On the 15th and 16th of April, the Denovali Festival lit up London. The first night was held at the sublime St John’s Church in Hackney, and it was an electronic beast that never looked like being tamed. As the late light faded to dusk, Ensemble Economique kicked things off. Candles were lit at the front of the stage; Brian Pyle then wrote something down on a piece of paper before burning it and tossing it away. As soon as that happened, you knew it was going to be an intense experience.
As the scorched paper writhed around, it reflected his music to a good degree. And a church was a perfect setting, because his music was a tortured blend of shoegaze, experimental electronic music and a twisted, sharply-edged form of dark pop specifically made for the ears of fallen angels. A thunderous wind brought a chilly atmosphere to the rainy evening. His white electric guitar seemed to be in the midst of suffering, the notes half alive, a thousand pain receptors triggered at the same time. The music worshiped the period in which the dusk eclipses the day. A glowing harmony brought the light back in, and the slow, almost crawling drum beats kicked and punched. His vocals were warm and incredibly blurred, shrouded in the light of a near-death experience brought on by the Californian heat. The highlight had to have been ‘Do You’, where a radiant, droning chord slowly emerged underneath the haunted vocals. At the same time, the guitar languished in its own feedback. In the end, the howling wind came back and the candles were snuffed out, one by one.
Orson Hentschel (Germany) played more of a purer electronic set, but their light show was really stunning. Yes, music comes first, and at times the light show almost overshadowed the electronics, but damn was it visually impressive. A line of white, vertical lights snapped on and off in time to the pulsating beats, and the live drumming helped to push the music forward, adding another dimension to the whole. The music stuttered and strobed until it reached a perfect climax. The quick-snap rattle of artillery fire left many people shell-shocked, and the set as a whole bristled with energy. It was a bruising encounter.
Lakker’s set, ‘Struggle and Emerge’, took more of an audio-visual approach. With music from his upcoming album (releasing in May), the grainy black and white images of old boats sailing by, of military aircraft flying up above, of a town’s industry that’s struggling to rebuild, of the devastation of flooding and of the process of new life rising up to replace the old, suited the steely music. Lakker used Dutch field recordings which were placed, chopped and looped at intervals during the set. With elements of noise, it was a cold-blooded kind of electronic music, built from the ground up with sweaty, dirty hands and a lot of hard work.
And Andy Stott (UK) closed off the night. Well, what can you say? I honestly thought I was going to go deaf! He’s a master of his craft, constantly adapting and evolving his sound-bending art, and his own set approached things from a different angle, with a more experimental kind of techno on display. Starting off with a restrained, roaring ferocity and sounding like a motorbike repeatedly going through the gears, the dark synths zoomed by. With a bass you wouldn’t take home (or maybe you would), his set was punishing, crushing, heavenly and ephemeral. The place was packed, and people were standing in a trance as the shuddering waves of bass that blocked out every other kind of sound revolved and twisted around the space. The force was similar to that of a fighter jet taking off, only louder and more ferocious. When everything dropped out, leaving only a set of glowing, hallucinatory synths, it could have been ambient. In an odd way, ambient music and techno music are quite close. The drop-out, the cloud-walking and the sunset-gazing moments are briefer in Andy Stott’s music, but they’re still there. Add to this some beautifully soft female vocals and you have something very pretty. But this was interrupted by squealing frequencies of noise and a violent bass. Damn, that bass. Dark, dirty, damaged and deranged, the warped synths felt familiar and yet other-worldly, the 80’s pitch-shifted and tilted, permanently stuck in another dimension. These were taken from his new album, Too Many Voices.
The second night was held in the grand and exceptionally comfortable King’s Place and featured Sebastian Plano, Poppy Ackroyd, The Dale Cooper Quartet and Piano Interrupted. It was a refreshing night after last night’s electronic warfare. Argentina’s Sebastian Plano was first to play, and his set was very moving, with passages that were made even wider thanks to a lovely chamber of reverb. Producing the sound of an electrical storm or a convergence of static as the bow moved across the strings, Plano’s music was breathtaking in every sense. His looping, open soundscapes developed slowly – usually beginning with a lone cello melody – before a loop was gently set in stone. And the sighing music took flight. The sound of the wind moved across the face of the bow as the electronic rhythms started to emerge, kicking and thrusting into the music.
Poppy Ackroyd’s music was another wonderful journey. The talented pianist started off with ‘Roads’, a beautiful progression that layered itself against a light, stuttering rhythm that revolved slowly, just like the inner intricacies and the secret workings of a clock. Her use of reversed notes highlighted her inventive music, and like Plano she used looping alongside the piano as a foundation. There were also wonderful moments where the piano would trickle like a stream, resembling something like the style of continuous piano music. Her two pieces about birds were feather-soft, her piano chirping a soft melody. And then field recordings were gently inserted. The sound of the seashore washed over the hall, and the singing of birds created a sublime atmosphere that suited the ending of the set. Her inventive and inquisitive music was highlighted when she recorded a loop by tapping a light rhythm inside the piano itself; it just goes to show that the piano is a percussive instrument, too; why not? She was bright and brilliant.
The Dale Cooper Quartet (of which there are five members) brought their well-dressed, otherworldly dark jazz to London. The stage was flooded in a crimson light throughout the performance, and their atmospheric, smoky music was utterly engrossing. The vocalist sat at the back of the stage like an FBI agent conducting an interview until it was time to step up. With lines like ‘you better leave’ and ‘smoking keeps me warm’ the smooth, crooning vocals were straight out of Twin Peaks.
This was a rainy night, a smoky bar complete with intermittent lighting, of doom jazz and police sirens racing past dark, puddle-lined alleys, of midnight television. And coffee. As the saxophone spluttered and coughed before going into a lovely, slow series of cool notes, something was not quite right, both in the mind and in reality. It was tearing at the seams, slowly splitting down the middle as the two electric guitars, drowning in reverb, played their slowly moving minor chords. At the same time, hi-hats and a heavier, repeating bass entered. It ended with a screaming, intense beam of noisy light straight out of the Black Lodge.
Piano Interrupted (UK) brought with them their latest album, Landscapes of the Unfinished, inspired by their travels to Senegal and their workings with local musicians. It was a bright performance, closer to the equator and as warm as a constant summer. A double bass played alongside the smiling piano, and later on a clarinet also emerged. The sonorous piano tone had a lovely, relaxed progression that shifted slightly, even echoing a light phrase of jazz at one point. Field recordings helped to shape the sound and the environment, placing the listener on Africa’s west coast. And the African influence could most definitely be heard within the music. Electronic stutters sporadically entered the music but then rapidly faded, and sudden, rhythmic bursts peppered the air as the three converged. The contrasting nights were both incredible in their own ways. They couldn’t be any more different, and the diversity on display over the two nights really highlighted a talented roster of artists and the breadth of music available on Denovali.
Click image for slide show
James would like to personally thank Denovali Records. Photography @ St Johns Church at Hackney. Photography attributed to Denovali Records.