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Semibreve Festival 2012: Part II

December 30, 2012

Photos by Adriano Ferreira Borges

Click here for Part I

Semibreve_Festival_Portugal_review

Friday

As the festival itself doesn’t begin until 9:30pm, there’s an ocean of time to explore the city of Braga during the day – and it’s clear, blue skies all the way and a shorts-wearing 25 degrees. I feel smug having Googled ‘Braga + weather’ mere minutes before leaving a cold and wet London, thus able to cram in my summer gear.

There’s much to see and do in the city, though, with the chilled pace there’s no rush to do so. Espressos are 50 cents, beers 90 cents for a bottle – a welcoming side to a gargantuan economic downturn right? Oh right, unless you live here perhaps. Still, surveying the scene of Portuguese sitting in the sun chain drinking coffee on cafe corners, without the crass commercialisation of your Starbucks/Cafe Nero vomiting it’s soul-sapping banners, it’s obvious here to see which is the happier culture having witnessed the funeral-like processions of grey Londoners on a daily basis.

One of the many great things about Semibreve is the non-elitist structure of artists/audience; and that is evident this evening as we sit down to a pre-performance dinner, where I get chatting to some of the acts involved. Jan St. Werner of Mouse on Mars proves wonderful company, and in between mouthfuls of duck I quiz him over the visual aspect of the festival; though he explains to me that he has a problem with visuals – at least in terms of his own work, and thus uses them sparingly.

As I mentioned yesterday, visuals are of course the most dominant sense in many respects – the most instant for sure, and Mouse on Mars are keen to not have the visual experience too full on, otherwise it detracts from their sound they believe. He talks at length “something I’ve thought a lot about” he says dryly after an absorbing monologue. All at the table extend this visual/audio experience discussion further. Whatever show you frequent, even, your standard guitar/band/venue affair, there’s always a visual element. You looks around at the band members, study guitar riffs, look at the amps, observe the people, survey the bar queue, talk to your friends. That cannot be avoided. “Apart from if you blindfold the audience” I suggest. It turns out that this has been done however; Sam Potter of Late of The Pier has put on nights titled ‘Black Out‘ that explores the sensory experience of music; the room, as the title suggests, is in the dark wholly. Jan St. Werner becomes fascinated by this, before getting back to his dessert. Or as some of us British chaps said at the table, “pudding”. “You call it… Pudding” he muses, saying it slowly and deliberately. “That’s why Britain will never get in the EU”. He’s a very funny man is Jan.

Tonight the music is based in Braga at the grandiose Theatre Circo, a Portuguese revivalist theatre built in 1916, but reopened recently in 2005. The architecture once inside is stunning and the auditorium contains three-story stalls with plush, cushioned seating in the middle (which pleases my back and legs immensely). Roly Porter was formally one half of semi-apocalyptic, whatever-step duo Vex’d, though the Bristolian is now flying solo – apart from tonight where he’s accompanied by fellow Bristol-based artist Flicker on the visuals. The theatre is pretty much full to capacity also, which couldn’t be said of the shows in Guimares last night.

After a subtle build-up with expanding layers, Roly unleashes an abrasive drone hurricane, that contains a techno undercurrent but generally holds-back from embracing this genre; think of the wonderfully dark-machinations of Perc without his techno edge. Rod Maclachlan, as Flicker, creates the savage real-time digital visuals, all black and white shards and in your face, frequently erratic, providing quite the relationship with sonic matters. The package is lethal, a beautifully brutal slab of heavyweight sensory joy with cleverly used beats that draw me in. I can’t wholly focus on the visuals for long periods at a time as it’s just too much, too intense; but for the times where I manage to get sucked into this world and ‘focus watch’, it’s hypnotic beyond comprehension. The kind of dystopic experience where I forgot who I was, where I was, but never craving to remember either of these, unlike a K-hole victim.

Occasionally I would catch sight of Roly in front of the large backdrop with screen, which paradoxically somewhat took me out of the situation. Who would have thought actually seeing the act would remove you a bit from their music? I walk out of the theatre somewhat shell-shocked, blown-away by what just went before me; even feeling emotionally drained. A highlight thus far.

Downstairs it’s time for another Bristol double-act in the shape of emptyset – a duo who have been garnering a fair amount of love lately, even in the more mainstream press contingents (well, mainstream in comparison to many acts here). James Ginzburg and Paul Purgas draw connections between Roly Porter’s work, but allowing the dance floor flow to takeover even further and arguably with a more consistently abrasive wall of noise. Static pulses charge through the veins as feedback hammers through eardrums to create a glorious yet discombobulating experience of pounding techno experimentation.

Joanie Lemercier is on the visuals, with a black and white aesthetic in play once again, stark, intricate, evolving. “What is Quality?” philosophers have oft asked. At a handful of stages, multiple spontaneous whoops go up in unison as the track subtly switches beat and tone, and, without any rational explanation, everyone here somehow knows what is quality, like a sea of collective consciousness. It’s a thing of beauty. The entire continuous tour-de-force of a set is devastating and a hugely visceral live experience; I come out feeling physically battered and it’s the first time my ears have had that ringing, despite a series of loud acts.

The final act of the night is Mouse on Mars, and, as described earlier, the visuals are more on the minimal front – not filling up the screen. Now, the duo since their inception in 1993 have crossed many genre-types and survived; from krautrock-esque flirtations, IDM, ambient and disco, I was eager to see their live show. However, I found myself mentally exhausted after the pounding from Roly Porter and empty set, and after a promising start Mouse on Mars don’t quite live up to my expectations.

