With the clock ticking towards the 29 March, time feels out of joint. To live in an historic time feels remarkably mundane in some ways, despite knowing that retrospectively this period will be judged otherwise. The mundane conspiracy of the small town Wetherspoons which used to be a cinema, lurking beyond the gaze of London, is the territory Gazelle Twin pokes her head into with last year’s Pastoral. Her performance of the album at EartH in Dalston formed part of the first BBC 3 Late Junction Festival, sharing the bill that evening with Hen Ogledd, Chaines and Pulled Apart by Magnets, at first a seemingly disparate grouping, but a thread became clear in a kind of showcase of music from weird Britain, outside the confines of more normative sonic traditions.
What year is this?
What species is this?
Gazelle Twin’s set begins out of time - setting the scene for a vignette from the early 21st century: an extraterrestrial observer asks where and when this tale takes place. Flies are buzzing and discordant samples announce the start of things. Dressed as a tasseled court jester meets fan-in-the-stands, Gazelle Twin’s aesthetics are well considered. She wears a red jumpsuit and mask, becoming a striking figure summoned from the depths of mythic consciousness. Veiled underneath a baseball cap for the performance, her companion plays on a pad, daintily set up on a lacy white tablecloth behind her. For it is behind the veil of white lace curtains where Elizabeth Bernholz finds the sordid resentment of England. Pastoral was born out of a change in circumstance in her life: moving to the countryside to have a child, she was perceptive of a difference in conduct, and interactions with people in her new surroundings.
Sonically, the genre-crossing avant pop of Pastoral finds itself drawing from grime, trap, choral, techno and loops, detourning English sentiment with songs titled things like Better in My Day and Tea Rooms to psychoanalyse the passive-depressive resentment of the countryside. Her vocal range is impressive, nimbly jumping registers in her incantations. The interplay between vocalisation and electronic sounds is effective and help to build a terrifying tension throughout.
Unfortunately the thematically-rich nuance of the album is somewhat lost in this setting. Already familiar with the conceptual and lyrical content of Pastoral, it was easy to watch the show with some orientation. If this was not the case, it might not have not been as enjoyable, as, perhaps due to the sound setup, most of the lyrics were hard to discern. As such, it seemed to succeed more in the register of performance art. Bernholz is in command throughout the show, with compelling stage presence that communicated through poise and bodily expression: prancing, tip-toeing, posturing like a jester. All the movements had their place at building this narrative which complemented the sonic side of the show. She maintained poise throughout and finds particularly strong synergies at times: the end of Sunny Stories building to a climax with her movements slowing, in a mesmeric, captivating ritualistic manner.
If any observations can be made contemporaneously about our current situation, then it seems like one of the largest sociopolitical issues is, by and by, ignored by most pop artists. Surely this is a peculiarity? Has a growing creative conservatism crept into the decision making of artists, labels, PR agencies not wanting to potentially alienate a portion of their consumer base? It seems that only a brave few musicians are dealing with Brexit in an explicit manner, when in the past you could reliably expect pop-music to form an integral part of cultural-political critique. This is why Gazelle Twin’s work is so vitally needed.
Until the 1960s, working class East Londoners would often take working holidays in Kent, picking hops and fruit in the late summer. Many too poor to afford a paid holiday, these trips provided the opportunity for some respite from the big Smoke. Ironically, it was largely due to farming automation, changes in employment laws, school term dates and an increasingly aspirational class of package-holidaymakers who ended this rural-urban dialogue. And nothing to do with the Eastern Europeans who notably take on most of these remaining jobs. Those who bemoan a loss of English tradition ought to realise that the iconoclasm is self-inflicted, like Eric Andre asking ‘Who Killed Hannibal?’, we look to the ennui present in modern Britain and ask How could Brussels do this? Looking around the crowd, it seemed unlikely that the audience gathered had much in common with those escaping Hackney once upon a time. The danger of preaching to the choir is becoming increasingly apparent as we are further entrenched in algorithmic and geographic silos. But the jester’s ability to assume identities is not one that can be underestimated: slipping through social strata like a chameleon. Sometimes this affords them the opportunity to speak truth to those in power. Perhaps they’re listening.
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