Barreiro, just across the river from downtown Lisbon, is not a place you go through to get to anywhere else. Viewed on a map it’s a small peninsula on Lisbon’s iconic Targus river. The entire suburb seems to be made up of an abundance of four or five storey apartment blocks. A former industrial hub, industry has since moved on in Barreiro and what remains are the people, many of whom who now take the daily ferry commute to Lisbon.
The Out.Fest festival is intrinsically or perhaps proudly Barrerian. Now in its 11th year, it’s designed to showcase the culture and surrounds, with some remarkable venues in various states of grandeur and disrepair spread across the municipality. It’s programmed by a non profit cultural association with specific aims of presenting boundary pushing events in and around town. This years lineup is tantalisingly diverse, with the likes of Austrian sound artist Christian Fennesz appearing alongside little known US modular synth exponent Charles Cohen and numerous other local and international performers from free jazz to rock to electronics to whatever Dean Blunt is.It’s all here.
It begins in a small nondescript jazz club in the heart of town. We’re greeted by local acoustic guitarist Norbrto Lobo. With a cap pulled low over his eyes, he finger picks through a wide diversity of styles, moving freely from Hawaian to flamenco, delving into scuzzy elastic blues, improvised plinks and plonks, even evolving into what could possibly describe as an acoustic raga. Whilst rooted in the jazz idiom, his influences seem to come from everywhere, form artists as diverse as Bob Brotzmann and John Fahey – hell at times even Jim O’Rourke. His sounds and approach are constantly moving, a series of movements or suites, imbued with regular shifts in dynamics and volume. The introduction of a light quasi industrial drone, over which he continues to play is something of a surprise, yet this additional element really returns some focus to the extended pieces. It’s when the drone ceases abruptly and Lobo continues playing in the same manner that he somehow feels exposed, and its difficult to recover from. Seemingly improvised, though clearly littered with specific parts he wanted to hit, despite his multiple approaches and stylistic dexterity the pieces are probably a little overlong.
Peter Brotzmann erupts on stage with ear splitting bombast, his roaring saxophone jagged and brutal. But would you expect any less? He’s joined by percussionist Steve Noble with the duo alternatively ignoring and driving each other. It’s mesmirsing stuff, the precision of the cascading notes streaming from Brotzmann, the near hysterical screeching, and even the gentler almost wounded moments, you can barely take your eyes from him. He moves to soprano sax and tonally sounds more gravelly, with skittery gentle percussion as the duo search for their sound. Noble too is equally shamanistic, the brushes come out, then suddenly he’s lightly hitting the skins with his hands, his deft touch, seemingly like he’s dancing above them. From clarinet and shakers to Brotzmann wiggling his moustache across the mouthpiece when he squeals, from two incredible tectonic drum solos, to Brotzmann sounding like a gurgling cat trying to be a synthesizer and Noble literally scratching a loop on his skins. It doesn’t get much more dynamic and involving as this. When Brotzmann returns to the sax for more violence the effect is cumulative. It’s transcendence through bombardment. Then they stop on a needlepoint. Remarkable.
The following night American Peter Evans and his quintet begin with a gentle ambient electronic drone imbued with a few fidgety textures, evoking something of a zen like state, before Evans steps up to the mic with his pocklet trumpet. It feels like we’re at the end of the earth, in an industrial netherworld that would make David Lynch very happy. Surrounded by uniform workers cottages, industry has departed and the residents of Barreiro are trying to fill the void. We’re in the Casa da Cultura, an old theatre that one of the organisers tells us she remembers seeing ET in as a kid. Tonight its thousand seat capacity is only half full. The organisers expected this but wanted to use the venue regardless, and whilst it allows the audience to sprawl haphazardly across the seats, it also lends a faded grandeur to proceedings. Evans and his dexterous quintet meanwhile seem oblivious to their surrounds, playing with reckless abandon. Reading sheet music, the quintet, made up of piano, double bass, percussion and electronis, have a loose highly inventive musical language. And though Evans very clearly runs the show, alternating between his trumpet and pocket trumpet, his band regularly break down into duos and trios, even electronically processing and manipulating Evans sound real time.
Next up Austrian sound artist Christian Fennesz looks somewhat like a deity – which if you’ve heard his releases on Mego and Touch isn’t such a stretch. In the middle of the large stage standing behind a bank of electronics, guitar slung over his shoulder he looks like he’s preaching from a pulpit. He begins by unleashing enormous swells of ambient noise and doesn’t let up. These days Fennesz’s live sound exists at the intersection between ambient music and noise, creating a giant soup of dense warm sound that envelops the old theatre. With a gorgeous cacophony of textural delays, intermittent guitar chords, faint melodic and percussive flourishes, he plays one long piece, barely acknowledging the audience. Yet the music is remarkable, overloading the senses, creating a very real physical impact. Operating at volume, all of his sounds have long tails of smudged out digitalia – even his guitar which he strums periodically. Peering into his laptop screen and twiddling knobs, in terms of a stage show he’s low key and understated, but the music, well that’s anything but.
