Picture by Prudence Upton
NO MONO/TOTAL CONTROL
Vivid Live, Joan Sutherland Theatre, June 1 & 2
Yeah, next door Solange was giving it, was killing it, on both nights. Or so I hear (don’t get me started, unless you want to see a grown man in tears). Her spectacle, her political drive and her emotional substrata the headline act for this year’s Vivid Live, at least until St Vincent pops up next week.
No comparison then for these two capable-of-brilliance local acts, of barely any significance beyond cult circles, of barely any sales when lined up against even a morning cash register ringing for The Other – but by no means lesser – Knowles. Yet their one night apiece in the smaller of the two Sydney Opera House concert rooms had provocations and implications of their own.
For Total Control it was sometimes the incongruity of combative drive without aggression, and anger without bile - a seeming contradiction which is at the core of the music that itself is punk without boofheads and krautrock without machine tools.
The impulse is not just to momentum but to persuasion, with the expanded band (now sporting woodwind, strings and brass) capable of offering the kind of big don’t argue that clears the way for the jagged forward jerks of singer Daniel Stewart, but also capable of lifting the motorik pulse of some songs into something hypnotic.
At their best this became physical: pushing some people out of their seats; pushing others further back in theirs as they settled into blind rocking. The assimilation of Stewart’s vocals into the mix further took matters out of the cerebrum and into the brain stem – a move I think that undermines one of the band’s great strengths: his insight and vision delivered from the gut.
Picture by Daniel Boud
(Before you complain, no point getting technical with me here medical students: it’s wonky metaphor about thinking and non-thinking parts of the brain, just go with it ok?)
That meant though that all of the work would need to be done by half of the tools available, which is where things faltered. Where it didn’t always work for Total Control was when the line between persuasion and compulsion widened. That is, the times when we could recognise the energy of the material but be left short of giving ourselves over completely. We had to feel this all the way to our bones for it to succeed, and that didn’t happen enough.
Was it the room? Yes, that played its part, its distancing and “cleanliness” bringing some sterility. But there was something missing from the stage as well, an absence of powerful emotion to link all those elements, and us and them.
Emotion was not in short supply the next night when No Mono’s two Toms – Iansek, on keys, machines, guitar and supplementary voice; Snowdon, on quasi-operatic fervour and voice, and guitar – reversed the polarities of Total Control.
Picture by Prudence Upton
Here mood was at least as important as movement, not just in Snowdon’s voice (which floats, dives, cracks and wavers, mostly in high tenor but sometimes strikingly in baritone) but in the waves of sound as blue as the prevailing lighting shade that was the blurred crusade to the previous night’s white light, white heat.
The comparisons with Antony & The Johnsons and James Blake have already been made from their record, with their shared sense of vocal theatre and implied fragility, but on stage something only hinted at on the album came to the fore. Here was a closer connection to the downtime R&B of a Frank Ocean, a slightly earthier, but no less vulnerable, component to the Antony-esque arabesques, moved by degrees of rhythm.
Then, when Iansek moved to the piano which had been hidden in the shadows (there were a lot of shadows on this stage), the tone shifted again into something closer to an intimate lounge, a place where you might well see the Righteous or Walker Brothers – a connection made explicit with an unlikely but in keeping cover from the glory days of emotive adult “boy” bands.
With a light and visuals show of enigmatic hue, slightly more conversation with the audience from the Toms than the reticent Stewart, and a growing sense of inbuilt (rather than imposed) drama, it wasn’t Solange - sigh - but No Mono created a whole-of-mind experience.