So last Sunday came to pass, and seemed a fine day in this reviewer’s calendar, what with the Red Sparowes traipsing amiably into town and putting on a show at fine London venue, the Scala. Cool, I thought. Excellent venue, just the right size to appreciate a band on stage, with a good enough sound system. Decent Californian ‘post-rock’ (wait, I thought post-rock was over?) with a tendency for indulging the grandiose, what could go wrong?
Red Sparowes hit the stage just past nine, after a soundcheck in which the filling theatre had been made to endure a terribly rendered ‘waiting room’ image cast upon a projection screen behind the stage. In one corner was that most iconic of marble statues, Aristotle, crumbling. From this was blended tree leaves, branches, and in the left-most corner, a sparrow (I’m guessing it was a sparrow, I mean- I’ve really let my ornithological knowledge slide recently, but if it wasn’t then either they’ve missed a trick or it’s a cruel double bluff). Towering over this grand ambiguous portmanteau, proudly lay emblazoned their band name, layered crudely in a font which evoked the gothic myopia of Camden’s seedier fashion outlets or the kind of Olde English Storye Bookes that get written by folk writers enamoured with Wiccan lore and similarly vague mysticism, tongue in cheek. As fervent roadies swarmed over arranged kit, tugging cables in earnest and working quietly toward a shared enterprise or collective will larger than themselves, band members briefly soundchecked on that expectant stage (a stage whose solitary raison d’etre was found to be the accommodation of live music, by process of naming accordingly and justifying thus). All the while, this projected image, appropriating classicist imagery, evocative of nature’s Autumnal wane, reminiscent of cheese-inflicted Goth yarns, grew more and more ridiculous, resonating distinctly as if it had previously enjoyed a life being knocked up in a ‘five-minute MS Paint challenge’ set half in jest to a class of accident recovery students, who by no small coincidence had all lost use of their mouse-wielding palms, and who had to struggle defiantly in their task, and would endeavour unflinchingly. For a small second, you began to feel pity, judging such matters on the gravity of context and the sweeping egalitarianism of merit.
So, Red Sparowes hit the stage just past name, and the now filled theatre was treated to an opening salvo cast lucidly off their most recent LP ‘The fear is excruciating, but therein lies the answer’ (an album title to which the only appropriate response can be ‘well, what then was the question?’)- their large ensemble of six musicians, spread out across the wide Scala stage with an appropriate amount of spacing between. Stage right, Bryant Clifford Meyer (also of wondrous doom mongers Isis) riffed. A wood-crafted slide guitar rested between him and bassist Greg Burns, a well shaven and respectable looking man who cut a striking silhouette, occupied centre stage and would shirk to the audience- one foot astride a monitor speaker, bass aloft. Adrift and tucked distantly in the bosom of the far left, guitarist Emma Ruth Rundle arced at the heavens with her reverb/echo drenched finger picking, a process mimicking the ethereal cawing of an e-bow used correctly. Hers was to carve the melody lines amidst the upper register, as grungy men took to burying themselves within the weighty sludge of eternal riffing. Such gravitas, such disparity. And sludgy it was- for unseen hands deigned the bass to seem irritatingly quiet, within eyesight but forever, tantalisingly, ever and ever, out of reach. And low, was the delicacy of individual notes at points compromised by the dopamine-addled wall of sound, a wall so impervious to being assessed on it’s construction as to bely the noteworthy musicians I didst see before me. On drums, David Clifford afforded both the kind of middle parting bowl-cut not seen since certain mid-90s boybands, and a kind of puritanical rhythmic certainty to proceedings: Ample servicing of beat-identification and meagre pickings of inspired fills, nothing by way of impassioned drum thumping. I suppose one could admire his professionalism- but the band sorely needed a fitting visual centre point, a talismanic figure who could draw the captured eye from the otherwise dull movements and introverted musicianship the band were engaged in, headbanging slowly, fret-staring madly with eyes of a focused intensity. Which perhaps explains to no small degree why Sparowes opted to employ the service of a giant mystical video screen, fittingly accorded to a projector mounted high at the very rear of the room, which would aim, through declared manifests, to provide inspired accompaniment by way of animated visual imagery throughout.
