Now five years old Mona Foma or MOFO is a broad festival, taking in multiple genres of sound and programming and presenting some quite challenging and experimental artists in prime slots on the Hobart waterfront. It’s a festival where populist acts like Bombay Royale or Julie Ruin can exist (albeit a little uneasily) alongside the noisy circuit bent chaos of the likes of Russell Haswell, which makes for a somewhat egalitarian experience, which is relatively rare in festival programming in this country. Particularly because it means there is little chance of pleasing everyone. With 2 stages rotating acts if someone like say John Grant who’ electro folk songs are brimming with lyrics like â€œYou think you’re so mysterious/ You can not be serious,â€ doesn’ float your boat then there are very few options but sit outside on the dock, and stare out into the bay nursing a Moo Brew whilst waiting for the next act. Which now that I think about it is not such a bad thing at all.
We were greeted by former Bad Seed Mick Harvey doing his Serge Gainsbourg routine, which is puzzling to say the least. Whilst it’s nice to hear songs like Bonnie and Clyde or Ford Mustang live, there’ none of the swagger and effortless cool, none of the sleazy erotic unpredictable danger of Gainsbourg. Perhaps that’s the point, divorcing the tunes from the enigma demonstrates Gainsbourg’ skill as a composer. But the question remains why would you want to do that when you can have both? Or could’ve had both. Whilst Harvey and guests definitely know their chops, all their performance does is remind us that the music cannot exist without the myth/ persona of Gainsbourg. Separating it is like losing a limb. Life can go on, but a lot of the fun is gone.
Similarly the combination of Slave pianos modern composition and Punkasila’ all out punk rock attack feels like a combination that was so inconceivable on paper that curators just couldn’ resist. An art collective from Yogyakarta Indonesia, the last time I saw Punkasila play was at the Espy in Melbourne a couple of years ago and their instruments looked like machine guns. This time they’re positively space age, wearing silver suits with double necked guitars that light up.
The collaboration begins well enough, with some mystical music and chanting, yet before long Punkasila are stock still waiting whilst Slave piano plays an extended solo piano piece. Punkasila even miss their cue to come back in, but then when they do it’s relatively tokenistic, to sprinkle some cymbals or gently strum guitar guitar. Then the pianist leaves the stage and Punkasila go absolutely batshit crazy with over the top punk rock insanity, screaming about moths and atomic bombs and pulling every punk rock move you’ve ever seen and in doing so creating a much needed release and getting part of the audience on their feet and gyrating wildly. There are real links to early Boredoms in both their sound and energy, with the vocalist squealing like Eye and putting his voice through effects. It’s a sci fi opera; commissioned by Slave Pianos, about alien moths who invade Indonesia and engage in inter species reproduction. Whilst the piano may represent the aliens and Punkasila the more traditional Indonesia, we keep waiting for some significant coitus, and indeed they eventually engaged in a weird atmospheric collaboration towards the end of the set but it feels like the potential remains untapped. Apparently their second set involved a giant slave gamelan.
You could be forgiven for expecting a nostalgia act, after all Sun Ra is long gone, but his Arkestra are very much alive, led by the most active 89 year old on the planet Marshall Allen. â€œAll you need to do is be yourself and watch the sunshine,â€ they offer before covering Fletcher Henderson and doing onstage cartwheels. Okay not Marshall, but the cartwheeler couldn’ be a day under 55. Formed in the 50′ their music is a throwback to when jazz really felt innovate, similarly populist and groundbreaking with many of their tunes traversing the boundaries between avant-garde, jazz, sleazy funk, r&b, and they have a great time doing it. Their energy is infectious. Space is the Place.
UK artist Russell Haswell looks like the guy you just met at the pub. And acts a little bit like him too, rocking up late, skulling beers mid set and looking ill prepared, with electronics seemingly held together with sticky tape. Yet that’s just his personality, his humour and sense of shambolic theatrics, particularly when he immediately begins to blast the audience with loud furious agitated noise. Whilst the crowd noticeably thins and folks cover their ears, as his set continues he becomes increasingly melodic. He’ still using sharp, thin extreme circuit bent sounds and barely controlled feedback loops yet it’s remarkable, over time beneath the din the tunes begin to form into these incredibly strange electronic compositions that are quite rhythmic. Some kind of noise punk r&b. He ends by blowing a whistle from his pocket for two minutes. No one knows why.
US conceptual experimentalists Matmos face each other across a table laden with electronics. Beside them is a man seated on a chair with headphones and glasses obscuring his vision. He begins to recite words. Martin in tie and short sleeve shirt turns, looks thoughtful and takes notes. He speaks of triangles, Drew in studded leather jacket with the arms ripped off and flip top glasses makes the shape of a triangle with his hands. For the next 50 minutes we worship geometric shapes, with flutes, de pitched death metal spoken word, and some great work on keys and assorted electronic beats. They’re plumbing synth drones and noise, crafting psychedelic electronics using a video of a plumber going about his business, down the drainpipe and uncovering a beautiful golden world under the drainpipe. â€œThat’s what we do,â€ they quip afterwards, â€œturn shit into gold in Tasmania. I understand the entrepreneur who brought us here essentially did the same thing.â€ Later in the night I find myself in a replica of a NASA space shuttle at Faux Mo, which is essentially the after party at a disused naval base that now feels like a barely controlled frat party, particularly with the abundance of heavily inebriated barely legal’. The shuttle can only fit 20 of us and we’re treated to a very strange DJ set from Drew, which veers from psychedelic weirdness and some very concerning spoken word from contemporary artist Bruce Nauman. When combined with VJ Jean Pool’ peculiar projections new synapse are formed. And it’s unexpected experiences like this that make Mona Foma so great.
