Michael Gira @ Church of St John, London | Bearded Magazine

Michael Gira // William Basinski @ Church of St John, London

A mesmeric show from two of NYCs most revered avant garde composers

As London begins what might be a fleeting early summertime and a gorgeous sunset descends over the office blocks and vibrant streets of east London, an evening with two of New York’s more respected explorers of space and noise within music may not seem like an ideal soundtrack to the warm breeze and orange skies outside but as we wander into the Church of St John in Hackney any thoughts of sunshine fade as lights dim and the music starts.

First to take the small stage is William Basinski. Best known for his Disintegration Loops project which saw the woozy atmospherics of decaying audio provide a sonic backdrop to the tragic events of 9/11 unfolding in front of the video camera on the roof of his Brooklyn Apartment. It was the resulting 74 minutes that saw Basinski’s composition inducted into the 9/11 Memorial Museum as a harrowing document of one the most tragic days of the 21st century. 

It’s also Basinski who is curating this series of London tributes to Arcadia, the Brooklyn art-space that became the hub for performance art and experimental music in late 80’s Williamsburg. It takes about roughly 10 minutes to find Basinski’s hypnotic loops of orchestral elegance to fully bloom and fill every crack and crevice of the church. It’s a sound so stunning in its trance-like repetition that the audience could have taken another 3 hours of William Basinski’s set, providing the church had a huge mattress in place of a floor and gave out pillows on entry.

In direct contrast to the ambient bliss of William Basinski, the atonal open chords that ring out from Michael Gira’s acoustic guitar during opener ‘Jim’ are as foreboding as anything the legendary Swans leader has done in his day job over the last 20 plus years. The thundering, apocalyptic full band assault might seem like an awkward transition to just one man and an acoustic guitar but as tonight proves Michael Gira has been on a lifelong mission to push the sonic boundaries of music in any form. Repeated requests to turn the monitors up so that each strike of his guitar and that wounded howl of a voice provide a jarring, unsettling cacophony.

Tonight we get songs by Swans and Gira’s post-Swans project Angels of Light, each song becoming a dirge-like hymn with Gira lost in the menace of his own voice. When he sings his guttural moan paints a picture of a long forgotten country singer lost in a spiral of heroin and downers, full of hate for the world and anything positive that might come from it. Those gathered in attendance are packing out the church, grabbing floor space where they can, are watching Michael Gira in devoted awe while he chants God Damn the Sun’s final kiss-off “God damn the sun..God damn the light it shines and this world it shows..God damn the sun” with a bile and wretchedness so believable that you almost feel like a fool for enjoying London's evening glow before you entered the church of Michael Gira and witnessed this dark, dingy and glorious sermon.

By Lewie Peckham