Pop music: The forgettable fire

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The Independent Culture
UNTIL LAST night's disappointing event, I thought Towering Inferno were a good thing, dedicated to ambitious hybrids of sound and vision, making grand but effective statements about the human condition. Their "holocaust" CD, `Kaddish', is an impressive labour of love, featuring vocal performances from Marta Sebestyen and Endre Szkarosi among a wildly variable but powerful sprawl of rock, electronic and ambient tracks. In performance, `Kaddish' blossomed into a mighty multimedia event, in which multiscreen projections, burning swastikas and flaming Stars of David added retina-burning spectacle to a soundtrack blasted out at stadium rock levels.

Behind `Kaddish' and `Physical Cinema', TI's latest project, are composers Andy Saunders and Richard Wolfson (both playing keyboards and electric guitars) and Roger Riley (projections). There's a musical correlation between sound and image: a blurry figure in a landscape accompanies a systems-like piece with sampled pianos; thumping techno is counterpointed by Soviet newsreels of parades and spacemen. As instrumental styles range from progressive rock in odd time signatures through nervous white funk and space-rock to soggy synth-pop, the pictures projected on five huge screens included slow-motion pedestrians in reverse, speeded-up and stop-frame holiday film, constructivist clip-art and Asian TV commercials.

Singer Sarah Jane Morris, a late replacement for Dagmar Krause, sounded uncomfortable with the keys of the few vocal numbers. Drummer Steve Kellner added a smattering of rhythmic life to the pieces he played on, and contemporary pianist Glyn Perrin provided some instrumental virtuosity. Yet much of the music sounded unfinished - a bunch of early demos waiting for an arranger or producer to knock it into shape. Many of the visual sequences were equally formless: speeded-up clips from Vertigo and Psycho, a weak version of the Eames's `Powers of Ten', flashing words such as "Sex", "Decay" and "Power", and burning letters reading "Love" and "Hate". `Physical Cinema' was pretentious rather than ambitious, and its spectacle was largely gratuitous.

Now I know many successful rock albums contain material at least as dull as anything I heard the other night, and that such albums can sell by the bucketload, so good luck to them.

But some big claims are being made for "Physical Cinema", which is a Canary Wharf commission and part of the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival.

Support also came from the London Arts Board and The Arts Council of England with (I would guess) many hours of unpaid graft from the Towering Inferno team themselves.

You can see why they got this support: `Physical Cinema' looks impressive on paper. The musicians are good. Towering Inferno's track record is great.

The press cuttings are ecstatic. The publicity promised a "roller-coaster ride through high and low culture, the countless throwaway images of the century" that would "pin me to the edge of my seat". But it didn't work. All we got was a trivial sequence of visual cliches with an unfinished soundtrack and poor songs, an expensive production that was neither physical nor cinematic, and with nothing to say. Or was that the point?