Carey Young – Memento Park

Cornerhouse, Manchester

Untill 20th March 2011

Born in Zambia in 1970, Carey Young grew up and studied in Manchester. She now works internationally utilising a variety of different media and settings. In particular though, her works critique contemporary culture and its prevailing systems. Memento Park is largely a retrospective, however the title comes from a new piece commissioned by the exhibition’s organising partners.

Gallery 2 is dominated by the large photographic prints that make up Body Techniques (2007) featuring Young, as she recreates scenes from a variety of well-known performance works by the likes of Bruce Nauman and VALIE EXPORT. The artist appears as a solitary figure amongst the vast construction sites of ever-expanding Dubai. The impermanence of such works sits uncomfortably with the flimsiness of such contemporary constructions rising rapidly out of the desert. However, whether Young is questioning is the landscape or merely using it as a canvas remains unclear.

Product Recall (2007) meanwhile, is a video of the artist laying on what resembles a psychiatrist’s couch, and as an analyst figure reads out a series of advertising slogans, she attempts to recall which corporation they relate to. The work forces you to consider how much advertising permeates our consciousness, however the effect is dimmed slightly by the fact that Young can’t seem to recall that many. Another interesting piece, Inventory (2007), sees Young collaborating with two scientists to work out the levels of all the elements in her body and subsequently their current market value, giving the artist a “price”. A clear take on the market value of art, artists and the individual.

In Gallery 3, several works deal with a world obsessed with legality, contracts and claims. A stand out is Terms and Conditions (2004) where a suited figure reads out a long legal disclaimer to those who wish to enter an idyllic beauty spot behind her, the text apparently culled from a range of corporate websites.

The title piece, Memento Park (2010), a film projected on a wall-sized screen is the most visually striking and subtly engaging work in the exhibition. The piece was filmed in Budapest’s eponymous Memento Park, where Soviet-era statues from across Hungary were deposited after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Shot in the intense light of dusk, it is startling to watch this slow, meandering film survey these huge, aggressive monuments to social realism reduced to gathered curiosities in a tatty park on the edge of town. Traffic and birdsong fight to become the soundtrack as Carey shows disembodied sections of the sculptures, a beard here, a fist there, looking as oddly out of context as the statues themselves.

As a whole, Young’s work seems to point towards the political, but her intent remains obscure and ambiguous. Many issues are raised through the different mediums, but frustratingly nothing is really said about any of them. Perhaps that’s the intention, the artist appears to be engaged in a passive resistance with the corporate world, but that passivity leaves many of the works feeling as cold and ambiguous as the actions of the corporations she questions.

By Kenn Taylor

This review appeared in Aesthetica magazine February 2011.

Nam June Paik

Tate Liverpool  and FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) Liverpool

Untill 13th March 2011

As we move into the second decade of the 21st century, it appears as if “media art” is finally being accepted as a high art form. It has been nearly 60 years since Nam June Paik’s first experiments with sound, television and video emerged into the international art consciousness, and so reaching a point of major institutional recognition highlights just how far ahead of his time he really was.

Perhaps more profoundly, this first major retrospective since his death in 2006 signifies how so many of his ideas predicted our present day multimedia world, which is saturated with technology, information and interactivity.

Exhibited across both Tate Liverpool and FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), Tate does what it does best with a grand narrative retrospective, while FACT does what it does best with a focus on examining Paik’s use of video and cutting-edge mediums from the 1970s onwards.

Paik began his creative work with music. The first section at Tate examines, how his relationship with the radical composer John Cage informed all his later work and how, despite not considering himself a “visual artist”, he began to move into new mediums saying: “I knew there was something to be done in television and no one else was doing it.” Despite this, in his later work, he retained many of the concepts he learned whilst composing avant-garde music; chance, interaction and pushing the limits of technology.

From his earliest works Paik wanted to break down the boundary between artwork, artist, and viewer and viewed. The great hulk of Video Synthesiser 1969 (1992), developed by Paik and engineer, Shuya Abe, to allow participants to manipulate images on a screen without specialist technical knowledge, is startling. A lump of knobs, dials, leads and CRT monitors, it allowed, the general public (perhaps for the first time) to do what previously only broadcast engineers could do and what today any kid with a basic computer and internet connection could do.

