I’m standing too close to the house speakers, stage right, watching Seattle drone doom group Earth lug their heavy riffs along at barely 70 bpm, transfixed by the slo-mo, submarine precision of drummer Adrienne Davies. Trying to do anything slow is hard. Trying to drum slow is almost impossible. But Davies is hypnotic and lazily meticulous: for me, the performance of the night. Earth wraps up their second tune, ‘Even Hell Has its Heroes,’ and guitarist Dylan Carlson makes his way to the lonely mic at centre stage. (If you don’t know Carlson from his music, there’s always this: he’s the guy who supplied the shotgun that Cobain used to end Nirvana.) He looks around, thanks the audience, and sighs. Man, he says, if you’d told me twenty-five years ago when I started this band that one day we’d be playing Hobart, Tasmania, I wouldn’t have believed you.
You keep hearing this kind of thing from artists; as if they closed their eyes in Melbourne or London or New York and suddenly woke up with a view of Mt Wellington. Wow, we’re in fucking Tasmania! How did we get here? Playing an eccentric festival in an eccentric location seems more validating than playing the main circuit. Especially a festival like Dark Mofo, whose professionalism and attention to detail extends to the care they direct towards artists. Everyone is well looked after; the food and beer and wine are as good as you’ll get anywhere—better, probably. The air is clean; the beds comfortable (if used at all). Everyone is as relaxed as they can be, and it shows in the performances. It’s almost like a holiday; it has the feel of one, anyway, from where I’m standing with however-many-hundreds of decibels sneaking their way around my earplugs. And with that cozy time-off vibe there’s the sense of a relief from the scrutiny of the bigger cities, the seriousness. As the story goes: far-away places carry fewer consequences. You can let go. Forget yourself.
MONA, and its winter arts/music festival Dark Mofo, now in its second year, has taken this narrative, or this binary if you like, to an extreme. It doesn’t shy away from the trite image of Tasmania as a dark place. In fact, it fetishises it with gusto, and in so doing creates an atmosphere of indulgence, itself dark, in which those who care to can expose themselves (in more ways than one: icy nude swim, anyone?) to things they normally wouldn’t. To indulge where they’d usually be temperate. To break the rules. It’s as if the seven deadly sins have become the criteria for a good time; as if the organisers have wilfully made us commit them, and made us happy to do so. Ecstatic, even. Welcome to your dark place. Go on: YODO.
The worst of the seven. A kind of wellspring from which the others flow. A friend of mine ran into David Walsh in the crowd at the inaugural Dark Mofo. She was drunk and giddy; he was watching the show. She quizzed him about his ‘arrogance’ in doing what he’s done over the last few years, with MONA, with things like Dark Mofo. In making a spectacle of his home and workplace. In making a spectacle of Tasmania. He responded by insisting that he wasn’t arrogant, but that he had a lot of self-confidence, and that there’s a difference. The first thing any of us saw of Dark Mofo this year were the lights of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Articulated Intersect: eighteen high-powered beams Bat-signaling into the sky around Sullivans Cove from dusk til dawn every night of the festival. Even better: they were interactive. Guiding them through the skies with a waist-high lever, everyone looked like interstellar gondoliers. At a distance, seeing them all swoop back and forth, cross over, stop, start, go dim, and come back to life again, it seemed as if we were at the premiere of a Twentieth Century Fox event. Back on planet Earth, many of the city’s buildings were lit red: the Grand Chancellor Hotel, the town hall, the casino. The light show was spectacular in both senses of the word: making a spectacle of lil ol’ Hobart Town, and fetishizing the idea of spectacle in the process. This wouldn’t work as well in bigger cities—wouldn’t come across. Big lights don’t belong here. Big lights are incongruous with the diminutive cityscape, which is, of course, the point. Still, in a way it comes across as a bit of a laugh, a bit of a practical joke, and raises the question: is making a big deal of Hobart a result of hubris or self-confidence, is it boastful or assured, or is it just making a big deal of making a big deal?
PULL QUOTE: I manage to convince myself that it’s all part of the show and that I shouldn’t take it personally, like being zinged (zung?) by a comedian.
