We were recently in Utrecht for the 2016 edition of the Le Guess Who? festival. It’s one of those rare cases in which if the whole experience results in an aesthetically coherent sequence of shows, then you probably missed the point. Even so, it would be a disservice to the idea of the festival, which is to showcase all different sorts of alternative music, sometimes by having more than a dozen of stages working in parallel throughout the whole of Utrecht. With this in mind, I’m not splitting this report in a day-by-day thing or in a single story. It just wouldn’t make sense.
CYCLES AND THE RECURRING RIFF
A couple of days after Le Guess Who?, as I walked the corridors of the Radboud university in Nijmegen, a riff echoed in my head. It was the first I had heard on this year’s edition; at Ekko, on Thursday evening, when I walked in in the middle of the performance by Les Filles De Illighadad. Carrying with it all that entices and enchants in psychedelic rock, yet arranged with stark minimalism and delivered in down to earth fashion. Though it was the riff emanating from Fatou Seidi Ghali‘s guitar that stuck with me, I can’t dissociate it from the band’s performance, one that fully justified the programme’s description of Tuareg music stripped from its prog side. From Fatou‘s stoic weaving of entrancing melodies to the absolutely mesmerising presence of singer Alamnou Akroni, it truly felt laid bare and deprived of gimmicks. A conduit for expression, no additives required.
Perhaps it was that it was also the last riff I heard from them on Friday at the Hertz. A conclusion and an opening, ebbing and flowing in my head for days. Two different sentences joined by a powerful connector; both minimal yet distinct. Witnessed first and fully guitar driven, the second half felt more celebratory, whilst the first saw Ghali, Akroni and their percussionist take us through the tender side of Tuareg music, full of lovely chants and enveloping percussions.
It was the first time they played outside Niger, one can only hope it was the first of many.
[Tim van Veen]
THE DRONE CONNECTION
Drone is a peculiar form of musical expression. Distorted, amplified and overwhelming guitar tones laced down in slow progression, often at the total expense of external rhythm. Abstract and abrasive as it seems, it ends up being nothing more than a language; amenable to whatever discourse its user decides to elaborate, provided he knows how to do so.
A centred table drowns in purple light, covered with all sorts of machinery to which Aiden Baker and Leah Buckareff have plugged their mangled guitars. Not Baker, not Buckareff, on stage together they are Nadja; the inward facing spring of drone, whose constant output one can merely and briefly glance at least getting all consumed in the process. As if holding on to those exploratory ideas and refining them into something big would be tantamount to its self-destruction. Write, record, release, play, in a never ending cycle. No over-hype nor over-exposure: constant mutation together with a subtle and challenging output will always take care of that.
It’s drone, no doubt. Yet, it is completely unlike what Sunn O))) did in Ronda last year. There are at least a few orders of magnitude missing. It’s really the case of the same language being used for completely different purposes. It would always be worthless to try and copy last year’s curators; nothing in this world quite compares to Greg Anderson’s tone or to Stephen O’Malley’s texture weaving abilities, and they’ve built something truly massive on top of that simple amplifier worshipping idea.
[Tim van Veen]
A dark, smoke-filled Ronda hosts a drone titan. You’ve heard that before. It was Tim Hecker’s turn this time, it should’ve been another for the ages but it just sort of happened. Beatless but neither graceful nor asphyxiating. Neither visceral nor subtle. Nothing at all, in fact, was what we were left with. An attempt at something great through subtlety and care ended in a blatant face-first fall on the floor, not even helped by anchoring the set in an interestingly impersonal lighting rig. Happens to all the great ones at some point.
Nadja is a much more subdued beast. Baker’s back is turned to us while sideways facing Buckareff, his guitar whole in the arm with a grotesquely small body, Buckareff’s turned to us while sideways facing Baker, her guitar missing the top of the arm though sporting a whole body. Their set is a grower, with sounds never ceasing to transform themselves along the way, smoothly varying from ambient to a heavy industrial-laced drone. Doing so without a single stark transition, therein lies the magic.
A cat finds a box, nests herself in and gives birth in a visually visceral process, as these things go. Afterwards, another cat, presumably male, comes in to lick the new born kittens. The backdrop film to Nadja’s concert was a fine representation of the band itself; an asymmetric, imperfect creation breathing new life as a seemingly unavoidable part of their existence.
STRIPPED DOWN: TWO YEARS IN THE MAKING
One of the appeals of Le Guess Who? are the side activities like the Recordplanet’s Mega Record & CD Fair taking place in Jaarbeurs during the festival. It’s an exhausting and overwhelming affair, surely, but one that can be quite rewarding. Afterwards, as I sat for a beer and some food, looking at the day’s schedule, the fifteen stages running in parallel during Saturday seemed like a scary sight. Remembering the “time-standing-still” feeling I had at the gorgeous Leeuwenbergh when Julianna Barwick played there in 2012, and seeing that Federico Albanese was set to bring his beautiful electronic-laced piano compositions to that same room, starting the night of activities there became obligatory.
Arguably, it was the best decision I made in the whole festival. Once again, time stood still in that church, something perhaps better understood by what the Italian composer told the crowd at the end of his set. Scheduled at the end of his 2016 tour, this was his return to the festival after two years. The 2014 show apparently marked a period of personal and artistic rediscovery for him and upon arriving at the room that afternoon, he decided to mark the occasion by doing something quite different. He decided to stick to the grand piano and entirely ditch the electronics for one night. The result was an absolutely gorgeous, stripped down version of his compositions; further enhanced by the crowd’s silence, with people clearly waiting until the end of the songs before getting up to go grab a drink or use the bathrooms, so as not to disturb others’ experience.
The stage sided by the stained glasses on one side and red velvet curtains in the other, with the red seats in front. The room’s silence punctuated by the piano notes, never overwhelming nor too placid. Just the perfect fit.
[Tim van Veen]