Words and photos by Lindsay Hogan
A good electronic musician, like any musician, will understand that their audience deserves an engaging show. How each chooses to do this, however, is varied and fascinating.
On Tuesday, Blanck Mass – one half of the electronic duo Fuck Buttons – performed his accomplished solo work with DC’s Br’er opening. Both acts root their sounds in a throbbing, dark brand of electronic music. But despite a similar sonic thread, the two acts foiled and contrasted each other when it came to the live show.
What we saw at DC9 was the diversity of performance in electronic music and the powerful impact of each.
DC’s Br’er is a trio composed of Ben Schurr on synth and vocals, Erik Sleight running samplers and (more) synths, and Ben Usie on drums. This is a departure from the minimalist set up of Blanck Mass, but by choosing to create and perform music beyond the confines of electronic boards, Br’er’s industrial, noise-pop becomes a show with the ferocity of hardcore punk.
The complex layers of keys, samples and loops created a constantly evolving sound, fronted by Schurr’s effect-heavy vocals and aggressively cathartic, thrashing stage presence. Sonically, the use of drummer enhanced the show beyond the limits of synths and keys, but Br’er’s physical intensity made for an engaging performance on par with the massive sound of Blanck Mass.
In contrast to Br’er’s ensemble, Blanck Mass (aka Benjamin John Power), brought a more purely electronic set to the venue. His set-up consisted of sequencers, effects units, sample players, a bass modular, and probably four or five other hidden things to provide the crowd with a maximalist sonic experience. But despite the swell of sound and the gut-pulsing feel of his music, I found myself picking apart the dynamics of Blanck Mass’ stage performance.
A solo electronic artist like Power is in an interesting position; being the sole figure on stage, but also relinquishing the spotlight, he crouched behind the boards and let the music do the moving. This limits him as a performer, in stark contrast to a group like Br’er which has the flexibility for an unhinged, active front man. Even a moody shoegaze rock band, leaden with guitars, has the ability to move around and throw out some banter with the crowd.
Black Mass’ unceasing set and his need to constantly adjust his electronics, meant that he necessarily forgoes the opportunity for onstage magnetism. This is not to say that Powell wasn’t visibly possessed and invigorated by his music, it just means that he (and a majority of electronic artists, be they Deadmau5 or Four Tet) has to rely on separate visuals as a means to engage the audience.
It was easy and expected to be drawn to the projections flashing behind Power for the entirety of the show. The fast moving colors and amorphous shapes swelled and spazed with the changing moods and peaks of the music. But the actual images seemed random and impossibly abstract.
After the show, Benjamin referred me to their creator, Dan Tombs, a UK artist who works with electronic musicians to create video synthesis as a companion to their live shows.
Now, for those of you who aren’t irredeemable nerds, video synthesis is basically the generation of abstract visual information without the use of a camera; that creates images through purely electronic manipulations. As you can imagine, this is mixture of media is attractive to electronic musicians looking to enhance their live shows, without caving to the sensationalism of lasers and strobes.
But video synthesis is not just something to look at. It is a bridge for understanding and engaging with electronic music. What can be hard for fans and audiences of electronic music, is the distance between the visual performance and understanding of how the music is made. To put it simply, I see a guitar player and I instantly understand how the sounds are made. I see a synthesizer or a sequencer, and I find it more challenging to understand what’s going on. So when Blanck Mass paired this abstract imagery, made in a synthetic similar fashion, to his abstract electronic manipulation of sound, I had a moment of clarity. Very loud clarity.
I reached out to Power’s collaborator Dan Tombs for his perspective on the live performance of electronic music and his visuals he provides. He explained that “if you are a solo performer then a necessity to present a theatrical stage show becomes part of your thoughts and discussions.” As for his part: “I aim to work with musicians to enhance and illustrate the ideas, concepts and emotional content in their music; expanding the sonic work into an immersive visual environment. This ultimately aides the engagement and communication with an audience.”
As someone who attends a lot of shows with electronic elements, I instantly respect artists like Blanck Mass who compensate for their lack of traditional instruments. I understand the argument that this could take away or distract from the pure enjoyment of sound. But a musician needs to find a balance between playing a brutalist set to a bunch of synth-heads and filling a club with rolling teens and glow sticks. Tuesday’s show struck that balance and was essentially a sophisticated, grown-up, thinking man’s rave.
The one thing the show was missing, was a live performance from Tombs who often joins Blanck Mass for live video synthesis shows in the UK. Detailing his collaboration with Power, Tombs explained: “Benjamin had a very strong idea of what he wanted and is an articulate visual artist in his own right. The main concept was to make the visuals as unsettling as possible, to make people aware of the visceral nature of the music. This was done through abstract generated imagery with digital and analogue video synthesizers to make a squeamish unerring reaction to the sensory deprivation of rapidly strobing colours and shapes.”
Does that sound like a good time to you?
Well, believe me, it was.
And there wasn’t a single, neon-clad raver in sight.
More Br’er shots.