A Place To Bury Strangers
This was quite extreme. Which in the sense of despair that I am living, about music future and beyond music, it was perfect to bring me to some outer place for a change.
If mainstream music, especially in UK, seems to be leaving the jangly guitars for electronic loops, heading back to the plastic era of the 80s, it’s with a sense of hope that I start seeing signs of more basic stuff, emerging from the underground, to fight back.
If this is a consequence of My Blood Valentine reunion, or is the other way round, My Bloody Valentine reunited because they smelled their music was back in fashion, I don’t mind.
Fact is that My Bloody Valentine are back and when asked to curate one of the ATP festivals they have found plenty of bands happy to fill the line-up with elements of this dissident world. A new rock Vs pop war about to break out? Maybe. I know which side I will stand for.
A Place To Bury Strangers are among those ATP bands.
Local gigs are great ways to add a bit of a thrill in the crap midweek nights of our vague and short presence on planet earth.
When a band comes all the way from New York to treat its fans in the back room of a Cambridge pub, the last thing I want to do is to have an excuse not to go.
I happily didn’t find any, in fact I rode my scooter to (god save) the Portland Arms.
It’s late when A Place To Bury Strangers finish to set up their instruments and start playing. A couple of support bands, a couple of pints and a chat with friends is a much more pleasant way to let the time pass than twittering on a 3G phone. Being literally 3 minutes away from my bed, with no trains to catch, no replacement buses, no extra costs makes things easy.
A Place to Bury Strangers came to my attention recently as a combination of two coincident events.
First, I stumbled upon the cover of their latest CD, Exploding Head, at Rough Trade. At a first glance that undefined, abstract “black and white something” hit my curiosity and I pulled up the shop hearphones to give it a listen. I haven’t bought the CD there but decided to check their live dates, I always prefer to live check bands!
Second, I discovered that throughout their UK tour (apart from this date!) they were supported by the almighty Japandroids, probably my best surprise of the year.
A band so brave to come on stage after a live set by the Vancouver duo must be an interesting one to watch. No question.
APTBS (shortened) are from Brooklyn. Easy. A classic of present times.
Oliver Ackermann leads the band. He takes guitar and vocal duties but it’s definitely the axe he is in love with.
Shoegaze is defined by an uncompromising sound and APTBS music doesn’t do no concession. Distortion, reverb and feedback erupt from Oliver’s guitar generating multiple layers that add up an incredible number of decibels. The result is the audience floating in the room, sustained by a wall of guitar noise.
A Place to Bury Strangers have been defined “the loudest band in New York City” and I wouldn’t argue with that. Louder than this police would come to free the venue, switch the power off and arrest the owner and the musicians.
Earplugs are on sale as a band gadget. They advise you, no excuses.
Jono MOFO (odd name, I know, let’s trust Wiki) is the guy on bass. Physically he reminds me of Jimi Goodwin of the Doves. His style, however, is what I could imagine Peter Hook may have done in the place of New Order if Joy Division instead of had ended in 1980 would have in 1990. Raucous and persistent, obstinate at moments, nevertheless he is the one keeping a sort of melodic line while the guitar blasts.
Seeing his face, in the rare moments the fog generated by the smoke machines at his feet clears, he looks annoyed by the vicinity of my lenses, literally few inches from his instrument. Sorry man, hope you like the shots, though.
Is this the reason why he persists on is machine and saturates the room in smoke? Don’t know, the sensation of floating on a cloud, sustained by the noise is apparent, though. The best description of shoegaze I can think of.
Jay Space sits on drums and provides the solid foundations of the music despite it is built on a cloud and he is hidden in the cloud.
If the bass and the scarce vocal interventions are responsible for the melody, to match the noise, the precise drumming is responsible to keep the pieces within a sense of rhythm. Without it the entire construction would crumble. Tonight it sounds as solid as rock.
The gig starts in complete darkness with just a spotlight on the back who sends multiple rays. They become tiny circles on every surface they met. I am now worried about my chances of covering this gig, if it is not going to change there are no chance to have a single negative frame impressed.
The only signs of lights are the reflections on the guitar body and the Peroni (!?) bottles.
