rather well.

The Spectrometers sound like they scuttled out of Joe Meek's studio circa 1963 (probably with Joe Meek hmiself merrily discharging firearms at them along the way), pausing only to grab a laptop on their journey to the twenty-first century.

Shuddering constructions of electronics wobble into the atmosphere. Guitarist and laptopist face each other over an expanse of consecrated floorboards. It occurs to me that the gap between the two musicians is just crying out to have someone doing improvised performance art to the music, or perhaps a demonstration of flower arranging, or something. There are no such visual distractions at a Spectrometers show, though. It's just the humans, the technology, and the sound, and as it happens, that's enough to grab the attention of tonight's discerning audience. A rapt crowd stands amid the ebb and flow of the Spectrometers' quavering electronica and treated shimmies of guitar, and, in the atmosphere of the church, it all works rather well. You can imagine the good Lord looking down, and saying unto us: 'Hey. Yeah. Dig that shit.'

Now here's a curious thing. Throughout the 1990s, it was almost axiomatic that any band which described itself as 'gothic' would have the doors of the music industry slammed in its face. The G-word was the kiss of career-death; a style, a genre, generally regarded as terminally uncool by an industry fixated on mainstream dance culture and the dadrock end of indie. Thus it was that many bands of the goth-ish persuasion routinely adopted verbal fig leaves such as 'darkwave' or 'dark alternative' to S.C.U.Mdescribe themselves – anything rather than admit to being a goth band.

Many bands still do this, although paradoxically the bands that are most reluctant to describe themselves as 'gothic' tend to be the ones which ply their trade, play all their gigs, and generally live out their entire existence behind the subcultural brick wall of the goth scene – which, of course, instantly renders them invisible to the world at large, and makes a nonsense of their attempts to court music biz attention by playing down their gothness.

Well, the goth scene may not have noticed this (frankly, the goth scene doesn't notice much these days), but things have changed. The music biz has finally come round to the view that bands with a little something of the night about them are actually rather cool, and can lend an enticing spark of after-dark glamour to an otherwise blandly everyday indie scene. A new crop of bands is coming up, influenced by, and rooted in the post-punk origins of goth. They have no truck with scenester stuff – in fact, they probably don't even know the goth scene exists. They play gigs anywhere they can get a booking, and – crucial point here – defiantly use the dreaded g-word to describe themselves. Now, in a haze of white light and billowing smoke, let's meet a band that exemplifies all of the above: S.C.U.M.

Reverb piles up like driven snow. The musicians are mere shapes in the fog. Thunderous sonic drama fills the air, and here comes S.C.U.M's frontman, unfeasibly tall and gesticulating mightily at the organ loft. He's part Peter Murphy, part windmill. But his extravagances work – because S.C.U.M are unashamedly, gloriously, in-your-face and over the top. They're a bad trip Bauhaus, a psychedelic Suicide, every rock 'n' roll nightmare David Bowie ever had, filtered through a tea strainer fashioned from scratchy old copies of PiL's Metal Box. There are two keyboards, no guitar. Every sound is treated to with an inch of its life: for S.C.U.M, effects are just another instrument. The vocals are a mass of shuddering reverb, dubbed-out demonics amid the sepulchral rumble.

It's impossible not to be impressed by the band's defiant melodramatics and the surreal, dreamscape atmosphere of the performance, even as the left side of your brain is saying 'Oh, come off it!' Although I've seen S.C.U.M before, in daylight, in a tent at the Offset Festival, this, I think is much more their natural habitat: in darkness and artificial light, amid smoke and electricity, and in a sixteenth century church, to boot. You can't beat the spectacle, that's for sure.

The sound rolls implacably forward: the band's debut single, 'Visions Arise', is delivered with an extra dose of dramatics (and this is a band which doesn't stint on the dramatics at the best of times) until it towers like Orthanc over the rest of the set. Meanwhile, the bassist fixes the crowd with a baleful blue-eyed stare, as if he's imagining what we'd look like, impaled on meat hooks and hidden in his wardrobe. The drummer thwacks implacably, and the twin keyboard players gaze about as if expecting gargoyles to swoop on them at any minute. I notice, incidentally, that one keyboard player is wearing tasselled loafers, shoes so incongrously at odds with the band's overall aesthetic that I can only assume the stylist was out to lunch when the footwear decisions were made. Get that man some pointy boots!

Everything moves towards a crescendo. The singer climbs upon the altar. With great forbearance, the Lord does not strike him down with a thunderbolt. Then he's up on the PA stacks, messing with the light fittings, as the sound boils to a climax. It all ends with a throb of heavily reverbed electronics, and the crash of a trashed drumkit. God takes his earplugs out and the dust settles. St Leonard's church has survived unscathed. Roll on the next four hundred years.

Essential links:

S.C.U.M: MySpace

KASMs: MySpace

The Spectrometers: MySpace

An Experiment On A Bird In The Air Pump: MySpace


For more photos from this gig, find the bands by name here.



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  Page credits: Review, photos and construction by Michael Johnson.
Nemesis logo by Antony Johnston, Red N version by Mark Rimmell.