Near the Swan River I climb onto a bus, and ride it through the drizzle and the afternoon light to North Fremantle, to an old haunt I haven’t visited in a while. Over the road there’s a new cafe made of shipping containers and glass which I’ve never seen , so I pay it a visit before being slurped back into the toasty confines of Mojo’s Bar.
Indeed, I make a beeline for the fireplace, a warm crackling recess crowned by bric-a-brac on the wooden mantelpiece. And as I sit and tingle in the as-yet lightly populated room, LAUREL FIXATION begins to play.
The singer-songwriter, whose ‘Small Discomforts’ EP I reviewed back in February, has one of the best voices and guitar sounds going around. This is important, since the whole set is constructed with these two materials, but beyond the satisfying mellifluence of the tone there’s the content: deceptively simple chord progressions and picking patterns, all expertly crafted with the utmost care; witty, candid, melancholic lyrics delivered with a hushed resonance and scrupulous phrasing. It’s a slow-paced, smouldering set which mirrors the fire beside me, and befits the grey wet on the other side of the windows. She delivers a great song I hadn’t heard (about the double entendre of being a “dirty girl”) and a Kill Devil Hills cover – reworking the cherished “Drinking Too Much” into “Smoking Too Much” and sneaking in smooth, deadpan allusions to bongs; it’s at least as affecting as it is amusing.
SAM ATKIN follows, the gentle-seeming bloke with the beard-beyond-his-years perched behind a makeshift table of midi controllers, synthesizers, samplers et al. We enter a phasing, unpredictable world of rainforest ambience, abstract beat-sample collages and vocoder-pop sketches. Around the corner is a deep “trappy” groove layered with digital marimba arpeggios and warbling space organ; the mood is fugitive, a protean aesthetic dodging the glow of your eagerly bobbing headlamp. You get a whiff of OPN, James Ferraro and Macintosh Plus: perhaps not in Atkin’s overall sound, but at least in his set tonight – in other words, I’m reminded of the exponents of “vaporwave” who have managed to transcend the genre’s descent into self-caricature – but there’s plenty of other reference points you could just as well call upon. Ultimately, he makes beautiful electronic music with fascinating conceptual implications and, by the time he fades into utopian piano noodles mixed with cascading insect chatter and finally a great Rabbit Island cover (of much-loved tune ‘My Own Private’), I’m already looking forward to his next performance.
ATRIPAT, whose name I’ve heard whispered in impressed tones lately, appears next. The austerely-garbed local purveys dark, textured, stuttering beats; thick woody bass and crackly, cinematic midrange sound interventions. Synth-voice stabs and dense sweaty percussion round out the compelling picture, as the smoke machine starts oozing pink and yellow mist and the set enters its dénouement of warped, eddying vocal samples.
CHRIS COBILIS and YENTING HSU’s set feels like a mobile; an undulating mobile of granulated noise, seashore hiss, birdsong and distant metallic resonances. There are jabs of deconstructed, resampled rock band and close-up contact mic rustling. All this might sound like a pretty archetypal contemporary-laptop-noise set, and I confess that my words are unlikely to do it justice: it’s thoroughly experiential, tricky to approximate with language. Suffice it to say that the contours of sound are laid out with such attention and intuitive artistry that we receive a truly special, beautiful musical performance. Sometimes laptop sets feel lacking in their absence of live instrumental / physically-driven elements, but this feels all the more magical for its object/sound disconnect. In clickbait terms, This Set Could Change The Way You Think About Noise. It’s sad that we won’t get an encore – Hsu is returning to Taiwan having completed her sound art residency at Fremantle Arts Centre. But I feel immensely lucky to have caught this set while she was here.
Now here are two men who seemed to have been destined to form a band together since day one. Steve Summerlin (Mink Mussel Creek, Felicity Groom band) and Nick Odell (CEASE, sometimes POND) are (publicly or otherwise) two of the fiercest connoisseurs of heaviness in Perth and it seems inevitable that their overlapping passions would propel them towards forming a band like Alzabo. Here, in duo formation, they deliver an instrumental set rich with gut-shuddering low-end sludge and roof-rattling string and cymbal crunch. What’s most impressive is not that they’re loud, or even that they’re so avidly and tenaciously loud: plenty of boring bands fit that description. Alzabo manage to proffer a smorgasbord of different kinds of loudness and heaviness, from thin and thrashy assault to deep and thunderous boom – thus allowing for a rollercoaster of dynamics and natural-seeming stylistic shifts, without ever deviating from the fundamental agenda of in-yer-face double-pronged blitz.
RACHAEL DEASE is a local legend who I haven’t seen perform in a songwriter capacity for ages. At the risk of seeming hyperbolic, I wanna say that Dease’s set tonight not only reminds me why she’s such highly esteemed – it reminds me of a number of the reasons I love music. From the thick, yawning textures of the omnichord to Dease’s treacle-noir vocal incantations and the bedroomy chug of the drum machine, everything melds into a dreamlike whole, while letting details shine through; Tristan Parr’s ingenious, often unpredictable cello layerings seal the deal. But it’s not just that the ingredients are all great quality: fundamentally, these are just really amazing songs, which simmer and grow and billow and shrink, lurking in dirgey corners or lighting up into sudden, unexpected harmonic modulations. Commentators, from my experience, are quick to wax on about Dease’s excellent voice and beguiling aesthetic. But the minutiae of the musical ideas, too numerous and intricate to list, are best apprehended in the listening, and they elevate these songs to a plane of brilliance.
Finally it’s over to ASSAD, aka Ben Andrews from the fantastic My Disco, in his solo laptop iteration. The set is (literally) shrouded in darkness, and channels the same penchant for minimalism that his band always has, but into a decidedly different outcome. Starting with a few processed vocal samples, we find ourselves in a stark world of low-pitch frequency beatings that form something equivalent to an otherworldly house or techno pulsation; in another band of frequencies, abstract inharmonic noises shuffle, and a high-pitched, not-quite piercing sound (like a pin dropping in a cave) echoes rhythmically. There are discernable patters to the bursts of sound, though they don’t always synchronize – so the set moves imperceptibly from what you might call “abstract” soundscapes to alignments that feel more like formalized compositions or rhythmic arrangments. How much of this is planned? How much is pre-formed? How much is improvised? I’m not sure, and I’m not sure if it matters, but nevertheless these questions arise, adding further mystery to an already enigmatic mood. It’s a strange set, a haunting and subtly cathartic thing that gets at you from the inside out. And it’s a suitably unorthodox and memorable end to a night of distinctive, wildly varied, and deeply free-spirited music.