To appreciate and embrace musical experiments rooted in cultural discomfort, you're best to remember the lessons from the early 1970's television series Kung Fu. During flashbacks to Caine's (the protagonist) youth in a Shaolin Temple, you see both his struggles with the masters' parables and how he slowly overcomes mental hurdles with epiphanous comprehension of their teachings and insight. With earned experience, Caine is able to hone his senses to notice finite details of nature's song ("Do you hear the grasshopper?"), walk without leaving a mark on rice paper, predict flight trajectories of thrown spears and bow staves as they hurtle towards his head and acquire other tactics he will one day use for revenge. The ultimate test, though, comes after he "graduates" by snatching a pebble from Master Kan's hand: approaching the back door, Caine must lift, then place (to activate the secret lock), an immense cauldron filled with incendiary coals with his forearms, the sides of which scar tattoos of a tiger and a dragon into his flesh.
In other words, wading through displeasure, confusion and fear is the road to understanding? Read on.
This Cologne-based 2008 concert is the same breed of odyssey — for the musicians as well as the audience. In the accompanying interview, band leader and percussionist Martin Blume explains that the group's aesthetic stems from a bi-annual art exhibit, The Message, at Museum Bochum: "The Message is dedicated to mentally ill persons who are influenced (or pretending to be influenced) by supernatural beings and paint pictures...this project should take place in the context of this exhibition...it (has) something to do with voice, since these people hear voices." (For instance, Hilma af Klimt, a featured artist, claimed her "automatic drawing" method was a clairvoyant revelation from spirits to "paint on the Astral Plane".)
Following this occult-ish muse, the humble ensemble of Blume, vocalists Ute Wasserman and Phil Minton and EMS Synthi adept Thomas Lehn fill the stage with an ardent sonic palette for a fervid 88 minutes (some of the performance appears on the group's CD, Backchats). Building and breaking down a series of tone clouds, each member contributes from a disparate yet integral side of his/her square. Staring at a fixed point, Wasserman busily chirps, intones, employs birdcalls, hums multiphonics, hisses and adopts multiple personalities, wandering in and out of the mix with an alien grace. With Lehn, the attraction is equal parts "what he does" and "how he does it": visually, he's flailing his arms, furrowing his brow, rapidly twisting knobs and patching pegs to feed his machine; but his output is a subtle digest of simple blurts, drones, smeary rumbles, crackles and the occasional scream. Likewise, Blume's ability to effortlessly juggle a full drum kit with various sticks, gongs, wood blocks, bowls, bells, bows and a host of genres gives the impression of several busy octopi at work.
However, it is Minton that all eyes are either on or avoiding. Watching his seizure-esque approach to vocalism, the spittle flying as he eagerly shakes his cheeks, sticks out his tongue, forces belches, quivers, squints with wide-open eye sockets (?), whines like a starving toddler, channels demons and saints, sways uncontrollably (even while mute) and pulls mutant rabbits from his proverbial hat, is the burning pot to send the unprepared running back to the monastery. So to speak.
However, off-putting and startling gradually turn to inviting, fascinating and in the same way that birth and death are cruel, chaotic and beautiful, a sacred event. If allowed its due, this resonant mélange washes over your faculties like an overwhelming meditation you refuse to shake; fortunately, you don't have to shave your head, take a vow of celibacy/silence, survive on rice and wander for years in a desert to enjoy it.
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