LIVE: NATURAL SNOW BUILDINGS – 08/03/2012
– THE CONTINENTAL, PRESTON –
Boldly venturing north tonight to experience some premier psych-drone-folk direct from France. After last year’s appearance at the Tusk Festival in Newcastle (supposedly only the duo’s second gig in the UK), Mehdi Ameziane and Solange Gularte of Natural Snow Buildings must have caught the live performance bug as they are in the UK and Ireland for a full tour – with Preston as a stop off.
What they lack in gigs they make up for in records – the band are hugely prolific in terms of their recorded output as Natural Snow Buildings, and solo as Twinsistermoon (Mehdi Ameziane) and Isengrind (Solange Gularte) and each release tends to be limited and extensive (long tracks and double albums are features of their discography). There is a lot to take in being a Natural Snow Buildings fan, and new releases tend to just appear unannounced with semi-regularity and you are happy with that. A full blown tour was a bit of pleasant surprise therefore, and for fans of music from the leftfield this is surely not one to be missed.
But NSB’s tour seems to have been somewhat overlooked by North West fans of the experimental and odd, as numbers in The Continental seem disappointingly low tonight even for this tiny venue. And tiny it is, tonight’s gig is held in a room at the back of The Continental – a pub in the suburbs of Preston, about 20 minutes walk from the centre of the city. It’s not an ‘alternative’ pub either (even though it hosts gigs regularly), it’s like a proper food serving gastro-pub, with adverts for Mothers Day meal deals and groups of lads fresh from five-a-side drinking pints.
There can’t be more than 70 odd people here tonight, NSB are obviously obscure but they seem to be able to keep releasing stuff prolifically and their performance at Tusk Festival (review here) was pretty well anticipated, so I am not sure why there aren’t more people, especially when I’ve seen artists of a similar nature attract much bigger crowds in Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle. Maybe Preston is too far off the beaten track for some – but I wouldn’t have thought so, fans are usually used to having to seek this stuff out.
The promoters (Tuff Life Boogie / They Eat Culture) are alright with me for putting on shows like this though – they are part of a number of North West promoters who are making new and unusual music much more accessible. Tonight they have tried to give the assembled few real bang for their buck (£7 on the door) – but I am not sure the night is entirely successful.
The evening begins with the ‘Totally Wired Collective’ and as it is a not-for-profit group based in Lancaster I will be diplomatic, but I couldn’t stick around for the combination of live poetry reading, music, and film projections (the projector frequently stopped working anyway). Related to the collective is Woodcraft Folk (also Lancastrian), a duo playing analog synths, effects and live drums, who are a bit like a rustically themed Harmonia or Cluster, Broadcast or Boards of Canada. The sound is like an obscure 70’s nature documentary soundtrack played on primitive electronic instruments – it’s aural nostalgia for a time before I was born, all warm and folksy and reassuringly vintage. Live it is accompanied by some unsettlingly engaging archive footage of odd monastic ceremonies and interpretive dance which weirdly adds to the effect of the music, it takes you somewhere that is serene but sinister – it’s seems ok but you just know it’s not quite right!
Tonight is an equally scarce appearance from the Woodcraft Folk, which is good, even though I don’t think it should have equal billing with Natural Snow Buildings. This is where I think things fall down – tonight’s show has the strap line of “an ultra-rare pairing of two genuinely enigmatic outfits, this is a superlative one-off”. It sounds stupid, but I think NSBs appearance tonight was enough of a one-off….with both acts performing it seemed like a show of two-halves when NSB would really have benefited from being the solo attraction and paired with a more sympathetic opening artist.
By the time NSB take to the stage the crowd has thinned a little more (the Lancastrians must have brought along a bit of a contingent) but it matters little now. For the few left over there is a hushed anticipation as the duo strike up a long droning epic – these are favoured tonight over the shorter, folky, song based compositions which feature Mehdi Ameziane’s high-pitched whispered vocals and which are a further staple of NSB’s repertoire.
NSB’s live performance is apparently part improvised and part based on their back catalogue. Not having the cash to hoover up all their works (even if I could find them), I cannot claim to have heard all NSB’s music, but I believe I recognise “Ghost That Was Your Life” from last year’s Twinsistermoon LP, “Drift The Water Soul” from the brilliant Waves of The Random Sea LP, and “Os Deus Cannibais” from the mammoth 2009 LP/comic ‘Shadow Kingdom’. Although I may have imagined all that and could be completely wrong – it’s not a criticism but NSB can be fairly indistinguishable, but that’s part of the appeal, allowing the music to wash over in one long sonic drift. Sure there were breaks in the sound at points tonight, and an odd ‘thank you’ from the band, but largely it is just layers and layers of psychedelic ambience filling every inch of the room.
That NSB make this sound with seemingly such insubstantial means is all the more impressive – just two guitars (which they play seated and frequently with violin bows) and a bank of effects and pedals littering the floor. Again, the music is long, repetitive, and develops minimally but it’s not boring, arduous or overbearing – it’s one of the appealing factors of NSB that you can put on a CD and not notice that over an hour has elapsed. Tonight’s show lasts roughly 75 minutes but could’ve gone on much longer – especially considering some of NSBs songs last for half an hour….There is no gimmicky stagecraft, no between song banter, no projections or visuals (which is odd for a band with the best sleeve art ever). It’s all pretty understated, the duo are not so much aloof but it’s just clear that gigs are all about presenting the sound in a live setting and not much else.
It was a weird one tonight therefore – maybe I had built it up too much before hand, but I think NSB are so distinctive and unique and as this tour is unlikely to be repeated anytime soon they deserved to be presented in a context all of their own. Fair play to the promoters for trying to provide something doubly unique, but I would’ve preferred to have this split into two separate gigs and let both Woodcraft Folk and Natural Snow Buildings a bit of space so I could properly take it all in.