Hive is Tyondai Braxton’ post Battles project and sees him and fellow electronic artist Ben Vida elevated in little pods alongside three percussionists. It’s a tightly composed, highly choreographed experience with the percussionists each reading music. It truly sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before, the electronics varying from quasi psych tech clipped and cut, a stuttering skittery scrunched form of electronic music, where computer beats at strange time signatures evolve into woodblocks and live percussion at carefully composed intervals. Remarkable.
The next evening a bemused Braxton and Vida are bundled onto a small stage at Faux Mo. Their set is remarkable, even more uncompromising than Hive, some kind of weird experimental gabba meets sound art with fragments of groove that are surprisingly still quite danceable in a confused distended way. It’s hard though not to feel like guinea pigs in Braxton and Vida’ sonic experiment. The kids don’ know what to do; they try to dance for a while before retreating to the rave in the laundry room that you enter via a slide.
The setting for reclusive local black metal artist Striborg couldn’ have been more fitting. Striborg is something of a legend, one man responsible for some of the darkest misery drenched sounds to ever come from the former convict colony. During the day the chapel at Mona is regularly used for weddings, but tonight Striborg adorned in a black cape, makeup, with his guitar is joined by a string quartet to create a doom sludge and drone heavy dedication to the river Derwent. Purifying The River Of Tears is a specially composed piece for this performance and it perfect. Whilst with some double kick drum and even some terrifying moans it quickly became clear that part of the set had been pre recorded, it was still very much about being in the moment particularly in a visual sense, the band coming across as dark apparitions from a Norwegian black metal ceremony, backlit with smoke billowing seemingly from the chapel on fire. That’s right burning churches; you don’ get much doom metal than that.
Perhaps the most unusual performance of the festival wasn’ even human, coming from the Ada Project and its inventor Conrad Shawcross. Stumbling into the space between acts late at night was a remarkable and beautiful experience filling you with wonder and awe at this creation. It’s ostensibly a large robotic arm and its movements go from the violent to the subtle, even erotic. It’s moves are accompanied by music, that we later learn are commissions. But before you know the background as presented in the nighty performances with the composers, or even how it works, just witnessing and wondering, allowing yourself to see it’s truly a wondrous experience. A selection of four artists spent a week each in Shawcross’ apartment where they composed a piece based on the movements of the machine. The results varied from an electro pop power ballad to Aphex influenced glitch pop but for mine it was Mira Calix‘ neo classical baroque piece that truly tapped into the physicality of the machine. Strangely you wouldn’ have even known that Calix was even here if you hadn’ wandered in.
Hinterlandt played to a seated audience who marvelled at not just his one-man band antics, but by the sheer diversity of genres. From stoner droney guitars to dub grooves constructed with plastic bottles, he moves from mariachi trumpet to break beats, approaching his music like he’ a DJ mixing all the disparate sounds and approaches together, in what was ultimately quite unexpectedly musical.
Unfortunately US saxophonist Colin Stetson’ gigantic bass sax was misplaced by the airline and remained in Sydney, so he was left only with his alto. His approach to the instrument though is entirely unique, creating these rhythmic repetitive sounds that slowly build and evolve to over 15 odd minute pieces. His control is remarkable, frequently escalating, increasing in volume, changing the texture of his sound where it verges on distorted, even howling through the instrument, creating these remarkable polyphonic pieces. The effect is curiously hypnotic, and throughout there’ a feeling that he’ barely in control, that at any moment it could just fall apart or descend into noise. Eschewing loop pedals or effects there’ a real honesty to Stensen’ approach and his ability to transfix the audience on the big stage with what is ostensibly a set of alto sax solos. It’s a testament to his remarkable approach to the instrument that has seen him work with Tom Waits, Arcade Fire and TV on The Radio amongst numerous others.
Melbournian Robin Fox’ development of his electronic set into a tri colour laser extravaganza is perfectly suited to the cavernous shipping shed of Mac 2 that’s been filled with smoke for his impending arrival. They call him ZZ laptop down here, and he’ played every Mona Foma thus far. With his new setup he’ still using digital sounds, composing experimental suites of laptop generated computer music intimately linked to various light configurations, feeling like a throwback to a 90′ era rave, albeit with much more challenging sounds It’s the latest quasi spiritual experience at Mona, the light show really galvanising the audience, who ignore Fox at the mixing desk and face the green red and blue lasers on the stage iphones held aloft in worship. To a certain sense Fox encapsulates the Mona ethos perfectly, bringing the avant-garde to the masses and making it palatable and even exciting without compromising the artistic vision or resorting to tokenistic pandering. As I’m walking away from his 15 minute set that ended with a volley of schizophrenic sound and light, not unlike a fireworks display I’m grabbed by a complete strangely who solemnly tells me â€œthis is the future mate, we just saw the bloody future.â€