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Futuresonic: Murcof and AntiVJ, Johann Johannsson and Denis Jones at RNCM, 14 May

17/05/09

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With Futuresonic’s mission statement being, amongst other things, “to challenge, engage, surprise and delight in equal measure,” you may suspect that the festival organisers have their work cut out in impressing a room full of media-savvy music fans. But on Thursday night, at the Royal Northern College of Music’s main theatre, all four promises were not just met, but exceeded.

The line-up and introductory blurb wasn’t without hype and hyperbole, but for this reviewer, all the artists performing were unknown. A grand venue, RNCM’s theatre holds 600 or so, and was mostly full on Thursday, and with a packed line-up, timings were regimented and it wasn’t long before first act Denis Jones appeared.

On what is supposedly the biggest stage in Manchester, local man Denis Jones seemed dwarfed by the expanse of space surrounding him, flanked only by his acoustic guitar, a pedal board, and an array of gadgets and wires on a table to his left. These tools were combined, along with his voice, to tell folksy tales, with added instrumentation and looped beats and samples, mostly appearing to be created on the spot. And it was a joy to listen to the stories, with Jones’ voice soft and with a local twang, sounding like Bon Iver if he were from the North West, and bringing to mind Elbow’s Guy Garvey.

The abundance of open space onstage was balanced somewhat by a large screen situated behind Jones, onto which was projected an engaging set of images being mixed live from an array of cameras surrounding him. Some were hidden and off stage, another pair was attached to his microphones, another positioned on the table to his side. The results wavered between the kinds of psychedelic vision mixing seen on Top of the Pops in the 1970s, and the night-vision green more associated with modern reality television. The effect was pronounced, and added a stark realism and intimacy to a performance, which, at least visually, could have ended up swamped by the vastness of the surroundings.

Between acts, the house lights went up, revealing the types of people this event in particular had attracted, along with those attending various events as part of the festival as a whole. On the screen were projected shots of Manchester with a super-imposed Futuresonic logo floating around. Meanwhile, pulsing music was being played by the Last.fm DJs.

With the arrival of the second act, Icelandic Johann Johannsson and the Iskra quartet, the stage got no smaller, but the room was hushed once more and filled with quiet anticipation, Johannsson’s performance being a rare treat. The set was led by the string quartet playing softly and plaintively as Johannsson masterfully combined their organic, classical sound with bursts of minimalist beats and samples, occasionally joining them on an upright piano. This fusion of classical minimalism and modern effects and sounds brings to mind the work of Ludovico Einaudi, Robert Lippok and others. On stage there was an air of complete calm and control, but the music – seemingly spanning much of Johannsson’s career – attracted rapturous applause.

Following this soft, reassuring set, the Last.fm DJs returned once more, appearing to turn the bass levels up a notch, while the stage was reset and a vast black curtain descended, shrouding the much-anticipated final act in further mystery.

Shortly before ten to ten, the lights went down, and the black curtain was raised to reveal three bright lights shining out to the crowd from the stage. In front of this was a layer of gauze, and just in the gloom between the lights could be seen the three artists, including Mexican electronica musician Murcof and the two AntiVJ visual artists.

Slowly, a soft, droning tone could be detected, and as the crowd’s eyes got used to the darkness punctuated by piercing white spotlights, a small orb could be seen, projected onto the gauze, yet appearing to float above the centre of the stage. As the sound grew some more, this orb, literally looking three-dimensional and appearing to float in space, grew also. This intensity grew and was occasionally interrupted by sharp, spiky sounds, causing the orb, now looking somewhat like the head of a Dandelion, to jump, exploding into shards of glass or ribbon.

The effect was incredibly unsettling, but somehow equally as entrancing: the music created a sense of tension, being randomly stabbed by harsh bursts of noise, combined with this alluring and unpredictable ball of light being projected onto the gauze by the three lights behind. As the ball continually exploded and reformed, I was reminded of early experiments in motion pictures, which terrified the viewers with scenes of action such as speeding trains appearing to hurtle towards them. The effect was the same – this method of projection, backlit, in an otherwise darkened room, created an eerie illusion of a 3D object floating in space.

As the nightmarish floating orb shrank back into itself, signifying the end of one piece of music, shortly followed by the next, the images projected onscreen morphed into a vast star field, stretching right across the gauze, which filled the stage. All the while, with the music and the brightness of the stars growing with equal intensity, the sight and sound were so hypnotic that when the galaxy of stars growing in front of the audience started rotating, it took a while to realise the effect.

Once again, the projections were perfectly synchronised with the ambient, droning electronic music filling the room. This theme continued for the whole performance, with the projections morphing from stars to specks of light reminiscent of minute air bubbles seen underwater, moving onto more linear arrangements of lines, appearing first as a constantly-moving three-dimensional wireframe model, before again turning into shafts of horizontal light creating sliding doors and passageways.

The effect of the disorienting, sometimes terrifying images filling your field of vision, and the intensity of the droning music as it grew and died was exhausting and hypnotic. The scene was something like a stage production of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Or the world’s most advanced iTunes visualiser. And that’s effectively what this was. But the effect was so pronounced, the results so perfectly in tune with the music, that at times during the 1h20m set, it wasn’t uncommon to feel as if in a trance.

Looking back at the blurb, talk of “a huge layered, semi-transparent installation” creating “immersion in a broken, multifaceted cosmos of a million stars and abstract shapes” is remarkably spot on, a perfect description of what was shown on Thursday. And yet, having scanned this and other previews for clues beforehand, I could never have predicted what was achieved.

The overall effect was simply mindboggling, and left the audience with a feeling of amazement, confusion and sheer terror. Such an outstanding exhibition of musical and visual art makes it hard to stack it up next to the more standard performances seen earlier in the evening, but with a line-up as strong, varied and remarkable as it had been, the whole evening was just staggering. Three very different sets of musicians, all creating unique styles and performances, all combining elements of traditional music with the most cutting edge technology, and yet each complimenting the other perfectly.

A perfect summary of what Futuresonic stands for, and a nod towards the incoming FutureEverything, as it will be known from next year.

Words and photography by Paul Capewell

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