Static Age ’09
RENÉ SCHAEFER reports from Saturday’s Static Age festival, which brought some of Australia’s finest practitioners of unpopular music to Melbourne’s Lithuanian Club. Photos by ROBERT CARBONE.
Ostensibly this was the fourth installment of the Static Age festival, after a shaky beginning in Melbourne a few years ago and two peripherally related warehouse events in Sydney, which drew together some of Australia’s finest practitioners of unpopular music. Having absorbed the lesson that in order to present challenging new music to a wider audience it helps to have a surefire headline act, organiser Robbie McManus structured this night around an appearance by touring American noise-rock duo Lightning Bolt. A reputation for delivering insanely intense live shows certainly did the trick to boost crowd numbers, but by no means detracted from the quality and diversity of the local content.
Staging Static Age at North Melbourne’s Lithuanian Club added a surreal touch. A relic from a bygone era, the atmosphere was somewhere between a 1960s reception centre and a Masonic lodge. The walls were festooned with yellowing photographs of long-ago cultural events and odd religious artifacts, the significance of which escaped most attendees. The bar served the requisite unpronounceable ethnic beers, which people had to down very quickly in the five minute windows of opportunity between acts as no alcohol was allowed in the two performance spaces. This reenactment of the six-o’clock swill ensured maximum liver damage in a minimum amount of time, but also meant that the bar became the social hub of the event, albeit with conversations curtailed in the manner of speed daters before rushing off to catch the next set.
First up in the not so stately “Ballroom” was the duo of Liam Andrews and Rohan Rebeiro, both from My Disco. Much like their main band, the music the bass player and drummer produced was all about minimalist repetition and groove. In the first of two tunes Andrews laid down a Death Disco bass line that would have made Jah Wobble jealous, while the drums took the lead and skittered off on tangential rhythms. Then the pair got down to business with an unrelenting single note riff and precise beat over some farty laptop noises. Much like My Disco, this may sound boring on paper, but was hugely compelling in actuality, with a logic all of its own.
After a quick pit-stop at the bar, people filtered into the “Theatre Room”, which lived up to its name by actually being a seated area with a stage. The Whulge played a short set of songs that drew on inspirations as diverse as post-punk and spy movie music, before mutating into some echo-laden dub act that would not have sounded out of place on Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound record label. Centred around singer Chris Pugmire and bassist Melissa Lock, two ex-members of Seattle band Shoplifting now residing in Australia, the band was rounded out by some familiar faces, with Sir’s Jesse Shepherd contributing keyboards and ex-Bird Blob Steve Masterson behind the kit.
From the tasteful to the extreme, next up was the incomparable Justice Yeldham (aka Sydney sound artist Lucas Abela). Kneeling in the centre of the Ballroom’s parquetry floor, with only his customary mic’ed up broken window pane and effects pedals as props, Abela demonstrated once again why he is regarded as one of Australia’s foremost experimental musicians. The sounds he coaxed from the splintered glass by using it as a mouth-piece were as eloquent as any saxophonist’s improvisation. The clearly rapt audience gave Abela a massive round of applause that he sheepishly waved off with the comment, “It’s finished”.
Brisbane group Abject Leader made the most of the physical space of the theatre in their performance, which incorporated multiple film projections and a musique concrète soundtrack. Found Super 8 film footage hovered across the walls, moving in and out of focus to create abstract patterns while lights shining from behind the projectionists on the balcony made their shadows part of the overall work. Excerpts from motivational tapes and grating industrial and electronic sounds accompanied flickering home movies that overlapped with close-ups of squashed insects, seemingly caught in the gate of the projector. Seeing film projected not just on a central screen effectively subverted the audience’s expectations of the cinematic experience. Without getting too wanky about it, there were echoes of Dadaist and Situationist techniques at work that actually succeeded in involving viewers, as demonstrated by the fact that people started providing their own soundtrack when the PA briefly conked out.
