THF Drenching: That Irregular Galvanic Twitch
A review of Bark! live at St Margaret’s Church, Manchester
Bark! have just reached their 20th year. This gig marked a return to the place of the trio’s formation, in 1993, on Whalley Road, just round the corner from St Margaret’s Church in Whalley Range, Manchester. Phil Marks sits in the centre, on what looks like a half-size jazz drumkit. To his right sits Rex Casswell with a guitar and a bag of miscellaneous detritus, wise-cracking that in twenty years they’ve moved about 200 yards. To Phil’s left is Paul Obermayer, with his laptop rigged up to some type of midi-keyboard.
They start together straight into that staggering arhythm, the object-relations of Bark!’s irregular galvanic twitch. Within thirty seconds any attempt to distinguish between the protagonists is pointless. And not only pointless, but borderline impossible. This is an experience common to the best improvised music, to Hiss or to the Wolfgang Fuchs Sextet, the vertigo of ego-dissolution and collectivity: “Who the fuck made THAT noise?” It’s an achievement of flawless listening and collective thought and movement. But it’s also a technical achievement. As anyone who’s waded through those carefully-wrought, but ultimately abortive, contemporary live-instrument-and-tape pieces will recognise, a real dialectical integration of live instruments and electronics is rare. But Bark!’s polyvocal weave is finally ONE voice; they form like Voltron, there are no inverted commas, no conceptual air-pockets holding the digital and the physical in isolation. Expressive it certainly is, this material is alive and vocalised, it SPEAKS — but this is not a music that reserves much space for the individualised lyric “I” of bourgeois art.
Marks plays like he’s indentified a hundred possible rhythmic responses to any musical moment. Rather than choose one, he plays all of them silently in the air over the drums. So that what finally arrives as sound is the scattered total of those blows that actually touch the metal and skins. Sometimes even the continuous air-drumming is arrested and he visibly thinks, stutters, holds back, false-starts, decides, and brings the stick down.
Obermayer starts a crunching gliss upward, a wincing smile on his face, lit by the laptop screen like one of those technological dudes you see pictured in The Wire. You know the ones I mean. In the wire-framed specs, those “two-celled creatures trying to bebop”. Except not like them, because Obermayer really controls his sounds, and not just over a period of 10-20 seconds, which is an geological age in this music, but down to the micro-second, like a vocalist or a drummer. Over the period of this hour-long piece, he never once pulls out a long sample and leaves it running, never lays down a pre-set backdrop, never relaxes into the luxury of a noise, never coasts. Whilst so many other electronic improvisors work like slap-happy watercolourists, Obermayer works like a stop-motion animator.
Fume of Sighs
A split-second into this crunching gliss, partway between a dishevelled animal noise and a pitch-shifted kazoo, Casswell jumps on it, bowing the guitar behind the bridge, pressing hard to get that flat, unmediated honk. They both follow each other along the same upward arc, for about two seconds, Casswell reaching the end of his bow at the exact moment Obermayer reaches the top of his pitch-wheel when Marks hits the bell of the crash cymbal, or drops a metal bowl onto the snare, putting down a place-marker that closes the phrase, and forces a new one. This music is like real objects spinning, breaking open, colliding and bouncing in the air, lichen covering a discarded tennis ball in time-lapse before a silver hatchet splits it into clean yellow halves. Any two-second fragment of this performance reveals this three-way confluence of thought and movement, no less than a close-listening of the total performance. Bark! exert a formidable formal control at every level of the music.
Casswell sits in virtual complete darkness, hunched forward. He doesn’t hold his guitar like any other guitarist, he doesn’t relate to his instrument like any other guitarist. His fingers aren’t where fingers go; they’re pushed into the strings, holding objects, or at either extreme of the instrument doing something impenetrable. And what come out are chunks of note spread out over a piece of time like dropped bricks, or a string of vibrating, softly-articulated thumps, or harsh squawks which harry and harass the electronics, daring Obermayer to move as dangerously and precisely as they do. Even given the history of free music (Sharrock, Bailey, Takayanagi, Reichel …) the guitar in Bark! is a whole new world.
Marks, having trouble with his kick-pedal, unscrews and re-screws the mechanism on his lap, as quickly as he can. You can’t withdraw from this music; it moves too fast and weaves too fine a grade of detail, it won’t tolerate inattention. Between rapid turns of the wing-nut, he pauses to tap the rim of the ride cymbal, anxious to maintain the continuity of his sounds. On re-entry, he switches to a pair of glockenspiel-beaters, the kind with the black rubber ball on the end, and begins to roll them in an asymmetric pattern on the rim of the small tom-tom.
It’s a move that rearranges the musical space around it near-instantly, the guitar and samples arrest themselves in full-flow and move to place themselves around the new event. Within seconds they’re turning the glockenspiel-beaters’ asymmetrics into a rhythmic gauze, stray pitches and groans are strained through it, or spikes of sound poke through the tiny holes. And the whole gig moves like this: from one instantly-conceived, instantly-created event to the next, everything shifting from section to section, taking up new positions, sometimes chaotic, sometimes (although rarely) sparse, but never dipping in instensity, from start to finish. Honestly comrades, I was on the fucking edge of my seat throughout. There’s no need to mince words; I don’t know of any bands better than Bark!.