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When: June 22, 2013

It took Watkin Tudor Jones and Anri Du Toit, better known as Die Antwoord‘s Ninja and Yolandi Vi$$er, a long time to find success. Yet all those years spent beavering away in the South African underground scene has clearly developed a talent for generating cult appeal. Outlandish videos, shock lyricism, twisted sex appeal, a fondness for breaking taboos and even a range of hand-stitched ‘chommie’ toys are all weapons they’ve enthusiastically employed on a meteoric rise that has ensured this Brixton Academy show sold out months ago.

Like many, my knowledge of Die Antwoord’s music stemmed from watching their fascinatingly fucked up videos, such as the Roger Balan-directed ‘I Fink You Freeky’ or the colourful, Gaga-baiting chaos of ‘Fatty Boom Boom’. So I had no idea what to expect from one of their live shows, nor what sort of crowd they’d attract; a fair amount of tattoos and dyed hair was a given, but aside from the not-quite-metallers-ravers-punks-or-crusties-but-would-probably-describe-themselves-as-‘alternative’-in-a-personal-ad brigade, would the tweed jacket and Moleskine notebook of a cultural studies tutor be visible amidst the throng?

After all, as James Stevens suggests in the second part of his self-made documentary on ‘Waddy’ Tudor Jones (which is worth a watch if you want to see how he ended up going zef-side), “perhaps it’s the paradox of a smart person making seemingly low-brow music, but the group have proven irresistible bait to many a critical theorist”. Much like Eminem or Marilyn Manson before them, or even Kanye now, there’s clearly a method and artistic sensibility behind the occasionally monstrous product, but with Die Antwoord there’s also a difficult to penetrate cultural exoticism that, even if it’s largely fictional, is hard to resist.

Judging by some of the more outlandish outfits being sported on the way up Brixton Road, many haven’t tried to resist it either. While there are plenty of Yolandi-style hotpants and the inevitable students in kigus, there are also a few people verging into the realm of cos-play – not least the bloke with all of Ninja’s tattoos temporarily inked onto his body-painted torso. Yet whether dressed-up or dressed-down, one thing seems to unite everyone being frisked at the doors – they’re all up for a party.

Which must be a relief to Zebra Katz, whose fairly simple task is to warm up an already simmering crowd. Rapping over a DJ alongside accomplice Njena Reddd Foxxx, he is slightly hampered by the horribly muddy Academy sound, which, considering the minimalism of his music, is kind of unforgivable on the venue’s part. Luckily his delivery – like a smoother, less bombastic Mykki Blanco – is fine; although it’s the exuberant Reddd Foxxx who really steals the show, totally making the small patch of stage they’ve been allotted her own. And while Zebra Katz’ breakout track ‘Ima Read’ (with its notorious repetition of ‘bitch’ 87 times) sounds a little gimmicky, tracks like ‘Y I Do’ still ring true. While his reliance on trap rhythms might prove a hindrance at some point, for now it’s working pretty well.

By now the crowd is fully hyped, but there’s a bit of a wait yet – thanks to Zebra Katz’ set starting late and the obligatory fifteen minutes of low house lights and weird noises without anything actually happening, Die Antwoord’s eventual appearance is almost an hour late. Not that the crowd are bothered – just the appearance of DJ Hi Tek behind the decks is enough to get people screaming, and when the hooded but unmistakable figure of Yolandi skips onstage those screams become ear-splitting.

They kick off with a righteous run through ‘Fok Julle Naaiers’, the track that precipitated their split from Interscope, partly thanks to a title that roughly translates as the slogan on the t-shirt Yolandi soon reveals: ‘Fuck You, You Fucking Fuck’. Of course, when Ninja follows her lead and discards his hoodie there is no t-shirt underneath – just the familiar sight of his scribbly abdomen, and then, seconds into ‘Wat Kyk Jy?’, the equally familiar sight of him gleefully thrusting his cock at the crowd.

It’s a high-octane start, but as it turns out they haven’t left themselves many more gears to shift through. While Yolandi, Ninja and even Hi-Tek are energetic and expressive enough for their simple set-up to remain entertaining, you’d have thought, seeing as this is one of only two UK shows, that they’d have a few more tricks up their sleeve. Instead we only get the addition of a couple of dancers half-way through and an inflatable version of the comically-endowed fetish figure from the ‘Evil Boy’ video, although he looks a little sad shunted out to the side of the stage despite the comforting presence of his massive member.