When Chrysta Bell appears onstage at the Odeon in all her dark-sequined and black-winged finery, with her Jessica Rabbit figure and red red lips, the first thing I think about is sex. Lots and lots of sex in all sorts of ways. David Lynch’s latest muse swaggers and smolders as though she’s strutted Ring-like out of the TV and into your world. I’m sitting in the front row, and the fact that she’s looking straight at me when she sings the lyric ‘I want you’ doesn’t help matters. Despite this happening twice, I manage to convince myself that it’s all part of the show and that I shouldn’t take it personally, like being zinged (zung?) by a comedian. The band is tight, and her voice is good, if a little uninteresting. Being associated with Lynch brings certain expectations: there’s no weird here, just smoky blues. That said, there’s a haunting rendition of Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti’s ‘Sycamore Trees’ dedicated to festival creative director Leigh Carmichael. (Incidentally, unbeknownst to everyone at the time, Jimmy Scott, the contralto who sang the original, had passed away in Las Vegas only hours before.) Bell’s stage presence is a bit too deliberate, a bit too orchestrated or overly rehearsed, which makes her come across as uncomfortable. There are moments, however, when she seems to go blank, like an out-of-batteries robot. Her head tilts to one side and she stares out over us. Her arms and body then begin to move with a kind of stiff grace. These mannequin-esque moves are excellent, and I find myself wishing she would embrace them more fully. They carry the potential for strangeness that the show seems to miss. Also, they make her seem more self-reflexive than self-conscious, which works well with the theme of spectacle—something that Bell, Lynch, and Dark Mofo are all working around. There’s an air of seduction through Bell’s whole set, and given the atmosphere of indulgence, you are happy to be seduced.
The lust doesn’t end there, of course. There’s also the Red Death Ball, with its themes of the wanton, bizarre, and terrible; the pole dancing at Dark Faux Mo (is it a man? is it a lady?—we’re standing on tiptoes to see!); and is there a hint of the erotic with the 7.42am Nude Solstice Swim? (What else would have a car park full of people looking on?)
Let’s forget for a minute that all of this—both MONA and Dark Mofo—is built on a bedrock of gambling, the playground of materialistic souls. Or, if we can’t forget it, let’s remember that gambling can pay, especially in this case for the arts. (We’ll take it where we can get it.) But if there’s anything that’s going to bring out the greedy-guts in festival-goers, it’s the final Saturday’s Afterlife and Dark Faux Mo program. Add to this the fact that there’s the Winter Feast down at the wharf and, at 10pm, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra with its In Praise of Darkness program, and tonight has us salivating. Afterlife begins slowly, with only a few punters watching Heinz Riegler on the main stage, but he is mesmerizing with his dreamy guitar loops and synths; shrouded in smoke and—from up at the bar—looking like Hemingway playing Interpol solo. Up in the forest room—red lights, skeletons on the walls, heaps of foliage, a bar that’s impossible to get to—there’s B-Film & the Cannibalistic Po Howard Band, whose psychedelic-shoegaze rock is high on energy and optimism. Next on the forest stage is local band and festival highlight, The Native Cats. The room is full and things are getting heated. The punchy two-piece swaggers beneath a crucifix that calls to mind Dali’s St John of the Cross in reverse. Frontman Peter Escott—who won’t be the only crossdresser here tonight—announces that they’re Jim Jarmusch’s latest muse, then the band launches into its unique breed of digitised post-everything punch-drunk Nintendo croon-punk. Escott is arguably the best frontman going around: funny, intelligent, and lyrically gifted (‘I’m trying to learn about transfiguration’; ‘I’m lost and undressing again’), possessing the best can’t-dance moves in the biz, and with a voice that is truly his own. After the Cats, it’s Kirin J Callinan on the main stage. There’s an orgy of lasers shooting from cats’ eyes and sprawling synths and big beats. Callinan sports a bouncing mullet, pencil moustache, philanderer’s smile, and glorious white suit. His backing band—statuesque, very straight, and dressed in black—makes him pop even more (or even more pop). The set itself is chaotic, ranging from club bangers to power-pop to solo guitar ballads. The audience is kept on its toes.
PULL QUOTE: The band launches into its unique breed of digitised post-everything punch-drunk Nintendo croon-punk.