Back in the “rock” arena, Adelaide screamo stoner rock band Robotosaurus were unintentionally hilarious. Sounding exactly as the combination of those two descriptors would imply, they married sludgey riffs with a hyperactive vocalist who came across like Daffy Duck doing an impression of Henry Rollins. The lurching synchronised stage moves of the bass player and two guitarists, including simultaneous guitar thrusts and half-turns to face the drummer at strategic moments, could almost have been a parody of Status Quo’s old tricks. I somehow doubt it though.
I was more impressed with rapper Ivens (aka David Coen), who played his blend of gabba and industrial noise hip-hop to a seated audience. Attempting some closer interaction, Coen walked across chair backs as far as his microphone lead would allow. I was told that this was one of the last performances he would do under the Ivens moniker, as he is starting up a new project. It will be very interesting to see where this will take him.
I had planned to have a strategic break during Naked On The Vague’s set. Nevertheless, I ventured up to the stage to catch the last couple of songs. Having last seen them play on the big stage at The Corner Hotel for Flip Out, I preferred the slightly less stadium-esque sound on this occasion, but still didn’t really get into it. On a purely visceral level I just don’t respond to NOTV, and no amount of critical analysis has enabled me to work out why that is. Maybe that’s one of the great things about music though – when you love something, you love it with your entire being. When you don’t, there’s nothing you can do.
I can’t say I have any such ambivalence toward Primitive Calculators, who put in an intense set of their patented misanthropic throb. In my utopian fantasy ‘Cunt Life’ would be our national anthem and frontman Stuart Grant would be hosting the ARIA awards. The Calculators elicited some spirited dancing in the theatre aisles and were clearly having a blast. For once the guitar was loud enough in the mix and I could detect their indebtedness to Billy Thorpe and The Aztecs, as proclaimed in their bio. That is if The Aztecs popped up in some kind of Alan Vega suburban nightmare. The band later informed me that they are planning to take a well-deserved break soon to work on new material. 2009 truly has been an astounding year for the Calculators, in which their ambitious aspirations that were thwarted 30 years ago finally came to an unlikely fruition.
As one band was reborn, another prepared to take its final bow. This was Grey Daturas’ third-last show ever. They have certainly put in the hard yards over the years, with numerous albums, consistently stunning live shows and several grueling world tours. Repetition has honed their gigs to the point of maximum impact – not bad for a band that doesn’t actually play songs as such. Starting off with all three members manipulating guitars and pedals to produce eerie drones, eventually Rob Mayson got behind the kit to kickstart the heavy stoner riffage. Bonnie Mercer was throwing all sorts of axe-heroine shapes, while festival organiser McManus eventually took over on the drums for a final section that hammered home their wall-of-guitar onslaught. What are we going to do without them?
Embers Big Band were easily as polarising as Naked On The Vague, and neatly illustrated the subjectivity of taste. This jazz-skronk outfit always blows my mind and their performance at Static Age was no exception. But what I consider to be absolute genius can be somebody else’s tuneless wailing mess, and a sizeable portion of the crowd fled the room before the end of their set, also probably hoping to find a prime viewing position for Lightning Bolt who were setting up in the ballroom. A pity, because Embers Big Band make some of the most thrilling improvised music in this, or any other, country.
Two drummers flanked the stage, trading off rhythms that were equal parts free jazz and power metal (they even briefly quoted Iron Maiden towards the end), while bassist Dave Brown’s deconstructed grooves still managed to hold proceedings together. Two sax maniacs wailed and honked with a constant intensity, while a guest guitarist tortured his instrument Arto Lindsay-style at the back. While the band presented as a sonic battering ram, there were infinite subtleties at work in the shifting dynamics that made every moment a brand new discovery. Holy shit, this was good, and a perfect rounding off for the Australian portion of the night. I left with a huge grin on my face and almost felt like I didn’t need to see Lightning Bolt after these fireworks.
Fitting somewhere between the more populist Flip Out and the slightly more esoteric What Is Music events, Static Age is a fine and successful addition to Melbourne’s festival calendar. That all of these festivals manage to draw decent audience numbers pays testament to the old adage: if you build it, they will come.
More photos here