Thursday, July 5, 2012

Gaggle supported by Sylver Tongue, AE EA at Village Underground, 4th July 2012

There comes a time when a person gets sick of watching an endless parade of guys with floppy fringes mopily playing guitars on stage.  It was in this spirit that I headed out to see Gaggle at the Village Underground (and, admittedly, also because I know one of the members).  Gaggle are a 21 piece all female-choir who dress in outlandish costumes and sing powerful, provocative sloganeering songs.  They’ve just released their first album “From the Mouth of the Cave” and seem to be on the up and up.  So, to Village Underground in the very beating heart of Shoreditch.

First on the bill is AE EA, fronted by ex-Selfish Cunt frontman, Martin Tomlinson and (behind the scenes) Dario Vigorito.  AE EA describe themselves as a “Live Music Video Art Performance Group”, and what this translates to tonight is a bizarro piece of confrontational performance art performed by an androgynous, vaguely threatening and loose-limbed artist.  Ze stands, wearing the skinniest of skinny outfits, alone on stage, cut up video feeds projected over hir whilst ze sings/screams/speaks to a dissonant noise soundtrack.  Doing a piece like this is flirts with cliché so much that it’s like painting a giant bullseye on your chest to invite calls of pretension (incidentally, literally doing this would achieve the much same result).  

I have to admit the guy can pose though.
A performance like this can succeed in two ways: the first is doing it with unabashed sincerity, if someone gives the audience the impression that they truly believe in what they’re doing it’s difficult to poke too much fun without feeling like an arsehole.  The second way is with a nod and a wink, almost saying “I know this is ridiculous, but bear with me here and at worst you’ll be entertained”.  This, unfortunately is somewhere in the middle: it veers so close to the cliff of parody that you wonder if we're being made fun of for attempting to genuinely analyse it on its own merits while ignoring what seems like semi-ironic poses and themes.  The thing is, I liked this act, but I liked it because it reminded me of 60s performance art pieces, or the brilliant  “This is my Rhythmbox” scene from ‘Liquid Sky’, or the ‘Vulva’ scene from Spaced.  If the intention was to shock or provoke the audience then it failed (and perhaps artists need to find new ways to shock without using what have become rather tame clichés of sexual ambiguity and loud, dissonant noises), but nonetheless it fit comfortably into the aesthetic of the night and after all all, it wasn’t boring.

Sylver Tongue
Next on is Sylver Tongue, fronted by ex-Ash member Charlotte Hatherly.  Things look good as she takes  to the stage, decked in fur with her partially bleached hair dramatically swept over one side of her face.  It’s a post-apocalypse punk look, like a refugee from the set of Mad Max – glamour tinged with a feral, home-made survivalist air.  It looks damn cool, and also obviously quite 80s.  1980s synth music has made a bit of a comeback of late, partially I suspect due to the amazing soundtrack to the film ‘Drive’.  These expressly artificial synths have just about escaped being considered cheesily retro, and now embody an ice cold emotional detachment.  With their kickin’ outfits and synthesisers Sylver Tongue are standing primed for triumph, but unfortunately it doesn’t quite work.

The major problem I have is that this is a very static band.  Three of the members are standing behind various keyboards, meaning that by design they have to be rooted to the spot.  This sucks a lot of the dynamism out of the performance, and in a relatively small venue like this, if the band are still then it rubs off on the audience very quickly.  It’s telling that the most exciting parts of the performance are the rare times when Hatherly steps out from behind her keyboard and picks up her guitar.  For brief moments we see something that can almost be described as iconic, a stark rock n roll snapshot of fur, fringe and guitar.  Finally there’s a sense of motion and rhythm on stage!  All too quickly though she’s back behind the keyboard, arms in, motionless and somewhat rigid.  Eventually, this feels a bit standoffish, something that’s exacerbated by the fact that the band rarely acknowledges the audience, not even to let us know the titles of the songs they’re about to play.  The ice-queen electrosynth diva image is very effective when played right, but in a fairly intimate venue like this we want something back from the band. 

