Freq Live Review | M. Gira Solo in France

Michael Gira/Ulan Bator (live at les Abattoirs)

1 March 2014

Tonight’s show at les Abattoirs provides a chance forMichael Gira to share a stage with Ulan Bator, a band he worked with on the Ego:Echo album in 2000. The venue is an unusual one, sat on the corner of a roundabout on the outskirts of a small town on the road to Grenoble from Lyon. Taking place on one of the busy weekends in the sprawling school holidays (when it seems like the whole of France goes on co-ordinated trips to the Alps with subsequent lengthy tailbacks along the autoroutes into the mountains) means that – alongside the supposed distance from the city centre – that, for a Saturday night, the venue is unfortunately not very busy at all.

Undaunted, Ulan Bator take the stage and commence a live soundtrack to Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel‘s Un Chien Andalou which matches the surrealism on screen with music which follows a similar symbolic trajectory into the depths of the human psyche. Opening with a hissing intake and exhalation of breath as Buñuel strops his razor under scudding moonlit clouds, the band crash in with full force and vigour as the infamous and still-disturbing eyeball-slicing scene flickers into goo-dripping view. It’s a cinematic tour de force which is as breathtaking as ever and one which sets the tone for the rest of Ulan Bator’s score to this most expressive – if plotless – of films.

As mysteriously blank as some scenes can be, Ulan Bator weave a soundtrack which heaves and pulses to the rhythm of bourgeois lives (Buñuel’s preferred subjects) gone profoundly weird. Dream-like flashbacks to idyllic scenarios of the film’s central couple promenading in print dresses, v-neck pullovers and plus-fours on the beach meld with a welter of cross-dressing nuns on bikes, obtuse gendarmesand a Freudian landscape of primitively effective special effects shots where pubic hair morphs into beards and clothing dissolves into unabashedly (and shocking for 1929, even in France) sexualised nudity. The abstract art-rock makes way for droning passages as the film progresses, the band whipping up a terrific grind from Amaury Cambuzat‘s guitar andNathalie Forget‘s Ondes Martenot, an instrument which first appeared around the same time as the film.

The ferocious sound swells to ear-splitting levels in particular when ants crawl from wounded palms, before Luca Andiola‘s cymbal-splatter and the feedback snarls reflect the interior dissolution of the characters. As the mood becomes lustful and violent, Ulan Bator scrape and scrawl with appropriate menace. During the notoriously bizarre scene where bemused priests and rotting donkey corpses are dragged inside pianos across an apartment interior, the room shakes and shudders under the weight of Diego Vinciarelli‘s bass, the film’ssurrealism and symbolism made physically present and truly heavy. With a story full of emotions held in tight, oppressive rein, the music is bound to explode eventually as the six-shooters come out and bullets fly in a surge of violence which is portrayed with a sense of remarkably un-stagey menace and threat often lacking in films of this era. 

As powerful an experience as Ulan Bator in combination with Un Chien Andalou is, there is more to come. First up is a screening of Julien Perrin‘s film in which Nathalie Forget and Cambuzat’s colleague and collaborator Jean-Hervé Péron of Faust perform “Poem for Concrete Mixer #1,” with Forget placing the speaker of her Ondes Martenot centre stage to play alongside the film itself.

This makes for a particularly powerful preface to what follows, as Ulan Bator accompany three more of Perrin’s exquisitely-crafted videos for tracks from their recent En France/En Trance album. “Colère” opens with Forget chewing on foil scrunched around her microphone in imitation of the images on screen and the rest of the group join to produce a slow-burning expression of anger. It’s quite a strange experience watching each member performing the same actions live and projected on the screen as the band soundtrack their own music video and it’s one which works very effectively, with a touch of surrealistic disconnect between the projected simulactra and the real musicians onstage. The same applies to the film which Perrin made for the album’s title track, gradually and hypnotically whipping up whorls of intense sound churning intoan immense whirlwind of avant-rock noise.

