Over the last four years, Convergence has metaphorically slathered itself with prime musical cement and solidified its place in London’s festival calendar. At a time when many music festivals that focus on less mainstream acts are struggling to survive (with the sadly stillborn Safe As Milk the latest to go into administration), Convergence consistently packs crowds into the some of the capital’s best music venues to see a diverse but quality range of adventurous music.
As always, there was too much at this year’s Convergence for once person to see everything. In fact, even with three writers in attendance we still missed out on loads of stuff we’d have liked to have seen. Nonetheless, here is a snapshot of just some of the delights that were on offer, from euphoric electronics to ear-splitting drones. Oh yeah, and some musical plate-spinning…
Tuesday: Convergence Opening Party with Rival Consoles, Noga Erez, Mr Mitch & Myriam Bleau
I’d argue that no act of the festival met the music+art+technology brief quite as masterfully as Myriam Bleau, who kicked things off with her Soft Revolvers performance. Definitely click on that hyperlink back there – I’m going to try and explain it now, but it really has to be seen to be believed. Bleau stood before a table with four spinning tops, each one of which was programmed with a sample. The faster the spinning, the faster the sample played; change the direction and the sample would play backwards. In an unstoppable flurry of movements, Bleau literally kept all the plates spinning to form a series of intricate compositions, with the tops lighting up in sync with the texture of the music.
Towards the end, she began setting off new tops around the floor of the stage, and in response the audience, spaced throughout the room until that point, made a spontaneous, unspoken agreement to rush to the front of the stage. It was an eerie, almost worshipful movement, and there were definitely sheepish vibes on resurfacing when the set finished a couple of minutes later; like enjoying a nightclub grind a bit too much before the lights get switched on.
Next up was Mr Mitch, instrumental grime producer and general genre-hopping magician, who presided over us in a dramatic silhouette against smoky red and orange backlighting. To begin with he built up ambitious soundscapes, spanning from industrial sound collages through to pounding grime beats and euphoric electronica. These more disjointed ideas later moved into much more poppy, heavily sampled territory, which didn’t feel quite as suited to the Convergence prerogative. Mr Mitch still dusted these later songs with all sorts of embellishments though, elevating it far beyond your average DJ set.
Noga Erez then swaggered on to stage. Live, she combines her plucky electro pop with staccato dance moves, and the drum pad skills of an equally dynamic assistant. The backing track still played a strong part on Tuesday night, and it takes a lot of stage presence to fill non-instrumental moments: I’m not sure Erez is quite there yet, but it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on how her stage show develops. Musically, as-yet-unreleased tracks boded well: a song which I’m guessing was called ‘Off the Radar’ went in a more obviously garage direction, and Erez was completely at home on this terrain.
Rival Consoles was always going to be a sure-fire success to headline the opening night: the Village Underground sound system was a match made in heaven for his bass-laced synthesiser constructions. The set opened with a dark, pounding urgency, and West made us wait before dropping in the eerily beautiful high notes which characterise his gorgeous Night Melody album. You’ll rarely see such moments of abandon in a Tuesday night audience, but this unassuming man from Leicester brought us all to that point through his meticulous manoeuvring of a serious set of analogue synths.
Tuesday: Sunn O))) & Hildur Guðnadóttir
Catharsis can come in many different forms, each one based entirely on the individual and what they are experiencing. My catharsis, as I’m about to find out, after a very uneasy and difficult weekend, will be in the form of watching the American drone metal band Sunn O))) at one of my favourite areas in London, the Barbican Centre.
I’ve never seen Sunn O))) live before, but I’ve heard plenty about them from people who have. People who claim it was so loud they felt like they were drowning in sound, people who claimed to have had a ‘higher experience’ (take that as you will) when listening to them. Ear plugs are handed to us as we enter (an excellent sign) and we take our seat. Despite the fact we are sitting quite high up towards the back of the theatre, everyone around us has already stuffed their ears up with the plugs (another excellent sign). As I mentioned, this is my first time seeing Sunn O))) live, so I’m not wasting my time with the plugs.
The support act is Icelandic cellist and vocalist Hildur Guðnadóttir. Sitting slightly to the left of the stage with just her cello and a range of pedals and backed by the huge stacks of speakers, she cuts a small figure. A single spotlight keeps her illuminated. She sits for a moment, immersed in the enormity of the centre itself, the silence from the audience. Then she begins. A slow, melancholy noise spreads out into the packed venue. It’s her voice, amplified and looped and it reverberates around the walls. She begins, not even plucking the strings but more tensing them, a grinding sound erupting forth from her cello. The two distinct sounds swirl around each other and wash over us. It is glorious. It lasts for a solid forty minutes. It is glorious.
