Emeralds and Fennesz’s joint-concert last night in the rather dramatic Union Chapel highlighted the coffee-table potentiality of the type of gently pulsing, pink noise ambient drone music these artists are wont to make.
The rapt crowd of hipsters and middle aged beardy gentleman at this Barbican-affiliated concert in fact felt little out of place in what was ostensibly – considering the artists on the bill, notwithstanding their prominence – an underground gig.
Whilst underground music has its roots in experiment and sonic abrasion or chaos, its wide compass can certainly be seen to extend to the kind of music that strikes a quiet note of gentle futurity comparable to the tenor of much modern art and arthouse film. This music has the potential to become accessorised to a certain kind of mainstream life; a 2010s version of trip-hop, if you will.
The musical basis of this judgement holds more in the case of Emeralds than it does Fennesz, although both sets last night displayed abundant sonic warmth and palatability.
Fennesz played first, giving us a slightly meandering 45 minute set of laptop drones and loudly-flanged and distorted guitar, which never quite took off, although it featured some particularly nice moments. Such moments occurred as when for example the music’s hazy textures were alternately allowed to build into indeterminate, unruly, and voluminous pitch clouds, or to ease back into chiming three chord guitar figures, which themselves soon became reflexive interference patterns indiscernible qua guitar figures.
Notwithstanding his own pre-eminence in this area, Fennesz lacks the musical sophistication of someone like Oren Ambarchi, who operates in a broadly similar area with much more subtlety of colour and compulsion of pacing. That being said, it’s still the case that Fennesz’s set on this occasion was vivid enough in its own way, without ever quite broaching the emotional starkness of for example his 2008 album Black Sea.
Emeralds’ set was hampered somewhat by sound problems. The trio’s effervescent synth player John Elliot seemed to be particularly ticked off by the low volumes at which Emeralds’ looping jams were being conveyed. He needn’t have worried too much; although not especially original in itself, Emeralds tuneful drone/post-rock ambience was given with a particular sense of sonic finesse in this early part of the set. Mark McGuire’s duets and trios with himself on zephyr-quiet guitar worked in those sections to enhance the burrowing synth loops and swooping divebombs of his two partners very well.
As an Unkle-like drum loop cranked up mid-set, the musicians began really to cut loose, building up an exciting head of steam that reached its apogee in the wall noise encore finale, where Elliot’s thrilling headbanging seemed finally to find a correlate in the richness of the musical gesticulations of his band’s sound, which charged forward amidst the noise until a final caesura on the 3+3+2 loop which had buttressed the wall all along signalled the end.
This concert presented a vivid reminder that what awaits almost all experimental movements or individuals (from Mahler to Maderna) is an absorption of one sort of another, is a recuperation under newer forms of understanding built in part on the new pathways fostered by that music in the first place.
Fennesz and Emeralds do not in this respect represent some sort of degradation of the aims of underground music. Instead they can be seen to represent a condensation of some of its most common musical tendencies, such as improvisation, droning and looping, and the cultivation of noise, which are put into play here alongside others derived from left-of-centre mainstream acts such as Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, or Steve Reich. Hence, it is not that with these artists underground music can be said to have reached a state of canonicity; rather, their music and its reception make clear that implicit all along in the underground has been and will continue to be a certain palatability, which is ripe for mainstream canonisation.