Live at Cafe Oto by Sly & The Family DroneRelease date: June 15, 2018
Label: Self Released
If you’ve been fortunate enough to experience Sly & The Family Drone live you’ll be in little doubt that it’s where they excel. They are the nation’s most convivial improvisatory noise band, an ecstatic and celebratory communion. A Dionysian ritual both pagan and post industrial. Their gigs are glorious events to be pulled into both as witness and participant. If you haven’t seen them, I urge you to remedy that situation at the soonest possible opportunity. This new album is a recording of an east London show on a hot August night in 2015 and captures them in fine form.
Live at Cafe OTO is an uncharacteristically ‘does what it says on the tin’ title and is simply split into halves entitled ‘One’ and ‘Two’. This seems a shame from a band who have previously made great use of the potential of titles, ‘Your Mum’s A Provincial Rock Club’ being a personal favourite. Perhaps, along with the elegant formalism of the artwork, it’s an attempt to present themselves more seriously, embracing the intellectual rigour of free music. Fear not friends, for while the splendid geometric monochrome on the front suggests cerebral and indigestible jazz, the band’s portrait is a soft focus glamour shot of them in a pile, half dressed in terrible fashion and toasting our health with glasses of what I take to be a notorious tonic wine. It’s like a squat punk version of Thriller. A good portion of the Family Drone’s charm is the way they pull both these diverging identities tight in their sweaty embrace.
Sly & The Family Drone have been a galvanising presence in the UK underground for the best part of a decade now. They create an ‘immersive’ experience, in the parlance of our times, or ‘beat happenings’, if you’re old skool, Daddio. It’s incredible stuff, but a transformative charge of ‘in the moment’ noise catharsis can be hard to capture on tape and their recorded output has lagged a little behind their fierce live reputation. While their freeform approach seems suited to live recording, if the sound is not roaring in your ears and shaking your bones in a dark room full of other drunken sweaty idiots all hitting things it can wash out to a churning, bludgeoning, grind. There are also obvious technical challenges to be overcome, particularly given the chaotic nature of their performances. How best to capture the kinetic vortex of the band in full flow? Tricky business but happily I think Live at Cafe OTO is a better representation of this than any of their previous live outings. The recording is cleaner, more vivid and dynamic, and their playing together seems more locked in.
‘One’ is the more fractured side slipping through some shorter pieces, teasing at a few different shades and moods, ‘Two’ finds them getting into wild and swinging stride. Of course, no matter the improved audio fidelity, the same problem of distance from the event afflicts the listener. Home listening can be but a pale shadow of being there. I find the key to this riddle, ironically, is the same in both situations. You need to get involved in it. At their gigs this speaks for itself but if you’re listening to this CD push aside the idea of it as a record of a specific event. Regretfully blank out those memories of Matt climbing atop the amps in his pants and dive into the rolling current of distorting electro-skronk. Let it carry your imagination. Next thing your mind’s eye will fill with broken robots fighting in a beer garden or a warehouse full of bankrupt Toys R Us stock come to life and attempt an escape. As the drums get passed among the crowd on ‘Two’ the rhythms develop the flam and churn of The Butthole Surfers in noise jam mode, or pick up the wonky polyrhythmic clatter of a fevered parade. One that has forgotten its route and purpose but is compelled by its own internal momentum, a primal roar, a gleeful noise unto the creator. Make yourself a good strong coffee, put a shot of rum in it, put your sunglasses on, crank this through your headphones, lose yourself in it and turn your trip to Lidl into an intense hunter gatherer expedition/sensory derangement experiment. Just, whatever you do, don’t climb on top of the chiller cabinet and start undressing okay?