Painted Girl - Familiar Trees of the North West
Familiar Trees of the North West
May 22, 2022
As the London Eye disappears from view, its gaze cut off by trees and greenery, a path stretches through to a natural crevice in direct contrast with the surroundings of the UK capital. The venue is IKLECTIK, a creative space dedicated to experimental art forms. As we step into what looks like an antiquated primary school hall, combusting flesh and solar incineration spread across the back wall of the performance space. Individuals find their way to seats or socialise outside, eagerly awaiting the first instalment of a two-part event from Manchester-based label Pure Life.
Starting in 2018, label creator Andy wanted to provide an infrastructure in which a community of global creators could thrive in a co-operative capacity. The label have gone from strength to strength in that relatively short time. With hard-hitting releases from the likes of THUGWIDOW, Sangam and BAKGROUND, a selection of beautiful physical releases spanning from vinyl to VHS, a frequent position on Bristol’s NOODS radio and even a video game. Its palette when it comes to both releases and its general aesthetic, is one of dark gloom, fractured only slightly by bright neon colours, like the paler-than-blood-pink of its logo.
More often than not, Pure Life’s releases fall under what is described as dreampunk. Inspired by cinematic soundtracks and the general hypnotic thrum of metropolitan life; it is a genre that has been burgeoning steadily over the last few years, leaning into those increasingly enticing artistic muses of dystopia and detachment. There is a definite influence from the darker sides of UK garage and jungle weaved into it, owing to artists like Burial and Future Sound of London, however the genre does not have a homeland. Born within the annals of the internet, its listeners and creators are spread across the world. If there was a label trustworthy enough to bring it into the realms of the real world, Pure Life would certainly be a great choice, owing to the consistency of its output and the way in which it seems to galvanise an eager fanbase in its home country.
The label is no stranger to live performance when it is through the lens of the digital. Acid Cinema was a twitch-streamed event that saw old VHS tapes warped and distorted, rescored by Pure Life releases. The label also took part in Livewire and even hosted its own online music event in 2020 and 2021 respectively. But apart from a singular event in 2019 at a bar in Manchester, the plains of IRL live music had yet to be traversed. Though Covid-19 can go some way to explaining the lack of events in the last year or so, it is in a live setting that genres like dreampunk can sometimes lack a footing. Being that the sound is easily conflated with isolation and loneliness, live events can seem secondary or even surplus to the overall objective. However, in early 2020, those at Pure Life began hatching plans for an event in London; an event that would find the label and the movement take a step firmly into a real life cityscape with not one, but two nights of music in a pair of contrasting venues.
The first night of the two-part event comprises the ambient side to Pure Life's ‘Ambient Punk’. ‘It was about curating two separate moods, both of which are part of the label’s personality,’ Andy tells me. The setting and mood of the venue as acts begin to perform reflects the nuances behind the choice, a thoughtful calmness flowing through IKLECTIK as The Microgram begins. The set sends sharp synth piercing through dreamy waves of pad sound, as the artist sits curled in a corner akin to a writer slowly working word by word. The background visuals show sheets of mist slowly crumpling under digital manipulation. The semi-seated congregation settle in as the heady and challenging musical experiences begin. Halcyonic arpeggiations and ghostly female vocals begin to emerge, as a morphing greyscale heaven shatters alongside a kick drum, blurring out of focus at times. It is difficult not to imagine what lies outside of the venue as the music plays, The Microgram’s performance seems to soundtrack those monolithic high rise buildings that stand tall in all directions.
Ruined Spirit are next, a duo comprised of label owner Andrew Hillock and Jess Whelligan. Lights loom infrequently, illuminating the pair like insurgent torches shining into a dark, forgotten locale. Jess pulls aching notes from a cello, giving the soundscape a particularly febrile, organic energy. Andy paints a whirring, white noise with the use of a guitar and all manner of pedals. Everything the instrumentalists do seems to push an uneasy aura through the performance. Behind them, twin lights dance beyond a trickling window pane and the audience looks on like commuters stuck on a train watching some dooming celestial event occur in the sky. Jess’s cello performance is dynamic, as the instrument's sound shifts from dissonant musique concrète to a guiding light of melody through the gloomy proceedings.
Raw, droning synth tones slowly take form at the beginning of Crosspolar’s set, before an emotive bass melody triumphantly steps through the centre of the venue. There’s a significant sense of passion in the instrumentation, a feeling of positivity winning over chaos. Swirls of light, azure and red, move in a sequence on the screen behind. Once again, one’s mind pulls toward that cityscape just outside. How the tones so perfectly come to rest on top of visions of the cold and decadent London skyline. These sorts of thoughts are perfectly acceptable when listening to this type of music on one’s own, but sitting with a community of others experiencing produces a feeling as welcome as it is peculiar.
Twin Galaxxies contrasts the emotive nature of the performance before with fractal arpeggiations and euphoric synths that soar above the sludge and Escher-like visuals of figures marching in unison. The artist’s knack for constructing what sound like unnavigable soundscapes is exemplified perfectly, supported by cryptic visuals including fragments of Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain and all manner of religious figures and deities. To see Twin Galaxxies trim and tame the textures that they bring into being, calmly turning dials and nudging levels as they push this torrent of sound toward the listener, is very special. Sea gods mingle with religious idols, the artist sending crystalline synth notes charging out over the rising waves of sound, desperately trying to anchor melody firmly within the madness. There is a sense of rhythm from start to finish, but it is not that classic hunkering aspect of percussion. Instead, it is the incredibly rapid and somewhat intangible movement of synth arpeggiation.
