Headphone Set At The Barbican: A Review

Aphex Twin 

Headphone Set At The Barbican: A Review

Frontline reporter John-P sends dispatches from AFX's high-brow engagement at the Barbican on Sunday 14th October...

Art of Darkness.

The night was billed as an intimate ambient DJ set in the lush Tropical Conservatory in London's Barbican Centre, what that meant was open to all manner of interpretations, but we had been promised something more than a little special. The first shock we received, was when having parted with our tickets we we're handed a pair of radio headphones, so far, so weird, and then directed to a notice, explaining their use and asking us to mind the plants and animals. At this point all pre-concieved notions of what to expect were well and truly abandoned.

Which was just as well really, as there was not much that could have prepared us for the sight which greeted us once we had pushed past the double doors and into the conservatory itself. Like stepping through Mr.Benn's changing room, the change couldn't have been greater, from the drab functional foyer of the Barbican, into a dense Tropical Rainforest, the loudest sound was the dropping of jaws all over the floor.

With 20 minutes till the start, we wandered around, exploring the conservatory, and generally grinning from ear to ear at each new discovery. Meanwhile more practical people were already staking out their patches amongst the vines and the darkness, settling down for the night, the intermittent flickering of lighters like fireflies in the forest.

But it was almost to no avail, as at the last minute a security guard, probably not a fan, decided he didn't like the look of Richard and barred him from going up the stairs to start the gig. Despite the protestations of several passers by, that this was the Aphex Twin, the guard remained unmoved, and it was a further five minutes before a clearly bemused Twin was allowed up the stairs to disappear into the canopy.

And then the static cleared on the headphones, to be replaced by, well, more static but this time accompanied by blips and beeps. Nervous looks were exchanged as everyone wondered if everyone else was hearing the same thing, and finally the music began, more Nutcracker than Windowlicker, it started with a classical sounding piece, before veering off into dense digital trickery.

Occasional snatches of melody, crowd noises, senseless words and even that old ambient chestnut, the sound of running water all surfaced at one time or another rising through the data-stream of noises and tones. With the headphones surrounding you with sound, it quickly became easy to lose yourself amongst the jungle plants.

But before the mood could get too soporific, the first beats arrived, classic hardcore jungle sounds. And from then on, it was gabba one minute, menacing drones the next, breaks shredded through effects next to spoken word pieces shattered and reassembled, what sounded like a Russian woman, giving birth? Being tortured? Or having a mind-blowing orgasm? It was hard to tell. Unlike what could only have been someone, (Richard?) shouting, "Fuck you!" over the top of MC Hammer, inspired nonsense.

Sadly an almost perfect night, was marred in typical Aphex fashion, by his decision to use taped interviews with what sounded like rape or child abuse victims, unnecessary, exploitative and cheap. Especially as he has more than enough ability to create and sustain a mood or atmosphere, without having to resort to these tactics. The night ended on a high, with a frenetic break-beat track, over laid with beautiful strings and a simple, gorgeous melody, as that faded out, we were left with what sounded like the Mitchell brothers with Tourettes, letting us know it was truly time to "shut up and fuck off."

The setting was incredible, the music was great, and the concept as a whole was so completely different to any other event that I can think of. It will be a long time before I can forget the feeling of sitting in a, literally, urban jungle, whilst Richard James hidden in the treetops above, piped music straight into my head.

Review in The Guardian