Merzbow, Balázs Pándi, Mats Gustafsson and Thurston Moore, gig review: 'An exploration into the outer reaches of live music'

A quartet of visionaries makes an unforgettable noise

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The Independent Culture

There’s something of the occult about this performance as soon as it begins. Set inside an 18th-Century church, the stage sits beneath an illuminated plaque adorned by the 10 commandments, but the abrasive, belligerent noise conjured by the four musicians here seems far from virtuous.

In fact, each of them has made a career of distorting, manipulating or simply abstaining from musical convention. The biggest name in the quartet is Thurston Moore, the Sonic Youth musician who seminally experimented with guitar tunings and tones to explore what rock music could be. He is accompanied by Merzbow, perhaps the best known artist in noise, with some 400 albums in his discography and a well-earned reputation for acerbic, cacophonous compositions. Mats Gustafsson, the Swedish saxophonist, forged his trade in the improvisational and free jazz scenes, while Hungarian drummer Balázs Pándi is a serial collaborator with bands on the darker side of the musical spectrum.

This particular musical project started as a trio, sans Moore, and culminated in the release of Cuts in 2013. The guitarist then joined, contributing to last year’s Cuts of Guilt, Cuts Deeper, recorded in a Wembley skate park.

Here, we witness the quartet performing live together for the first time. Across 45 minutes there seems to only be one song – inasmuch as the audience was only given the silence to applaud once, right at the end – which doesn’t appear on either of the two previous releases. Whether this is new material to be included on a forthcoming album or a purely a one-off composition remains to be seen, but it takes cues from the quartet’s past work.

One of the most disturbing and compelling aspects of the recorded music is Gustafsson’s saxophone playing style. The sound he creates is animalistic and uninhibited, fading and immediately reappearing as he lurches away from and towards the microphone. It’s pitted against Moore’s guitar scribbles, Pándi’s drumming which erratically switches from swung jazz to blast beats and Merzbow’s grizzled underbelly of static and electronic yelps – at its height, it all sounds like a John Coltrane fever dream.

A remarkably loud noise is generated, and though it’s still possible to deconstruct and follow particular musicians and strands through the improvisations, it’s easier to just be enveloped by it. Each member seems utterly transfixed, and there is a danger of it descending into irretrievable chaos – something which is largely staved off by Pándi’s directional drumming. He brings things to a close, slowly winding down the beat, leaving a sound of ghoulish guitars and faltering electronics before everything fades to silence.

Music and its merit is, of course, subjective, but that seems especially so tonight. The couple sitting next to me seemed physically pained before leaving after 15 minutes not to return, but there was also the audience member in front who pounded the air in delight when the noise was at its most vehement. It all depends on what you think music should be, or perhaps rather what it can be, and this was an unflinching exploration into the outer limits of live sound performance.