It’s refreshing to get some actual vocals in a show here, though the set is quite disjointed and scatty, which is designed to be a dance-orientated hour. Perhaps in an alternative setting, with the audience able to pop some body parts and move freely, it may have gone down awesomely. One guy towards the end does gets up and looses his shit for a minute or two, but comically after a couple of tugs on his shirt gets an order to sit down from this partner. The end is interesting as MOM at the start of the encore encourage the audience to whistle, which he then turns into a feedback loop that subsequently becomes the meat of the track. It’s hard to know if this is a spontaneous act, or a rehearsed thing; either way it’s impressive.

Saturday

Bom Jesus is a chapel on the hill that overlooks the City of Braga, you can see it from anywhere in town, and features, as our guide was only too keen to inform us, the world’s only ‘water-powered lift’. It seems like too big an opportunity not to visit, thus during the day I head there on the Braga equivalent of a Boris-bike, an exhausting hilly climb – so after a deserved power nap it’s time for a pre-festival dinner that is again an enlightening experience. The sound engineer, Dan, who has been doing Ben Frost’s sound for over a decade is present, who enlightens us of what to expect and discusses, well, sound, in general. “It’s about the illusion of being loud,” he states in relation to Frost’s show. We shall see later on tonight…

Japanese electronic hero and composer Ryoji Ikeda opens the evening of avant grade electronica in the theater, and from the very start he’s out to chase, catch and savage a good portion of your senses. And then totally fuck with them. His work is related to mathematical precisions and aesthetics, and is a highly respected artist in the many forms of media that he utilises. The visuals on offer are achromatized, distinctly stark and engrossing once again, verging to static values and horizontal/vertical clean, crisp lines.

It’s overwhelming and deliberately so – Ikeda keen to tackle the themes of data overflow in our lives and this is successfully mirrored. Sound switches from left channel to right. The visuals accelerate; so fast moving they become shades of grey. Pin-drop silences followed by a barrage of almost white noise, it’s a gripping, capricious onslaught with no end in sight. There’s a few times when I’m pondering during an extended silence ‘Was that the end?’ though we’re made sure that the end, is indeed the end when he heartily slams one of his laptops during a silence, and bows. I keep repeating this mantra, but now this is the highlight so far…

It’s downstairs once again after a hastily ordered and speedily drunk whiskey (the decor is far too nice to take drinks in) for Gustavo Costa, under the long-winded handle Most People Have Been Trained to be Bored. It’s a wholly different experience to everything that’s gone before us at Semibreve, using actual instruments on stage; surrounded by a drum kit, various bits of percussion, many hanging metal plates, a xylophone and more indistinguishable items.

Costa delicately tickles the instruments, running a metal scraper of the hanging bronzed sheets, as a backing track is present to enrich the situation. It’s a much welcome change of headspace to be involved with something a little more nuanced, something analogue. Yesterday evening, if I’m being nit-picky perhaps could have done with this to break things up a bit.

As wholly pleasant as that was, I have a craving for something a little more head-fuckery – which is fortunate, as Ben Frost is on next back in the Theatre. This turns out to be one of the most astonishing, gripping and powerful performances I’ve ever witnessed. The first thirty minutes is a masterful build-up of what is to come – it threatens to get all-encompassing and overwhelming, but each time when it’s on the edge of a towering, exhilarating peak, he pulls things back and retreats into quiet, spacious delicate climes. Ben interchanges between different instruments on stage, sometimes opting for a piano especially during the tender moments, to his electronic equipment – and then thrashing his guitar, convulsing every tense part of his body seemingly in the act of doing so. He moves around the stage barefoot with an air of grace, and intensity – at times going backwards and forwards like he’s so into it he doesn’t know where to go. But he knows exactly what he’s doing, always.

The crescendos become more and more intense, the feedback heavier and more violent as the set progresses. During these moments another sense is awakened viscerally; that of touch. The auditorium rattles, literally, and the chairs vibrate into my bones pulsate through my entire body. At one point three people get up to leave, asking down the aisle (I’m later told by a guy on The Wire stall who was outside that they were as white as a sheet). The lights were subtle, but crucial to the experience; shining vividly onto the audience during climatic points, the audience figuratively naked with nowhere to hide.

I think back to the conversation earlier about “the illusion of being loud” – and it turns out this is remarkably accurate. The quiet parts are oh-so quiet, the loud bits seemingly loud; but only due to the glacial build-up from one to the other – ladies and gents, I give you a lesson in exquisite use of dynamic range. When it’s at its height, the situation feels apocalyptic, and it’s the noisiest thing you’ll ever hear you’ll think. However, after the gig I find my ears are totally fine. The illusion has worked – and then some.

The ending is one of the most intense thing I’ve witnessed, drawn out over ten minutes from one final assault, each layer stripped back one by one, until there’s skeletal structure… to one beat with drum… to one almighty drum on the 4th beat… so much tension is hanging in the air between these notes…to one last drum. Thud. End. A masterstroke in brutal vs. beauty, an eviscerating 80+ minutes of my existence that will remain with me until I become senile.

It’s the perfect way to see off the festival in music terms, and all that is left for us to do is make the most of the cheap Porguese beer in bars playing awful Hollywood films in the background until the small hours.

In regards to the future, we all know the problems that face austerity-hit Portugal – Semibreve is fortunate that this year it has been supported by Arts funding from the European Capital of Culture venture. We discussed prior to the festival if these humble beginnings of Semibreve is the start of something bigger – already having been moved forward a month from last years November-time dates. For a festival with such diverse, and alternative electronic artists, it did very well to sell-out; will there be any room for expansion in the future? Would that, in many ways, be a shame? Can it even sustain itself as it is?

These are questions that only time will tell. From the mind-opening, mind-blowing experience that was the 2012 edition, let’s hope it sticks around for years to come. Thank you Braga.

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