Friday, November 28, 2008

TV Buddhas + Spoono: Indian Psy-Sex and London Americana

Earlier this year at the Hurluberlu (Nantes), in another characteristically hand-picked line-up, the Nantes-based Yamoy Association showcased two rising talents from opposite corners of the globe. In an era where female-male retro-rock duos are just as MTV-friendly as reality dating shows, TV Buddhas breathe fresh air into a somewhat tried and true formula. Similarly, Jack Allett of Spoono discovers his own voice in an American folk tradition haunted by the ghosts of old masters.

As far as their set up is concerned, TV Buddhas sum it up best themselves: “two human beings yelling, one twin reverb+cab with enough reverb to kill an elephant, one floor tom, one snare drum and one ride cymbal.” When “Evil Haring” and “Mickey Killer” take the stage at the Hurlurburlu last month, the bar’s lazy Sunday-afternoon clientele are thoroughly unprepared for the amount of sound this Israeli duo are ready to extract from an electric guitar and a (humourously abbreviated) drumset. Neither are the neighbors. Over a 20-minute set, cut short by a complaint from a neighboring apartment, the group succeed in making the most (sound!) out of limited means.

To say that TV Buddhas produce more noise that one would have thought possible for two people is something of an understatement. But what is striking about their music is less its sheer volume than its fullness and intensity. Evil Haring’s reverb-heavy riffs, pounded out in an open-tuning, bring as much bass to the table as they do treble. Each fat, resonant chord crashes over the audience like a blast of fresh salt water; our sensation of drowning is as delicious as it is debilitating. Haring’s spitfire melodic phrasing, dreamy and distended at times, aggressively patterned at others, recalls as much the post-apocalyptic peregrinations of an Om or a Sunn O))) as it does the baroque swells of a Pentagram or a Black Sabbath. Puncturing this wall of sound with her signature geometric swatches, partner in crime Mickey Killer slams her 3-piece drumkit with enough muscle to floor her candy-striped MTV counterpart.

On their website, TV Buddhas classify themselves as a mix between religious, psychedelic and trance—or, in their own words, “Indian Psy-sex.” While their music draws heavily on traditional Indian composition, its relationship to this tradition is more a matter of structure than a matter of surface aesthetic. Even in the places where Evil Haring’s voice takes precedence over the other elements in the mix, his fingers busy themselves with a continously-shifting series of repetitive melodic motifs, recalling the Indian Raga in their restriction to a finite number of notes. Mickey Killer’s playing would seem to mirror this principal on a percussive level. Through her repetition of short, jagged percussive phrases, she dreams up a cunning counterpoint to Evil Haring’s guitar, unlocking the extreme lyricism that sometimes lies hidden within an extreme economy of means. While the “sex” component of their music falls a bit flat—Evil Harring’s somewhat hammy rock and roll stage gimmicks, his contrived Ian Mcay falsetto—it drives home the complexity of their project. For if TV Buddhas seem like your average retro-rock band on the surface, this posture is just the candied cherry on an extremely rich, extremely dense, extremely filling multi-layer cake.

A young man bent over his guitar in an attitude of intense concentration, his dark bangs canceling out his face. After the exuberant depravity of the TV Buddhas, there is something almost troubling about Jack Allett’s arrival on stage. With Jack Allett (alias Spoono), none of the gimmicks characteristic of your average rock guitarist. The roots of his music dig deep into traditional folk and fingerpicking. The guitarist demonstrates an impressive technique and an expressivity never set into default mode; the result, a mellow, gentle music which, at first listen, doesn’t seem to have anything that original about it. We close our eyes, we allow ourselves to be carried away and we imagine pre-war America, the Appalachian mountains, John Fahey and his vagabond guitar. Jack Allett’s music weaves together reminiscences of folk, of country and of bluegrass, and, here and there, echoes of Delta Blues.

Only Spoono is not a child of the Appalachians. Relocated from his native Brighton to the bustling British capital, he crossbreeds Old Weird America with the experimentations of the avant-guarde guitar greats; Rhys Chatham, Jim O’Rourke and Loren Connors make up some of his favorites. In this sense, his music requires many listenings, many levels of listening. We can listen to it as we would listen to the O’Brother soudtrack on a summer evening, out on the porch, a bourbon in hand. But we can also prick up our ears and attempt to discern what it is that is so particular about Jack Allett’s compositional approach, which, ultimately, is far removed from that of the tutelary figure of John Fahey.

Jack Allett’s manifests a highly personal playing style built upon an unstable rhythmic premise —an alternation of playful and melancholy rhythms, of exaltation and quietude, of obstinately repeated motifs and fluid melodic lines. Traditional fingerpicked folk is structurally simple, rarely destabilizing. And yet even the simplest of his pieces seem to pirouette upon the string which provides their tonal center; tranquil at times, feverish at others, they spark a wide variety of emotional states in his listeners. A rhythmic instability sometimes amplified—though unfortunately not here—through the juxtaposition of acoustic fingerpicking and electronic noise. Despite being an exceptionally talented guitarist, Jack Allett is first and foremost an indefatigable sound experimenter who wields electric guitar with as much élan as circuit-bending electronics in groups Catnap and Towering Breaker (punk/noise).

It is true that many of today’s young musicians turn to the past for inspiration. The TV Buddhas and Spoono are no exception. The paths that these musicians carve out for themselves in their respective traditions are nevertheless passionate ones, and it is not impossible that someday, pushed to the extreme, their explorations will produce something that our era can call its own. Until then, let’s just try to keep out ears open.

Words: Emilie Friedlander and Sophie Pécaud
Photo: Patiphone Club, Tel Aviv

Concert April 20th, 2008 at l'Hulurburlu, Nantes.

Click here for the french version of the article, accompanied by photos by Florian Quistrebert, on the Fragil website.

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