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This Tawdry Affair
An Experiment On A Bird In The Air Pump

Hoxton Square Bar And Kitchen, London
Sunday November 2 2008


The designer concrete bunker of Hoxton Square Bar And Kitchen – an oddly prosaic name for a venue that clearly thinks it's pretty goshdarned hip – has a secret lurking out the back. Thread your way through the drinking zone, do a sharp swivel into that mysteriously dark corridor on your right, and, unexpectedly, a live music venue suddenly opens up before you. Here, traditional rock 'n' roll values rule. There's a stage at one end of the room, a bar at the other. And everything's painted matt black. It could almost be the dear old Marquee, although there is no Marquee-style sticky floor. But then, the Hoxton Square Bar And Kitchen is still a relatively new venue. Give it time.

Tonight's gig brings together an assortment of bands from what the NME, in its wisdom, has decided to call 'New Goth' - and what I, in my foolishness, prefer to call the 'non-scene'. Welcome to the twilight zone of current new wave music, populated by bands who draw many of their influences and inspirations from the original wave of early-80s post-punk, new wave, no wave, proto-goth bands.

There's a lot of this stuff about just now, paradoxically happening entirely under the radar of the goth scene, which on the face of it you'd think would be its natural territory (the non-scene as opposed to the goth scene – geddit?). Alas, the goth scene has largely An Experiment On A Bird In The Air Pumpdwindled to a costume convention for the dress-up-and-party crowd these days, with an indiscriminate soundtrack that encompasses anything from heavy metal to eighties chart hits. Speaking as an old post-punker who still carries a torch for the original aesthetic, that's not what I signed up for. Under such circumstances the non-scene looks far more interesting. And tonight, we have a useful opportunity to sample a few of the new bands coming out of this area.

Whatever generic term we're using this week, An Experiment On A Bird In The Air Pump transcend it. Here they come, three Birds, three drums, and now two (count 'em, two) bass guitars, holding down the opening slot with a pile of other acts above them. They're still a new band, and certainly unfamiliar to many of tonight's audience, but it surely won't be long before they're moving up the rankings. They've paid their dues on the gig circuit - and anyway, they're good.

With a tattoo on the drums and a low-down rumble of bass, the Birds roll out their grime-encrusted no-wave soul anthems, like The Slits produced by Phil Spector. With the drums/bass/another bass/vocals/nothing else line-up, the sound is as physical as a dig in the ribs, but nevertheless the Birds deal in real songs, not mere rhythmic workouts. Vocal switchbacks, instrument and vocal swapping a-go-go (hear the sound of the band subtly shift as the band members shift around) - there's even some nifty Genesis P-Orridge-style noise bass in there too.You can't nail An Experiment On A Bird in the Air Pump down to a handy batch of influences, and in this musical area, where bands often wear their influences on their sleeves, that's rare. In many ways they're the most out-there band out there right now, but their secret weapon is that they're never less than accessible.

This Tawdry Affair look endearingly like an A-level music project that has somehow escaped from the school common room. They're young and keen and flusteringly inefficient, frowning and fussing, continually calling for monitor levels to be adjusted this way or that. When some unspecified problem occurs with the guitar - exacerbated by the fact that the guitar amp is inexplicably positioned as far away from the guitarist as it's possible to get without actually leaving the venue - the keyboard player stages an exquisitely dainty strop. She stalks to the side of the stage and sits down, on strike until someone sorts it all out and it's safe for her to return.

Add to this the band's propensity for instrument-swapping (which does seem to be the cool thing for bands to do these days - I blame those Experimental Birds, they started it and now every bugger is doing it) and the set never quite hits any real momentum. It's all stop and start, problems and adjustments, frowns and fusses and exquisitely dainty strops. But for all that, there's a good band in there somewhere, a tough but tender take on that Throwing Muses style female fronted wave pop, songs like blue light and glass, pre-dawn peans to angst and romance. Potentially, it's good stuff, and it's rather frustrating that the band doesn't quite make it out of second gear tonight. This Tawdry Affair just need to aquaint themselves with solid rock 'n' roll virtues such as Keeping it Simple, Winging It By The Seat Of Your Pants, and Ploughing On Regardless.

This Tawdry Affair / Project:Komakino

Back in the early 90s, I recall there was quite an outbreak of bands heavily influenced by the Sisters Of Mercy – sometimes to the point of trying to reproduce a note-perfect facsimilie of the Sisters sound on a bedroom budget, an ambition that, by and large, was exactly as successful as you'd expect. Here in the twenty-first century, it seems that Joy Division is the primary influence du jour. I keep falling over bands who have clearly assimilated the essentials of the Joy Division sound – Dragons, O Children, and now Project:Komakino.

