At last year’s Decibel Festival, as part of the Optical series, there was a live scoring to an incredibly absurdly spliced film from the 70s, unfortunately missing this year. Luckily, Optical 4 made up for it, featuring the doom electro-acoustics of London duo Raime, the terrifying ambient textures from The Sight Below, and, because Oren Ambarchi’s flight was unfortunately delayed, a debut ambient set from Nosaj Thing. Where visuals and lighting design have been amazingly abstract throughout all of Decibel, at this finale of the Optical series, their full power became apparent.
As I entered the Triple Door to the painstakingly slow drums of Raime, the back of the theater appeared to be meticulously and purposefully burning. A curtain fell here, an abstract silhouette was slowly becoming apparent, and the show became wholly absorbing. As the curtains burned, Raime was barely visible on the sidelines. Once your eyes adjusted to the darkness, you could make out two ghostly figures, a hand would suddenly fly through the air, and both heads bobbed as if the music emanating throughout the theater was dub step instead of the industrial horror show that it was. Projections, which were created by Dukus Films for Raime’s string of tour dates and were filmed in a breathtaking defunct Porterhouse ironworks building, featured spotlights that were half obscured and seriously skewed perspectives. Was that gravel? Or bubbles? Were they flowing upwards, or falling slowly down? Eventually, a human figure came onto the screen, a man in military garb who slowly but surely spun an upside down table.
During one silent moment that befell the theater, I heard a woman exclaim, “That’s political!” Political is a word that in my web searches for Raime I found little linking them to – excepting one interview with fellow post-industrial emotive electronic producers Lee Gamble and Pete Swanson. “No part of my life that is intense or dramatic or dysfunctional in that scenario, but I still want to fucking feel something. And that’s for me on a very elemental level a political statement ‒ in the sense that I desire to experience, and I desire my existence to be real,” they told Juha van ‘t Zelfde. While politics in a conventional sense are not a necessity of their music, seeking below the doom only deepens the live experience of their mysterious music.
If the audience was not already entirely lost inside the madness of Raime, Seattle’s ambient shoegaze project The Sight Below was there to make sure we were not getting out without total absorption. Starting slowly his layering picked up speed, a guitar here, a new slow beat there, building into a nightmarish storm. Ominous tribal drums surged beneath the surface. If his music is meditative, you must first survive the uneasy sleep he induces, where the sounds of sleeping animals growling breath is just around the corner. It is a beautiful storm that breaks with choirs of benevolent ghosts singing – before slowly setting the audience back on the ground, surprisingly better rested, more contemplative, and satisfied than before. His alien like figure take a small bow – a white face surrounded by a black hood and long skinny legs and arms leaving the silence he induced, in absolute applause.
I was able to catch Nosaj Thing last year at Decibel at Baltic Room, where he played a set of delicate dance music for a late-night crowd with his head hidden behind his computer. Don’t get me wrong: Nosaj Thing is the opposite as pretentious. Where other producers hide for whatever reason, Jason Chung feels as though he is simply engrossed. His eyes pierce the screen before him. He doesn’t care what the audience is doing per-say; it’s more that he knows what he is doing and he is going to do it no matter what. His most recent album Home was the start of his current seeming fascination with ambient spaces – and that’s what he brought to Optical. He began, suddenly and without bother to slowly submerge the audience, in a pixelated rainforest during a beautiful sun shower. Notes fell, glitching, onto the leaves of bass beats, rippling throughout the theater. Soon enough the sparkling rain had transformed into a hurricane, ominous and dark. Each note had a tracer, an echo that pulled it back into itself, as if the whole show was trapped inside a wind tunnel of nostalgia for that which had only just happened. Visuals followed us through the rainforest, through an vintage Seattle, through a video game car chase. I’m tempted to say he performed and entire LP worth of music. For nearly 45 minutes, his black cap bobbed and weaved as he adjusted knobs and delicately pushed buttons. Though at times his performance was a bit drawn out, he seemed to be experimenting with every ambient trope imaginable. It was a deeply transfixing ride that was enormously gratifying to watch.
As is tradition, at the last Optical, all the amazing people who help put on the festival got up and said their part. Thanks so much to this amazing team and all their hard work. Here’s to another 10 years of Decibel!