Rixon pushes the sonic envelope

Full disclosure: Thor Rixon and I go way back.

We have made music together, we have co-produced video work, thrown events as a team and I was once even his label boss. Despite that proximity to the artist, I urge you to continue reading this, simply because — and I hate to admit it — I have never been fully able to take his music seriously.

Throughout all his musical projects, Thor has had one basic goal in mind: to make something fresh by stubbornly pushing any boundary he can find. What resulted has been a mixed bag of sometimes extremely challenging listening and often wildly magnetic invention.

His early musical training in electronica came at the height of the dubstep craze, preceded by a ska band and followed by our intentionally bizarre live electronica band.

Once Thor began pursuing his solo work, he was an obsessive collaborator, providing no parameters for what was acceptable to contribute, but always pushing outwards in every possible direction, to consistently unpredictable success. His initial solo records were eclectic and eccentric at best but, at worst, incoherent and far too wacky for most.

The music itself was always discordant, always challenging to listen to in full, but constantly showing the development of a musician obsessed with exploration. You could never quite tell whether the often comedic subject matter and delivery had Thor in on the joke or not.

To his credit, that pervasive discord often built to all-too-rare moments of dreamy, groove-drenched brilliance, and that promise of brilliance is what kept people’s attention.

Thor has spent the past two-and-a-half years figuring out where to go next. Two extended trips to Berlin, constant absorbing and collaborating, and some very private and obsessive work through his new influences finally resulted in a release on Roastin’ Records — December’s Songs from the Bath. Before that, his breakout single Fuk Bread and its absurdly engaging video, a handful of shows and a few DJ mixes here and there are all the public got to see of the progression in his sound since 2014’s Tea Time Favourites. All that waiting and the resulting album is worlds away from Fuk Bread (or the previous releases) and finds him at his most cohesive, his most serious and his most subdued.

Still, I was sceptical of whether the new sound was just trying to sound intellectual or whether he had found a serious musical expression that really required the album to be so ambient and sonically unstructured. My platonic obligation — and genuine interest — to attend the show at the Bioscope last Saturday night cleared all that up for me.

Thor currently demands that we take his eccentricities as seriously as he expresses them. Before, after and during his performances he is light-hearted and present, but deeply earnest and focused on the task at hand. The venue selections — Centre for the Book in Cape Town and the Bioscope in Jo’burg — indicate a desperation to have people sit and really listen to his two-hour show, delivered in two solid, uninterrupted parts. Even the staging puts almost no spotlight on the performers, as if to render them unimportant in the context of the sounds he wants us to experience.

With every song performed, the live band starts by pushing at the edges of listenability, creating tension with discord and a loose, unquantised arrangement, seemingly making space for something, and then collapsing and flourishing into that created space.

This was true whether it was tracks with Hlasko’s spiritual wailing and crooning and Alice Phoebe Lou’s heart-breaking, improvised and sometimes vocoded lilting and bellowing, or the ones featuring Thor’s miles-improved bold vocal and instrumental delivery.

As a whole, it was cinematic in the textures, arcs and tapestries of pace that played out in front of us below the gloomy underwater projections.

Most in the audience had no doubt questioned how or if he might include his hit Fuk Bread into the incomparable seriousness of the album’s new sound.

His eventual delivery of the song perfectly represents the Thor Rixon of right now. He tore the song open and dragged out the tempo, but retained traces of the original instrumentation as inflections and adornments alongside selections from the original lyrics over a pulsing soul-drenched electronic arrangement. There was no chorus and no mention of “fuk bread”.

The song — and the musician on stage — was a restrained and matured rendition of its former self. Uncommonly self-referential, it was like hearing his entire musical history all at once, every song he has ever played or written, compacted and overlaid, where the things worth leaving behind have been distilled and poured off and the best bits embedded seamlessly into his new sounds.

SFTB, his most cohesive work yet, is a restrained and flattened version of what’s really going on. The performance brought to it the missing life, dynamism and raw, risky musicality that the album’s sonic overintellectualisation squashed. The record seems to be the closure of a chapter of intense study and polish and the performance signals a new era of comfortable musicality from a more refined serial experimenter and a musically graduated voice.

Perhaps, now, we would do best to take him seriously.

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