As with so much retrospective documentation of performance and experimental work, the old televisions and tape machines detailing early works can only hint at the experience of witnessing or using them at the time. It’s hard to imagine when these common devices were cutting edge pieces of technology that were being used in a radical way, particularly now, because analogue TV sets and tape machines look like nothing more than junk-shop relics.

The best of Paik’s work though, transcends this. TV Garden 1974-77 (2010) one of his first large-scale installations, a series of televisions placed among a myriad of tropical plants each showing a mesmerising television mash-up Global Groove (1973) that could be a proto-YouTube video. Its continual, rhythmic flickering colours and sounds are beautiful, illuminating the foliage in the darkened room, and a prominent example of how Paik wanted to break down the barriers between the natural and technological.

Underpinning this were Paik’s Zen Buddhist beliefs. Often highlighted as his signature motif, his collection of “TV Buddhas” epitomises much of his art and philosophy. The ancient Buddhist symbol, in a variety of guises, sits watching a TV screen, displaying clearly, the interaction between humanity and technology and the contrasts he so loved; the Eastern and the Western, the old and new, the technological and the spiritual.

The contextual information in the gallery further highlights Paik’s desire for global human connectedness through technology. He is credited with coining the term “Information Superhighway” back in the 1970s. His foresight is also highlighted in 1994’s Internet Dream, a video wall displaying a constant stream of rapidly changing garishly coloured scenes to hypnotic effect shows his early awareness of our move towards information saturation and his celebration of its constant expansion with every shift forward in technology.

At FACT meanwhile, the cavernous Gallery 1 is entirely taken up by the spectacular installation Laser Cone 1998 (2001). A tent-like structure you lie beneath and experience an overwhelming, intense laser show. Like Internet Dream, it seems to reflect Paik’s interest in subjecting the viewer to the beauty inherent in visual overload.

Gallery 2, by contrast, is set out like a chic lounge where, armed with remote control, you’re invited to flick through hours of Paik’s video works. Some of Paik’s riffs on the potential of the medium and his love for pushing it to its limits look retro, in some cases, just boring, compared to today’s potential for intervention and experiment with media. However, their influence, on everything from MTV to Skype and today’s video artists, is clear and profound.

This retrospective is comprehensive, but not overwhelming, and, even spread across two venues, it’s easy to navigate through the artist’s life and career. This enables visitors to clearly see how his work morphed and changed with the times and advances in technology.

Paik was a pioneer of “media art”, yet it seems he always wanted what we have today. Not only did he realise the potential for technology to be used in art, but its potential to allow the viewer to take a more active role, for mediums to merge, and for anyone to make or manipulate the content. Paik understood that technological art needed to move beyond the medium, and like all great art, to be about humanity and its relationship to the world.

By Kenn Taylor

This review appeared in Aesthetica magazine December 2010.

The Land Between Us: power, place and dislocation

Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester

Untill 23rd January 2010

The Land between Us combines a variety of landscapes from the Whitworth’s fine collection with a selection of more recent and contemporary works, examining landscape as a genre and the places and power associated with it.

In Olafur Eliasson’s The Forked Forrest Path, Birch and Sycamore branches are woven into dense forest, creating an entrance to the exhibition that is both playful and unsettling. Beyond this is a diverse selection of works ranging from a Rembrandt etching to Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs.

A key theme is change; both in the landscapes themselves and who is representing them. William Holman Hunt’s idyllic Holy Land portrayed in The Plain of Rephaim from Zion, Jerusalem contrasts sharply with Larissa Sansour’s video work Soup over Bethlehem which examines the complex politics of contemporary Palestine.

Equally striking though are the continuities. J.M.W Turner’s rendition of Conway Castle, Caernarvonshire, a structure built in the 13th century to control and monitor local people, sits adjacent to Donavan Wylie’s South Armagh, Golf 40, West View 2007, a photograph of a British Army watchtower in Northern Ireland constructed for a similar purpose in more recent times.

By placing these works next to each other, the exhibition forces the viewer to confront the tensions between them and to look beyond to the power structures that influenced them. It’s a simple idea but creates a context for a radical re-examination of these works that manages to be both subtle and intellectually challenging whilst remaining accessible.

The Land Between Us is a curatorial marvel that should be viewed by all interested in the art and politics of land and landscape.

By Kenn Taylor

This review appeared in Aesthetica magazine December 2010.

Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2010

A Foundation, Liverpool

Untill 13th November 2010

Bloomberg New Contemporaries is an open-submission showcase for art students and recent graduates, which takes emerging artists and their works out of the educational realm and places them within the framework of the “real” art world. The exhibition has a long-established pedigree, having been in existence in various forms since 1949, and it provides a rare opportunity for early career artists to get their work shown in a professional gallery context.

In 1996 the exhibition premiered in Liverpool, before touring to London and other venues across the country. Part of this year’s Liverpool Biennial, the show is once again airing at A Foundation, consistently one of Liverpool’s most satisfying contemporary art spaces.

Inevitably, with such a variety of work and artists on display, the exhibition feels like a graduate show, albeit a high quality one. This is however, not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s a refreshing exhibition. A Foundation’s huge Coach Shed Gallery is large enough to give generous space to each of the 49 artists featured.

A highlight is Sam Knowles’ series of works, which utilise the aesthetics of space. In Field (2009) star systems are painted over dozens of pages from books: novels, works of anthropology, philosophy and science. Elsewhere A Sectional View of the Endless Immensity (2009) is a complex map laying out an outline of both the mind and the universe. Reflecting on how we attempt to reduce the enormity of existence to technical diagrams and descriptions, it’s a complex, understated and arresting series of works.

Kiwoun Shin’s Dis_illusion_Coin_Faces (2010) features close-ups of various international coins being ground down. It is a particularly memorable piece, because it is simultaneously straightforward and yet uncompromisingly epic. Dis_illusion_Coin_Faces is continuously fascinating to watch, as symbols of power and wealth are repeatedly and relentlessly reduced to dust.

Another stalwart is the time-based work of Greta Alfaro. In Ictu Oculi (2009) unfolds as a static camera documents a flock of vultures descending upon and devouring a lavish banquet laid out on a table in barren countryside. The film is both engrossing and disturbing to watch, as domestic subtly is subjected to brutal animal reality.

Nick Mobb’s large photographs of sofas stuffed in doorways make the ordinary and industrial seem organic and uncanny. Elsewhere, Joe Clark’s mixed media piece Somewhere in West Virginia (2009) requires time in order to understand exactly how the “Mousetrap-like” set-up produces the image on view. Technical quality aside, the vision is atmospheric, but might have benefited from a darker, more isolated location.

Chris Shaw Hughes’ carbon drawings of aerial scenes, from petrochemical plants to housing estates are technical marvels, creating a shift in perception that makes the mundane monumental. At the opposite end of the drawing scale, Naomi Uchida’s Doodles on National Treasure Project (2010) is a surreal and finely drawn amalgam of fiction, fantasy and folklore, with the look of an ancient scroll created by an oddly contemporary hand.

New Contemporaries is a timely survey of upcoming talent, and it is encouraging to see the work of new artists given a decent platform, demonstrating that there are plenty of raw, talented artists to watch out for in the future.

By Kenn Taylor

This review was published by Aesthetica magazine in October 2010.

Liverpool Biennial 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

Various venues 18 September – 28 November 2010

The Liverpool Biennial, now in its sixth incarnation, is the largest festival of contemporary art in the UK. It’s a huge undertaking that can only really be appreciated by walking around it. Every two years the city is literally filled with art in every conceivable place. Virtually every type of medium is represented by hundreds of artists from all corners of the globe.

The core of the Biennial is the International Exhibition, programmed by a myriad of curators to a singular theme, which this year is ‘Touched’. More specifically, the festival’s stated intention this time around is to showcase contemporary art that can allegedly transcend boundaries of culture, language, identity et al and move those experiencing it on an emotional level.

Bluecoat, the city’s oldest and perhaps most diverse arts centre, is as good a place to start as any. Some works hit home, like Nicholas Hlobo’s Ndize an enchanting and engulfing tactile installation which highlights the Biennial’s ability at its best to transform the city’s spaces and your view of them. However, others like Daniel Bozhkov’s Music Not Good For Pigeons, an uncomfortable amalgam of football, The Beatles and political militancy, highlight the Biennial at its worst – international artists attempting to respond to Liverpool and coming up only with cliché.

Tate Liverpool, usually the only Biennial venue to charge entry, is thankfully free this year. On entering Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Embryology, a large collection of different sized textile ‘rocks’ is visually pleasing and invites, well, touch. Unfortunately, as it’s now accessioned in the Tate collection, we can only look; a great disappointment to the children who run in to play on it. It seems touching has boundaries.

