The Haxan Cloak & Stealing Sheep – Manchester International Festival – 07/07/17 – 08/07/17

Two completely different electronic artists performed at the Manchester International Festival on the weekend of 7th and 8th July. The contrast was stark – the former dark and depressing, the latter invigorating.

The Haxan Cloak’s first album was about death; the second about what follows it. Haxan comes from Häxan – Swedish for witch. He worked with Björk on Vulnicura. Few people attending this M.I.F/Dark Matter performance could have been under any illusion that they were there for an evening of light entertainment.

With a similar stage backdrop to that of Holly Herndon, who’d performed here the previous Friday – a globe that at times took on the appearance of a pale moon and at others a throbbing sun, but with no other visuals – Bobby Krlic took to the dimly lit stage dressed so darkly that it was hard to make him out from the back of Gorilla. When the illumination improved sufficiently to do so, he looked like a cross between the Grim Reaper and Eric Cantona, crouched over a table surprisingly minimal with its collection of instrumentation.

You really have to experience The Haxan Cloak’s music in person. It is notably difficult to describe. To say that it is drone music – which it is – tells only part of the story. To that incessant drone background he adds a variety of sounds – some you’d expect to hear on Doctor Who or early Star Trek episodes (think the Tardis taking off and Scotty coaxing Warp Factor 12 out of the Enterprise’s engines). Others just seem totally out of place, such as that of an industrial piling machine.

The point is that while these sounds may ebb and flow, they are incessant throughout the hour-long show; there is no respite and at times the entire railway arch shakes as if there’s an earthquake. An almost unbearable pressure builds up.

It’s like an aural representation of Dante’s Inferno or one of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings of the descent into Hell. As the show builds towards a climax – and boy, for the first time ever I was really appreciative of the ear protectors they were handing out – with the Red Dwarf-like sun throbbing and the audience nodding their collective torso in unison towards the unearthly noise emanating from the stage, it’s easy to believe that you have indeed slipped into the Abyss.

Unfortunately it all became a little too repetitive and too much/too loud for some members of the audience, who took an early exit, including the owner of one of our peer music blogs here. And that was a shame – because in the last 10 minutes or so the atmosphere changed. First the strobe lights sprang into action, then the droning and thumping collectively developed a tempo that became what is recognisable to most people as music, culminating in a highly satisfying audio-visual climax. If only there could have been more of it.

The Haxan Cloak is an acquired taste. You could argue that a live performance is meaningless, as there is so little actually to see. There is no interaction with the audience, no emotion. He just comes and goes, and with a little more mist in Gorilla he would have been completely invisible. You might as well stay at home and listen to his work through your headphones with the volume at 11.

Liverpool’s Stealing Sheep couldn’t be more different. I last saw this trio of ladies five or six years ago, opening for Emmy the Great at Deaf Institute. I’ve never forgotten Emma-Lee’s comment when she took to the stage: “We’re going to have to up our game after that.”

They’ve certainly upped theirs in the intervening years – though not in the way I expected. I seem to recall them as more of an acoustic band then, before they’d released their first album. Now they are electronic, driven by Lucy Mercer’s extensive range of percussion and Rebecca Hawley’s synthesisers.

Theirs is an intensely visual show (the ‘Luma Disco’), from the moment they parade on stage, Kraftwerk-like, wearing body costumes that suggest, from the back of the Festival Pavilion (a nice, air-conditioned space by the way), that they might be naked.

The show was programmed during a recent residency at Salford’s Islington Mill, in which budding Busby Berkeley-style dancers and choreographers were invited to partake with a view to appearing in this M.I.F show.

Hence the band are accompanied intermittently by five dancers – though it isn’t really clear what they add, and some of their movements lack co-ordination, as do those of the band when it’s their turn. Above them, illuminated lanterns flash out various shapes including that of a skull. Unfortunately, even after the attention of a gofer with a set of stepladders, they’re not always in unison. It’s a game effort to put on a spectacle that doesn’t quite come off on the night, but one which is certainly worth persevering with.

Musically, what they brew up in this set of mainly new material is an interesting concoction of generally uplifting electronic pop, rock and dance music. There’s even a hint of prog at times, but with an increasing emphasis on disco. It’s a non-stop show – which is at least one feature they share with The Haxan Cloak. Surprisingly, there’s another one. One of their songs has the hallmark of Bobby Krlic, albeit with a lighter tone and in a major key.

The set flags a little in the middle but after a photo opportunity with the dancers, a short interlude and a costume change into sequined gear the encore (which reprises older material), the set ends with an impressive performance of what in my opinion is their best song, ‘Deadlock’ – a track that makes it obvious that Lucy knows how to thrash her electronic synth pads.

So, two artists: two wholly different interpretations of electronic music. While The Haxan Cloak wins justifiable plaudits for his professionalism, it is the sheep stealers who steal the show where entertainment value goes.

©D J Bentley, 2017

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