Review: Pitch Black – The Attic

Charlie Frame gives us the lowdown on the NZ dub duo’s recent gig in Bristol

PITCH BLACK | 5TH SPEAR
The Attic – 24 March 2017

Words: Charlie Frame
Images: Spudd Connor

There is a spiritual resonance connecting the twin poles of Christchurch in New Zealand and Bristol in the west of the UK. Follow the invisible line linking these two cities down through the Earth’s surface, and at the core you will hear the unmistakable rumble of the dub soundsystem. Despite existing on opposite sides of the planet, there is nevertheless a unique affinity between Bristol and Christchurch, each having adopted the mode of dub as its unofficial musical language.

Take a walk down Bristol’s Gloucester Road on a summer’s day and you’ll be guaranteed to hear the unmistakeable sounds of dub and reggae emanating from cars, bars and cafes; ganja smog and bassweight riding heavy on the breeze. Bristol’s affinity with dub music is no accident. The influence of large-scale Jamaican populations immigrating to Bristol in the mid-20th century, and the subsequent cauterisation of areas like St Pauls and Eastville over the following decades, meant that dub culture and music would come to permeate the very fabric of the city, soaking the walls in much the same way as the graffiti that covers them.

Likewise, New Zealand, an enclave country cut off by miles of surrounding ocean, has always had to do things differently, and on its own terms. NZ musicians are less interested in what’s trending in the rest of the world and more concerned with their own business, making for some interesting musical sounds that only sometimes make it across the shore.

This is a country where you get off the plane and get greeted by the ‘BBQ reggae’ strains of Fat Freddy’s Drop playing over the airport Tannoy. Dub isn’t just big in New Zealand, it’s part of the furniture. It’s everywhere. When Bob Marley came to play at Western Springs Stadium in 1979, his message of hope and liberation had a massive impact on the country, especially on the indigenous Māori population.

This is a country where you get off the plane and get greeted by the ‘BBQ reggae’ strains of Fat Freddy’s Drop playing over the airport Tannoy

Which leads us to this evening’s show. Today’s headliners, Pitch Black, could be classed as part of NZ dub royalty. It has, however, been some time since we last heard from this electronic duo, who after an extended hiatus have only recently released their first studio album in ten years.

But first let’s talk about tonight’s opening act, 5th Spear. No stranger to the CHK One stage, Cardiff’s Philip Blake mixes electronic sounds with live virtuosic drumming. The performance is enhanced by on-stage video artist, Matthew Creed, who joins Blake in creating a captivating live performance.

One of the key complaints about live electronica is that it can often end up being little more than a bunch of people watching another bunch of people watching a couple of laptops. Not only is Blake’s performance fun to watch as he expertly juggles drumming and electronic duties, but the augmentation of live projections adds something just a little bit special.

A 16-bit Starfox spaceship docks in to land; a tribe of Lemmings dance the can-can; a kaleidoscopic display of satellite dishes merge in and out of each other in time with the music. 5th Spear as a musical project seems firmly entrenched in the more melodic and breaks-influenced end of classic electronic labels like Warp and Ninja Tune. Think: Plaid, Flying Lotus, Bonobo and Prefuse73. It’s lush, luxuriant and unshackled by the usual limitations of electronic music thanks to the live drumming.

Finally Pitch Black take to the stage. They may now be middle-aged veterans living on opposite sides of the world from each other, but tonight sees Michael Hodgson and Paddy Free grinning like Cheshire Cats and displaying all the energy and enthusiasm of a couple of school kids. Pitch Black’s style of psychedelic, tech-influenced dub manages to somehow be deep, heavy and airy. There’s an opulence to the production worthy of the latest pop hits. Indeed, the employment of pop-style vocal samples work as the perfect foil for the swirling atmospheres that ride over marching dub grooves in great washes.

A 16-bit Starfox spaceship docks in to land; a tribe of Lemmings dance the can-can; a kaleidoscopic display of satellite dishes merge in and out of each other in time with the music

Those expecting to be challenged, or for the dub/electronica landscape to be moved in any significant way by tonight’s performance will be missing the point. Tonight is less about experimentalism than about feeling, emotion and having a great time. As the dubby swirls shift-up several gears throughout tonight’s set, we soon find ourselves grooving away to another Bristolian mainstay as the duo end on a smashing drum’n’bass tip.

As far as the global zeitgeist is concerned, dub music cyclically goes in and out of fashion every couple of years. Either it’s the absolute flavour of the month (cf: dubstep in the 2000s) or it’s deemed desperately uncool and to be avoided at all costs by the majority of tastemakers. It’s been a little while since a clear, dub-based genre made an impact on the world, but in Bristol and New Zealand it is alive and well, and it’s only a matter of time before the twin cities bounce back to show the world once more that dub will always reign supreme.