In the main gallery, Jamie Isenstein’s furniture and flame installation Empire of Fire left me cold. Better was Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan’s model boat-building project with local community groups Passage which looked like it had been a great deal of fun for all involved, if not revelatory to look at. Tate’s is a diverse exhibition but not as strong as in previous years.

This year Open Eye Gallery has decided to focus on three works by Swede Lars Laumann. New commission Helen Keller is multi-layered and complex but ultimately not as rewarding for its considerable duration as 2006’s surely self-explanatory Morrissey Foretelling the Death of Diana, which manages to be equal parts engaging, amusing and thought-provoking.

FACT, frequently Liverpool’s most radical arts institution, this time around has two of the best works in the Biennial. Gallery 1 contains a recreation of Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1980 – 1981, which consisted of the artist getting up on the hour, every hour, for one year. Documentation of performance is frequently boring. This however is both aesthetically arresting and emotionally moving as the thousands of images and clock cards he used to prove it display clearly of all the ups and downs of his commitment laid out across the gallery.

Upstairs meanwhile is Yves Netzhammer’s Dialogical Abrasion, an installation which transforms the gallery into an uncanny, fractured environment; part Ghost Train, part Alice in Wonderland, part Michel Gondry outtake. Heightened by an accompanying animation and jarring sound and lighting effects, the work makes you question your own perceptions and, despite its alienating effects, you’re compelled to stay to explore its many different layers and moods.

One of the most exciting elements of the Biennial is its utilisation of the city’s abandoned and forgotten spaces. The focus this year is the former Rapid Hardware store on Renshaw Street. The store is vast but seems underused, attempts at theming different sections fall flat and works lie cobbled about here and there between not so old posters for bathroom fittings. Nevertheless, for the gems the building is worth taking the time to explore. A highlight is Ryan Trecartin’s Trill-ogy Comp – a trio of garish videos filled with extreme characters sliding through even more extreme situations, made all the more disturbing by being placed down the empty corridors of the shop’s the labyrinthine basement.

Elsewhere, in the former Scandinavian Hotel, Alfredo Jarr’s We Wish to Inform You That We Didn’t Know, an uncompromising filmic account of the genocide in Rwanda is a reminder that sometimes the unvarnished truth is the most moving thing of all. Less good however is Emese Benczùr installation on Lime Street’s abandoned Futurist cinema, now emblazoned courtesy of the artist with a slogan over the middle of it ‘Think About The Future’, an intervention considerably less poignant than the cinema’s own faded signage clearly illustrating its past glory and now insecure future.

For almost as long as there’s been a Biennial, there’s been an alternative fringe uniting under the banner of ‘The Independents’. This year though, a new initiative apart from this has seen most of the city’s major independent arts collectives come together under a new banner called The Cooperative. Taking over another abandoned shop, this venue serves as both a temporary gallery and event space and a central showcase for the exhibitions in each of the group members own galleries. It seems there’s always a fringe to add to the fringe.

Even then, there’s so much more. Outside of the main Biennial there are dozens of other exhibitions, events and initiatives which link to it. Even if you stay in the city for the festival’s duration and had unlimited free time, you’d be bound to miss stuff.

That’s not really the point though. Despite pulling in all sorts of different directions, there’s something admirable about the fact that, somehow, it all comes together, and this critical mass of art in a relatively small and still very poor city has to be appreciated. For every action of the Biennial there is a reaction and Liverpool, never one to have anything imposed upon it, becomes a hotbed of competing creative voices shouting to be heard and I can’t see it working in any other city in the UK.

But, bringing everything back to this year’s theme; did all of this work touch me? The idea of showcasing contemporary art that can overcome boundaries and communicate deep transcendental truths is admirable. But the word ‘Touched’ is suitably vague that curators have inevitably taken it to mean whatever they want. Even some of the best works seem only tenuously linked to the theme and many others are as obtuse as any art you can see anywhere. This is unfortunate, as the show could have been more radical and revelatory had it stuck more cohesively to this original intention. Despite this though, there’s enough work that shows, in the right hands, yes, the best art can shatter all of the bullshit that surrounds it and move you.

Perhaps then, this Biennial especially, is best appreciated by not trying to see everything, not reading the guidebook or the curatorial musings. Instead, just wander through the city, the art is everywhere remember, and see, what, if anything, touches you.

