What do you do when the lunatics run the asylum? Do you run like hell, screaming down the road as the laughter follows you, or do you embrace the madness and find the courage to smile?
Meeting at a secret location (revealed by a set of coordinates in an email), the audience for Hush Hush #10 chose the latter and collectively found an experience unlike any other.
Normally a secret cinema experience in which audience members are escorted to hidden locations (such as abandoned nuclear bunkers or run-down buildings) in order to watch a surprise movie in a themed setting, Hush Hush #10 was something truly special as it added a live performance from art rockers Arabrot to the mix. With performance, film and music mixed together, it proved to be an unforgettable experience and, as much as Arabrot were truly stunning, my respect was won by the performers and organizers who put together a night that had all the potential to be an anarchic mess and yet proved to be an unmitigated success.
Meeting in central Stoke-on-Trent, we found ourselves with a number of other black clad (as per instruction) cinema and concert-goers, unsure what to expect and just a little nervous. Any nerves were soon dispelled, however, by the general friendliness of the group and the warm greeting from the organizers who turned up bearing wrist bands and information. Our organizers soon took a back seat to the white-clad members of ‘The Sanctuary’, a super-friendly, slightly creepy group of individuals who struck just the right pitch between The Brady Bunch and The People’s Temple (Jonestown). Escorted through town, we soon found ourselves separated from friends and loved ones wandering an abandoned complex of rooms filled with a wild mix of pseudo therapy, painting experiments gone wrong, sensory experiments, atonal recorder playing and sinister manoeuvrings. Remarkably both cast and audience responded perfectly, with the audience willing participants in the wacky goings on and the cast turning in manic performances that never once hit a wrong note. The result was a perfect, immersive build up to the film and performance that was to come, and it’s hard to imagine a more enjoyable way to start the evening.
With multiple rooms and the unpredictability of audience participation, the potential for something to go wrong was huge and yet, thanks to organization that must have required military precision despite the superficially chaotic scree, the whole thing ran like clockwork right up to the point that the audience were finally shepherded to the bar/cinema/performance area. The film turned out to be ‘A page of madness’, a short Japanese movie from the 1920s that benefitted from a soundtrack that, amazingly, sounded more like something that Mike Patton would dream up, all rhythmic pulse and occasional bursts of unsettling noise, than something from the 20s. With occasional interruptions from the cast, who remained in character throughout the film, the movie was just the right length and fitted perfectly with the mood of the evening, and the audience, up until that point boisterous and chatty, remained respectfully quiet throughout.
The finale of the evening was a set from Arabrot, the revered art rock band whose latest album, ‘the gospel’, appeared in the wake of frontman Kjetil’s terrifying brush with throat cancer. Drawing inspiration from the likes of Swans, The Jesus Lizard, The Melvins, Earth and the Butthole Surfers, there’s an energy to an Arabrot performance that is simply undeniable. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that we had the opportunity to witness the band at such close quarters, in such a perfect venue, surrounded by a mix of audience and cast (now out of character) whose lively spirit and willingness to submit to the spell of the music made for one of the best crowds I’ve spent time with. Given the makeshift nature of the venue, the organizers, with typical skill, had managed to ensure a first class audio setup and the sound was pristine (arguably better than some venues I could name) throughout, no mean feat when you consider Arabrot’s somewhat atypical line up. With the band leaning heavily on the latest album and dressed to kill, it was a near perfect performance that proved both exciting and innovative in equal measure.
Having had ‘the gospel’ on repeat lay for some weeks, I have already come to regard it as a monstrous work of art, yet in the live environment the music takes on a whole new persona. Arabrot 2016 are an intense proposition, and the performance was more tightly controlled than you might expect. Tracks like ‘I run’, ‘Tall man’ and ‘Faustus’ are all delivered with a vitality that leaves the recorded versions gasping in their wake, whilst the album’s visceral title track is delivered with all the charismatic energy of a preacher in the throes of religious mania. Kjetil barely speaks to the crowd, commanding his band with a single, off mic, word or gesture and yet, with the front row just inches from the stage, there’s a communion between band and audience that is established form the first thunderous beat to the closing psychedelic melt-down that concludes the set just over an hour later. Highlights are pretty much inconsequential in so impressive a set, although the monstrous ebb and flow of ‘Ah feel’ and the bizarre mantras of ‘and the whore is this city’ did stand out, the latter in particular sticking in the brain with unsettling force.
Ultimately Hush Hush #10 was not about the film or even the stunning performance from Arabrot. It was about an immersive, shared experience wrought by a group of talented, passionate individuals whose energy and innovation made it a night to remember. The entire experience was so wonderfully considered that nothing dragged or felt rushed, and no location could have been better chosen for the night’s wild goings on. In an age where entertainment seems to be increasingly homogenized, pre-packaged and delivered to an undiscerning audience, it is all the more important that artists like Arabrot and groups like B Arts are given the support that they need to thrive. I can’t recall a more entertaining evening and it was a pleasure to share the experience with the other audience members, all of whom were equally willing to turn and face the strange (to paraphrase the late David Bowie). Whether the next Hush Hush cinema event features live music or not, it is an event that comes highly recommended and as for Arabrot, they were truly monumental. If you’ve not yet dug into ‘the gospel’, don’t delay, it’s a masterpiece.
Find out more about B Arts here.
Find out more about Arabrot here.
Amazing photography: Jola Stiles