15 March 2018, Common Room, Hastings By Michael Hawksworth
In an amiable Walpurgisnacht of pagan costuming and alchemical musical fusion, the Common Room last Thursday night hosted a dream pairing of what would have to be two of the most magnetic dance bands around: Hastings’ own Revolutionary Arts Ensemble, and Wellington’s Orchestra of the Spheres, materialised direkt from some hidden bunker off Frederick Street covered in strange markings. It would have taken only the ecstasies of a packed dancefloor for this night to achieve lift-off; unfortunately, the hoary old spectre of under-attendance was haunting the door, so instead it was just a bloody entertaining night out.
The Revolutionary Arts Ensemble kicked the night off like a force of nature (or an attack of the humors). With several members masked in vaguely sinister animistic constructions like something out of the cult ‘70s English folk-horror film The Wicker Man, this six- (or is it seven-, eight-? I don’t know -) piece band launched into an incredibly well-drilled and yet somehow also thrillingly sloppy set.
The first time I caught this outfit, my impression was of a kind of fucked-up cabaret band, you know, Brecht/Weill, via Tom Waits. I still hear that, but like anything good, it’s just not that simple or that static. R.A.E. are a bunch of musical/cultural polyglots capable, against odds, of producing outré harmonies from divergent and changeable sources. Throttling and racing their instruments, they sound sometimes like Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band playing ‘50s cop show themes. Absurdist? Oh yes. Without warning and seemingly for no reason the music will turn all sad and thoughtful like a sentimental Warner Bros cartoon mutt that’s lost his boy or bone. Intermittently chanting through their masks like cartoony Dadaists from the Black Forest, they sound at times like weirdo San Francisco art/rock group, The Residents – particularly from their 1979 album Eskimo where the group created faux-ethnographic audio ‘recordings’ of a non-existent Eskimo tribe.
Orchestra of the Spheres enter Common Room from the Street, processing in single file through the crowd, chanting and bell ringing like Hari Krishnas from another cosmic plane where their robes somehow got mixed up with Parliament/Funkadelic’s crazy laundry. The group perform as a futuristic tribal entity, not as just a collection of musos-from-next-door. Like R.A.E., fiction and theatre are integral to who they are. Repetition, poly-rhythms and vocal chants are their sonic vehicle. Their sound is rooted in ‘60s and ‘70s Afro-Beat, but with arcane Kosmische additions and instrumentation “like the biscuit tin guitar, electric bass carillon and sex-o-mouse marimba” [?!]. Their opening groove, joyous and strict like Talking Heads’ ‘I Zimbra’, got the people on the floor, and the tight, funky, synthetic rhythms that rattled through everything that the four- (or was it five-?) piece played, kept them there. Like The B-52’s at their most abstract, they had an infectious male vs female call-and-response energy. And then, as if by telepathic signal, they were processing out the door again.
Obviously, at some gigs, the headliners get out-played by the support, and so it was here tonight. Despite Orchestra of Sphere’s best efforts to elevate proceedings, they perhaps didn’t have the dancefloor numbers to properly relocate their mothership. The R.A.E, on the other hand, who seem increasingly like they just grew out of the walls to infect this venue, were more stridently peculiar than usual.
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