(The following article was originally published in July 2013 by Immersed Audio, an online music site that has since been closed.)
Now it’s time for some live art. Immense, emotional, frightening, beautiful, dark, and very very real. Let’s make something clear from the outset: the experience that Massive Attack and Adam Curtis have cooked up for the Manchester International Festival 2013 (MIF) is like nothing you will have experienced before….and that’s kind of the point.
For those not already aware, the MIF is a wonderful thing. Hosting and commissioning original works specifically created for the festival. Nothing demonstrates the enormity and importance of this inspiring event more than the deliverance of Massive Attack v Adam Curtis on its eight-night run this year. Unquestionably, an event to remember.
In 2011, when Robert Del Naja attended the premiere of Damon Albarn’s ‘Doctor Dee’ at the festival, Alex Poots, the MIF director, asked him if he would like to get involved and produce his own show. Del Naja said that he would love to do something with filmmaker Adam Curtis, having recently been blown away by his documentary; ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’. Poots didn’t mess about, and sent a text immediately to Curtis, and the collaborative process began.
What links the two artists, according to Curtis on his recent blog, is ‘not just cutting stuff up – but an interest in trying to change the way people see power and politics in the modern world. To say to them – have you thought of looking at it like this?’
The setting for this unique and groundbreaking project is an integral part of the experience. The ‘ghost station’ that is Mayfield Depot is an extraordinary building. This disused railway station, then postal depot, originally built in 1910, provides a suitably eerie and bleak atmosphere with bats and pigeons in the rafters adding to the dystopian ambience.
Massive Attack and Adam Curtis are no strangers to sheer brilliance, or pioneering art. This is both established and fearlessly demonstrated this evening. Music and film are intertwined, creating what Curtis is calling a ‘gilm’, a cross between a gig and a film.
Curtis gave further insight in his BBC blog prior to the festival -
‘The show will be a bit of a total experience. You will be surrounded by all kinds of images and sounds. But it is also about ideas. It tells a story about how a new system of power has risen up in the modern world to manage and control us. A rigid and static system that has found in those images and sounds a way of enveloping us in a thin two-dimensional version of the past.
A fake, but enchanting world which we all live in today – but which has also become a new kind of prison that prevents us moving forward into the future.’
On arrival, the audience is ‘penned in’ to an area of the building where tension builds before being released through to the main arena. Once in and the show starts, all the senses are awoken, and it comes at you from every direction. The audience is almost entirely surrounded by eleven giant screens on to which the film is projected.
The Massive Attack live band are positioned centrally, partially concealed behind the screens, so they appear like projections, colour silhouettes, holograms or simply part of the film. It is easy to see why Del Naja has been describing the event as ‘a collective hallucination’.
Del Naja is joined by Sean Cook (bass and vocals), Damon Reece (drums and percussion) and guitarist Angelo Bruschini throughout the performance. Long-term vocal collaborators Elizabeth Fraser and Horace Andy also appear, along with Grant Marshall, Del Naja’s other half, who also makes an essential appearance for classic Massive Attack track ‘Karmacoma’ (re-worked to arresting effect) during the set.
Curtis’s film ‘Everything is Going According to Plan’ characteristically leads and guides us through a complex web of historical events, true stories, incidents, injustices and modern anxieties. He uses extraordinary, sometimes disturbing, footage and largely unknown information about a range of people and events. It is powerful stuff.
So complex is the web that it would be impossible to recount it all, but some choice cuts include, for one, an account of Donald Trump’s relationships with Jess Marcum, a mathematical and gambling genius, known as ‘The Automat’, and a Japanese gambler, who cost Trump millions of dollars when he was hacked to death in his hotel room before paying his debt to Trump’s casino.
Also, the unbelievably tragic story of revolutionary 1960s pop artist Pauline Boty and the deaths of both her husband Clive Goodwin and her daughter Boty Goodwin, and the ideals they believed in. This makes for one of the most emotionally moving stories that is woven throughout the film and delivers a lasting heavyweight impact.
The music adds depth and emotion to the film and its narrative. So much more than just a score, it is uniquely engaging and sometimes quite overwhelming. The audience are mesmerised and responsive, transfixed on what surrounds them. There is no chitter chatter, this is a crowd completely absorbed.
Horace Andy sings on ‘Baby It’s You’ and ‘Sugar Sugar’, songs that epitomise the America that Pauline Boty believed in, and the America in which both her widowed husband and then her daughter died in disturbing circumstances. The performances of these songs are accompanied by 1960s-style stage dancers, who are also silhouetted and appear embedded in the film.
Siberian punk also features, as the film focuses on ‘father of Russian punk’, artist, poet and musician Yegor Letov, who was sectioned by the Soviet government for three months during the 1980s. Songs by Letov’s band GrOb and also Yanka Dyagileva are brought to life by Del Naja, Cook and Fraser singing, as written, in the Russian language. Fraser’s voice, as always, adding a beautifully haunting and ethereal element. She also sings Burt Bacharach’s ‘The Look of Love’ and Barbara Streisand’s ‘Colouring Book’ elsewhere in the set.
Suicide’s ‘Dream Baby Dream’, vocalised by Cook, is the soundtrack to a breathtakingly apocalyptic montage of explosions with reference to the twin towers. Footage of Afghanistan, the search for Osama Bin Laden, and made-up ‘Bond baddie’ insinuations of underground hideouts that were televised on American news is also astounding.
United Visual Artists, who have been working with Massive Attack for a decade now, also played a key role in bringing to life the ideas and visions of Del Naja and Curtis.
The audience finds itself engaged in a mental and emotional game of rough and tumble with this performance, beauty and darkness both grappling it out. Mostly darkness winning, sadly, but beauty too has its moments. The unsung heroes of Chernobyl will restore your faith in human nature, and Curtis ends on a positive note, reminding us that, despite being unknowingly trapped in this ‘fake, enchanting world which has become a kind of prison’, we do have the power to change things.
When it is over, the message ‘Now find your own way home’ appears on the screen, and members of the crowd, on exiting the building, make their way out in darkness, guided only by search lights. With guard dogs barking, this Orwellian installation is complete.