I forgo NUN, Pandora’s Jukebox, and Total Control to hightail it down to the Federation Concert Hall to see the TSO’s In Praise of Darkness. Another highlight. The stage is lit by seven candles and minimal overhead lighting. The orchestra emerges a little after ten, followed by black-suited conductor Anu Tali, whose extensive blond ponytail almost swishes along on the ground. From somewhere out of sight comes the TSO Chorus and the Gregorian chant ‘Dominus Illuminato Mea’, which conspires with the moody lighting and silent orchestra to set up an ominous atmosphere. The compositions of Arvo Pärt tie the program together; his ‘Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten’ emerges from the dying strains of the Chorus. The mood is deep, bleak melancholy. All of a sudden the Odeon, with all its colour, bombast, and pomp, seems a world away. Afterlife seems an inappropriately lightweight title: if Dark Mofo has an underworld, it is here. The music takes us to places we don’t often want to go. There’s Merlyn Quaife the soprano soloist in a white dress whose voice seems to come from everywhere, and Jun Yi Ma who plays violin like he’s flinging darts. By the time we get to the second Arvo Pärt piece, ‘Wenn Bach Bienen Gezuchtet Hatte…,’ we are descending into the psychic territory of a Hitchcock or Polanski film. Strings swirling, piano pounding, brass flaring, tempos plodding and then galloping. Madness. We are sent back into the night with Brett Dean’s ‘Carlo’ and its unnerving string and chorus call and response.
I return to the Odeon disoriented and in a very strange headspace, somewhere between floating and muttering to myself. By now, Dark Faux Mo is underway, and there are performances in just about every cranny of the building. At every turn there’s another door, another corridor, another room. I’m hungry for more, and there’s more on offer, apparently. But I’m left oddly famished by Dark Mofo’s supposedly bizarre afterparty. It’s as if the festival’s reserves of imagination have been used up in the preceding ten days, as if it’s spent. It’s more like the post-coital cigarette puff than the big bang. Where last year there were surprises galore, this year’s Dark Faux Mo is a big nightclub where the performances and the music take a backseat to… to what, I’m not sure. Talking with friends. Wandering. Maybe I’ve had too much symphony for one night. Maybe I’ve overindulged. Whatever, it leaves me a bit cold. Still, the night as a whole has given me more than I can swallow.
The feast. Stalls. Chefs. Gourmet everything. Punters crammed in like livestock. Vegetarians deciding ‘fuck it, I’ll just eat the beef, the lines are too long, the lines aren’t even moving.’ There’s the feeling of a mosh pit, from when mosh pits were still a thing. Everyone’s rubbing up against each other and everyone’s having fun. There’s a guy with a flaming whip. There are huge kebabs that look like carcasses on star-droppers. There’s an acrobat and a Ferris Wheel of Death. Everyone’s surprised by the turnout. Everyone turns out. Hobart is alive in the midst of all this death, replete with its own Hollywood lightshow and glowing rabbit. Gorge yourself.
PULL QUOTE: Like birthday lollies or drugs at the party of some wealthy eccentric, there’s a platter of bright yellow earplugs on offer.
Laziness. Spiritual laziness. We’re all guilty of it. We could all push ourselves a little further in the direction of enlightenment. That’s what I’m hoping for tonight: to be shaken out of my slumber, out of my comfort zone. I mean that literally: Sunn O)))’s sub-bass frequencies are known for their quaking effects. Disturbing parts of your body you didn’t know you had. Sounds like hell to me. Slothful me would stay well away. Not tonight. We have been warned: the bands will be extremely loud. Ear protection is mandatory. Like birthday lollies or drugs at the party of some wealthy eccentric, there’s a platter of bright yellow earplugs on offer as you go up the stairs and into the Odeon Theatre. Onstage first is world-renowned Hobart musician Sin-Nanna/Striborg, who is performing tonight under the moniker Veil of Darkness. He wears a black cloak and full skeleton makeup. The hood is up. As are my defences.
My first thought is that I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bill and Ted appear onstage for a game of chess: how thin the veil between doom and outright hilarity! At one point he holds up a skull, and not for a short while. But I catch myself and my spiritual sloth. I’m here to feel it. So feel it I must. The music is unrelenting—turgid bowel-shaking ambience comprised of chord progressions that seem to take an age to find their shape. At first it is impenetrable, and I find myself resisting it. Wanting to go up the back and wait it out. The deep frequencies are already making me feel uncomfortable. It’s as if my body is panicking for no reason. Heart racing. Sweaty palms. Dark thoughts. The only way I can tolerate it is to disassociate, to observe how I am reacting to the changes in the music. True, it’s kind of distancing myself from things, but at the same time I find a way to connect with what’s going on around me. (This will become more pronounced with Sunn O))).) After a while the music becomes dreamy, and once I’ve become comfortable with the discomfort, the whole thing becomes oddly calming. The set is very loud (as promised) and at one point I pluck out my left earplug just to see. Bad idea. My ear is still ringing over a week later.