By Kenn Taylor

An abridged version of this review was published by Aesthetica magazine in October 2010 and can be viewed here.

Liverpool Sound City 2009

Various venues, Liverpool – May 20-23 2009

These city-based festivals are becoming more popular of late. An interesting innovation, but they just aint like the usual field-based variety. It’s impossible to ‘lose yourself’ in the atmosphere when you have to traverse a city, go back to a hotel or home, constantly cross roads and non-festival people and get in and out of all kinds of different venues all other things like that. So they always end up just feeling like a massive concentration of gigs in a short space of time that you couldn’t possibly see all of, leaving you knackered and still feeling like you’ve still missed so much.

Still, if you going to try anything like this in the UK, Liverpool is the place. Compact, easily navigable, and with a mood in its population somewhere between the sublime and the ridiculous, it’s the nearest you’ll get to a festival atmosphere in the middle of a city. Of course, as the organisers are keen to point out, this isn’t just a series of gigs, as there’s all kinds of talks and debates and blah blah blah. But we’ll leave the ‘industry’ machinations to those with their noses more firmly in the trough. EMI, NME, BPI and BBC may be imploding, but there will always be music and who-da-fuck cares how we ingest it.

So many bands, so let’s just pick out some highlights you might have missed. Headlining Static on the Thursday we have Wave Machines (pictured), Liverpool’s best little-known band. There, I’ve said it. Three of them share vocal duties and make sometimes epic, sometimes delicate songs with a mixture of unsanded jangly guitar, taut rhythms and deft keys. Most of their output is instantly catchy and sticks in the mind long after. They’re lo-fi much of the time, but unafraid to go for the oomph occasionally, and recent single ‘Keep the Lights On’ is almost Scissor Sisters in style. They end on the sweet and catchy ‘Punk Spirit’.

Maps, Northampton-based musician James Chapman, first caught our attention with the laconic indie electronics of 2007 debut ‘We Can Create’. He must be keen to get promoting that second album though, as Maps come on in Static well early. The second surprise of the night is their ‘new sound’, less dreamy keys and more hard-edged beats. This change of direction was signaled by recent single ‘Let Go Of The Fear’, and judging by this show that certainly isn’t a one off. We’re more bemused than anything, having signed up for a chilled-out rumination not a hepped-up semi-rave. Still, Maps have not settled for standing still and have ramped up their sound with ease. We can’t wait to hear what the album sounds like.

In the basement of Monochrome, one of the city’s newest venues, we find where Clinic has been buried. A cult success worldwide, they’re still little known in their hometown of Liverpool. They still play in the masks and surgical suits they’ve had since ‘IPC Subeditors Dictate Our Youth’ was made NME Single of the Week back in the mists of time when that was important. And, indeed, behind the masks they continue to produce the same uncanny funk, esoteric grooves and odd vibes. They take us down dark and interesting avenues and keep us dancing on the edge to how those grooves will shift. But those interesting avenues remain side roads and those edges merely kerbs a few inches off the ground. Which is probably why, despite their originality that they stay out of the mainstream.

A few gems in a fine city. This show can stay.

By Kenn Taylor

Sound City 2008: Hadouken! Crystal Castles, Does It Offend You, Yeah?

Liverpool Carling Academy

Tuesday 27th May 2008.

By Kenn Taylor

As they have a tendency to do, sections of the nation’s youth, influenced by the media and the never-ending angst of adolescence, have formed a new tribe with strange customs based on ancient alternative ways of life. The organisers of Liverpool’s Sound City event ‘SXSW without the sunshine’ have handily assembled some of the deities of the movement together in one place for our thorough examination. Tonight DiS descends into the Heart of Darkness, otherwise known as the Carling Academy, an errand boy send by a grocery clerk to collect the bill.

Your correspondent has heard rumours that these nu-ravers ritually commit suicide at the age of 18 by ingesting a glow stick, in order to avoid the corrupt and grey adult world. This we can’t confirm, though there are many strange activities in evidence, such as them grinding their teeth incessantly and sucking at the ‘NOT DRINKING WATER’ tap in the toilets like it is dispensing ambrosia. Welcome to the new society, it’s like Lord of the Flies but with a box of Shamen records instead of a pig’s head.