Darkness greets us for idiosyncratic UK musician Dean Blunt. And darkness remains for much of his performance. We can see faint movement on the stage as the sound of rain pummels down, but everything is obscured, deliberately escoteric. After what seems like hours a piano joins in, with gentle somewhat fragile chords joined by a saxophone, creating the ambience of a mid 80’s thriller, during a quieter moment when our hero descends into alcoholism after the death of a lover. When a solitary spotlight comes on, clouded by smoke we can make out a large guy in a leather jacket in the centre of the stage, standing staring impassively out into the audience. For the entire set he does not move or make a sound. This is Blunt’s bodyguard, and Blunt who spends much of his time with his cap pulled low over his face smoking reefers, prowls around him, occasionally making his way up to the mic, and then only periodically singing.
“Call me when your heart is empty/ I’m happy we can still be friends,” he murmurs over the vaguely oriental sounding strings and blunted beats of The Pedigree, his first real song of the night. He’s joined by folk singer and guitarist Joanne Robertson, who adds some live musicality to the programmed, beats, strings and samples. Blunt’s delivery is bizarre. He’s not a classical singer by any stretch of the imagination, his approach is vaguely reminiscent of Tricky or the Tindersticks, and he’s content to simply mutter over his music. Yet it works. We never see his face, and everything, including the music is fuzzy and difficult to distinguish. It’s all woozy, minimal and genreless, yet it hints at so much.The lights are low or off for the entire performance, or as during the final two songs, we’re assaulted with rhythmic strobe lighting straight into our eyes, making it impossible to even look at the stage. And the only acknowledgement from Blunt is “make the strobe go faster.”
He’s often labelled a mischevous prankster, but tonight’s performance was not just confusing and surreal but downright brutal. Don’t miss this guy. In a world of easy answers and premeditated actions he continues to confound and confuse.
The following night the performance is under a bridge alongside the railyard, at the Pavilhao do G.D Ferroviarios and it doesn’t get much more evocative than that. In a large hall, tonight is ostensibly the rock night, beginning with locals Putas Bebadas, who offer up a sonic onslaught of demented rock and roll excess and punk rock screams. It’s all noise and shoutiness, though within this dense soup of wailing feedback and furious riffs there are some grooves hidden. Midway through the guitarist holds his axe in the air with a grin, pointing at the crowd and then at himself. Brimming with energy, they seem slightly amazed that its them who are able to conjure up such a maelstrom of sonic chaos, and their joy at this accomplishment is infectious. This is not wheel reinvention, this is blowing off the doors and stealing the car.
They are followed by US indie rockers Magic Markers who are also high on energy and guitar centric theatrics but feel more calculated in their approach. If Sonic Youth never existed they would be the greatest band you’ve ever seen, with a female lead singer who plays guitar over the back of her head and manages killer noise solos whilst on the ground in the foetal position. Another guitarist seems to exist in the band in the main to conjure, cage and control feedback, almost gliding through the performance, periodically looking searchingly at his guitar like he’s not sure how it arrived in his hands. Swigging from a communal bottle of wine they run through a raucous set that seems to go down well with the appreciative audience but it’s hard to shake the nagging feeling that we’ve not only seen it all before, but when we saw it, it was much less contrived.
With live on stage knitting and interpretive painting it could only mean German legends Faust up next, with their Daddaist antics and general good humoured weirdness. With so much on stage even their setting up is a performance in itself. Jean Herve Peron is a bundle of energy, attempting to provide some coherence to the chaos on bass and electronics, whilst the other original member, man mountain Zappi retreats to his drums and watches proceedings silently. Peron then quietly explains to local ring ins on guitar and saxophone as well as US singer songwriter Carla Bozulich on guitar, the way he wants everything to play out. Periodically he turns to us and offers something like ” Can you smell the sweet smell of eucalyptus people.” Strangely enough we can.
They begin with a meditative drone sample as Peron approaches the mic, suggesting that the audience needs to “empty their cup,” so Faust “can fill it.” The chattering at the back of the auditorium continues so Peron asks how much the tickets cost and enquires why someone would pay 12 Euros just to talk with their friends? Finally he can stand no more. “Shut your fucken faces,” he screams getting a round of applause and silence. He chuckles to himself. The sound breaks down into a heartbeat before the stage errupts with everyone furiously creating noise, banging empty gas bottles, tearing at their guitars and knitting ferociously. Before long a cement mixer raised on a table towards the back of the auditorium fires up and Peron disappears into the crowd clutching a wreath of papers screaming “George Bush, Pol Pot, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Greek salad,” before losing his papers.
