Sonic Protest runs its core festival across various Parisian venues, but it also sends transmissions around the rest of France, staging satellite gigs in cities such as Marseille, Nantes, Lille and Bordeaux. The emphasis is on confrontational and/or challenging rock and/or electronics, but there is also much of interest for the more wayward jazz fan.
A noticeable sub-tendril was the appearance of three drummers with considerable jazz connections, even if they might often inhabit routes taken through other portals. Sticksmen from England, Sweden and the US were involved across three different evenings. Charles Hayward was a founding member of This Heat, one of the most visceral and innovative bands at the late-1970s intersection point of punk, dub, prog, noise and funk. Sven-Åke Johansson is a veteran free improviser, a founder member of the Globe Unity Orchestra. Weasel Walter spends much of his time at the extreme ends of rock, but has always nailed free jazz polyrhythms at the heart of his approach.
The cannily named This Is Not This Heat allows the trio's two surviving members to recall the old late-1970s repertoire with an expanded line-up that allows a fleshly recreation of the loop-piled, multi-instrumentalist overdubs of their original recordings. Most of the newer band's sonic gestures still lie at the dynamically potent points, but with this muscle-training tour in progress, and players who thrive on improvisation, unexpected moves are, paradoxically, expected. At the Centquatre arts centre Hayward mostly plays drums, in his avant-funk intensity, perhaps descended from John French and Jaki Liebezeit. Charles Bullen mostly plays guitar, his spiky, strafing style grown out of a punk/dub/funk collision that, in the late 1970s, was already predicting certain tendencies destined for the early 1980s. The additional members include two more guitarists, a second drummer and a keyboardist, but there are frequent outbreaks of multi-instrumentalism, and all players are part of the general vocal spread. The presence of Alex Ward, stage right, is particularly compelling, as he's responsible for frequent razor-chopping guitar riffs and manic clarinet solos, his horn rammed tightly down onto his microphone, pouring into a floor-spread of effects pedals.
Hayward's voice is as startling as his drumming, as dreamily sinister lines are delivered in what might best be described as a pastorally-yearning Cockney. This same tone is also emulated by Bullen, and indeed, other members of the band. It's akin to Robert Wyatt's imagined evil underbelly, as latent prog tendencies were drowned by punk and d.i.y. sensibilities. This Heat always sounded complex, in the Henry Cow manner, but they possessed a sonic palette that was much more prescient, a trio moving rapidly towards a harsher vocabulary of the later 1970s. 'Not Waving' and 'The Fall Of Saigon' have a curiously diseased romance, a melancholia for nothing, whereas 'Makeshift Swahili' has a rot-gut, visceral chant-mania, and 'SPQR' is almost conventionally skip-funked. On the classic instrumental front, they also deliver 'Horizontal Hold' and '24-Track Loop' with a fully convoluted momentum. These works are at the pinnacle of the unpopular music repertoire, and we couldn't have hoped for a more exciting interpretation, in this Parisian manifestation of the gutsiest experimentation possible.
Have you ever urinated into a plastic urn, filled with fresh hay? This was the avant-garde (or was it traditional?) toilette situation within the vast church of Eglise Saint-Merri. Its general, arching space was even more impressive. Representing an even older generation than Hayward, Sven-Åke Johansson is in his early seventies, still looking wiry and dapper. His kit is classically tiny, just a snare and a single hi-hat, although these are well-amplified. They need to be, as his trio partners are German singer Oliver Augst and French turntablist Alexandre Bellenger, the latter operating at extreme volume, speed, extremity and general ridiculousness. He's a fast-flicker, but not in the hip-hop fashion, preferring to work with decelerated vocal content, or entire chunks of eerily dragged or scratched vintage records. This particularly excites Augst, who has the distinction of being a suave chanson or cabaret stylist, caught in a maelstrom of chaotic free-forming. Once Johansson has dangled a suddenly-discovered large cymbal onto the floor, Augst sincerely croons 'Autumn Leaves', unruffled in his self-deluded supper club zone. Bellenger clamps down on a vinyl platter with his teeth, hoping to add further surface noise. Perhaps this charged set was most reminiscent of when Lol Coxhill used to warble along vocally with his Recedents colleagues, those equally anarchistic representatives of this off-road electroacoustic manifestation of improvisation.
By way of contrasting venues, the next night's gig is at Petit Bain, which is a small shack on the banks of the Seine, not too far from Notre-Dame. We wonder how high their rent is, for the kind of venue that presents extreme sounds such as those made by The Flying Luttenbachers. This is Californian drummer (transferred to NYC for much of the last decade) Weasel Walter's old combo (originally convened in 1991), revived and touring France in a reduced power trio configuration. Not that this impedes a tendency for elaborately staccato arrangements of hellishly-amplified guitar (Chris Welcome) and bass (Tim Dahl), with the latter's fuzzed-up, slide-action tones frequently veering into lead axe territory.
Dahl is probably most-known for his work alongside trumpeter Peter Evans in Pulverize The Sound. He might carefully consult his music-stand score during a finger-twister number, but one of this set's heat-points actually arrives whilst Welcome disappears backstage to change a string, resulting in a spontaneous (and necessary) improvised tussle between Weasel and Dahl. Is this prog or math or simply freak-out? Weasel's locked closely to the string slashcore, with much of the music possessing a slapstick humour, taking us aback with its stark shunts, shanking outbursts and free-form suspension. Not that the Luttenbachers look noticeably amused by all this, but rather, violently intent on realising each savagely condensed assault. At one point, all three players savour a series of excruciating silences, then crack in as one brain cell, heightening the import of each eruption. Weasel's brief pieces are loaded with all manner of exaggerated activity: it's rock'n'roll with a freedom sensibility.
– Martin Longley
– Photos by Magouka