Once anticipatory cheers have replaced Tony Pritchard’s dark, industrial, and almost poignant opening set of drill and bass, the crowd settle into rowdy euphoria. Within seconds of Pritchard leaving the stage, a deep, colon-bothering bass loop stretches the flapping PA speakers while dry ice spritzes across the stage. Fifteen minutes before he’s due, a familiar silhouette appears at the back of the stage triggering deafening cawing from the crowd.
Lurking behind a black fortress of gear clad in a metallic screen that offers fleeting footage of the crowd unceremoniously appears the man behind at least a dozen aliases, the cause of countless nightmares, millions of ‘what the fuck!’ reactions, and the master of turning profound bafflement into ardent love; Richard D James.
In typically atypical form, James begins with dance music based on soul samples with a touch of bubbly tech-trance. The vague possibility of listening to a fax machine mating with a lawnmower recorded through a full can of lager is clearly an outdated dream, still, this provokes some cramped dancing, and a lot of cheering. The front few rows mug for a roving video camera that gives a feed, via a processor manned by someone seemingly working their way through every Photoshop effect, to the screens on stage. We bathe in the sounds of 90s optimism. For a man who apparently invented ‘intelligent dance music’ and epitomised a dystopic future better than anyone in musical history, it seems as if he’s in whatever mood he was in when he released 26 Mixes For Cash.
Despite using the heaviest bass since Sunn O))) nearly demolished the Hi-Fi Bar in 2007, and bringing in the occasional high, lost melody to amplify the oceanic depth of the beats, it’s the visuals that capture attention. Images of James that seem as though they've (literally) passed through Chris Cunningham and a 3D printer, grace the screens along with occasional fractured close ups of excited punters. All lights are trained on the audience. Lasers rip across the crowd, turning the air above us into a psychedelic loom.
A cavalcade of beats with slippery stabs of glitchy electro follow, soon subsumed by shimmering 70s synth lines. Sometimes it sounds like a 1990s version of the future, sometimes like 2090's, either way it is, somewhat disappointingly, always a regular coasting 120bpm; something 90% of his output has never given a shit about. Just as you’re thinking; ‘this has to be a set-up. Any second now he’ll kill the beats in a squelchy, sickly death and some atonal horror will take over and his sly evil grin will occupy every screen in a grotesque reassertion of control’, then that exact fantasy occurs, precisely half an hour in.
Surprisingly, something familiar emerges and the song Fingerbib (a highlight of the Richard D James album) sends everyone nuts before disappearing underground into a seismic pulse. At this point, every face in the crowd seen on the screens is overlaid with his. Soon most internationally famous Australians, then pinup models, then children’s characters, have their face clumsily, hilariously and scarily, replaced with James’s manic grin.
Now we get the unpredictable and fun Aphex Twin; music you can't dance to without a fistful of datura and some seriously reconfigured neurochemistry. The rhythm track of Didgeridoo and some wriggly synth lines explode around us, accompanied by garish visuals and blinding lights. Even brighter though is the intense fluro orange sportswear worn by Die Antwoord who burst from nowhere for some insane yet reverential freestyling. Rapper Ninja crowd-surfs while screaming ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie / Oi Oi Oi’ as Aphex intensifies the sound of a malfunctioning forklift played on a skipping CD. Once Die Antwoord leave it’s time for a genuine old school headfuck. Huge distorted drill and bass rhythms, vacillating tempos and a ceaseless intensity of carefully channeled noise beat us senseless. Fittingly, the screens show sickeningly granulated visuals interspersed with labyrinthine patterns and a cubist nightmare in red and black. Like a grumpy old guy having a rant, these dark spiraling sounds end on the stroke of 11:30. Shut down.
We cheer, stamp, and clap but to no avail. The screens briefly flicker ‘Keep calm and fuck off’, ‘Kill yourself.’ On come the house lights, it’s game over but no one is listening. There is genuine disbelief, more cheering and louder stamping ensues, sometimes turning to anger, then to a cheer that suggests he’s returned, but no. This continues at near-deafening levels for 10 minutes after the stage manager motions no more, the stage lights flicker on, and the equipment begins being dismantled. Finally, we leave to board trams abuzz with conversations about the show, of how expectations were and weren’t met and how lucky we were to see it.