A rapturously received ‘Fatty Boom Boom’ is a set highlight, while an unexpected cover of ‘Pitbull Terrier’ from Emir Kusturica’s brilliant film ‘Black Cat White Cat’ is also a good laugh and seems pretty appropriate – with Kusturica sometimes being accused of exploiting gypsy culture in his native Serbia in much the same way that Die Antwoord have been accused of doing so with the township communities of the Cape Flats. Yet the non-appearance of ‘Cookie Thumper’, the video of which was premiered only days earlier, is equally surprising – while it may not be their best song, it’s conspicuous by its absence.

Still, the audience doesn’t seem to care. As ‘Never Le Nkemise 2’ draws a close to Ninja’s machine gun rapping and Yolandi’s piercing delivery (which is even more high-pitched in real life), the performers kneel down in front of the crowd and remain there for a couple of minutes, heads bowed, while cheers wash over them in spittle-flecked waves. An encore of ‘Enter The Ninja’ draws an even louder response, but a single song encore seems a little skimpy considering their set still runs shy of an hour.

Combined with the between song patter being limited to the usual ‘it’s great to be here, London’ inanities, you’re left feeling like this was just one more stop on the tour – job done, move on. Perhaps the many risks that the band have taken during their career have been carefully considered, just as their personas have been expertly cultivated, as there seems little inclination to take too many risks tonight. It’s an energetic, professional performance, but the spectacular visual elements of the band’s videos is frequently lacking (although having a bunch of fan art projected onstage is a nice touch).

They famously turned down the chance to support Lady Gaga on tour, in a canny move that gained them more column inches than the tour itself probably would have done. Yet you wonder whether doing it might at least have given them a few more ideas in terms of staging. It’s not like Die Antwoord need to be shooting fireworks from their tits, but a few more fireworks generally wouldn’t go amiss.

“I feel sorry for people who ask us “is it real?””, is how Ninja once responded to accusations of phoniness. I don’t think many people here tonight really give a shit how real it is to be honest. But if Die Antwoord is just theatre, then maybe there should be a bit more, well, theatre?

Previous in Live

Review: The Knife at the Roundhouse

Review: The Knife at the Roundhouse
    Without You My Live Would Be Boring - The Knife, Pan’s People and Pushing Buttons

