Preston, 5 June, 2015
As James Birchall took to the stage at the Continental, a modest pub-restaurant tucked away between the banks of the River Ribble and a housing estate just south of Preston city centre, no one could really have anticipated what would follow. Unassumingly padding up to the stage, bottle of Corona in hand, and looking more like a sound technician than a sound artist, he opened up an evening of experimental electronica in the function-room-turned-venue-space of one of Preston’s most revered cultural establishments.
Better known as Rough Fields, Birchall wastes no time in kicking things off with his trademark fresh-that-day field recordings of Preston, before unleashing upon the crowd a heavy wall of sound that starts off somewhat cacophonously but soon melds into an all-encompassing, almost claustrophobic aural experience. His meticulously crafted sound permeates your entire being, floating around just beneath your skull for 15 glorious minutes before fading out with more of Preston’s aural streetscape, and he retreats from the stage as quickly as he’d taken it. Frankly, the swift conclusion almost feels like part of the experience; the sudden absence of sound leaves you cold, another dimension of the vacuum of space Birchall created for you. You almost definitely need a drink to take away the edge.
The evening in question, Other Worlds, is being hosted by Blackpool’s Must Die Records on the back of the success of their inaugural festival staged last spring. Founded back in 2010 over a pint at their local, Rick Thompson and Carlito Juanito have since put on some rather impressive acts, including The Ceramic Hobs, Sly and the Family Drone and Bad Suburban Nightmare. While Blackpool has a large and well-established underground scene for them to navigate and thrive amid, across the coastal plain in Preston things don’t extend quite so deeply. Even taking into consideration the easy travelling distance and amicable relationship between the two towns, Preston seems a somewhat arbitrary location for Thompson and Juanito to host their first interim event. However, what Preston doesn’t quite have in innovative musical spirit it certainly makes up for it in atmosphere. The grey palette, typical to urban centres at this latitude, bleeds into the city’s rich and formidable post-industrial architecture, which reaches everywhere from its entry points – namely the expansive Brutalist bus interchange and steel-coated train station – to the multi-use Guild Hall. Alluringly sombre and a little bit austere, the scene is set before you even arrive at the venue.
If Rough Fields wasn’t convincing enough, the second act of the evening, straight off the Must Die roster, cements proceedings. Preston natives Third City deliver a 50-minute set of electronic-acoustic improvisation. Using a myriad of instruments between the four of them, including a mystery item that looks suspiciously like an old shoe, they fashion music that ranges between the quiet industrial soundscapes produced by down-tempo post-rock artists such as The American Dollar, and something explicitly disjointed and at times entirely psychotic. Despite their lengthier set, however, it felt somewhat unfair to run them off the back of Rough Fields: the sweet intricacies of their transmission, at times so soft that the noise of the pub outside managed to filter through, became somewhat lost in the not-so-distant memory of the opening epic.
Interestingly enough, Birchall would also come to wind down the evening as one half of Ambrosia, alongside artist Sarah Faraday. Although originating in London, they too rally for the northern music scene from the far side of the Pennines, in Bradford, where Faraday doubles as director and curator of Fuse Art Space, one of the city’s primary artistic venues. Together, they offer a distinct departure from Birchall’s opening salvoes, choosing to settle instead on raw drone and what they accurately describe as “monolithic bass”, but they do manage to push the sensation of suffocating within the noise – a great way to go if there ever was one. Combine this with Faraday’s detached and haunting vocals and the evening comes full circle, drawing you back onto the streets from where the leftovers now sounding through your brain began.
The on-stage talent notwithstanding, what really stands out about Other Worlds is Must Die’s knack for taking stylistically diverse material and combining it into a single entity, a feat that, according to their discography, they’ve been pulling off, more or less, since their conception. And while their future interim programme has yet to be announced, things are already shaping up to suggest that next year’s Other Worlds festival will be another explosively compelling series of events.