Two men, disrobed from the waist up, walk on stage. Actually that’s a lie. They aren’t naked: their heads are wrapped in black masks, Abu Ghraib style. Not a note has been played but things are already getting scary. One, drummer Daniel Szwed, starts hitting the hi-hat off-handedly, like he’s waiting for tension to build in his body before releasing it all in a quick neurotic spasm. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. There is no discernible beat or count.
Meanwhile, the other picks up what looks like a Tomahawk rocket, only it’s been hollowed out and made into an amplified string instrument. I later learn that the performer, Konrad Smoleński, refers to this creation of his as a ‘baritone missile’. It is simultaneously hooked up to two guitar amps and a bass amp, all of which are cranked up to eleven or twelve. In essence, chaos ensues. BNNT have begun their set. They come from Warsaw, Poland and are by a far stretch the best band I have seen during this edition of Iceland Airwaves.
My companion, who I roped into joining me for the show after losing all my other brethren over the course of an otherwise exceedingly dull evening that left us all yawning and disappointed, leans over after a few minutes and tells me he feels like he is “discovering heavy rock for the first time at age 14 and discovering techno for the first time at age 23 – in one and the same moment” (he is 29).
I don’t know what they played, but they were definitely not ‘songs’. They weren’t ‘tracks’ or ‘works’ either. ‘Suspended moments of terror’ maybe, or ‘devilish impressions’. Their album lists titles that sound like (and may very well be) headlines: ‘Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti head separated from his body’, ‘Ethiopian-backed Somali government troops surrounded Mogadishu’, ‘Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga recruiting children.’ All the titles evoke conflict and political unrest, as does the torture garb and the sound-bomb in Smoleński’s hands. The performance was a temporary war zone; it was torture emulated (when Smoleński accidentally spilled a beer, he was quick to pick it up and consume it through his mask and I couldn’t help but think of waterboarding); a ‘sonic attack’ as BNNT describe their performances themselves. Needless to say, the show also had its ‘refugees’ and the room was half-empty by the end.
These are big words and I definitely don’t mean to deflate them. Of course, all of this took place within the bounds of an institutionalized festival backed by profit-yielding corporations inside of a building that probably cost more to build than it would to end hunger in Africa. And when I exited the room, the sight of platinum blondes in pin heels and factory torn jeans whose bums were cupped by clean-yet-greasy Marketing and PR personalities with swimming eyes and lazy grins off to bounce up and down to FM Belfast until all their fantasies of not sleeping or running half naked down the street had evaporated, frankly sickened me slightly.
A fervent music addict who I bumped into this week said to me when I asked him whether he was attending the festival this year: “I gave Airwaves one last chance last year and came away from it thinking of it as a petite bourgeoisie festival. Everybody was there for Yo La Tengo because they were the cool name that year. But everybody who knows Yo La Tengo knows that they play heady acid rock jams. Yet nobody seemed to care much for that. By the end of the show, only a quarter of the people remained. I was disappointed in the audience and vowed not to go again.”
Now, that may be true. Proportionally, there’s definitely not a lot of cool kids around at Airwaves 2014, not like there were in the past. But the presence of an act like BNNT certainly helps lend weight to the festival by forcefully and successfully channeling the transgressive tendencies that too often tend to lie dormant somewhere under the reflective surface of contemporary rock music.
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