I wonder if the Knife aren't enjoying being famous any more. Perhaps 'Heartbeats' and 'Silent Shout' launched them onto a wider scene than they feel comfortable with, and now they’re trying to dismantle as much of their mainstream appeal as possible. People are calling the record pretentious nonsense, and they’re putting on live shows that people are walking out of. Something tells me they don’t mind. I went to see them at the the Roundhouse last week, and behind me there was a man who spent a good chunk of the show shouting at Karin Dreijer Andersson to ‘do some singing’. After about ten minutes of pretending to play imaginary instruments made out of papier mache and tinfoil, the ten piece ‘band’ crossed their hands (and drumsticks, and glowstick bows) above their heads as the music burst on without them. In case it wasn’t clear, the music was not being generated on stage. They proceeded to prance about for the next hour and twenty. I’d been forewarned that the show was like a cross between Pan’s People, a cheap drama school production, and “Riverdance for cunts”. All these elements were present. The whole thing smelt of 70s Doctor Who, 80s aerobics, 90s acid and 00s titting-about-on-youtube. The vocal line was intermittently mimed by different people, to the point where I had no idea if Karin Dreijer Andersson was even on stage, let alone emitting noises from her vocal chords. I have no idea whether Olof Dreijer, Karin’s brother and musical partner, was even in the country. It was well lit, and it looked like fun. Despite being cheap and amateurish, it was constantly shifting, often disconcerting, and genuinely funny. More than anything though, it was thought provoking. From where I was standing, the man behind me getting increasingly irate at his wasted thirty quid seemed the more absurd one. What exactly are you paying for, when you buy a gig ticket? Where exactly does the authentic experience of live music lie? I’ve seen Matthew Herbert play with equipment scattered around different bits of the stage - in a tent or up a ladder - so that everything can go wrong and sound horrible, just so you know he’s doing it live. I’ve seen Orbital’s so called ‘best live show ever’ that’s basically just a fuckload of lasers and a Belinda Carlisle/Bon Jovi mashup. I’ve heard stories of Aphex Twin delivering live sets that have actually been generated by artificial intelligence on his computer, with him having no input whatsoever. And most frequently I’ve seen hundreds of acts hunched over laptops, producing unexciting noise and providing nothing to look at but a glowing white apple (sometimes with a sticker over it for anti-corporate credibility). And that’s just the electronic stuff. I’ve seen Born Ruffians play with a lead singer who couldn’t perform his set properly because his voice was too broken for high notes. I’ve watched Caribou just be incredibly fucking tedious. I’ve seen umpteen grumpy long-haired teenagers (or older musicians with the same mental age) staring away from the audience while they create new definitions of mediocrity. The crowds though, we eat it up. We jostle to get to the front of the stage so we can be closer to the sullen faces of our ‘heroes’. We’ll happily stare at four people, in the same pose, going through the same motions: an endless simulacra of a tired cliché. We’ll get pissed off at the tall person in front of us, grabbing angrily at his lustrous curly locks (I get this a lot), despite there being nothing whatsoever to see. What is a great live show? A horde of arseholes staring at a smaller horde of other arseholes. That, obviously, is a lie - but a truly great live show should be a musical feat. Top of my list is the Boredoms performing 'Boadrum' with 9 drummers. The Knife had no drummers, but two drumkits, and I’m pretty sure someone was hitting a mega-cello at one point. But it didn’t matter. For me, it was incredible. I’ve fooled myself into believing that Olof, the sibling responsible for the music, was actually tucked away behind stage somewhere adding a live element to the soundscapes. Part of me refuses to believe that it was purely a backing track. From the violently reverberating bass exploration at the opening - sounds that tore through your flesh and worried your bowels - to the relentless battering drums of ‘Full of Fire’, the music seemed too perfectly moulded to the space and the speakers to be entirely pre-recorded. Either way, the music was absolutely the star of the show. The sound was visceral and all encompassing. It wrapped you up and pulled your body around. It was everything I wanted. So whatever the show looked like, it sounded amazing. Could it have sounded ‘more live’? I have no idea. What does that even mean, in a world where the music is generated not in echo chambers and vibrating strings, but by the twist of electrons on a circuit board? Why do people get angry when an artist acknowledges that they’ve made music that is going to make a dreadful live show if all they do is press the right buttons? Why do we celebrate people for making impossible musical structures, and then get upset that they don’t do a limp-wristed acoustic version in person? The whole show seemed to demand a deeper definition of ‘authentic’, ‘live’ and ‘performance’. Famous for atmospheric, laser-laden audiovisual extravaganzas, The Knife's sucker-punchline came at the end. They played 'Silent Shout' and revealed they still had the incredible laser box from their last tour - they'd just chosen not to bother with it till now. The tone of everything shifted as people gazed upwards at intricate patterns etched onto smoke by the perpetually re-arranging lights. It felt like a rebuff: ‘This is what our last live show was like, and it was just the same as this: distracting nonsense’. A live show with a non-musical visual element is fine. A live show that may not be live is fine. A great live show is nothing more than a presentation of some music: if that music effects you, if that presentation takes you somewhere, then the live show is a success. Particularly if it takes you where the band want you to go. That’s art. And you don’t get your money back if you think it’s shit. Maybe the Knife have destroyed their reputation as great live performers. Maybe next time they won’t sell out all their venues in an hour. Maybe next time they’ll tour smaller venues, and be left with a hardcore of queers, freaks and weirdos that still love them whatever, the ones who get the gender-bent artifice of the whole thing. Maybe that was the point. Also, it’s possible that I only enjoyed the show because I'd been forewarned. If I’d gone expecting lasers and darkness and I got Pan’s People and glitter, maybe I too would’ve been pissed off. But then, I once hitch-hiked to Germany to watch their opera, which they weren’t even present at, and it was still incredible. Maybe I’m the problem here. Maybe I just refuse to believe I wasted a healthy chunk of my meagre income on going to watch an episode of Top of the Pops. But part of me knows that it was a brutal, powerful, intense and dark experience. Part of me was transported, and that’s all I’ve ever asked of music. by Alex Allsworth
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