26.09.2011, Words by Ruth Saxelby

Emeralds and Fennesz

The only seats left in Union Chapel by the time I get there are right at the front to the left of the stage, smack bang in front of the Funktion One speakers. Seeing as I’ve come here for a transcendental Sunday evening, this suits me fine (and will serve me well later). Tonight Austrian guitarist/electronic musician Fennesz and Cleveland/Portland band Emeralds will play as part of the as part of the Barbican’s Transcender season. The air is fittingly reverential; the only disturbance caused by a confused moth, pulled this way and that between the stage lights and the flickering candles in the walls above.

Fennesz is on first: a grey haired man with a glossy electric guitar in his arms and an Apple MacBook in front of him. The glow of the half-bitten apple logo shines out in the ribcage-like chapel, a warped echo of the huge stained glass windows behind him. He builds a dense world of sound, a conversation between computer and guitar. Like a sandstorm, it engulfs and blinds yet there are moments when, caught in the eye of the storm, my senses are heightened: I hear the breath of the people behind me and feel the scratches in the wooden pew beneath me. The incongruity of the moment is what strikes the most – the immense wall of sound and the shy, humble Fennesz; the austere Union Chapel and the cold electronic boxes on stage: laptop, amp and speakers; the intensity of the moment and the back-to-earth cigarette afterwards.

As Emeralds take to the stage, John Elliot (synths/keyboard) looks pumped, Mark McGuire (guitar/effects) too, while Steven Hauschildt (synths/keyboard) is as cool as a cucumber, a stance he maintains throughout. They jump straight in. It’s the first time I’ve seen Emeralds live and, having listened to recorded sets of theirs before, it’s everything I hoped it would be and more. It’s like standing in the bow of a ship, Titanic-style, with the wind stinging your eyes and filling your ears. The trio work like ship crew too: Hauschildt the unflinching captain steering the beast while Elliot and McGuire are the two frantic oarsmen, almost frothing at the mouth through exertion. They gesture to one another throughout – sometimes with words, sometimes just with a look – seeming to say “not now, not now, not now…okay, NOW, NOW, NOW.” At points Elliot is visibly frustrated with the soundman, waving his hand upwards to say louder, louder. He cracks the gum he’s chewing audibly as if to make a point. And that’s when I’m glad I’m practically hugging the Funktion One, I’m feeling every moment so no sound level complaints from this end. They come back on for an encore, and channel every frustration into this last song: I can honestly say I’ve never seen a so-called ambient band rock so hard. Elliot headbangs frequently, his long hair flicking across the keys of his synth, while McGuire’s face is screwed up in concentration, sweat dripping off his nose onto his guitar. The intensity just keeps on jumping up a notch, and another, and another. I laugh out loud, the energy in the room is almost ludicrous. And then, with Elliot overturning his synth with a flick of his hand, it’s all over. It felt like they played for 20 minutes; it turned out to be an hour.

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