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Arts and Entertainment

Throbbing Gristle @ Ricardo Montalban Theater 4/21/09

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It’s been twenty-eight years since Throbbing Gristle last scraped the paint off of LA’s walls. In 1981, they were the height of an extremism in a pretty extreme scene, and the passing of thirty-odd years has only enhanced that reputation. They represented the next logical step in popular music, which was to completely remove the necessity for chords, beats and melodies, for notes themselves, for any kind of organization.

Though often named as the pioneers of Industrial Music - and indeed, their label’s late-70s motto was “Industrial Music For Industrial People” - their music, aside from its generally dark tone, bears little resemblance to the often monotonous, formulaic can-banging the term came to imply. TG were a lot more layered than most of their imitators, possessed of a powerful intellect, a sense of humor and a strong desire not to repeat themselves. In that spirit, they’re not returning to LA to re-play their old album cuts, but doing a live performance of their soundtrack to Derek Jarman’s 1974 surrealist film In The Shadow Of The Sun.

As we file into the Ricardo Montalban Theater, the stage doesn't look like much. Two conference tables are facing each other, each set up with two laptop computers and a couple of boxes the size of a home CD player stacked on top of each other. I'm about ready for a Powerpoint presentation on honing your sales techniques to commence. From our vantage point - 7th row slightly to the right - we can't see any actual instruments. And at the left and right are two smallish PA stacks, spread out to take up almost half the stage.

The four members walk out and take their places at the computers, and let some test beeps and boops fly. We can't see Genesis P-Orridge very well behind the PA stack but it looks like she's playing an electric violin and controlling it via her own laptop. The rest are calmly surfing the web as far as we can tell.

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And so begins the movie. It's not a narrative piece, to say the least. It's a jumble of avant-garde images, some understandable, some completely abstract. TG's austere soundtrack relates to the action on screen about like the album Dark Side Of The Moon relates to the action in The Wizard Of Oz... mostly, it doesn't, but every once in a while, the two things come together and you go "ah!" The music is dark and dreamlike, often with no discernible beat, and no vocals, except for some sampled chants.

Those PA speakers mentioned earlier may not look like much, but they’re not to be mocked. From the very beginning, it's loud but extremely clear, with a really prnounced pronounced soundstage, where the music apppears to be coming at you directionally from all angles. It's an interesting feeling being bathed in sound so completely. Even though the band isn't doing much interesting to watch, it's live and feels like it: clearly not the type of experience you could have at home with your DVD player.

But then about midway through, as the abstract images on screen get brighter and faster, and the intensity of the soundtrack kicks up a notch, it begins to get unsettlingly loud. Not just loud but like a vibrator aimed at one part of your body. I would swear I felt it go from the top of my skull, to the middle of my forehead, to the bridge of my nose, to my jaw, to my neck, and I actually started to wonder, "When it reaches my heart, am I gonnna die?" I have foam earplugs pushed all the way in, and I can feel my eardrums jiggling along with every other part of my body. I can feel wind on the tip of my nose. Glancing around the audience, the looks on peoples' faces range from orgasmic glee to horrified panic (probably the ones that forgot earplugs) to total confusion. I don't think they're far off from finding the Brown Tone.

Then the assault subsides and we're able to relax a bit as it retreats to the original, tolerable volume level. Cosey's now playing a guitar that seems to have a delay on it so that what she plays isn't heard till ten seconds later, so there's a weird disconnect watching her play out of sync with the sound coming from the speakers.

It's good. They've certainly lost nothing in the way of searing power by ditching the old gear in favor of computers. But they’ve also acquired more of a quiet side, capable of stark beauty to contrast with and buffer their more stomach-churning moments.

The movie's over in just under an hour. The band members stand up, give a quick wave, and walk off. The audience looks completely dumbstruck. There's a round of applause, and a few people stand up, but a lot of people just sit there, looking like they just emerged from a traumatic experience.

The band returns for one encore, "Persuasion", with Genesis singing from the front of the stage for the first time all night. It proves they're as capable of playing their oldies at least as well as The Damned or the Sex Pistols, giving their one hit of the evening the tense and unsettling treatment it deserves. As punk-era band reunions go, I have to give this one high marks - they promised a unique experience in the 70s, and still do, way more than any greatest-hits revue ever could.

Video taken by Elise Thompson for LAist

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