Chris Cunningham, Beak> and Fuck Buttons (DJ Set)

Opera House, Manchester 22/04/2010

By Peter Rea

Tonight, the Opera House is filled with casually dressed 20-40 year olds who have a passion for the audio and visually disturbing. The ornate and plush venue will be alien to many present here tonight, which adds to the air of uncertainty for what is to come.

After the late, disappointing withdrawal of LoneLady due to illness, Fuck Buttons step in for this complex gig, with an early DJ set comprising a selection of difficult music. Two men stand uneasily around a school table, dwarfed by the stage, selecting CD’s from a carry case while nodding their bobble hats appreciatively to tunes that have no beat.

Occasionally, there is techno and breaks but most tunes are played with fluctuating tempo, or seem to be slowed so much the beat has become non-existent. It’s like being drunk on a carousel that’s shifting through the gears… a scene from Fear and Loathing.

After much sitting on stage doing nothing, Beak> start their set from the other corner.  Drummer/vocalist, guitar and keyboard players continue the dark moody theme with addictive basslines and indecipherable mumbling lyrics.

The links to Portishead are apparent, with similarities to CAN and Joy Division or anything that could’ve been inspired by David Lynch… The Dead Weather on a comedown. Rhythms and beats are slow to change but remain interesting for those who aren’t straining to continue their conversations. Visual aids from the currently redundant screens above them would’ve been a welcome distraction from the lack of a distinguishable frontman.

The venue goes dark for the main act, 2 men take position mid stage behind 5 screens that are propped on a mountain of electrical boxes and a maze of wires. Behind them are 3 screens, the centre screen slightly larger, with smoke machines and fans either side.

Test cards brightly flash and draw the audiences’ attention, and they react with nervously excited applause. Ear piercingly loud sounds of electrical equipment coming to life disorientate, along with images of faders being adjusted and shots of wires that twist and turn to a crackling dark techno soundtrack. Is this live footage? Visuals that appear to be triggered by sound pan from left screen to right and in turn trigger green lasers that fire above the audience, to gasps of surprise.

It takes a little time to comprehend what we are seeing due to the speed of the editing and the disbelief that what we are being shown is so disturbing and well made, it could actually be real. Repetition offers a chance to decipher the content that lingers enough to make you feel uneasy, and then continues until you want it to be replaced by something else so you can temporarily forget the nightmare that you have just witnessed, until the fresh set of images grabs you in the same way.

A naked couple spoon, floating in space or a darkened pool, but the tranquil scene is disrupted by a punch that sends blood across the screen. The nude partners square up to each other, the male un-sheaths his ‘weapon’ (so to speak) in an uncomfortable close up, before she lands a blow to his stomach that appears to have broken him in half.

There’s a cheer of delight as the industrial beats and lighting add weight to each blow in this cross gender naked Mortal Kombat fight to the death. After managing to drag my eyes from the carnage, I look to the side screens to see crude and graphic close up footage of oral sex. A passionate relationship, so it seems.

Known favourites follow, The Horrors “Sheena Is A Parasite” video with the woman who has a squid flying out from under her dress, accompanied by “I Feel Love” (from Cunningham’s Gucci ad), an industrial techno remix. And ‘Rubber Johnny’ re-edited for the 3 screens, with added footage of a woman upwardly shifting her ample breasts into motion with her hands.

“Johnny”, the naked mutated bearded human creature with the massive head, deflects lasers with his raving arms as he manoeuvres around his cell in a wheel chair. He is momentarily interrupted by an abusive cockney jailer before snorting a massive line of coke and throwing his face at the night vision camera, splatting random chunks of flesh, liquid and teeth all over the screen.

The wide-eyed alien Scottish girl from the Playstation ad’s sings deep German goth lyrics over the Aphex Twin style music the resembles “Come To Daddy” when it’s at its most hectic. “Windowlicker” clips are re-worked and fit perfectly with the industrial soundtrack. A curvy female model in a bikini with a buck toothed Aphex Twin caricatured face swivels towards the camera repeatedly and unnervingly.

We’re being bombarded with over an hour of incredible, unforgettable imagery that would take a few thousand words to properly describe and give it the respect that it deserves. There’s a brief intermission from the chaos with 16mm colourful shots of wildlife, before the respite ends abruptly and he slams our faces back into the murky water.

Ingenious Matrix ‘Bullet time’ long exposure shots of dogs playing with a ball in a yard are the visual highlight for me (the visual geek that I am), before a thought provoking and slower finale. Gil Scott Heron talks of city life while looking stage right, as we see shots of a metropolis from a city train, blended in with his face. He stops speaking but the moody music continues and his face remains, staring at the same spot, stage right, giving us a chance to observe his world weary expression as he inwardly reflects on past experiences.

As the lights go up, the general reaction is ‘stunned’ as if we’ve all just gotten off a high-speed theme park ride. Some are unimpressed to see familiar footage that has been re-edited, but for me the experience was unique.

Sure, most of the images are accessible on YouTube, but this re-edit and set up has taken the Chris Cunningham experience to another level. An audio-visual assault that you can’t download for free and is a must see, if you’re brave enough.

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