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Drew McDowall / Helm (live at Café OTO)

London
3 February 2016

Analogue at Cafe OTO February 2016It’s all very restful really, sitting around at the front of OTO, bathed in the soft orange glow of the tea-lights scattered around the stage and sipping a cranberry juice. I’m trying to get my head around Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s recent tome on anti-fragility whilst awaiting the arrival of the “notoriously reclusive” Drew McDowall, one of the lesser-spotted denizens of the liminal zone staked out by his erstwhile collaborators Coil, when suddenly the guy sitting next to me strikes up a conversation.

In a soft northern Welsh lilt that sounds uncannily like that my friend Emyr, he tells me that he, on the other hand, is actually awaiting the support act, Helm. This being the fifth Helm show that my new friend has attended, he’s keen to give me the full dope ahead of the show – “He’s amazing. He works in Carphone Warehouse and looks about twelve years old.” Despite his youthful visage, though, the un-ironically named Luke Younger can apparently kick up “an explosion of sound” to compete with the best of ‘em. And already, he has so far done exactly this on stage alongside the likes of Cut Hands, Oneohtrix Point Never and even the himself ever-youthful Tony Conrad.

Helm live at Café OTO February 2016

As if summed by our very conversation Helm appears and duly takes his place behind the candle-bedecked musical workstation just in front of us. Having had my finger burned recently – not by candle flames – but by having to sit through a deeply, deeply annoying set by not one but two (!) aimless, witless knob-twiddlers, my peril-sensors spring to life like the robot in Lost in Space: “Danger Will Robinson!” Thankfully, though, any concerns about a repeat performance are swiftly put to bed by Helm’s opening salvo, which is million miles away from the sound of a clueless dimwit randomly fiddling with their EQ settings, and instead more like the approach of distant thunder, arriving in some kind of squelchy, organic fanfare like a giant epiglottis opening and closing rhythmically.

It seems I should trust in my Celtic friend’s judgement, for Helm’s material is no directionless amble through laptop settings, but instead a vast, crafted jewel which ebbs and flows like the tides, moving from electronic to acoustic textures, with careful modulations designed to contrast and complement. Fragments interlock like delicate cogs as we move through what sounds like the inside of a giant turbo-charged popcorn machine and into trembling metallic beats akin to a Rolf Harris wobble board. Oh. Oh dear. Am I not supposed to mention Rolf Harris now? Has he joined the list of unmentionable post-Orwellian non-persons, reduced in one fell swoop from the lofty heights of National Treasure™ to the humiliations of tabloid-hunted pervert like some kind of woolly antipodean Lucifer? Jesus, this is a gig by an ex-member of Coil; worrying about that kind of thing seems more that faintly ludicrous. So, on careful consideration, we shall reference Rolf and move on.

Helm live at Café OTO February 2016

Finishing with a flurry of varispeed hammering, like a woodpecker that’s flapped mistakenly into Louis and Bebe Barron’s squalling electronic score for Forbidden Planet, Helm gently winds down his glimmering audio klang, placing the audience gently back down on the ground like Superman tenderly putting Lois Lane back on her balcony after an exhilarating flight together through the night sky.

Repartee with the audience is possibly not Mr Younger’s strongest suit, his silence and minimal interface does something of a disservice to the warmth that he has generated from this appreciative crowd. One perennial trouble with the solo laptop /electronics performer is that the dynamics of the energy flow are far too often down and into the equipment rather than outward from performer to audience, and the careful craftsmanship of his music might benefit from more attention to this point.

I turn to my Welsh friend, intent on discussing the rightness of his praise for Helm and keen for a dissection of the set just passed, but his girlfriend seems to have appeared suddenly and they are engaged in such a frenetic burst of mutual face-sucking that short of dousing the pair of them in cold cranberry juice, any further musical conversation seems unlikely at this point.Drew McDowall live at Café OTO February 2016

I return to Taleb, but scarcely have I taken up with him again, than enter Mr McDowall, and we’re back on for our second delicious electronic feast of the evening. With his magnificent Doepfer A100 analogue modular synth blinking and bleeping away beside him like his very own K9, McDowall looks cheerful of face and stout of build. For some reason, in my internal Kopfkino,i I can’t help but see him in a flat cap (though he is not actually wearing one). This scrolls very quickly on to a pleasant fantasy of Sunday tea-time BBC favourite Last of the Summer Coil, with Drew, Sleazy and Jhonn capering hilariously down local hillsides in vintage bathtubs and being chased out of Nora Batty’s Holmfirth teashop with a broom for playing “The Anal Staircase” much too loudly.

Nurse! My medication, please.Drew McDowall live at Café OTO February 2016

Sorry, where was I? Oh yes, Drew. Beginning with a low frequency rumble and a subtle, insistent heartbeat, McDowall ushers us gently through a sonic journey so sublime that it is only really comparable to that given by Zoviet*France on this very stage some eighteen months ago. From echoed sonar pings, panel beating and ghostly inaudible conversations to something that sounds like the purring cheetah that opens Chris Watson’s Outside the Circle of Fire, McDowall’s mise-en-scène mixes the worrying and the reassuring in equal measure, its architecture carefully designed to provide the aural equivalent of a fairy tale told to a child, its edge-of-perception element of darkness and menace roughening up the gentle reassurance in the foreground.

I close my eyes and drift away on its swirling currents, and at one point it even becomes strangely reminiscent of the iconic theme tune from Mastermind – perhaps on consideration not so strangely given that the latter’s official title is in fact “Approaching Menace”. Perhaps McDowall might contemplate some kind of split single with its composer, Neil Richardson? Surely this is the dark ambient collaboration we’ve been waiting for all these years?

Drew McDowall live at Café OTO February 2016

When, finally, McDowall winds slowly down, the vortices of sound dissipating from a scream to a whisper, I return to full consciousness with it, re-emerging as though from a deeply satisfying meditation. Looking back later at my notes – scribbled in the dark whilst deep within this trance-like state and resembling nothing so much as one of André Breton’s 54 rue du Château games of Exquisite Corpse – I find I have jotted down the phrase “energy horse”. In retrospect, I have absolutely no idea why I wrote that, but it’s perfect; Drew McDowall’s magnificent set was – it has to be said – a real energy horse.ii

Perhaps being a little older, and thus a little more relaxed in skin than his young support act, McDowall is also a little more comfortable with audience interaction. He smiles, then takes a photo of the crowd – a neatly agreeable reversal of the fusillade of camera flashes that greeted the conclusion of his set – before saluting warmly and sauntering nonchalantly off stage.

A rare bird he is on these shores, so let us hope in future that this is a more regular migration.

-Words: David Solomons-
-Pictures: Dave Pettit-

i A hugely useful German compound, which literally translates as “head cinema”.

ii Henceforth, this will be my new short-hand for “a really great gig”.

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