Review: King Midas Sound & Fennesz, Dean Blunt, Shackleton

Art & Culture

Clock Strikes 13 Presents: Ninja Tune Part 1 with King Midas Sound & Fennesz/Dean Blunt/Shackleton 
St. John at Hackney
Ninja Tune 25th Anniversary

For Ninja Tune’s commemorative celebrations – marking 25 years since Coldcut incepted the label in 1990 – the label ostensibly curated a bill which reflects their more recent ambit. Although the label have released much of Kevin Martin’s work as The Bug, a long term exception to the rule, their catalogue seems to have been unprecedentedly enriched by recent forays into riskier and more niche spheres. In this respect the incorporation of Actress’ Werk Discs and the signing of Lee Bannon – as well as the release of ‘Edition 1’ – spring to mind as particularly shrewd.   It’s a far cry from the less daring downtempo and glitch-hop environs of the mid to late 2000s, and the early 2010s. Tonight affirms that gulf in tendency ever more emphatically with two sets which could never be called conventionally crowd pleasing but are nevertheless captivating and unforgettable. 

An early, warm up appearance from Shackleton finished on a high of frantic, pummelling  but tight drumming, ably brought to a kind of endless percussive war cry by three of his collaborators. Yet as unabating and sparsely arranged as the close of Shackleton’s set is, it’s outshone, not on account of it’s own inadequacy but for the scene stealing antagonism and wryly conceived surreally satirical undertones which define Dean Blunt’s set. Supplied with a liberally accommodating fog machine, the crowd were reduced to silhouettes, a tactic which made the many castigating swerves of Blunt’s appearance all the more bemusing. With the turntable decked out in a British flag, a sample was abruptly blared out over the system, one which repeated the words ‘this makes me proud to be British’ ad nauseam, perhaps reflecting the blind patriotism of Tory PR exercises or the more nefarious idiocy of fringe parties. The cumulative tedium of it all. 

Or not. It’s difficult to get a handle when – presumably an accomplice of Blunt’s – is doing the rounds in the crowd, doling out nitrous oxide British flag decorated balloons whilst wearing a red hoody displaying the words ‘Buy British’ on its front. The precise message is unclear but it’s absurdity is writ large and only the dense would fail to recognise its amusing but powerful potency. It feels like an age before Blunt actually makes himself known, one filled with oblique, extended baroque interludes humorously juxtaposed by the DJs propensity for mic hype and self-promotional allusions to upcoming nights which feature him (and one moment where he details his phone number and utters the immortal words ‘reach out for discounts’)

But there’s a deeper intent seemingly buried beneath the escapades, as ‘Fuck Trident’ often rings out, a reference to the police unit set up to tackle gun crime who were also involved in the investigation of Mark Duggan. It’s an issue Blunt has confronted before, on the two part ‘Trident’ tracks released amidst, but separately from, ‘Black Metal’. In keeping with the divergence of these moments, from the often surprisingly forthright emotiveness and shambling indie-pop samples which arose on that record, Blunt – when he eventually arrives – sounds more remorseless and ferocious than rueful, spitting over lo-fi, sub-heavy digi-grime as if the crowd had majorly wronged him in some way. There’s none of the solemnity of ‘100’ or ‘MOLLY & AQUAFINA’, instead the fortified hooks of ‘MERSH’ and ‘PUNK’ are the kind of roughly hewn beats which are favoured. Predictably enough, it only endears him further to the people who venture into the aisles which separate two seated sections of the crowd. This would be a strange experience in any setting but in a 300 year old church it’s seriously perplexing. Yet for all the brevity and elusion – the apex being a sustained, intermittent assault of thick, paint-stripping rains of noise often sounded out just when a more accessible momentum had been established – there’s an inescapable magnetism to Blunt which makes even these abrasive, riot-zone happenings somehow necessary, even inspired. 

Following in the wake of such a stupefying and relentless impact, King Midas Sound had a sizeable sense of presence to fill. But instead of exhibiting any outré stunts, both Kevin Martin and Christian Fennesz remained inconspicuous; Martin behind a considerable mixing desk and Fennesz behind an assembly of pedals, hardware and laptops. Fortunately the sound more than compensated for the absence of anti-showmanship. With speakers looming and a serene blanket of blue stage lights it was immediately discernible from the first notes of ‘Mysteries’ that, although this collaborative album frequently ventures into gaseous subterranea, in a live context it’s execution is refixed into mightier shapes. As revealed by the succeeding setlist it’s on-record aeration is refitted with dub duly optimized for an engulfing, immovable coverage, of both the room and the individuals inside it. It feels more like the sound of a high grade, large scale dancehall soundsystem, enlivened by live improvisation. A sound to pay attention to, in both mind and body. 

Above the foundation-rattling low end, both Robinson and Hitomi acquit themselves well, managing to project the fundamental melancholy and obsession that has often characterized the work of KMS, and the nature of its lyrical content. In a tweet sent prior to the show, Martin detailed attempts to ‘have seats removed, lights turned off, strobes turned on, volume kept up…’ and although certain compromises on those demands seem to have been made (seats remained, lights were sporadic, strobes were absent) the sound was monumental enough. ‘Loving or Leaving’ and earlier Hyperdub production ‘Lost’ felt especially mesmeric, building to a colossal climax and reaching intense burnout; the former through heavy plummets and the latter through desecratory bass and the guitar-led strafed convulsions of Fennesz.  Only when the final track of the night – ‘Above Water’ – was reached was there any significant respite, and despite indications of a set which overran, with stagehands hurriedly rushing onstage to prompt Martin, the night ended with a lingering poignancy, and a crowd rapt. 

With such an eventful programme, the sidelining of Ninja Tune’s anniversary celebrations felt inevitable. Still, giving this kind of platform in such a setting is admirable. As for the artists themselves, it’s anyone’s guess what direction Dean Blunt’s live performances will take, a prospect of increasingly combative and unpredictable art-prank mystification which will no doubt corral more curious witnesses. Whilst King Midas Sound and Fennesz have all the markings of a faultless live outfit; an affecting, devouring, unmissable unit.