Astral Industries w/ CHI Live at Café OTO

I recently made a long overdue trip back to Cafe Oto – London’s premiere contemporary/avant garde music venue. Their booking policy can often seem a bit serious, but really at the core of what they do is provide a platform to showcase experimental sonic excursions (of every kind). Audiences may typically include connoisseurs of the electro-acoustic spheres, but ultimately what all audience members have in common is a curiosity for music and, hopefully, an open mind.

Curating the night was London based electronic-ambient label Astral Industries. Since 2014 they’ve put out a conservative three releases, but once acquainted with the label and their ethos, it becomes immediately clear that this is a game of quality over quantity (and that goes for the exceptional artwork and high quality pressings too). After two exceptional LP releases from dub techno stalwart Deepchord and Kompakt co-founder Wolfgang Voigt (already fetching some out-of-control prices on Discogs), next up on Astral Industries is an all-but forgotten four-piece band from Holland going by the name of CHI. The story behind this release is pretty amazing, which goes as follows:

In the summer of 1984, a group of sonic visionaries known as ‘CHI’ started to conduct sound experiments in a barn house in Moordrecht, Holland. The recordings from those mystical sessions were self-released on cassette that year and put out on a limited CD run in 2000. They were subsequently lost in the sands of time and never saw a vinyl release…

… and so the story goes that a certain Deepchord unearthed the original cassette at the bottom of a bargain-bin at a record store in Detroit(!) a few years ago. Electromagnetism drew him to the old tape and after one play he knew how special it was. He sent it to us and, totally blown away, we set out in immediate search for them. After a while, the stars aligned and we found them – not only were they some of the most talented musicians we’d come across but they were still making some amazing stuff both individually and collectively, 32 years on.”

To celebrate the discovery of this lost cassette tape and the subsequent release of the music, Astral Industries invited CHI over to London for a very special and highly intimate gig, one February evening in Dalston.

CHI-AI

Opening and closing the gig was the esteemed Mixmaster Morris. Dressed in a blue silk kimono, Morris could have easily adopted the title ‘Zen-master of Groove’, with his grown-out beard, bald head, and wickedly funky track selections. I recognised tracks from Yosi Horikawa’s ‘Vapor and Quantic, as well as tasteful selections of jazz, downtempo and ambient.

Spread out across the performance area were a couple of tables scattered with some hardware gear, a laptop, a selection of woodwind instruments, an acoustic bass guitar, a grand piano, and an array of drums. The ambience of the room was dark and cosy, lit with spare few lamps and candles, and the soft orange glow of streetlamps filtering in from the front window. There was a palpable anticipation and curiosity in the air as people took to their seats and those standing crowded round the periphery. The stage was set, for an evening of departure.

CHI began their performance with quiet, pastoral soundscapes (with an early appearance of Twisted Camel’). Front-man Hanyo van Oosterom made soft low rumbles on the piano, while Koos Derwort’s flutter-tonguing on the bamboo flute could have mimicked the distant cry of exotic birds. Near-atonal improvisations wandered above textures of water, sea, and rain (a great arrangement of their track Mahat), with Michel Banabila’s subtle and capable management of sound material via the laptop and hardware.

The sound was immersively psychedelic, yet at the same time it was imbued with a distinctly human quality – something that was relatable yet ethereal. Oosterom’s sparse scat singing somehow worked amazingly, his seemingly whimsical interjections perfectly placed, before they faded back into the deep forest backdrop. Through certain passages he would add slow, simple basslines and riffs on the guitar that further added shades of jazz and blues to the music. Everything was quietly clear, yet cooly understated, subtle yet vitally present. Sat to the side of the performers was Thomas Bouve working the visuals on the projector, who played animated versions of the album art and visual tapestries of fields and more abstract overlays.

“Let’s declare time… officially ended” proclaimed Oosterom, over a bed of glistening textures; “- Because we work on the other side of time”… The band had hit a low-slung groove, threaded so loosely it was milimetres from dissipating, yet it held together through the musicians’ phenomenal sense of rhythm – it was aspects such as these that really showed the real level of their musicianship. Snippets of folk motifs from the piano littered the space, as Banabila would embellish with percussion shakers and a güiro, Derwort occasionally changing between flute and clarinet. At one point there was some unintentional feedback from the PA, but even this seemed to fit in, like some external transmission from outer space.

‘Before The Mountain’ emerged to the fore, and was admittedly one of the most sublime passages of music I’ve ever heard. Sombre pads and synths came in like soft rays of light, its undulating movements pondering upon the very edges of reality. A slow, chugging beat followed and Oosterom moved to the drums, as things went more percussive.

The performance ended with a guest appearance from spoken word artist Anthony Joseph. After settling into the light ambient sway of the music, he began his poetic incantations. The monotony of his voice was penetrating, as musical motifs danced around his words. After finishing one piece, he announced a tribute to Hyperdub’s Spaceape, a long-time and sadly now deceased friend of his. There was a conviction and directness in his delivery that became ever more potent alongside the liturgical durg of the band, with Joseph preaching his message with a near-evangelical power.

The band’s auditory journey had come to a close, as the music faded into nothingness. We returned back to reality, back to Dalston, Cafe OTO, and the crowd gave an ecstatic reception to what was truly a moving performance.