For those with a taste for sonic iconoclasm, this past Friday provided an embarrassment of radical riches. On the very same night, it was possible to experience in the same city both the sounds of true pioneers of experimental, deconstructionist rock music – the legendary Seventies-era krautrock group Faust – along with today’s most recent proponents of that approach, Ultraísta – a quasi-supergroup featuring vanguard Radiohead producer and collaborator Nigel Godrich, Joey Waronker (best known for his work drumming with Beck, R.E.M., and in Thom Yorke’s solo effort Atoms For Peace), and a new talent, 24-year-old Londoner Laura Bettinson, on vocals.
Faust’s appearance at Redcat – an intimate arts space within downtown Los Angeles’ Disney Hall complex – provided a rare Stateside stop for the four-decade-old band. Ultraísta, on the other hand, just released their debut album (Ultraísta) last week. In fact, the trio’s concert at L.A.’s Echoplex nightclub proved its first-ever U.S. show, and only seventh overall after a series of European dates. Despite the disparity in vintage between the two acts, a symbiotic link hovers between them. Not for nothing did Radiohead name a song "Faust Arp," paying homage to the forbears whose refusal to play by the rules clearly inspired genre-sideswiping masterpieces like 2000’s Kid A. As a result, Faust and Ultraísta’s nearly overlapping concerts provided a unique window to compare two distinct generations’ efforts to shatter rock-band convention.
That legacy hung in the air like distended feedback: "Building bridges across rock and roll, classical, and contemporary music is not easy," explained Faust co-founder and multi-instrumentalist Jean-Hervé Péron as the first of Faust’s two sold-out shows commenced. "It’s even harder find an orchestra willing to play with a cement mixer." This was Péron’s introduction to Poème pour bétonnière et ensemble, a six-minute piece that featured the aforementioned industrial construction tool as an instrument alongside an eight-person choir, three brass players, various keyboards, three guitarists, percussion and a stand-up bass. Péron stalked the stage, manipulating the cement mixer’s musique concrete while conducting the musicians into cacophony; at times, the spooky harmonies rising above the skronk evoked Dirty Projectors’ experimental side, reinforcing Faust’s enduring influence on younger musicians today.
Alongside fellow German groups Neu!, Can, and Kraftwerk, Faust embodied krautrock, even ironically naming a song after the genre. With their peers, Faust embraced the atonality, electronics, and repetition of modern classical European composers like Stockhausen, mixing it with the primal oddness and invention of Jimi Hendrix, the rhythmic intensity of James Brown, a pop-art appreciation of kitsch and ethnic music, and the machine grind of industry. Krautrock proved so ahead of its time, it still manages to future shock, influencing everything from the wall-of-sound din of My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth’s drone guitars to the akimbo grooves of Gang of Four to LCD Soundsystem.
The enduring frisson of Faust’s vision was made clear when Péron was joined onstage by band co-founder and percussionist Warner "Zappi" Diermaier alongside newer recruits, keyboardist/vocalist/multimedia artist Geraldine Swayne and guitarist Amaury Cambuzat, for an unhinged six-song set combining vintage material like "I've Got My Car and My TV" (off 1972’s classic Faust So Far) as well as compositions from 1995’s semi-comeback Rien and outright improvisations. Tribal drums, confrontational spoken word, found sounds, and howling guitars collided, the resulting soundscape sprawl clearly resembling at times Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s edgily inventive symphonic works and soundtracks for There Will Be Blood and The Master.
The aural dangers, however, proved matched by actual ones. Péron took a chainsaw to a metal drum, sending sparks flying into the audience in clear defiance of fire and safety codes; at times, Diermaier created audible squall by grinding an industrial drill into a metal sheet. At one point, Péron invited a member of the audience onstage to play piano, only to blithely smash the instrument into chunks with a sledgehammer while he played; later, he sawed the words "Art is NIX!" into a backlit Styrofoam panel, filling the air with synthetic snow. It was a thrilling, provocative sideshow, a visceral correlative to the violence Faust continues to foist on musical complacency.
Despite the artiness of Faust’s live experience, Péron stated towards the end that "There is nothing serious about music – this is fun, the kind of music people laugh about." The hype preceding Ultraísta’s U.S. premiere, however, proved thick enough that Nigel Godrich felt the need to puncture it as the band walked onstage around 11:00 p.m. "We haven’t played a note yet, so we could be terrible," he deadpanned to the near-capacity crowd before Ultraísta launched into "Bad Insect," whose mesmeric electronica textures and relentless groove exuded nervy tension.
As opening music for their eight-song set, Ultraísta chose classic jams by krautrock gurus Can – a conscious acknowledgment of that influence. Ultraísta’s songs build on similar layers of repetition, sometimes even recycling the same signature sounds song to song; there’s also a conspicuously irreverent absence of guitars. (Although Godrich did lay down some wonderful basslines between triggering samples and synths, his stage moves echoing those of his Atoms For Peace bandmate Flea.) Waronker – one of the most expressive drummers playing today, and Ultraísta’s bedrock – expertly rendered polyrhythms that seemed to repeat into infinity, yet with subtle variations that ratcheted up their intensity; his propulsive funky-drummer workout on "Our Song" might have been the night’s highlight.
Throughout the set, Godrich’s forward contributions to visionary Radiohead albums like Kid A and Thom Yorke’s solo album The Eraser revealed themselves, and vice versa. On "Gold Dayzz," Godrich stripped away studio trickery to leave just bass and drums, making Bettinson sound even more ethereal and compelling as she floated over the glitchy minimalism; other times, dancier numbers – like the acid-house-retro "Static Light" – throttled the venue’s subwoofers for a more physical, clubby vibe. Bettinson herself embraced artifice cleverly, sampling and looping her voice into a choral armada, making an evocative statement about individualism and technology in the process. Like Faust’s show earlier that night, Ultraísta’s performance wasn’t just about music: the artful visuals – lurid neon VHS test patterns, avant-garde videos sliced up like digital prisms, stark lighting à la David Lynch – proved an equally vivid component.
At the center was Bettinson, a reluctant siren evoking a combination of Marilyn Monroe and Eighties arthouse movies like Liquid Sky with her severe blonde bob and graphic-striped dress. Bettinson started the night as the group’s lesser-known member; by the end, however, she proved its breakout star. At first, her trademark detached vocals and plastic-fantastic persona suggested David Byrne in all his big-white-suit-era awkwardness; she grew in confidence and charisma, as the evening progressed, though, drawing whoops from the crowd on closer "Easier." Over a groove suggesting the breakbeat from Mtume’s Eighties funk classic "Juicy Fruit," Bettinson strayed powerfully from her intentionally monochromatic stylings into an attractive higher register, creating (gasp!) something resembling a catchy hook one might hear on the radio. That climax clarified Ultraísta’s success in achieving their mission: exploring just how much dynamism you can strip away, and what additional repetition you can add, while having the end result still resemble a pop song.