Does It Offend You, Yeah? are the first act we witness. The yeah says it all. Yeah, Yeah? YEAH! We don’t care what you think! We have come to pollute your sickening, simpering world with our big beat electro Chemical Brothers lite. There are no subtle nuances here. This is in your face party music for a new generation. If rave was society’s response to Thatcherism and de-industrialisation, then maybe this new version is its response to global warming, terrorism, American Imperialism and all that jarg. Big overwhelming things require big overwhelming responses, and Does It Offend You, Yeah? are not short of power and force. Unfortunately, they’re also all shoutyness and no actual heart, head or balls. They do show some skill and promise when they push things away from the band set up and into the realms of screaming disjointed electronica. If they’d only stop ramming the keyboards hard up your arse for five fucking minutes. Is not that offensive really guys; it’s bland and lacking in ideas.

We hang fire for Hadouken! another band for whom an in your face name, fuck you attitude and loud, simple sounds just isn’t brash enough. They’re also heavily into the use of the kind of colours that you normally only find in the ink reservoirs of highlighters. Musically we’d hazard a guess that they ‘listen to the same records’ as Does It Offend You, Yeah? It all feels glaringly similar live, big squeaky keyboard, rapid light beats and a few ‘Demo button’ sound effects. Hadouken! seem to have more to say though, possessing some easy-on-the-ear hip-hop phrasing that means they’re still just listenable when you’ve not drank more your own bodyweight in pissy Carling. The love from Hadouken’s fans seems more intense than for the other bands, and the dancing more frenzied, though they could all just be coming up at the same time. On pissy Carling of course.

“We are the wasted youth/We are the future” Hadouken! sing and it’s true. There is few from the industry at this event, few people over twenty in fact. The audience consists mostly of nice boys and girls from the suburbs. The ‘music biz’ are no doubt drinking to their health and watching some avant-garde nonsense elsewhere, dismissing this line up though they’d all be out of a job without it. And as they lig, the youth as ever give you hope. For there is much spirit and spunk in this music, and we’re going to need it in the future. But with our old heads we’re prompted to think, do they know their history? Do they care? Will they save us? Or will David Cameron ride into office with a thin strip of pink day-glo paint just underneath his left eye?

We descend the ‘suicide staircase’ into the depths of the Academy 2 to see Crystal Castles. A nu-rave band? We doubt it. There’s no ramming a keyboard up your arse here. More like force feeding you crunched up game-cartridge PCBs and pushing your face through the monitor-screen glass.  If Hadouken! are Super Mario, then this is some twisted little game put together in darkness by a disaffected GTA4 programmer in the early hours of the morning as a distraction from his incurable insomnia, a game that, once begun, has no end.  DiS no longer stands by maintaining a slight ironic distance. We jump headlong into the black. There’s no day-glo paint here, just intense white lights and that pocket rocket Alice Glass, who adds a violent humanity to Ethan Kath’s machine utterings. There’s a different atmosphere here than with the other bands, people are dancing on a more intense individual level. The other nu-rave acts seem to be about mindless but fun collective celebration, whereas Crystal Castles prompt more extreme, indefinable self-expression. This is not the finest performance of there’s we’ve seen, but after a slightly underwhelming debut album, Crystal Castles remind us of the possibilities of live electro music. Liverpool rave on.

By Kenn Taylor

PJ Harvey

Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

7.7.07

In the cavernous, hi-tech, Bridgewater Hall, a stage that is more used to housing a full orchestra looks decidedly empty with only a piano and a few fairy-light covered amps resting in its centre. It is set for Polly Jean Harvey’s first UK performance of 2007, and as the hall slowly fills, the anticipation is palpable.

Peej walks on, a statuesque figure in a grand white dress, standing out stark in the now blacked-out venue and the first words out of one of the most influential artists of our time? “Oh my goodness, you’ve brought a horn!” One of the audience has indeed, packed a foghorn, and salutes Polly with it several times.

Harvey seems chipper and starts banging out classic ‘Mansized’ on a Gibson Explorer, but she quickly promises new material, an announcement which receives the kind of reception you’d expect. She heads for the piano and, admitting she’s a novice, sets a metronome going. It’s different, a delicate but passionate piano-led ballad with a high and clear vocal. She follows it with the similar ‘White Chalk’, a song about the Westcountry of her birth. Both tracks see a break from her usual gruff, gutsy vocals as she sets the natural potential of her voice free.

