Thursday, 23 April 2009

Orchestral Manouvres in the Cowley Club

A version of this review appears at

April 10th 2009
Cowley Club
Lamp/Cove/The Pirate Ship Quintet

Let’s get this straight right from the off. I love post rock. LOVE it. It’s an alien thought to me that someone could fail to be sonically aroused by that simple yet brilliant concept of combining roaring wall-of-sound guitar with propulsive strings and brass, then proceeding to do the quiet-loud-quiet-LOUDER dynamic until the cows come home. It’s a genre that, provided everyone concerned knows what they’re doing, cannot fail to impress.

So objectivity be damned, then. It was never really in doubt that Friday evening’s entertainment at the Cowley Club would be an experience of total immersion in sound, and that I was always going to leave sated, and, more likely than not, grinning from ear to ear.

It helps no end that Brighton’s favourite anarchist bookshop-cum-bar is the perfect setting for such cacophony. Some might feel that orchestral rock is best suited to that more grandiose, ‘cathedral of sound’ kind of venue, but something about this cosy, collective atmosphere channels the intensity of the music into an altogether more absorbing beast. It’s as if the university string quartet and their noisemaking guitarist friends decided to crash their college lecturer’s front room during a drinks party. Books line the walls. There is an excited murmur of discussion about the use of time signatures. The real ale is thick, and the beards are thicker.

Some of the finest facial hair on display belonged to the unenviably named Lamp, who were first to take to the stage. A tight unit consisting of two guitars and a frenetically pounding drummer, their set demonstrated an almost telepathic level of awareness between the trio that was a sight to behold. Facing inward toward each other (as if the audience were simply privy to an intimate scene of three friends creating music for their own enjoyment), their individual, rhythmic phrases wound together to create a constantly shifting, off kilter aesthetic to their lyricless songs.

In fact, vocals were almost entirely absent from proceedings for the whole night. The closest we came was during second act, Brighton’s own Cove (what’s with all the monosyllabic band names, guys?), when the occasional verse of spiky, gain-distorted guitar thrash would be leant some added adrenaline (if it were needed) by garbled, spoken word interludes, as well as short bursts of the more traditional guttural yelps, reminiscent of Fugazi or At The Drive-In. Whilst the audience seemed less drawn in by Cove’s head-throwing antics than the more measured approach of the other two bands, they brought a louder, more visceral sound to the party that achieved a pleasing balance for the spectacle as a whole.

It was this noisy aperitif that brought us round, at last, to that long-awaited post rock main course. From the off, the Bristol-based Pirate Ship Quintet (who, confusingly, appeared to have six members) wore their influences on their sleeve. It is obvious that their cello and trumpet driven sound owes a huge debt to Godspeed You Black Emperor, but really, who’s complaining? If you’re going to emulate, you may as well try and emulate the best, and the Quintet proved themselves more than adept at handling the languid build-up, the swell and release of epic proportions, and of course the imposing ten minute track lengths that were required of them.
Whilst perhaps the group failed to demonstrate as great a range of subtle intricacies of tension and atmosphere that separate a band like Godspeed or Mogwai from the crowd, it would be churlish to complain about the Pirate Ship Quintet’s sound against such illustrious company. They do what they set out to do very well indeed, which is to make music that over-indulges the senses, absorbs you into it, and makes your heart beat just that little bit faster.

Any post rock outfit lives or dies by the standard of its orchestral element, and the strains of the cello, foregrounded by the squall of guitars that surrounded it, did not disappoint. Fingers danced over the instrument’s neck at often dazzling speeds, covering the whole range from delicate melodies (over a backdrop of subdued, chiming guitars) to frantically bowed bass lines (the same guitars now galloping like thunder). These cinematic soundscapes were furthered by the occasional, constantly ascending note on the trumpet, or screamed vocal, the human voice treated as an instrument for atmospheric effect, rather than leading the action. The rush of all these elements combined, allied to a constant, gradual push on the volume pedal, is impossible to describe, but when it hits the sweet spot, it hits hard, and the only sane reaction is one of breathless satisfaction.

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