“Do you guys want more? Are you serious? We’re tired…” says A Winged Victory For The Sullen’s Adam Wiltzie at the close of their main set, and it’s fair enough. They have just played for an hour without a break or pause or word to the audience, the six musicians presenting a flawless performance of orchestral drone to the fittingly grand environs of St. George’s Church.
And to be honest we’re pretty tired too. Not of the band – god no – but this music is demanding stuff, playing with textures and motifs and cycles of sound and expecting us to keep up, to recognise that what we’re hearing isn’t merely a collection of songs but a continual piece that’s building and echoing and referencing itself. Movements flow and meld and wrap into one another, small changes in pitch or pace rendered seismic even as the stage remains nearly static, the only motion the dance of the players and the orange flicker of the lights burning out behind them. No-one dares to cough for fear of breaking the mood: adjusting my chair slightly becomes a plan with multiple stages, each militarily precise and fraught with peril.
It’s beautiful stuff, from the cycling loops of the minimal beginnings to the frantic bowing of the various crescendos, worn and mournful but never miserable, if at times overwhelming: a few minutes in a man in front slumps forward, clutching his head in his hands with his eyes screwed tight and stays that way for the remainder. At one point a woman nearby makes a strange noise and it takes a moment to realise that she’s breathing – that we’d all been holding our breath so long that we were doing ourselves harm.
Curses, then, for the bar – and that’s not a sentence we often find cause to say. Sure, it’s makeshift – we’re in a church – but it’s a shame the people working it don’t twig that a continual soundscape of ring-pulling Carslbergs and the crushing of cans into a bin liner is probably not the accompaniment that A Winged Victory… would wish for, less still the Scrooge McDuck tumbling of coins into whatever they’re using for a register – a jarringly prosaic intrusion into the sublime.
But hey, it’s not enough to break us, not enough to break the hold that this music exerts. It’s amazing how powerful a set that’s mostly made of silence can be, a sound marked out less by what gets added than by what’s being taken away: the cello receding into a garble of broken voices, the echoes of sub-bass fading slowly like a disintegration loop. Near the end each musician drops out one by one until finally they’re all sitting motionless, a near-static drone washing over as the shadows play around them, the lights pulsing and receding, pulsing and receding like a candle in its final throes.
And then they stand and bow and we clap and cheer, finding our voices and our limbs anew, and Adam Wiltzie asks us if we want more. And we say yes even though few of us can really mean it, because what else can they possibly do beyond what they’ve already done, beyond the spell they’ve so carefully woven and from which we’ve all been cruelly ripped.