Despite the scale of the venue, with its wonderful acoustics and Polly’s intimate stage presence, we could be watching her in the corner of a cafe as banter is shared with individual audience members and plaudits are passed happily back and forth. During songs she may smoke with passion and guts, but between she has the affable demur of a ditzy Primary school teacher.

An idiosyncratic and kooky ‘Big Exit’ is followed by another newbie ‘The Mountain’. Tingling, angsty, it’s almost Jeff Buckley, but then she cuts back to that rawness for a blistering ‘Is This Desire?’ She leaves us pre-encore with this: “We’re growing old together. Do you think we’ll still be doing this when we’re 70?” PJ Harvey may have mellowed some, but she still has it and we wouldn’t be at all surprised if we’re dragging our ageing bodies back to the Bridgewater in 2030.

By Kenn Taylor

Battles

Liverpool Barfly 22nd August

It’s a big crowd tonight. Including, it seems, every musician in Liverpool. Even Your Fucking Correspondent only gets in by pleading Warp Records Immunity to the doorstaff.

We’re unhappy with Battles even before we get in though, because, so Barfly tells us, they’re so precious about their backline that tonight’s support act, legendary Liverpool Krautrock-heads Kling Klang, are relegated to the smaller half of the venue and a big chunk of the audience is forced to wait outside till the main act.

But of course, Battles are a band that already know they can make you wait. Yet, when they stroll on, there’s only a muted reaction from the crowd. Rarely appearing in publicity shots, many people are unsure whether these serious, muso-looking types are just the tech guys. Within a few minutes of them plugging in though, we’re hit by a wall of deep, thundering, echoing bass. A sound that makes even the chin-strokers take a sharp intake of breath.

The band appear without a care in the world, mooching about the stage with assured confidence and quiet concentration. Sweat dripping gently off their brows as the music does all the talking. The first few rows need little encouragement to get into the swing, and throw themselves into moves that sometimes resemble dancing.

Battles create a constant, complex warping mesh of sound. Low, rhythmic parts stomp deep into you, iced with a multitude of jabs and slashes which keep up the excitement. All this is largely created from a very simple combination of guitars, drums, keys and a box which is played with the flair that an orchestra is conducted.

As you’d expect from a band with jazz elements, they tease those familiar with the songs by extending and shifting the arrangements. As a dragged-out ‘Tonto’ is finally allowed to break off, the collected sweat flies from the drum kit and the hardcore in thee audience explode almost as much as the song before being let down again slowly.

At the end of the show, another patron tells the Stool Pigeon, “They’re good, but they only have one song they do ten different ways.” An astute observation perhaps, but it is a damn good song.

By Kenn Taylor

Serj Tankian

Liverpool Carling Academy

2nd September 2008.

Since leaving System of a Down on the indefinite back burner, Serj Tankian has continued to pursue his own personal, and very political, vision through his solo material, and here in Liverpool tonight, he cuts an imposing figure in the flesh.

Like with System, his solo songs are stirring, moody and musically multi-layered, and he builds his set into a rock opera filled with hope and despair. When working on this scale, it’s very easy to become overblown and empty, but his burning intensity and obvious sincerity keep things rooted on a personal level. It’s an intoxicating combination.

Despite the complexity of his songs musically, there’s usually no doubt what he’s singing about. His fast and tightly-controlled vocal delivery owes something to hip-hop, and his scatter-gun, but deep, lyrics are clear moral rage in a confused world, with ‘Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition’ being a classic example. His music manages to make your heart race and your mind reflect at the same time, a difficult combination to master.

Then, he inflicts a Beatles cover upon us, ‘Girl’. Oh no touring American bands, when will you learn? We get enough of that every day in Liverpool. At least it’s a fairly original choice and, actually, it really suits his voice. But when Serj then announces an ABBA cover, it seems like a step too far, but the theatrics and message of ‘Money Money Money’ suit him perfectly.

Towards the end of the set, he moves into more expansive and experimental angles. We’re not sure how well he wears it. Tankian is still at his best when running up and down crumbling emotional rollercoasters, and he sensibly ends like this with ‘Empty Walls’. Though we are still left a little wanting for one of those big System anthems, Tankian remains a great performer and one of the more powerful and original voices in metal and music.

By Kenn Taylor