Ombrelle Concrète + Friends - Fourth Portal Takeover:
Brutalist Architecture In The Sun, DJ Counselling, Simon Mós, Mieko, Sourmilk, the closer we are to dying, Gagarin, Joe Inkpen, Waxon Knot, Shape Navigator

Fourth Portal, St. Andrews Church, Gravesend - 7 October 2023

"An incredible influx of quality"

On a warm autumn day, electronic and experimental music aficionados (and perhaps a few newbies) gathered at the historic St. Andrews Church in Gravesend, Kent, for a captivating journey through soundscapes, beats, and creative innovation. Billed as "A free autumnal festival of electronic and experimental music" the event delivered on its promise, offering a diverse lineup of artists who pushed the boundaries of music and technology. Live visual projections by video DJ diz_qo added an extra immersive visual dimension to the experience.

The event was created by the experimental label Ombrelle Concrète, designed it to be a celebration not only of some of their own artists and other acts they admire, but to acknowledge the tireless work of John McKiernan whose Fourth Portal creative technology space took up residency in the church earlier in 2023, transforming it in the process into an essential focal point of the creative arts in Kent.

Shape Navigator
Kicking off the festival, Shape Navigator (brilliant name), the first live appearance by Peter Coyte under this name since the 1990s, took us on a voyage through the uncharted territories of sound. Coyte has roots in the influential Guerilla Records of the 1990s and collaborations with artists like Coldcut, Seal, and Heartless Crew. That kind of company doesn't just fall into anyone's lap.

Shape Navigator - Ombrelle Concrete, St Andrews Church Gravesend 7 October 2023    Waxon Knot - Ombrelle Concrete, St Andrews Church Gravesend 7 October 2023    Gagarin - Ombrelle Concrete, St Andrews Church Gravesend 7 October 2023

Photos [L-R]: Shape Navigator, Waxon Knot, Gagarin

I only saw Coyte's name for the first time a couple of weeks prior in the promotional run-up to this event. A day before the gig, I'd never heard any of his compositions. Not being familiar with a few of the artists on the bill, on the morning of the event I quickly researched them all online to get a taste for each sound. Once I heard Coyte's work I simply let his Bandcamp page stream for the remainder of the morning. As he was opening the event (performing at another gig later that day), I knew there was no way I was going to miss his opening set, and steeled myself for a full 8 hours of largely unknown experiences.

It's my belief that in any field of creative endeavour the best ideas are quite often just that. Ideas that never become anything more. That's when they are at their most perfect, most unspoilt, most beguiling. As soon as ideas are fixed, they lose their magic on transmutation. And yet, this first ever appearance by Coyte as Shape Navigator was utterly sublime. What must his unfixed ideas be like? Nirvana.

Coyte's remarkable electronica set the tone (and bar impossibly high) for a day of truly creative, and rewarding exploration. An incredible influx of quality.

Setlist: Tread Lightly on The Planet, Girl Taken, Margate Clouds, Untitled, Norham Sunrise (as all compositions are new, some have working titles)

Waxen Knot
A collective that thrives on musical improvisation, offered another of their unpredictable journeys into the avant-garde. Their performance a testament to the power of spontaneous creativity and unconventional sonic exploration. It was, as ever they are, a brave departure from the familiar, leaving sections of the audience in awe of their daring spirit and the alluring sounds that, in part, can be conjured up from an upcycled bicycle wheel.

Gagarin is the brainchild of Graham Dowdall, an artist that’s been active since the late 1970s. His sometimes storied, musical history, from his days with cult Manchester band Ludus, to being invited to join Pere Ubu by founder member David Thomas, and backing for Nico’s live appearances during the 1980s. He started and closed his set with two new tracks - Lomea and Stanmer respectively. In between we also got Enchanter’s Nightshade from his last album The Great North Wood.

Gagrain transported the audience into a realm of propulsive rhythmic autobahn vibes. Playing live pads in a unique fashion, Dowdall's performance stood out as an electrifying blend of rich tonalities intermixed with the sounds of nature. The incorporation of bird song with time-lapse flower projections by video DJ diz_qo creating an immersive experience. He was joined at the end of his set by Jack Hayter (electric violin), Rob Shepherd (accordion), and Terry Lane (keyboards).