There’s also the annoying situation with the projector at the back of the room.  I have no idea who’s in charge of it but it frequently cuts out the visuals and projects the Mac desktop toolbar across Hatherly’s face, which instantly dispels any atmosphere that’s been built up.  At one point the projection swings madly and distractingly around – you wish someone would hold it still.  But when it does finally settle, it unfortunately illuminates just the top of half of the band’s faces.  It seems a bit amateurish: aiming a projector at the right place on a wall and keeping it still is not exactly rocket science. 

More of this please!
But, despite all of these faults there are moments where everything comes together very nicely.  I’m a total sucker for slap bass, and there are some great slap basslines in Sylver Tongue’s songs.  When everything is just about working well, and when you get the rare sense that the band are actually having a good time on stage it all works.  But throughout I was waiting for the crescendo, the moment where Hatherly would suddenly become the synthesiser goddess she wants to be.  It never came.  I thought they were going to get there with their last song ‘Peaches’, but again, they fell just slightly short, lacking some essential spark that would push them over the edge.  It’s a pity, they’ve got the look and the talent, but something essential that I can’t put my finger on is missing.

And now the reason why we’re all here: Gaggle.  Gaggle were shimmeringly excellent.  Not only were they excellent, but they were excellent in a fresh and unique way.  I liked pretty much everything about them.  It’s an interesting contrast to the support acts who both seem to have aimed for an already well defined set of aesthetic principles.  Whereas their end-game feels sharply defined and well-worn, Gaggle is striking out on a path less travelled.  There is a feeling of adventure, of not really knowing what a 21 piece avant-garde all female choir is going to do, of where they’re going to go and how they’re going to do it.

As Gaggle take the stage, there is a buzz of expectation in the room.  Things already feel different.  The members are dressed in what looks like home-made felt dresses, with strips of brightly coloured cloth pinned to them, they wear turban-like headpieces and they each have a Joker-like glittery blue smile painted onto their face.  They take the stage, directed into position by Deborah Coughlin, the conductor, leader and brains behind Gaggle.  As the crowd quiets down we hear a faint sharp intake of breath as 21 people breath in deeply, before talking as one.  The first time you hear Gaggle talking as one is a deeply weird experience.  The uniforms and facepaint all give them a shared visual identity, and this, coupled with the synchronised voices gave me the kind of feeling you get when trapped in a room with a tiger. They seem feral and untameable, the blue face paint suddenly reminiscent of Celtic woad and the dresses of Boudicca.  It’s almost overpowering, and having 21 women all aggressively singing in unison at you is initially a bit psychologically intimidating.

Very quickly I realised that it’s easier to consider ‘Gaggle’ as more of an instrument composed of women rather than a collection of individuals.  Standing in front of the stage, with the audience a respectful distance from her, Deborah Coughlin conducts like someone bringing a jumbo jet in to land.  With a sweep of her arms she conjures up the weirdest polyphonies from across the stage, multiple voices singing harmonies and counterharmonies, pointing out people to do what seem like impromptu solos.  When I had first heard the concept of Gaggle I had assumed wrongly that it was some kind of semi-chaotic collective, but watching them live you quickly understand that there’s a leader with a strong personality and clear vision that’s able to corral this many people into a single identity. 

This single ‘Gaggle identity’ is an interesting construction.  It creates a deindividuated space, where personal identity is subsumed into that of the group.  I don’t like to assume anything about the women who make up Gaggle, but I think it’s fair to say there must be a mix of personalities within the members -  some people must be more naturally outgoing than others with a range different political and social philosophies.  The ‘Gaggle identity’, whether arrived at by some group consensus or imposed upon them (is there a Gaggle rule book?) ignores all this, fusing its members into one organism.   With an imposed identity comes boundaries, but it also creates a performance space that allows the members to act out extroverted behaviour within an acceptable social sphere.  It all seems very liberating, and this sense of liberation rubs off on the crowd.

