Everyone has seen a live visual presentation (i.e. Shakespeare in the Park), and everyone has heard a live audio presentation (i.e. WFMU). And most people have seen a TV show or a movie (i.e. Beavis and Butt-Head, Baby Mama). Some people have even been told they're being treated to an audiovisual presentation (i.e. Dark Side of the Moon Laser Light Shows). Until last week, I didn't think anyone had made an live audiovisual presentation that really truly was aural and visual at the same time, together. Then I saw Meat Beat Manifesto on Saturday at the Highline Ballroom.
Zillion-dollar budgets can give electronic music performers like Daft Punk and Kraftwerk an edge in creating visceral visual thrills at their concerts - you can't really do much more for a techno fan than have real robots playing a concert. But Meat Beat Manifesto has taken a well-worn and considerably less expensive approach - collaging video behind the performers onstage - and taken it to a new zenith of accomplishment in that medium.
Meat Beat mastermind Jack Dangers and Mark Pistel from the political hardcore band Consolidated stood onstage controlling the otherworldly jungle-dubstep-trance beats and squiggles, and at the far right live drummer Lynn Farmer kept incredible pace throughout the entire performance. On the far left stood Ben Stokes, the visual programmer for the show, who's worked with everyone from Ministry to Public Enemy to Levi's. He grabbed video samples of Captain Beefheart, old BBC Radiophonic Workshop-esque explanations of sonic technology, Dali's eye-cutting nightmare, The Invaders, Sammy Davis Jr., Harrison Ford as President James Marshall in Air Force One, Star Trek, Billie Holiday, and even Animal, playing in tandem with a live feed of the drummer.
Unlike so many other video shows, clips didn't just sit lay flat and stuttery in the background. They were accompanied by audio, and were layered over existing beats, scratched, stretched, and re-sampled in a way that fit in with the theme of the song - video of nuclear bomb blasts dropped to the beat, sounds and videos of Rastas burning weed edged their way into a drugs song (well, at least the one that referenced them the most overtly). Dangers and Stokes were always working together in the audiovisual realm, as well - you could almost imagine the behind-the-scenes dialogue: "Jack, I've found about 15 clips of people falling from the tops of buildings, can we work the sound of them screaming into the set?" or "Ben, could you work on finding a video of James Brown playing this one sample I use in this song?" Magic like that doesn't just pop out of a video mixer, or an audio mixer for that matter.
The most impressive part about the whole thing was Meat Beat's mastery in weaving overt political commentary into the show.
Dangers' albums are always political to some extent, but with his new disc Autoimmune things have intensified quite a bit. George Bush appeared on screen regularly, but I was never annoyed in the way I am by sign-carrying protesters.
There he was, being an idiot in the most slapstick of ways (right until the end, a fantastic finale of him doing a cute little samba while getting stuck trying to open a door in China)
but also in the most terrible of ways, cut up with images of mushroom
clouds and night footage in Iraq. But it was all a part of the music,
done masterfully. Unlike so many other visual music accompaniments, everything was clipped down to exactly what it needed to be - no excess sound or visuals came out over the course of the night. Everything had its place.
Jack Dangers used to jump around a lot onstage, but a debilitating case of psoriatic arthritis is literally eating his joints away. Now he's much more restrained than he used to be. In one of my favorite moments of the night, Dangers grabbed a mic out of nowhere and started singing in his signature monotone but excited talk-sing, lamenting and celebrating a very weird present and an even weirder future. Before that, he had stood intently behind his Powerbook like a beat clinician, stethoscope-looking earbud monitors popping out of his ears. When he took the mic something grabbed hold of him -
Ben Stokes layered live footage of Dangers in and out of psychedelic molten lava footage and on top of one of Meat Beat Manifesto's adopted logos, a spinning recycling emblem. That's when it all came together for me - I wasn't annoyed with the worn and tired clips of Bush and of bombs dropping because those images and the beats that accompanied them weren't just being re-presented. They were literally being re-cycled, turned into something absolutely new and evolving audiovisually with every second that passed. In a world where nearly everything has been documented or is being documented and re-presented immediately, Ben Stokes and Jack Dangers have taken the media that already exists and twisted it into something that really hasn't existed before - it seemed like this show was the reason why creative people should always push the boundaries of technology.
When the lights came up at the Highline, I felt like I was walking away from something new and different, an inspiring and confrontational integration of political commentary into the very fabric of the music's existence. I'll rave to that feeling over a bunch of robots any day.
FYI, These pictures and video really don't do the show justice. You should really try to go see them live. To read an interview with Jack Dangers at Wired go here. To hear an interview with Jack Dangers on Billy Jam's show last week, go here.