Arnolfini, Bristol
20 - 22 January

Bristol-based Howling Owl Records returned to the Arnolfini for New Year New Noise, on a weekend when many might be looking for reassurances. Lucky then, that something as brave as NYNN should coincide with something so terrible as the dawn of American Kakocracy. If nothing else, it’s comforting to consider how many of the things happening inside the gallery – multiplicity, inclusivity, ambiguity, deviancy – would probably annoy the shit out of neo-nazis.

First to play in the pitch-black Dark Room is Bristol’s Agatha, lit up by garish, heat-treated visuals to match his rich, heady techno. For tracks that carry so much weight in the beat, Agatha pours a lot of emotion into his music – bold-as-brass swells, vocal cut-ups and cinematic strings sit tight on top of thunderous drums. 

After an unscheduled fire alarm, people shuffle back upstairs for fiercely weird new artist Klein, but before this comes the debut of Portia Lewis, a girl-group put together and managed by Klein via Facebook. The trio croon, rap and harmonise over a set of unsettling, borderline-nightmarish backing tracks, beneath the buzz of which you can just about hear some more conventional RnB tropes – warm keys, sharp hats, cut-up vocals.

The misbehaviour continues as the group leaves and Klein steps up, excitedly addressing the crowd through so many layers of effects that her speech is rendered unintelligible, her pitch-shifted voice reaching people like alien transmissions. A looping soul sample degrades into a bit-crushed frenzy, which she pitches up and down with reckless intent, creating fleeting rhythms and patterns. Klein live is like a desert, inhospitable and exhilarating, with things you think you recognise, or want to recognise, hovering and fading at the edge of perception.

Saturday moves things downstairs to the main gallery. Drag king johnsmith slows Madonna’s Vogue down into male vocal territory, performing a mesmerising lip-sync. Soon after this, Silver Waves delivers the most satisfying set of the weekend. Hunched in the middle of the room behind a table of battered looking synths and pedals, the guy immediately dispels any fears of another second-rate Container and delivers a truly brutal twenty minutes of mutant breaks and dread-ridden electronics, all the while howling and frothing over the mic. The response from the packed gallery is huge.

Dublin noise-rock unit Girl Band bring the night to a decisive, raucous finish. Lawman’s hypnotic waves of squealing, DNA guitar and plummeting bass get a particularly big rise from a crowd that’s very on its feet. The superb attention to rhythmic detail from all members suggests that an association with techno which the group has garnered over can be owed to more than simply a cover of Blawan’s Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage? – although said cover does get trotted out, and everyone loses it.

On the Friday, Klein took us on a long journey to show us how, through tirelessly breaking with tradition and embracing fantasy, different worlds may be possible. Saturday, by contrast, was more straightforward – a howl of rage, directed outward. Intentionally or not, New Year New Noise has explored two coping strategies – fantasy, and anger – that could prove more useful than ever in the years to come.

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