Here they are: four taciturn gents, heads down and introspective, and – naturally – all dressed in black, playing rumbling, sepulchral, down-in-the-basement post-punk anthems, with the stage lighting turned down to practically nothing. The message is clear: this band is no stranger to the exquisite bleakness of the soul as they struggle through the all-encompassing existential darkness of life. Or something like that. Not for the first time, I'm struck by the irony of something as downright gothic as this happening entirely separately from, and under the nose of, the goth scene. If Project:Komakino were a goth scene band I suspect they'd be hailed as conquering heroes. Here in the non-scene they have to endure a more rigourous scrutiny. Project:Komakino's self-effacing stage presence – they're merely hunched figures in the darkness – means that the show is carried by the music alone, and once you've clocked the all-pervasive Joy Division influence, it does rather become a kind of all-purpose rumble-grumble without much to snag the memory or stick in the head. You can't miss Project:Komakino's devotion to their chosen aesthetic and their main influence, but putting a little of themselves into the mix wouldn't go amiss, either.

In a flurry of net skirts and extravagant eyelashes, Rachel Callaghan, lead shrieker with KASMs, hurls herself with equal abandon into the music and off the stage. KASMs aren't so much a band as a randomly chucked fragmentation grenade, a rush-release of energy set to landslide rhythms and guitar lines like fingernails running down corrugated iron.

But the KASMs experience isn't entirely chaotic. Somewhere in the shrieking and freaking the band does have Proper Songs, with verses and choruses and all that traditional stuff. 'Toil And Trouble' stalks menacingly through the undergrowth; 'Siren Sister' is all accusing melodramatics followed by pounding dash to the fall-apart finishing line, the call-and-response chimes of the guitar lending vital punctuation to the racket. I suspect, at some point in the future, KASMs will have to rein in the elements of chaos and bring a little more control to bear on their live show – there's a limit to how long you can get away with the shriek-freak-and-jump-off-stage routine, and anyway, while it might work in a smallish venue, it'll be a lot harder to pull off if the band ever find themselves playing the Brixton Academy. But for now, they're a crackling lightning strike of energy, and I'll certainly have some of that. Their set, when it crashes to a conclusion, leaves me breathless, even though I've done nothing more strenuous than dodge Rachel Callaghan's flying leaps into the crowd.


It's as if S.C.U.M decided to throw down a challenge: to see if a shamelessly, extravagantly, ludicrously gothic band can win the attention of the music media. And, astoundingly enough, given the media's lengthy antipathy to anything remotely goth-ish, right now the answer is yes. The NME seems to think that S.C.U.M are kinda kewl. Verily the goalposts have shifted.

And yes, S.C.U.M are indeed as uber-gothic as all get-out. They brew up a broiling tempest of sound, like the soundtracks to every horror movie ever made minced up and treated to a shedload of reverb. Reverb plays a big part in the S.C.U.M sound – in fact, it's not too far-fetched to say that it is the S.C.U.M sound. If it wasn't for the implacable grind of the bass guitar lending an essential element of structure to the billowing clouds of spooked-out sound, S.C.U.M would be some kind of nightmare ambient outfit. There's certainly very little of the familiar landscape of rock 'n' roll discernible under the big black cloud of S.C.U.M-noise – and not a lot to look at, either. Like Project:Komakino, S.C.U.M do it with the lights out. The stage is entirely dark, aside from a solitary strobe flickering at floor level. The band members are either starkly lit by momentary white flashes, or mere shadows in the blackness. Black or white, light or dark. S.C.U.M don't deal in in-betweens. The vocalist, hollering grandly and unintelligibly throughout, makes extravagant gestures and throws melodramatic shapes in a manner that would be faintly risible if it wasn't for the fact that he's utterly serious about every move (although I'm not sure if he's serious about his unfeasibly tent-like trousers). It's all quite a spectacle, that's for sure. But is it anything more than a spectacle?

S.C.U.M flyerIf S.C.U.M see themselves as a band with a future, I suspect that somewhere down the line they're going to have to scale back the extravagances and throw their audience the occasional bone of an intelligible song or two. Ramping up the reverb and throwing shapes in darkness has a certain visceral thrill, but it's a fairly flimsy basis for a band that wants to hang around.

The media won't be on side for ever - one day, the NME will decide that New Goth isn't quite so cool after all. Let's face it, the NME still puts Oasis on the cover. They haven't changed their attitude all that much. And, in that kind of scenario, starved of the oxygen of publicity and the nutrition of being cool beans, would S.C.U.M have what it takes to survive?

And that's a pertinent point to ponder overall. Is the non-scene going to stick around and become a subcultural strand of substance? Like any such phenomenon, it has good bits and not so good bits, good bands and less-good bands. It has stars in the making and a number of genuine creative forces. It has a smattering of could-be-goods and a few gimmicky chancers. How it'll all shake down is anybody's guess. Right now it's all still so new that it would be rather previous to pass any sweeping judgments. But I'll say this: the fact that this stuff exists at all is encouraging. The fact that it's new and growing, seething with potential, and rooted in a genuine interest in creative, left-field music gives it a definite edge over most other stuff that's happening at present, and it certainly trounces the goth scene, which blunted its edge long ago. Frankly, at this point I'll take the non-scene over the goth scene any day. In fact, if I could get it into a carrier bag, I'd happily take the non-scene home with me tonight.


Essential links:

S.C.U.M: MySpace
KASMs: MySpace
Project: Komakino: MySpace
This Tawdry Affair: 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.