Banjo or Freakout

The Ruby Lounge, Manchester. 19/02/2010

By Craig Nelson

It’s a golden rule that the best gems are always those stumbled upon. Bands are the same.

I arrive at The Ruby Lounge a little early, in search of liquid refreshment, only to be reeled in by London-based duo Banjo or Freakout.

Frontman Alessio Natalizia and his sidekick drummer are already halfway through their set, supporting San Diego indie punk act The Soft Pack, the band I had intended to review. The weird and wonderful sounds coming from the stage are so fascinating and so unique that they actually manage to divert my path away from the bar.

Set in context, I had just spent the 20-minute tram ride into town in a daydream, drooling at the thought of the weekend’s first mouthful of cold beer . . . it had been one of those weeks. But as I descend the steps towards the prize, it is a strange sense of curiosity, rather than wonder, that pulls me away from the promise of a pint.

The remarkable noises coming from Banjo or Freakout are a kind of swirling mess of feedback and echoed whaling, dancing around a pulsing bass rhythm and pounding drum beat. It sounds spectacular, if not a little unsettling. I was half expecting to find a whirling dervish on stage, backed by a choir of sirens and a tribe of African drummers.

So it was with a mixture of disappointment and confusion that I float onto the dance floor to find this pale, straggly nerd twiddling knobs and pushing buttons, backed by a balding, grumpy-looking drummer.

Despite his appearance, I quickly recognise that Alessio is in fact a technical wizard, sadly conducting his magic in front of just a handful of people. I say wizard, but Dr Frankenstein is a more apt description. As the grumpy drummer-cum sidekick raises his sticks like conductors seeking a lightening bolt, Alessio remains busy twiddling his knobs and pushing his buttons. He even stops and bends under his mixing desk to pull some kind of lever. It is more of a scientific experiment than a musical performance.

Finally settling on the appropriate balance between pulse and feedback, Alessio then abandons whaling into his echo mic and focuses his attention on a drum machine.

Picking up his sticks like defibrillator pads, he pauses for a brief sideways grin to his sidekick, before the two start to pound in tandem, like they are trying to breathe life into their monster.

It is only at this point that the grumpy drummer shows the flicker of a twisted smile as he launches into the ‘Stomp on acid’ routine. Alessio, meanwhile, is already far away, in his own world, sticks going so fast that they leave a kind of trippy trail.

The hallucinogenic effect is spellbinding. I can feel the beat and the rhythm pulsing away in my chest, and when the drumming suddenly stops I snap back from some kind of hypnotic trance. Or maybe the monster is finally alive?

Banjo or Freakout, whatever their magical powers, are by no means the finished article. They barely acknowledge the audience and it isn’t always obvious, like Dr Frankenstein, that this duo are fully in control of their ingenious creations. Yet, with a bit more experimenting, I think world-domination could be within their grasp.

You have been warned.

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