Instant thrills on the trans-European express

Towering Inferno are a multimedia musical combo with big ideas and a point to make.

Steven Poole
Thursday 24 August 1995 23:02

Modern life is rubbish. Music is in a terrible state. Pop can deal with nothing more lasting than fashion, and classical music has walled itself into a technical ghetto, taking a simpering pride in being unfathomable to most of its audience. Frankly, what's the point any more? Even these two English musicians sitting across the table, Richard Wolfson and Andy Saunders, are being miserabilist: "Classical music is stuck just like rock music is... The marketplace is flooded with crap, basically."

Wolfson and Saunders can say this cheerfully because they've made an album which refutes such fin-de-siecle maundering. They call themselves Towering Inferno, and the album is called Kaddish. It's an instantly thrilling record, stuffed with an extraordinary range of musical styles: terrifying industrial thrash-metal, east European folk singing, Garbarek-flavoured jazz, rampaging techno and classical minimalism. What's more, it deals intelligently with a serious theme: 20th-century culture, as affected by the Holocaust.

That sounds instantly off-putting. Doom, doom, doom. But put Kaddish on and you won't do anything else. Avant-popster Brian Eno championed the record from its early stages after putting it on one evening: "It was one of the few times I have ever had to just stop what I was doing, and just sit down. It was so commanding."

"Kaddish" is the Jewish prayer for the dead. But, says Wolfson: "It's not just an album about the Holocaust; it's about Europe, and Europe is for everybody. It's also 50 per cent completely positive and affirmative of how cultures have survived." A mix of folk songs and prayers, traditional Hungarian and Jewish instruments and vocals sit happily with ultra-modern electronic percussion tracks - like those techno records with Gregorian chants on them. Only with an idea behind it.

Kaddish was a long time in the making. Wolfson and Saunders have worked on theatre music, as an experimental jazz duo, and then, in the mid- Eighties, toured Europe with a multimedia show, combining live ambient music with projections of their own Super-8 films. Gradually the idea of Kaddish, as a focus for their diverse creations, forced itself upon them. "There's a lot of good Jewish musicians out there, but they're all singing the blues - none of them refer to their past or their culture," says Saunders, grinning as he mentions Leonard Cohen, Pete Townshend and Bob Dylan."Kaddish is about putting the cool back in Jew."

Recorded over four years in London and Budapest, it was released in 1993 as a home pressing of only 1,000 copies, available by mail order. Although it instantly got serious attention from critics, the record companies wouldn't touch it. "We sent a few rushes out," Saunders remembers, "and they'd say: 'Yeah, we'll sign this, but I just want to use the heavy-metal bits' or 'I just want to use the pretty bits'." That was missing the point by a mile, of course, but then record companies don't often have to deal with such an eclectic idea of narrative. It sounds dangerously like "concept album" territory.

Towering Inferno had another industry near-miss last year, when Kaddish came 11th in the nominations for the Mercury Music Prize. It was nudged out by Michael Nyman's Piano, and M-People eventually won. Well, you can't dance round your handbag to Kaddish. So Wolfson and Saunders are naturally happy that Island finally signed them this year.

But they're not going to be sitting around idly waiting for long-overdue recognition. They are already planning their next project, Physical Cinema ("A hymn to film music... Like physical theatre but with film"), which premieres at the Queen Elizabeth Hall next spring. And next month, they are taking the multimedia Kaddish show to Berlin, where it will play, by special invitation, at the House of World Culture on 31 August and Peace Day, 1 September. "What's going on in Germany at the moment is very interesting," Wolfson muses. "Either there's a few Nazis left, or they're totally guilty about it, or they're young groovers and they don't want to think about it. God knows what will happen."

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