Thursday, January 18, 2018

Gig Review: Cigarettes After Sex, Powerstation, Auckland, 8 January 2018

Happy 2018. It’s been a while, and things have been a bit slow around here lately. But I’ve been on holiday. I’ve been permanently drunk. And I’ve been growing a beard. I’m prepared to apologise for only one of these things.

I’ve also been up in Auckland. As recently as last week, in fact. Primarily for the Cigarettes After Sex gig at the Powerstation, and to take a sneaky peek at the recently relocated Real Groovy Records. I had intended to write a timely review, but in truth, more than a week later, I’m still not really sure how I feel about the gig.

On one hand it was quite lovely – flawlessly crafted pop tunes, played to an almost full venue by an immaculately presented clad-in-black band at the absolute peak of its powers. Everything was note perfect, intimate, and the dark and rather solemn stage aesthetic – lighting included – generally matched the sparse emo-flecked nature of the music on offer. The band’s set was pretty much its entire discography – twelve songs, plus a one song encore. The whole thing was blissfully unhurried. An exercise in subtle slowly building intensity. Peaking with masterful take on ‘Apocalypse’.

On the other hand, an entire discography, in this instance, amounts to a gig lasting just a few ticks over an hour. One solitary hour. With no support band on offer. With no new tunes unveiled. With barely a word spoken throughout the set. And that post-‘Apocalypse’ encore turned out to be an anti-climactic ‘Dreaming of You’, from the lesser spotted 2012 EP release. Bar some gentle swaying, nobody danced, and it was the sort of night where I kept waiting for something else to happen. A harsher critic might be moved to describe the whole event as being a little sterile and lifeless, even.

Whatever the case, I left the venue with a sense of needing more. A little bit like how a recovering nicotine addict might feel after having unsatisfactory sex. At the same time, Cigarettes After Sex delivered everything I could realistically expect from an ambient dream-pop outfit specialising in the delicate art of seduction. I knew exactly what the El Paso popsters offered before I bought tickets. I just blindly hoped for something more, so it’s pointless grumbling about it now.

At the very least, it had me thinking about how conditioned I’ve become to expect a more raucous live music experience – be it bold and funky, or in terms of pure raw rock n roll. I guess I just need more energy from a live band, whatever the genre. Or perhaps it’s just that unrealistic expectation is, without question, the mother of all disappointment.

I remain a fan, the band’s self-titled album was one of my stick-on favourites from 2017, and I can scarcely wait for any new recorded material. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be in any great hurry to buy concert tickets next time they visit this part of the world.   

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Film Review: Into The Void, a documentary by Margaret Gordon

NZ Musician has published my review of Into The Void, Margaret Gordon’s wonderful documentary about the Christchurch band of the same name. The film was a festival hit as long ago as 2014, but was finally released on DVD last week. The documentary has music at its core, but more than anything it’s a study of the human condition, a story about friendship, and a tale of survival against a mountain of odds … check it out (trailer in link):

Quite often, the very best music documentaries are those about artists or bands otherwise ignored by the mainstream. The real grassroots stuff, behind-the-scenes warts ‘n all stories focusing rather more on the flaws and frailties of the human condition. Which is precisely where Margaret Gordon’s oddball and frequently hilarious independent documentary about Christchurch noise merchants Into The Void fits. The film gained festival plaudits back in 2014 but is only now getting a more wide-reaching, deserved, DVD release.

For 25 years, from the late ‘80s through to 2014, Into The Void were mainstays of the Christchurch music scene. If not exactly as heart of the scene, then most definitely as life and soul of the many parties. The first thing we learn about the band is that they all like a drink. Or twelve.

The second is that they’re far more comfortable playing live than they are in the recording studio. Whether on stage at the Dux de Lux or at Lyttelton’s Wunderbar, or within the confines of their now demolished (post-earthquakes) inner-city band practice room.
Across the course of that 25-year period, the band, originally a quartet that morphed into a sextet, released just two albums. An eponymously titled debut on Flying Nun in 1993, and a self-released follow-up some 11 years later. But that part feels almost superfluous to this story, and the really good oil here comes as each band member offers an insight into their lives together.

There’s vocalist Ronnie van Hout, a conceptual artist who now lives in Melbourne. Guitarist Jason Greig, a self-confessed metal tragic, and another artist, whose own unique area of speciality is creating “prints of darkness”. Drummer Mark Whyte, a sculptor and all round funny guy. And then there’s Paul Sutherland, an eccentric “turntablist” who seems perfectly comfortable with the fact that the rest of the band can never really hear what he’s playing. So long as there’s nobs and gadgets to fiddle with, he’s more than happy. That’s the original four, with Galaxy Records owner Dave Imlay (bass), and James Greig (guitar) – cousin of Jason – being later additions.

Gordon makes good use of archive footage of the band at various stages of its existence – from the early ‘90s through to its post-earthquake vintage – and near the end we see the band playing to a small outdoor evening crowd on a vacant lot. But not just any vacant lot, it’s the exact spot their precious band practice room once stood. It’s a special moment as Jason Greig’s final heartfelt solo rings out into the Christchurch night air.

Throughout the 70-minute documentary, we get tidbits of gold from various friends and contemporaries, among them members of bands like the Terminals and the Dead C. More poignantly there’s some classic footage of onetime band manager Celia Mancini (R.I.P.) who tragically passed in 2017.

More than any of that though, Into The Void is a story about a group of mates who just enjoyed each other’s company. For 25 years. Drinking, smoking, falling over, laughing, surviving earthquakes, and playing music as loud as humanly possible.

Margaret Gordon offers just enough on each band member, so we feel as though we might know them by the end. At the very least, we all know someone just like them, and that’s the real triumph of this film.