Guðnadóttir takes a bow after her set and skips lightly off the stage. It’s time for the main event. The lights dim, silence befalls us. A figure takes to the stage, draped in black robes. This is Hungarian vocalist Attila Csihar, who has been performing with the band since 2003. His vocals are delivered in a language I cannot comprehend (possibly Hungarian, possibly made up) but they are immensely powerful, his octave range an instrument of its own. A smoke machine bellows smoke out next to him. After a while the rest of the band, also draped in their customary black hooded robes, take to the stage and the noise begins.
To say it’s a gig is an understatement. Watching Sunn O))) is an experience. It’s almost an art piece. The band play for a solid, uninterrupted hour and 40 minutes. The noise is unbelievable. Even sitting right at the back, it is still ridiculously loud. I can hear parts of the wall and ceiling rattling from the bass.
The noise slithers out from the stage, slowly and thickly like oil, covering all in front of it, drenching us, drowning us. There are times when I want to jump up and hit someone, there are times when I feel like I am staring at myself locked in an empty room and I feel incredibly small, a speck of dust floating in the vast unending blackness of the universe. There are times when I almost burst out laughing, times when I almost burst out crying.
Csihar leaves the stage at some point but returns later wearing a huge headdress comprised of shards of mirrors, huge beams of red lasers erupting from his hands and reflecting off the mirrors, cutting through the smoke which has now enveloped us all. In the final act he falls to his knees and shrieks into the microphone, the sounds otherworldly, like a pained wild animal in its final death throes.
After the show ends, my father and I leave and although I am talkative, something inside me has changed. Somehow, that wall of pure, chaotic noise has released something inside me. I’m feeling calm, at peace. I’m seeing everything clearly. My body is relaxed and feels a little like it’s floating. I didn’t go looking for catharsis tonight, but it goddamn found me. I leave the venue, a changed man, and walk into the glorious London night.
Wednesday: Daniel Lanois & Nosaj Thing
The lineup at Convergence is dizzyingly varied. Overwhelmed by the number of gigs to choose from, I asked one of my favourite ‘musical pharmacists’, DJ Danthrax of Toronto, to skim the listings and suggest something. Without skipping a beat: ‘I wouldn’t miss anything that Nosaj Thing is part of’. Given that Dan has never steered me wrong I gave it a shot without even listening to any of his music first (and it took me a while to realise the play on words in his name, only getting the joke when I spoke it aloud for my +1).
I’ve been scratching my head all day to think of how to describe the set, and the honest answer is that it was just blindingly good. Which is sometimes what the best music does: render you mute. Producing dance music that is simultaneously invigorating as well as slightly dark and relaxed is a pretty darn good feat in my books.
The venue – Koko – was a fantastic space for the night: the juxtaposition of modern American music inside a classic Victorian English space worked well, especially as the acoustics there are rather good. Only criticism though: dear god it was loud. Way too loud. I know the engineers were excited for the night, but take it down a notch next time guys.
If hyper-intelligent creatures from outer space decided to communicate with humans through the medium of country music, rather than say binary code or interstellar lasers, it would probably sound an awful lot like Daniel Lanois’s set at Convergence, a live instrumental performance of his latest album Goodbye to Language. A whooshing, romantic blend of pedal and lap steel guitars, it would have made the perfect soundtrack to a re-make of Brokeback Mountain set on the slopes of Olympus Mons (the tallest of the Martian summits).
If Lanois’s aim was indeed to ‘toss aside preconceived limitations of song and/or language to explore the emotional resonance of pure soundscapes’, as the Convergence promo put it, he succeeded. It felt like the entire room at KOKO was reverberating with emotional satellite transmissions – as if two floating spacecraft were whispering sweet nothings to each other. As testament to how accurate a description is, I wrote ‘sounds like romantic satellite transmissions’ in my notes – and then later read that Rolling Stone had described his work as ‘a spacious blur of echoes that can feel both massive and intimate’.
I am profoundly ashamed to reveal that I had no idea who Daniel Lanois was beforehand – I just checked out the Goodbye to Language on Spotify and thought ‘yep sounds good’. Lanois is – as I could guess from his name – from French Canada (like my own ancestors). He is the same age as my parents, worked with Neil Young and all the other Canadian folk giants, and without a doubt would have crossed paths at some point with my father. I of all people ought to know who he is.
