'The Lifted Brow Does Dark Mofo: On Earth, Sun O))), and The Body in a Sound Field', by Alice Gage

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Photograph by Alice Gage.

There are the peninsulas of New Zealand, Argentina, and Chile—and some grave, wild islands—but as far a clear stretch of land to ice goes, you can’t get much closer to Antarctica than Hobart. Neon orange icebreakers sit as though sunbaking in Sullivan’s Cove, and scientists in polar fleece drink convivially in the pubs of Salamanca. Yet on the weekend of the winter solstice, when the weak sun rises to the lowest point it will hit in the year before leaving the town in fifteen hours of darkness, Hobart is full of light. It’s in the omnipresent beams of the interactive installation Articulated Intersect, the barrels of fire that revellers huddle around at the Winter Feast, and the stage lights inside labyrinthine venues holding parties far into the dark morning. It’s hard to find a hotel room or make a reservation at a restaurant. This festival is bringing the dead to life.

A pagan celebration in its own right, Dark Mofo goes about programming the most druid-friendly art and performance they can get their hands on. There were, however, some noticeable differences from last year that belied a tightening of the belt. The 2013 program included The Drones, You Am I, and the excellent Vandemonian Lags, with local headliners Mick Thomas, Darren Hanlon, and Tim Rogers in convict garb doing old timey tunes. This year’s festival included no mainstream homegrown acts and saw the closure of at least one major venue, the Princes Wharf Shed 2, which also had some of the best art of that year’s festival and a fantastic late night bar.

Dark Mofo 2014 chose to go with smaller local bands—many of them excellent—and international giants from obscure genres: the kind that are heroes to that group of goths you met on a train in Belgium. Pioneers of drone doom Earth and their spawn Sun O))) are famous to a subculture; godfathers, I suppose, to some even more troglodytic sub-genres. So it was with great anticipation, mixed with curiosity and fear, that some friends and I entered the Odeon Theatre just as Earth were starting their set.

The meditative quality of the music made me think of prim girls who like candles soaking in deep ceramic baths, gently touching their genitalia.

We bought beers and hurried to the safety of the balcony seats. The mood in the room was reverent; the crowd silent with heads hung and swaying gently. These kings of a tiny kingdom had the crowd entranced by the repetitive, distorted, bluesy, stoner rock that made the Seattle band massive in the 90s. Such was the elongation and seeming plotlessness of their songs that my friend, the poet Bonny Cassidy, asked if I thought any fans in the crowd were thinking, ‘Fuck yeah, my favourite bit is about to come on… oh shit, here it is!’ The meditative quality of the music made me think of prim girls who like candles soaking in deep ceramic baths, gently touching their genitalia, not to Deep Forest, but to Earth. It just weirdly fits.

The magic of Earth was not just in their ominous sound, although the song called ‘The Snake Cometh’ made me realise the (now obvious) Apocalypse fetish embedded in doom music. There was also magic in their performance. A three-piece, the band is made up of the original member Dylan Carlson, with drummer Adrienne Davies, and bass guitarist Bill Herzog. Davies, in particular, was mesmerising. She played with grand gestures, holding her arms aloft as though ready to bash her cymbals off their stands and yet coming down so gently and with such control over her instruments that they barely quivered. It was a dance. And magically, the three kept their obscenely slow tempo without a note going out of time. To slow down mid-bar, in sync, and land it perfectly, is impressive as shit. It was as though they were telepathic. Maybe they are. Standing outside at cigarette break I learned that Dylan Carlson had given Kurt Cobain the shotgun that he killed himself with. True fact.

Sun O))), another Seattle band some ten years Earth’s junior, made their presence known during the break as roadies loaded in a Stonehenge of amplifiers, stacked tall and semi-circular across the stage. They cranked out their masterstroke, an engulfing curtain of haze, that would act as foil to any grandiose performance.

A week earlier we were emailed a noise warning from MONA. ‘Consider this your warning: this performance will be loud. Like, really loud. Adequate hearing protection must be worn and we ask that you come properly prepared. Otherwise, upon entry, you will be supplied with Class A earplugs which must be worn … MONA does not accept any liability for hearing loss … If you no longer wish to attend, you can opt out and obtain a refund…’

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Photograph by Alice Gage.

How loud can sound be? The giant bowl of free, yellow earplugs on offer at the entrance told us, like, really loud. But imagining extreme loudness is kind of like imaging extreme numbers. It’s an amorphous concept. Humans have adapted to dangerous brightness—the sun—and our eyes shut involuntarily to avoid pain. But what of hearing, our most latent sense? Evolutionarily, we’re not built for industrial music, just as we weren’t built for the deafening Industrial Revolution. And yet there we were, knowingly getting our brains blown out.

As Sun O))) started playing, the dense fog coagulated and veiled them and the stage they stood on. Low guitar feedback started and continued and increased for the rest of the show. It throbbed and undulated, and kind of hurt, and many inserted those corn-coloured plugs into their aural canals.

We weren’t watching a band, we were in a sound field.

The genius of Sun O))) became apparent at this moment. At points when the fog ebbed we could see men in hooded dressing gowns, but in the main we were some 1,000 people staring at what we knew had been the stage but was now a cloud lit by incrementally changing pink and blue light, completely removing any concept of a performance and throwing us into a purely bodily moment of reverberation. We weren’t watching a band, we were in a sound field. The noise permeated everything. The rumble was so low that our bodies became an ear, and our ears weren’t very good at being ears anymore. By cupping our ears we could play with the sound and shape it. The plugs ended up being a relief, and they revealed a hidden bonus: in dispelling the sound overload we could focus on the other vibrations all around and in us. When the music changed key, it moved from the feet, up to the chest, back down to the groin, and into the fingers. We became machines, as a jacket on one person’s lap began vibrating like an angle grinder, swiftly dropping with a dipping note to leave the arm of the chair humming, or hair, now a generator plugged in at the source.

This was a fun game for a while, but the need for beer broke the trance and we headed to the bar. It was then that we realised that the venue itself had dissolved into turmoil. There was a fire truck out the front that had responded to the excessive smoke machines, and a venue manager told us the smoke detectors had been shattered from the reverberation. The bar had been evacuated out of concerns that the ceiling might collapse. There had been no alarm in the main room, but many punters had had enough and they were filing out in droves, some looking sickly pale.

We, too, had had enough, and decided to get out. On hitting the pavement in the bitterly cold Hobart night, we spied an impromptu street party happening directly across the road, with about fifteen people dancing to Prince on an 80s boombox out the front of an empty shop. Perhaps it’s because our brains had been pumping out serotonin from the long period of loud noise, but we danced manically for ten minutes with these strangers on the street like we’d mainlined the semen of the Dark Lord himself, before singing our goodbyes and prancing up the road to the only open pub with an ameliorating jukebox full of Springsteen.

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Alice Gage is a writer, creative producer and founding editor of Ampersand Magazine. Contact her at alice@ampersandmagazine.com.au.