Zappi gets out an angle grinder and begins shearing at a large sheet of metal at the back of the stage. At one point Peron just can’t get his loop on his bass and he apologises and erupts in laughter. Later Zappi drills into a metal barrel. It’s total chaos, but it’s also innately musical, the power tools and stupidity, the mistakes and genuinely innovative approaches to music making are all part of what makes this show so great. There’s an inclusiveness in their approach, down to handing out shakers to the audience (actually to me), and in a bold move that you’d never see another band do, turning the mic on them. “There will not be the avant garde ever again,” Peron inexplicably offers out of the blue. They end with just the two original members, Zappi and Peron with this remarkablt minimal hypnotic downtempo motorik groove that I believe was Ich Sitze Immer Noch, demonstrating even with just bass guitar and percussion they can make lasting compelling and emotional music. The distracting chaos is just the icing on the top.
Dutch quartet The Ex have been around forever (as evidenced by their greying hair) and are probably best known via their In The Fish Tank series of recordings with the likes of Tortoise and The Dirty Three. Despite the presence of a female drummer, the stage is brimming with machismo. But it’s not a blokey football team vibe, rather they’re like three guitar wielding brothers who will one moment jump around and rock out together, clearly loving both the groove and the camaraderie, whilst the next try and trip each other up when they’re playing a difficult guitar part or leaning in to sing. Their music is very guitar centric, the kind of taut tight angular shredding of Helmet or Mark of Cain, where the groove lies within strict parameters. It’s music to shimmy to, and bang your head, Chuck Berry boogie by way of the bludgeoning repetition of Shellac. There’s no doubting they own the stage tonight, with tracks like Maybe I Was The Pilot, with it’s catchy refrain “All the pilots get rich, all the passengers pay for it.” Of particular note is the tourettes frenzied shredding by one of the guitarists, a cool party trick which has the effect of making both the audience and the band go crazy. Called back for an encore despite the fact that it’s 2.30am, The Ex feel like the antidote to the excesses of rock music, playing with the house lights on and demonstrating the pure and simple enjoyment rocking the roof off the joint.
The following afternoon Lebanese born DJ and producer Rabih Beaini is playing in what looks like an old chapel, deep in the heart of Barreiro. Its seen better days, like much of its surrounds, a large concrete cavern with peeling paint, yet once the large oak doors are closed the sound is highly resonant, the perfect location for music. Beaini is probably best known for his experimental techno as Morphosis, and his label Morphine records, but this afternoon he is on a strictly modular tip. It’s a steadily evolving piece working with textures and modulations, bridging together multiple fragments of synthetic electrics into an extended experimental tapestry of sound.
Some 30 years since he made the music, modular synth experimentalist Charles Cohen is finally starting to achieve the recognition he deserves. It’s thanks to the man above, Rabih Beaini, who’s issued retrospective editions of Cohen’s modular work on his Morphine label. It’s coaxed Cohen and his suitcase modular, the Buchla Music Easel out onto the road, hence a few seconds after Beaini finishes his set, Cohen fires up his machine that’s sitting alongside. “Music…..” He intones into the microphone, as he conjures up some synthetic squiggles, “noise…”He continies with this repetitive commentary for a few minutes before offering, “the space between music and noise, that’s what I call middle distance.” He then patches and turns a few knobs and begins a windswept journey of oscillating textural tones , deep pulses that almost accidentally venture into deep house or low key drum and bass.In the fading light his sense of control is remarkable. It’s hard to believe the performance is mostly improvised.
Towards the end he twists a knob and builds static and returns to the mic, “Just a minute, there seems to be a message coming in from the heart of the galaxy,” he offers, as the music bubbles and froths beneath him, at times obscuring his words. Beofre he begins a poem. “Breathe together with an ordinary mind, armed with humour feed and help enlighten woe mankind.” And the music twists and wriggles, stretches and in Cohen’s hands is shaped into something pure, something genreless and magical. It’s remarkable that one of the best sets of a truly diverse and remarkable festival should not just come at the very end, but from someone in their mid 60’s without attitude, with gimmicks, and a world away from whatever is hot right now. The recipe is very simple. It’s mastery of his instrument. And with that Cohen turns off his light and wanders off to a smattering of enthusiasitc applause. One of the more unique and forward thinking festivals is over for another year.