Dissolving your identity into a crowd seems to be somewhat in vogue at the moment, and Gaggle are, consciously or not, riding this wave.  There is a direct line though the 'V' masks of Anonymous and the masked faces of the London Riots last summer to the deindividuated yet entirely coherent and focussed anger in many of Gaggle's songs.  We live in a society where we're encouraged to nurture the notion of the individual above all else as much as possible. Facebook encourages us to view our life as it's own epic story, profiles on all kinds of sites encourage us to create personalised avatars to set aside me from not-me.  In the cult of the individual, anonymity and depersonalisation are the new societal taboos.  The themes of destruction of the self, and adding your voice and mind to an impersonal multitude has become one of the few non-violent and genuinely subversive acts of the 21st century, a concept which I see Gaggle as seizing wholeheartedly.

As a large group of people chanting, screaming and singing at once, their music sounds tribal and at times weirdly medieval, like something chanted to scare opponents before a battle, to terrify the inhabitants of a besieged castle.  Due to the nature of the band, there’s not a huge amount of room in Gaggle’s songs for complex wordplay, but they excel at sloganeering.  It’s a bit hypnotic, and chants like “I hate the power of money, making people rich or poor!” get drilled into your head as if you’re being successfully brainwashed.  While the music can initially sound like its degenerating into chaos, the more you hear, the more you realise its very, very tightly controlled.  Everyone seems to know what they’re doing all the time, the band is synchronised like a tightly drilled unit.  Songs like ‘Army of Birds’ or ‘Gaslight’ occupy their own ‘Gaggle-ised’ genres, ‘Gaslight’ being best described as a show-stopping drum n bass musical number (...I accept that this is not a particularly clear description).  Before hearing them you could be justified in suspecting that this band is a concept-led novelty act, where the very idea of a radical 21 piece choir carries them forward rather than the quality of their work.  But these are great songs, great songs which stem, if I understand correctly, directly from Deborah Coughlin.   I think this is a useful reminder that the group cannot function with everyone pulling in different directions.  One of the main reasons it succeeds musically is because there is a specific and unique 'voice' behind their lyrics which has definite ideas it wants to express.

This is what 21 feminists look like.
Even if Gaggle didn't explicitly identify as feminists, it's likely they'd be labelled as such purely on the composition of the group.  The very fact that this is an all-female collective seems to drive some to fall back on tired cliches.  The review of their album in the NME contains this sentence which the author should be embarrassed to have written: "A number of Gaggle will own literature by Germaine Greer. They will have at some point been described as ‘quirky’. They will talk openly about their menstrual cycles with no embarrassment."  This is precisely the kind of lazy, dusty old cliche that makes it a bit radical that a band even dares to identify themselves as feminist, a crushingly depressing thought.  The Gaggle concept of femininity seems to be refreshingly inclusive, even while taking into account that the costumes make everyone on stage look fairly similar anyway.   The aggressive, confrontational stance that the band take in their lyrics and performance is probably going to rile up some people, but frankly these are precisely the people that deserve to have a bee put in their bonnet anyway.

Aside from feminism the band also set out their politics in 'Power of Money', (which they dedicated to current top scumbag Bob Diamond last night).  They also set out their opposition to the military-industrial complex in 'Army of Birds', saying in the opening lines "Excuse me Sir, you may not have heard, but I'm not in your army, I'm in an army of birds".  There is another fully female choir that has risen to prominence lately which this song seems to be a reaction against; the truly execrable 'Military Wives Choir', who murder music with the same gusto and efficiency with which their husbands and boyfriends murder Afghans.  The Military Wives Choir seem in most respects like the antiGaggle, but Gaggle effortlessly demolish them with laser-guided lines like:-

"You should be ashamed of the bomb bomb bomb, blowin' them up like it's fun fun fun."

It's hard for me to pick out anything I don't like about this band really, everyone about them exudes quality.  They neatly sidestep the dangers of relying on novelty value, it'd be incredibly disappointing if they'd squandered this unique setup for banal music, but they've followed through on the strength of their premise.  It was a damn great gig.

[disclaimer: Please take into account that I know a choir member of Gaggle very well, but I think even if I didn't I think I would like them exactly as much]

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