The night closes with Remember, whose set finds breathy pads floating back toward a more eerie plane. Savouring the silence more than the act previously, the artist calls geysers of fragile synth through walls of ambience. It is not long before percussion makes itself known in the most explicit way of the night, the set even receding back to skeletal beats at certain moments. Once again, Remember’s synths move like iridescent beams, snaking their way through the side streets and alleyways of Central London. Pure Life’s output is so indebted to those notions of crowded city vistas, of cold indifferent concrete. And as the artists work hard to bring their interpretations of the dreampunk sound into the real world, unbreakable links are made between that idea of cold metropolis and the locale of the UK’s capital.
20 hours later and around five miles north east of IKLEKTIC, an audience peppered with recognisable faces from the night before enter a narrow bar bathed in characteristically pink light, before descending to a basement. The Glove That Fits, a venue on the corner of Morning Lane in Hackney, hosts the second installation of the event, that is to embody the punk side of the labels output. To Andy, punk represents DIY, freedom of expression, chaos and experimentalism. He tells of how the label purposely instilled a ‘fluidity’ within the setup of the second event that contrasted the ordered experience of the first.
Ex Aquis certainly brings a rebellious energy to the opening set, throwing themselves at the decks behind a booth glittering with all manner of label and artist’s stickers. The music begins to deviate from that of the night before from the very start, with heavy, galvanising beats fringed with swirling ambience. The artist frequently breaks free of the booth to dance energetically amidst the growing crowd. The crowd's reluctance quickly flees, as audience members begin to move along with Ex Aquis to the heavy rhythms.
CRYOSAUNA takes to the booth next, moving toward a decidedly more garage sound. It gets the audience moving, but the artist still hugs tightly to that dark, gloomy sound that so characterises Pure Life’s output and the genre of dreampunk in general. CRYOSAUNA galvanises the burgeoning crowd with popular tracks from Floating Points and Jacques Greene, before pulling toward a heavier dubstep sound. It is a wonder that for many of these artists (CRYOSAUNA included), this is one of the only times they have performed live, a fact hard to believe as the Edinburgh-based producer pushes beats through the speakers with such passion and ferocity that his glasses fly off at one particular moment.
A short intermission to allow for a soundcheck and the rattled audience are led upstairs to bar once again. Conversations buzz as the energy shifts from that of the night before. This change was purposeful, as Andy explains: ‘I was clear from the start that I wasn't interested in doing any events unless they were held in the right environment, and Alex (Twin Galaxxies) did an incredible job in sourcing venues’. IKLECTIK was a beautiful seated space, with an impressive sound system and a layout that positioned the visual accompaniment to the music front and centre. In contrast, The Glove That Fits provides a no-nonsense, bass-heavy speaker system and a slightly claustrophobic space in which the visuals are dashed against the wall and projected onto the audience. Just as people begin to settle, they are ushered back downstairs for one of the most unique acts of the night.
Manchester’s own CURRENTMOODGIRL is on next, her set making a beeline toward a classic live format in the opposite end of the space than that of the DJ booth. From a corner, the incredible artist lashes out at the audience in one moment, to then cosy up to them the next. This performative temperament is taken straight from the artist’s own music, an intricate and powerful interweaving of vulnerability and impassioned expression that is often conveyed as excitement and anger. This is evident on her most recent release, the 4-track gem entitled Side Split. CURRENTMOODGIRL owns the space as she performs, embracing the marked difference between her performance and that of a classic DJ set, firing songs out with an organic passion that is undeniable.
As we enter into the early hours of Sunday the 24th, Elegance of the Damned takes the final set. Clad in a sharp metallic mask, the artist concocts an incredible mix that reflects the gloom growing outside of the Hackney venue. The set allows audience members to dance, while also reinstating the emotive darkness of dreampunk. The recognisable cadences of D Double E are swallowed up in ambient euphoria, and the artist exercises his dynamic style by including tracks by the likes of Code Orange. The closing set is a perfect end to the night and the two-part event, bringing the crowd back down with calculated tracks that favour melodic expression over dance floor bangers.
Online events have undergone a proliferation in the past two years, spurred by the global pandemic and sustained by a number of internet-based genres. Dreampunk is certainly one of these genres and as such, has enjoyed a multitude of successful forays online. But even Andy, so heavily involved in one of the most impressive labels to wear the dreampunk label, understands the importance of live IRL events: ‘Online events have been a great stop-gap during the pandemic and we’ve had fun experimenting, but it's simply no replacement for the connection and shared experience of seeing an artist perform live in a curated environment.’ This awareness was clearly displayed in the execution of Ambient Punk. Dividing the nights based on genre allowed the organisers to cater to each’s strengths with the choice of venue and acts as well. Staunch differences between the nights notwithstanding, they both truly represent the label’s sound; the ‘yin and yang’ of Pure Life as Andy puts it. In placing this beautiful duality in two separate locations within the subfusc cityscape of London, there is a sense of adventure and even immersion as fans venture onto the city’s transport systems toward a creative space hidden near the bustling energy of Waterloo and a venue catering to the weird and wonderful in the less dense part of Hackney.
More than a few times, one could overhear the wholesome exclamation of an audience member at how fantastic it was to witness such a spectacle, to meet people they had only ever spoken to online. Their eagerness and excitement was enough to intimate that such an event had been eagerly-anticipated, and in the curation of two equally entertaining but engagingly disparate events, Pure Life truly delivered.