Setlist: Lomea, Enchanter’s Nightshade, Desire Paths, Stanmer

Gagarin + friends - Ombrelle Concrete, St Andrews Church Gravesend 7 October 2023    The Closer We Are To Dying - Ombrelle Concrete, St Andrews Church Gravesend 7 October 2023    The Closer We Are To Dying - Ombrelle Concrete, St Andrews Church Gravesend 7 October 2023

Photos [L-R]: Gagarin + friends, the closer we are to dying x2

the closer we are to dying
the closer we are to dying (TCWATD), aka Terry Lane, introduced his set with Stephen Fry's notorious dressing down of the idea of God on RTE TV (the Irish public service broadcaster) - and here in God’s own house too. After an initial battle between TCWATD’s ambient soundscapes and the hissing and spitting of the venue’s coffee machine for dominance, the music soon won out. Thankfully, what followed was a captivating blend of dark ambient soundscapes and emotional, thought-provoking music.

The Clouds Hung Heavy Over Gravesend not being in the set list was surely a missed opportunity given the festival’s location, but what we heard we needed. Lane's project requires immediate immersion for maximum effect. Its meditative, gradual, evolutionary sound is both optimistic and ominous. The ideal soundtrack to modern life then really. Disruptive visuals, glitched images, abstract colours and pulsing white flashes were the perfect visual accompaniment.

Setlist: intro, C / Song for Eliane, Llanberis, All Nightmares Begin in Dreams, All Dreams Begin In Life

Joe Inkpen
Joe Inkpen, a composer and guitarist specialising in polytemporal music (I had to Wikipedia that one), wove intricate soundscapes using a combination of sampling live guitar and then looping that, before overlaying more live performance. He performed two pieces. The first was Translate, an older one, the second Ruinous Ambition was a new composition and the first time he'd played it live.

Curiously, I often enjoyed the transitional sections during the pieces rather than the main elements themselves. The more menacing moments were the most effective, especially where the guitar was treated beyond what it was designed for, creating deep bass tones or angular shards of noise. The couple of moments he sat still, not performing, listening - like the audience - to the backing loops he’d just created felt a little odd though. Like we’d gatecrashed him practising at home.

Setlist: Translate, Ruinous Ambition

Sourmilk, aka London based musician Andrew Kesbey, had been dabbling with modular synths and analogue electronic equipment before deciding to start Sourmilk in 2019 as a public outlet for the creative possibilities he was exploring. Sourmilk rarely (never?) has a setlist. He just plays as the mood takes him on the day.

Lately he’s been recording various extracts and improvisations in his studio and then sampling pieces from that as the basis for tracks due to appear on his next release. Initially the focus of the project was on dark ambient drones but has since expanded the melodic and rhythmic palette, particularly in the area of modular synthesis. Even though I’d seen Sourmilk live several times before, I was surprised at just how 'dancey' his sound was today.

The opening track, reminiscent of 90s dance that had been filtered to within an inch of its life, was very beefy and bassy, setting the stage for a distinctive suite that picked up the tempo over everything heard so far. And so it continued. Projections of retro video games Battlezone and Luna Lander enhanced the visual aspect, creating an audio-visual journey that nicely warmed the audience up for further increases in BPMs that were to come later.

Joe Inkpen - Ombrelle Concrete, St Andrews Church Gravesend 7 October 2023    Sourmilk - Ombrelle Concrete, St Andrews Church Gravesend 7 October 2023    Mieko Shimizu - Ombrelle Concrete, St Andrews Church Gravesend 7 October 2023

Photos [L-R]: Joe Inkpen, Sourmilk, Mieko

This being my first time seeing Mieko Shimizu, a London-based Japanese artist, this was my introduction to her unique fusion of Eastern and Western influences. Undergoing a few name changes down the years, from Apache 61, Mico and now going under her own name, Mieko worked with Japan’s Mick Karn, Nitin Sawhney and the London Symphony Orchestra on scoring the 1933 silent film Yogoto no Yume by Mikio Naruse.

Her set today was characterised by vocal sampling and synth drones, creating an epic sonic landscape. Shimizu's ability to layer her voice over resonating bass and intricate percussion, tempered with a flute that she also sampled and looped, transformed her set into a multilayered hypnotic chant. Climbing scales sounded akin to a pipe organ, appropriate given the setting and for the fact that the venue has its very own pipe organ in-situ. Her performance was a captivating journey through hidden emotional landscapes.