They end with a “Vegetarian Advisory: Explicit Content” warning to introduce “Jesus BBQ,” which (neatly matching the venue) is shot in an abattoir and is often quite disturbing to watch. Forget wails and moans with all the impressive ire of Diamanda Galás while the film follows cuts of meat from cold storage to chopping block. The band express musically a litany of pain and suffering as the meat is paraded and packed, sliced and carved while they ramp up the screams and snarls in agonised sonic bursts which reflect the rending and severance of animal flesh on screen. It’s a remarkable moment and leaves the room feeling somewhat drained as it empties out for the interval before Michael Gira takes the stage.

Gira enters softly, perches himself on the stool placed front and centre before an otherwise unassuming guitar amp; andproceeds to knock seven shades of stuffing out of the venue with just a six-string acoustic and his voice. It’s as impressive a performance as he has ever put on, even given the small audience numbers who more than make up for density with respectful adulation and – in a couple of cases – peculiar expressions of enthusiasm. Someone has come dressed in a spray-painted skintight onesie, complete with ears which make him seem somewhat like the beast from Donnie Darko‘s nightmares. Another dude with shaved sides, bulbous shades and big boots insists on dancing alone at the front, even though the music isn’t exactly what might be thought of as energetic in any sense which might make the toes tap and the feet groove. An intrusion of Gira’s personal space (ill-advisedly touching his lyric sheet) is met with a sharp rebuke, but otherwise his interaction with the audience is surprisingly gruffly good-natured given the content of the songs.


What there is instead is one of the most intense gigs imaginable from one man and his guitar. He plays with the house lights up, leaving hardly a shadow for the audience to shelter from Gira’s frank gaze – when he has his eyes open, that is, for he most often sings with them tightly closed otherwise, lost in the stories of human misery, fallibility and regret which he sings here tonight. The starkly-controlled metallic clang of his guitar strings fills the auditorium. “OXYGEN!!” screams Gira, demanding life itself as much as its fuel – which he then steals in the song; everything is expressed with an air of disappointment edging often into contempt for the world and its many and various failures.

Michael Gira has few equals when it comes to expressing societal and individual suffocation and oppression (themes also evident in Un Chien Andalou) in an uncaring universe, excoriating the false promises and abundant hope betrayed by those closest and apparently dearest. His stage persona is one full of acerbic, pitiless misanthropy, all of which contrasts sharply with a singing voice which is so richly-textured as to make every word a pleasure to hear sung, even as his words savage the very notion of humanity’s worthon this planet.

This is never more apparent than when, guitar reverberating to the rooftop and back down through each and every skull present, he pronounces “Love may save all you people, but it’ll never, ever save me.” His presence and the convincingly steely way in which his songs are delivered has the result that, even if the listener might not normally feel that bleak, that despairing, when Gira sings, they will if they have a shred of empathic response to the profoundly dismal existential condition which is being set out by these words and in this music. But while he commands attention, Gira also gives the impression that he cares not one whit if he gets it or not, nor if the crowd are enjoying his songs so much as enduring the emotions and worldviews they explore.

The way in which his words seemingly brook no fragility while constantly emphasizing the futility of existence underwrites their air of steadfast bleakness which never once descends into the miasma of self-pity. “People get ready,” he sings, but in preparation for the personal apocalypse of death at the conclusion of a pointless, wasted life. When Gira shouts “Damn you to Hell!” it rings out with a clear, bright power, vented like he means it; and perhaps he does. There are (marginally) less grim avenues explored on occasion, such as when in “A Piece Of The Sky” – which he describes as one of the quieter songs from Swans‘ The Seer – he looks through a door in the air and repeats “Are you there?” as he searches for a rationale in the sublime, trying to obtain a reason to provide meaning  for the stumbling fools who are not. For his conclusion (having dispensed with pretending to finish the set before returning for an encore), Gira gives a hauntingly good rendition of what has become a live staple for his solo shows, and “God Damn The Sun” has rarely felt this powerful in its expression of regret and loss.

-Richard Fontenoy-