Sunday, March 11, 2012

Aphex Twin @ the Palace, 8/3/2012

As JPS and Mike Hunt go three for three on stage at the Palace Tuesday night, it occurs to me that warming up for Aphex Twin really is a dream gig.

Think about it, you can play anything. And I mean anything.

What are you going to do, clear the dancefloor? It’s filling fast no matter what records you spin. Freak the crowd out? These people have paid good money to be freaked out. Upstage the main act? Um, yeah. Good luck with that.

The boys seem to enjoy the freedom to go dark and heavy, banging out Autechre (‘Second Bad Vilbel’), Nosaj Thing, Eskamon and Plaid. Heads nod and knees bend in appreciation. The only misstep comes towards the end when Mike, sporting an oversized Underground Resistance tee, takes things too far into minimal tech territory - but Jerry quickly jumps up and fades in Autechre’s ‘Bike’.

It’s a masterstroke. Many of us gathered here tonight have listened to this track many, many times in the privacy of our own homes. Now, it bursts out of the huge sound system like a coded message for the faithful: you’re not in your bedrooms any more. This is where you, and this music, really belong.

Mark Pritchard’s arrival is another sign we’re in an alternate universe for electronica geeks. Where else are 40-something white men in shorts and glasses greeted so ecstatically? (Well, perhaps the punk scene). And three nights after Africa HiTech’s triumphant Espionage show, he deserves a rapturous welcome.

Pritchard has been in the game for over 20 years, through innumerable partnerships and monnikers like Global Communication, Jedi Knights, Link, Reload and Harmonic 313. He relocated to Sydney several years ago, and is now the closest thing Australia has to electronic music royalty on a global scale. One happy result of this is that, when living legends like Autechre and Aphex Twin tour, there is a man with the credentials and the record bag to play alongside.

“He should play something hard!” we joke to each other as the 303s roll in. Tonight we’re partying like the Noughties never happened, but it doesn’t feel regressive. In the Nineties, UK electronic music hit a sweet spot where anything was possible. With inspiration streaming in from across the Atlantic and across the Channel, rave music cannibalised hip-hop, breakbeat, house, techno, electro, ambient, krautrock and more  (including chin-stroking academic music) in the search for the perfect party where the beat never stopped – and never got boring.

Underpinning this, of course, was a unique scene that, while growing, was still relatively united and utopian. But packed into the Palace tonight, we are a long way from London warehouses or the fields of Castlemorton. As Pritchard drops a hint of his/Reload’s classic “Feedback Energy”, it’s becoming increasingly hard to dance.

By the time he plays the VIP mix of “Out In The Streets”, all we can really do is pogo, headbang or hug friends – and from here on it’s a 20-minute jungle rinseout to the finish. To be honest it’s a bit much for me at 9:30pm on a Tuesday, and if this is the warm-up act then I’m getting slightly worried we’ll only be visited by the evil Richard James tonight.

After a tense few minutes of quiet anticipation, the stage is bathed in an abstract pattern of light that quickly coalesces into the famous Aphex Twin logo. Somewhere up there, we can just make out the head of the great man “Believe in me” intones an electronic voice over an ambient track. “I believe in you!” shouts a bloke behind me. An 303 line creeps in and then the beat drops – it’s hip-hop! The crowd roars and begins to dance. Or at least bop.

For the first half of the set, I find it difficult to enjoy the music as much as I feel I should. Partly it’s my own expectations, which are ridiculously high. Seven years ago Aphex played the Prince of Wales and the music was two hours of danceable bliss – even though we were practically dancing in the toilets to find space.

Partly it’s the squash, but perhaps partly it’s the sound? Stevie T from 8 Foot Felix reckons the speakers are set too far apart and there are too many dead flat walls. I look around. It’s a beautiful venue, and the three packed tiers above make me feel like I’m in a Lenny Kravitz video. But the sound is a little trebly, the bass a tiny bit boomy, and the melodies in the mid-range are getting lost.

Should I join my friends who fled upstairs to find room to move? A beautiful moment early on decides me againt it. The second track breaks down into a rolling synth line bathed in chorus, and as the beat comes back in the visuals morph into close-up, live images of punters dancing.

Most fans would be expecting this, but it’s still a trip to witness up close. And for much of the show, amazingly, the visuals seem to take centre stage. They are constantly entertaining – especially the sequence that puts Aphex and some punters’ heads on the bodies of Aussie icons like Shane Warne, Bindi Irwin and even Julia Gillard being bustled away from the Tent Embassy protesters – but at times almost distracting.

I can’t help but compare this show to Autechre, who play their music in total darkness (the Exit lights and a lamp on stage the only exception). An Autechre gig is ipso facto all about the music: find a spot, open your ears and listen. Dance if you will or can.

I’m tempted to say this show is all about spectacle. But afterwards my mates who fled upstairs to dance tell me they had heaps of space, tore it up, couldn’t see a thing and loved every minute of it. A matter of perspective, then.

The crowd greets “Fingerbib” (off Richard D. James) and “PWSteal.Ldpinch.D” (off the Analord Eps) with ecstatic hands in the air, but the turning point of the set,  for me, is when Aphex drops Surgeon’s “Radiance”. It’s a monster of a track, timeless and terrifying rave music, and the carnivalesque visuals of red and white fractals complement it perfectly. It’s the epileptic fit you want to be having.

Hints of Drukqs drum ‘n’ bass takeover, and then something very unexpected happens. Two hooded figures appear on stage, making their way down from Aphex Twin to the lower stage near the punters. They are wearing unbelievably awesome fluourescent orange onesies. Then they pull out mics and start rapping in South African accents – it’s Die Antwoord!

With hype levels going through the roof, Ninja and Yo-Landi rhyme and dance over some seriously hard, jumping rave music before Ninja decides to somersault into the crowd and lead a chant of “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!” from mid-air.

It’s all over before we know it, and the whole episode sums up Die Antwoord. They’re fun and they get the party started, but they’re in pretty bad taste and you wouldn’t want them sticking around too long. IMHO, as it were.

If there was any question Aphex might be upstaged, he puts it to bed with the last twenty minutes of his set. The intensity builds and builds as the tempo ramps up and the sound palette heads inexorably towards white noise. We move through jungle into gabba and breakcore territory. People are moshing, people are leaving, people are covering their ears, people are laughing and letting it wash over them.

A set that began in relatively ambient territory finishes in a screeching squall of sound. There’s even a hint of “Ventolin” in there somewhere. It’s an undeniable visceral experience, and when Richard James leaves the stage with a little thumbs-up the place goes bananas. What follows is the lengthiest, most boisterous attempt to win an encore I’ve ever been a part of – and even though most of us must know we’ve got bugger all chance of the man reappearing on stage, it feels right. Like a tribute.

After all, who knows if we’ll ever see Aphex Twin in Australia again?

Maybe as you’re reading this you’re on your way to the Future Music Festival to see him headline a stage after Sven Vath, no less. If so, I’m a bit jealous. At least at Future most of the crowd will be off at Skrillex or whoever, and there should be plenty of room to move.

Maybe one day we’ll get to hear music like this in the setting it really deserves. Mark Pritchard and Africa HiTech at Rainbow Serpent 2013 would be a pretty good start.

Maybe I'm just an old raver who can't accept that it's not 1998 any more.


(Maybe I should have written this piece on Wednesday. Sorry it took me so long, and it's still a bit rushed.  I’ve been sick as a dog and am just feeling better. I’ll post more videos when I can.)

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