And oh, how we lowly audience members didst stare in wonder at this giant mystical video screen, and how we didst wait in reverie and nervous harmony for it to reveal it’s many secrets! Considered as a form, the onstage video screen has mind-blowing potential, perhaps especially so when complementing such purportedly psychedelic, out-there, progressive rock. Remind yourself of the onstage theatrics Pink Floyd’s The Wall tour, or the way a good Godspeed You! Black Emperor show can have you enrapt by the intricacy of the edited ‘found’ video being. Here, an alternating pattern quickly emerged, set carved in stone, tacit, glorified, muted tongues: shots of birds in flight and mathematical equations, of bombs exploding, Google Maps sourced images on a quick ‘zoom out’, more bombs, the words “There will always be conspiracy theorists” shortly before the modest use of 9/11 newspaper cuttings, the golden BAFTA heads usually associated with over-rated Hollywood fodder like Kiera Knightly and industry types circle-jerking at gala events- what had this to say to, or transmute to the Sparowes music? Perhaps most furiatingly- a CGI ‘demonstration’ of brain synapses in work, poorly imagined synaptic nodes and conduits as if created using the very best Commodore 64 their collective will could muster- good grief. This repeated over an over, a pattern of electricity cruising over a membrane, to the next, the next, repeating and repeating. And after your eyes had lulled, an incomprehensible cut to some birds, or a low res photo of a naturally occurring spiral formation. It was staggeringly obvious that Sparowes had not filmed any of this material, nor had it been made on their behalf, bespoke to their shows or music- it was sourced imagery, scavenged and harvested coldly after a few hours armed only with a search engine and an unregistered copy of Movie Maker. Visual cliché after visual cliché, and edited together with an absolute disregard for the apparent need to ‘make any sense whatsoever’, it defied you not to believe that it was really happening. As an exercise in reality testing, it was a magnificent success.
There’s a reason bands use video screens, and a methodology to their use: When I saw Sigur Ros some years ago, their video screens dulled between songs- each vignette had been designed and moved in accordance with the specific musical performance. It gave nuance to each piece. Red Sparowes video continued on an eternal loop, as if once the Gods had given colloquial thumb of approval to the play button, there seemed no going back-and indeed, was none to be found. Furthermore, when GY!BE uses such technology to provide countenance and complement to their music – the imagery is fitting to their music, style and ethic: They enlist local artist Jem Cohen in collaborating on appropriate film. Red Sparowes utelised a hodge podge of alternative lifestyle clichés, from ambiguous Golden Spiral references, UFO shots, 9/11 conspiracies, the Earth’s magnetism, shamanism- arbitrarily included for reasons of kitsch or perceived subcultural appropriation. And whiles noone should take issue with discussing these individual theories and perspectives, they at least merit a proper deconstruction, rather than their glib inclusion in a rock band’s onstage video montage- Red Sparowes seemingly threw all these elements up in the air and caught the falling debris, catching few raindrops on the fingers, watching as the water trickled along their fingers and onto the ground, paying no heed to the multitude of dismal raindrops to have slipped through their clawing fingers, nor to the now fading vapour trails where moisture collided with skin, exacting wetness where dryness once was.
If this review has seemed indulgent, overblown, arrogant in places – then I confess, I have only been following where Red Sparowes led. From their preposterously long song titles and album names to the profound seriousness with which they perform on stage- (not saying a word, not so much as a ‘hello’ to the poor beggars in the crowd) to their half-assed use of video tech that only served to undermine their effort. They genuinely seem caught between the allure of the rural avant-garde and the embrace of celebretarian ‘rock star’ musicianship- trademark Spinal Tap poses at the ready, entirely unfitting of the occasion. When all your imagery and literarature sets out this very particular oppositional ‘doomed’ worldview, at least come out on stage and be nice to people. Dude, when A Silver Mt Zion play out they have real conversations with the people in the audience, that’s how it should be. Red Sparowes posturing onstage can only serve to reify that flimsy divide, us and them, band and audience. Fuck that.
This concert represented so much that is wrong with the continuing post-rock scene. Sparowes seemingly tick all the now clichéd boxes that have come to define such bands- extravagant linguistics, post-apocalyptic worldview, inflicted naivity, a musical aesthetic that seems stuck forever on ‘slow/fast, quiet/loud’ dynamics. Yeah we all know it had its time and all but it keeps on keeping on, bands like Red Sparowes writing 9 minute instrumental jams and calling them names with like 20 freaking words, man, which evoke all this real-deep ‘end of the world’ classicism, yeah we get it, truly- but they don’t back it up with anything like the necessary attention or depth.
Being preposterous, archaic, overblown, indulgent, classicist, dramatic, apocalyptic and so on and so forth is easy if you don’t back your pretensions up with depth, authenticity, the due attention those subjects deserve- and much like this review, Red Sparowes really didn’t do that. It’s a shame because a lot of their recorded output has really got a groove, especially on their 2006 LP “Every red heart…” (I’m not typing the rest of the title, sorry). Live, they were beyond disappointing.