But beyond being from the same musical world as myself, I should know who Lanois is from his impressive repertoire as a musician and producer, which includes work with Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, and the almighty Brian Eno. In particular Lanois co-produced with Eno The Joshua Tree, which is the only U2 album I like. Here I shall admit that I cannot hear ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ without getting covered in goosebumps and sometimes tearing up – you can’t deny it’s awesome, no matter how annoying Bono is today. (Sidenote: I’d like to round off the Toronto-U2-Music connection with a plug for a documentary about my friend DJ Mark Baker, a giant adorable kindergarten teacher in Toronto who is the world’s most famous black U2 fan. Enjoy.)
As Lanois’ set demonstrates: age hasn’t dimmed his creative originality or his musical idiosyncrasy in the slightest. Wonderful.
Thursday: Shobaleader One, Kode9 & Flamingods
Thursday night saw an unlikely trio of acts, with Flamingods, Kode9 and Shobaleader One joining together at the Village Underground. You could call it a case of Goldilocks and the three gigs: Flamingods’ psychedelic musings felt a bit too full of sunshine for a dark London night, whilst Kode9 warranted a much sweatier post-midnight environment. Finally, Shobaleader One’s intense, precision jazz was just perfect for the Village Underground setting and the Convergence crowd.
Nevertheless, I was glad to try Flamingods and Kode9 for size before settling on the headliner. The Flamingods stage was a treasure chest of mysterious instruments, with which they conjured up a honeyed atmosphere of reality-bending psychedelia and human togetherness. Their final song was an epic, 15-minute play on a single riff, bringing it in and out of focus and building to a delirious crescendo (or was it 5 minutes? Or 20? Flamingods do dangerous things to your sense of time).
Kode9’s brooding figure was in sharp contrast to Flamingods’ loveable chaos, and after the warmth of the opening act I wasn’t feeling particularly disposed to his atonal bass lines and harsh footwork rhythms. But there was hope: from its chilly beginnings, the set gradually spiralled into a white-hot centre. As with Rival Consoles, the deep power of the Village Underground sound system brought new meaning to Kode9’s repertoire: these tracks are made for the bass to come up through your shoes, leaving your ears redundant.
Shobaleader One’s giant of a set did its best to obliterate anything musical you’ve seen before or since. It is the live, jazz-infused invention of Squarepusher, and that is every bit as exhausting as it sounds. Smashing through the curfew, the quartet played with superhuman energy and technique for well over 90 minutes. The effect was comparable to Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator: being in a container hurled up through a building, faster and faster until we eventually broke through the roof and into the stratosphere.
The superhuman feeling was further increased by the light-up helmets the group had donned for the show (Daft Punk would be the lazy comparison), which displayed geometric shapes and patterns in line with the music. That combined with the incomprehensible speed of the drums, bass, keys and electric guitar did lead us to wonder if the stage was filled with automatons. Glorious, glorious automatons.
Saturday: Convergence Closing Party with Jacques Greene & Yves Tumor
The week ended with a crash and a bang at the Electric Brixton, where we arrived in time for a dramatic turn of events during Yves Tumor’s set. After triggering samples through blinding red and white strobes, he prowled the stage like a caged tiger tracing a perimeter fence. As he leaned provocatively into the crowd with blazing eyes, I did wonder if a perimeter fence might have been a good idea. The stage stalking continued for a while, and then at some point things started to slide wildly out of control: Tumor yelled for the lighting to be brought down (‘no emotion’ was a distinct request), and became deeply unhappy with the output from the monitors.
Given the ingrained aggression of his show, I wouldn’t want to call exactly when the shift from business-as-usual to meltdown happened, or who was to blame. Either way, the ending can’t have been too dissimilar from the bouncer brawls no doubt happening elsewhere in Brixton at the same time: Tumor was removed from the stage by security whilst sticking his finger up to the back of the stage.
I’m keen to stay neutral on this one – would I want to see Tumor again? Absolutely, his live show is the best kind of harrowing. Do I think the Convergence organisers messed up? Not sure that would be fair. I’d like the pair to make friends again one day, but Yves Tumor doesn’t strike me as the forgive-and-forget type.
Producer Jacques Greene followed with a decidedly less confrontational offering: tracks from his new album Feel Infinite were a welcome reminder that it was a Saturday night, and that is a time for dancing. Greene’s fresh synths and classic build-release moments met with euphoric shouts from the crowd, and were a fitting end to a cracking week of musical adventures.
Words: Emma Hall, Alex Platt & Zoe Cormier
Photos: Antonio Pagano