Setlist: Soho Morphosis, Flute Etude, I Still Hear

Simon Mós
Simon (real name Simon Arnold) is an electronic artist and musician from South London. He’s a synth builder and classically trained music teacher making music with modular synthesis. During the introduction to his performance I learned that Fat Boy Slim has been quoted as saying that Mós’ latest album is the best thing he’s heard so far this year.

Previously deeply immersed in the UK drum and bass scene and experimental house and techno, he presented an entirely improvised set, perhaps inspired by his trip to Berlin earlier this year and a recent return to DJing. Hunched over a flightcase spewing modular synth patch cables, he looked a bit like a BT Openreach engineer repairing a junction box at the end of your street.

His performance, a product of modular synth techniques with a distinctive groove twist, was a testament to his musical evolution. Always on the cusp, without quite going into overdrive, he maintained a steady groove throughout.

DJ Counselling
Ash Arnold has been making music under various identities in a variety of musical genres for the past 20 years. More recently using the moniker DJ Counselling. His track Cool Air was named as one of Spotify's 'Best Electronic Songs of 2021', and this event saw him finally unveiling DJ Counselling as a live act.

He brought a steady rhythm to the festival, a refreshing contrast to the more staccato sets earlier in the day. The performance, marked by the use of gamelan drums, cymbals, pedals and some impressive fingerpicking guitar techniques, was mesmerising. Seeing him constantly moving between equipment and instrumentation made it an interesting watch too.

In its most chilled passages it made me think of Ulrich Schnauss' sublime debut studio album Far Away Trains Passing By, and that’s no shabby company to be with.

Brutalist Architecture In The Sun
Closing the festival, Dean Clarke’s Brutalist Architecture In The Sun project brought a unique sound to the stage. Their blend of modular synthesis backing overlaid with falsetto male vocals (courtesy of Cye Thomas) and higher BPM tempos within more traditional song structures, set them clearly apart from everything else we’d heard today.

They call their sound 'concrete pop', a mix of that 1979-82 synth sound, industrial pop and a sprinkling of 90's dance. I've been a fan of Clarke's work since his first (solo) album under the Brutalist Architecture In The Sun name, All Is Grey, self-released in 2015.

It could have been that such a dramatic step-change in style over the predominantly less structured performances that led us here might have jarred. Instead, it gave the event and the audience a welcome boost of energy. As always, their set was an exploration of sometimes challenging subject matter, often delivered with thumping beats creating an uncommon melancholic air to much of their songwriting.

Simon Mos - Ombrelle Concrete, St Andrews Church Gravesend 7 October 2023    DJ Counselling - Ombrelle Concrete, St Andrews Church Gravesend 7 October 2023    Brutalist Architecture In The Sun - Ombrelle Concrete, St Andrews Church Gravesend 7 October 2023

Photos [L-R]: Simon Mós, DJ Counselling, Brutalist Architecture In The Sun

Nowhere was this better demonstrated tonight than in the song Complete The Shape from their latest album Loneliness Kills. A superb blending of all of Clarke and Thomas’ influences into an imposing sub-four minute slab of concrete pop if ever there was one.

The band also has a distinctive line in AI-generated (largely monochrome) videos to accompany their releases. Video DJ diz_qo took these and manipulated them further, mapping them (as he had throughout the day) to neatly fit within the dramatic architecture - including some tall stained glass windows. The visuals projected alongside their set added an extra layer of intrigue to their powerful performance.

Setlist: Humanise, Complete the Shape, Worlds Collide, I Don't Need This Thing Called Us, Desolation Street, This Black Platform, You're Not There, Goodbye, Drive By Suicide

Ombrelle Concrète's autumnal festival of electronic and experimental music was a testament to the power of creativity and innovation, and a complete success. Unfortunately, the previously-billed Melinda Bronstein was unable to appear due to illness. Nevertheless, each artist present brought a unique flavour to the event, leaving me (and a seemingly appreciative audience) with some vivid memories. The festival proved that the spirit of experimentation is alive and thriving, offering a much-needed escape from the ordinary.

The visual collaboration with DJ diz_qo added a significant extra dimension for the duration. Ombrelle Concrète's commitment to pushing the boundaries of electronic and experimental music was on full and glorious display, and I can't wait to see what they have next in store for us. 8/10

Review + Photos: Rob Dyer