The music starts gloomy too. It needs a couple of songs to fill the room. Simultaneously the spotlight become stronger and shapes the figures through the smoke. Things start making sense. I start taking photos.
My ears, despite the plugs, are overwhelmed by the sonicwave. My eyes try to catch something out of those impossible conditions. I like it, though. Photographically I am stimulated by any challenging situation. After few hundreds bands shot over the years, I am bored to take pictures of teenage kids standing in front of a mic pole.
Such dramatic conditions are difficult but the challenge becomes the driving force. The contest that there is not a concert which will prevent me getting some shots. I am competitive I know, so competitive I compete against myself!
Being allowed to keep shooting for the length of the gig, with no security stopping me is a rapture. The reason why I am still preferring music on these stages then posh auditorium and halls.
Back to the music, not because things become easier. In the last 20 minutes while they are playing the most inflexible stuff of the set, I see bassist Jono MOFO kneeling down, again. This time he is not manipulating those bloody smoke machines, worse! He switches on a small strobe light at his feet. It will scatter the stage for the rest of the performance, relentlessly, creating that sort of slow motion effect strobe are intended for.
Beyond the fact that I can now count out the possibility of being even remotely epileptic, as a friend pointed out, the dramatic light effect combined with the uncompromising music the three are playing, makes this concert the closer thing to what I would define a radical music experience (excludes John Zorn grindcore projects).
Oliver Ackermann throws himself on his guitar, mistreats it, pulls the strings beyond the break-point, they go, he insists. With all the pedals on and all the volumes set at 11/10. The output is awesome, the soundtrack of the end of a city.
The ruins left are nothing else than… a place to bury strangers. Dicto.
Thankfully I count no casualties. We are all alive, happy and kicking, there is more to come. Another scratched guitar, white body, appears from the wreckage for more noise, more feedback, more scratches, more abuse.
The hour long set finishes few songs later. It is interesting to see how everyone looks amazed and jubilant, but at the same time no one even dare to ask for an encore. That was perfect as it was.
The band leaves the stage in the same darkness they started, the fans walk out stopping at the rich (of 7″, 10″, 12″ vinyls) merchandise desk.
Everything feels saturated, the air, the room, the ears, the eyes. Everything apart from my stomach which hasn’t seen any food in the last 10 hours.
A quick bye to friends, the scooter waits for me in the cold, 3 minutes I am home, the cat waits at the door. Food for both. Food for thought.
I need more of these nights. They are uplifting. Stimulating. Inspirational.
It may be because they simulate a cinematic, motion effect. Strobe lights are enemies of photographers. You can’t predict the results when these strong white bulbs flash intermittently at such a speed no one can control.
Try this, set your camera in one of the automatic modes and see yourself how the exposure meter goes crazy. The chance of catching the right exposed image is only a question of luck.
Solution is the same as usual, take control. Shoot in manual mode, try few combinations of shutter times/apertures that give you confidence that the exposure is approximately correct and hope that some of the shots happens when the light is fully on. Concentrate on the composition, that is still something you can control.
Strobe lights are usually mounted on the ceiling or on the side of stage venues. Tonight the small strobe was at the band’s feet.
I tried to give some film shots a try, curious to see what developes in the darkroom, and it’s nice to see that the light is so quick you get the effect of a double exposure within the time of a single one!
I also gave my mobile camera a go. It lacks the optical quality of a SLR but has the advantage that you can see what comes out, control it and even post it online in real time.
It should be my attraction to photographic challenges, but using a limited device to obtain something that has a visual value is something I love.
On the phone camera I learnt that the strobe flashes so quickly to freeze the shutter movement. Some pictures are half black, half exposed, some have a strip of a brighter light in the frame.
It’s unpredictable but with some luck, some of the results are startling.
Second part of this tip is easy, don’t stop trying to achieve something unusual. It is when conditions are out of the ordinary that surprises arrive. You never know. In photography, any photography, there are no limits but your mind.
The only rule that I always suggest to everyone asking for my secret is to get as close as it is allowed. Once there, do one step more. That is the spot, where no one else is, but you… and the disappointed musicians, but they will understand, not!