Next up is Earth. As I’ve said: drummer Adrienne Davies provides the night’s high-water mark with her pinpoint accuracy and hypnotic beats. Between Veil of Darkness and Sunn O))), Earth are a bit of a respite. You can even listen without protection. After Earth, the stage is vacant for some time, then it begins to fill with smoke. And not just a haze: a dense wall of fog, and so when the members of Sunn O))) walk onstage all you can see are vague silhouettes. Like VOD, they too are robed, hoods drawn monk-like. The claws in the audience go up. The first twenty minutes feature two guitarists and a synth-player relentlessly moving back and forth—sometimes out of sync—between two chords. It’s all distortion and discord. And it’s loud. Then, vocalist Attila Csihar appears from the gloom and begins a spoken-word drawl, ghosting amid the dirgy soundscape. There are no drums, and again it is down, down tempo. Nothing gets above 70 bpm. Less, maybe. Csihar’s performance is interesting, ranging from deep growls to doomy croons and then, halfway through the set when the guitarists disappear, sparse shrieks drowned in reverb and delay. There are no breaks, no ‘songs’: it is one sustained composition. The closest comparison would be the TSO’s In Praise of Darkness, but even that provided short breaks between compositions. Csihar’s performance is operatic and makes me think about vocalists and vocal delivery. More instrument than voice. More sound than word.
When the guitarists return to the stage, the volume goes up and the synth pads drop octave after octave. This is when it starts to get uncomfortable. People begin to leave. But I am here to explore my own discomfort, my own resistances and sloth, and so I stay put and feel my fillings rattling in my teeth. It becomes a kind of private battle of wills. I’m resolved to stay the course. For the next 45 minutes nothing seems to change. The music returns to something similar to the intro. It becomes about endurance. And although the experience has opened me up to a few things about the genre, and myself—which makes it wholly worthwhile—ultimately I think the band outstays its welcome to the point of indulgence. It is so loud, and goes on for so long, that apparently they have to shut down the bar for safety reasons. Things are starting to come loose. And so I’m there till the end, resisting the physical intrusion of the music, when all of a sudden Csihar gives a Daryl Somers ‘cut’ and everything goes dead silent. Everyone cheers, then turns around in relief.
PULL QUOTE: It is an act of resistance, of spleen, of wrath. All hail.
Dark Mofo is one of a kind. There’s no other festival like it. Anywhere. That’s their remit, and I think they’ve achieved it. The doomy, abrasive quality of much of the music and art could be seen as an expression of anger. And in the way the festival operates—from where it gets its funding to the kinds of acts that are chosen—you get the feeling that there’s a sense of dissatisfaction simmering underneath the program. At sub-par, mainstream festivals with their sub-par, often nostalgic, headliners. At mainstream anything, for that matter. At accessibility or user-friendliness. At being comfortable and complacent, and the associated lifestyles of comfort and complacency. Many of the acts at Dark Mofo force you to go to dark places. It’s not often that this happens in our sunburnt country, where the incessant sunshine has no time for shadows. It’s not often that darkness is praised or that a general audience is made, or asked, to confront itself. But there are people of all ages and walks of life at all these events. People you see at both the TSO and Sunn O))). This sort of festival is a fuck you to the MOR, is challenging, in the same way that making a living gambling is a fuck you to the establishment, to the nine-to-fivers, to those of the hard-day’s-work-for-a-hard-day’s-pay mentality. Dark Mofo has many acts we’ve never heard of playing things we’ve never heard. It is an act of resistance, of spleen, of wrath. All hail.
A festival with such a sprawling program will instil envy in everyone. By design, there are things you will miss out on. Great things. All the things I wish I’d seen: Diamanda Galás, It’s Dark Outside, the films, Grimoire at the Brisbane Hotel, Motel Dreaming, pretty much everything. So maybe it is, for now, the pride of Tasmania. For some. Is it arrogance or self-confidence? Is it too easy and too limiting to fetishize ‘deepest darkest’ Tasmania? It’ll be interesting to see where this festival goes over the next few years. Trying to imagine a ten-year-old Dark Mofo is difficult: it is hot because it is new, and it can be bold and bombastic because it is young. But when it establishes itself? What then? How will it keep evolving? How will it destroy itself in interesting, compelling ways? I’m envious that they have such a great thing to pull apart and reconstruct, or to just leave to self-destruct. You too should be envious: Dark Mofo is so good you’ll wish you’d come.
Adam Ouston is a writer, academic and musician working in Hobart. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Island, Voiceworks, Islet Online and The Review of Australian Fiction. He has recently completed a PhD on mortality and identity in the travel writings of Robert Dessaix. He is the vocalist for the band All Fires and tries to maintain a blog at Adam Ouston.