Pilrig St Paul's Church, Edinburgh
Saturday May 19th 2012
Anyone au fait with Sacred Music, BBC 4's two-series trawl through the history of choral worship, from plainchant to polyphony and beyond, will be as versed in the integral relationship between music and church architecture as they are with presenter Simon Russell-Beale's penchant for gazing earnestly into the middle distance while sporting regulation arts mandarin baggy black suits or else peering longingly at Harry Christophers' media-friendly choir, The Sixteen, perform especially for him.
Leith Walk on an all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup Final Day a couple of hours after Hibs are unceremoniously gubbed by Hearts might seem a somewhat apposite locale for such ruminations to be put into spectacular practice. As a curtain-raiser to what is Quebecois electronicist Tim Hecker's second ever Scots date, however, witnessing such radically different brethrens gathered on either side of the street looks like a form of cultural ecumenicism in action that later makes itself manifest at the gig itself.
Promoted by the bespoke from a stolen sea operation, the show takes place not in the civic confines of the venue hall a la previous incumbants Retreat!, LeithLate etc, but in the dramatic confines of the church itself, pews, organ, pulpit and all. There's the extra-added bonus of the event being amplified via the sort of all-encompassing Surround Sound the phrase 'sonic cathedral' was invented for.
Opener Matthew Collings is becoming an increasingly prolific figure on Edinburgh's avant-music scene, and tonight there's an urgency to his laptop and guitar-led soundscapes. This may have something to do with the delay to door and show times caused by Hecker's protracted and understandably precise soundcheck, but, forced to fine-tune his own noodlings on the hoof and in plain sight of a near capacity crowd, Collings' hit the ground running approach lends weight, purpose and propulsion to his still controlled display of mood-led widescreen sound-shards
At times the electronic stabs gallop along like a po-mo spaghetti western, at others, synthesised zithers and horns come on like a deconstructed noir as played by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Which, whether a conscious nod to Hecker's fellow countrymen and women (or indeed the Icelandic church where Hecker recorded his sublime 'Ravedeath, 1972' album) or not, isn't bad for a one-man band.
Drew Wright's version of a one-man man is similarly ever-changing, with his ongoing Wounded Knee project a discursive melting-pot exploration of multi-cultural arcana. After a period reinventing Scots folk ballads with a two-string electric guitar that makes them sound like the Velvet Underground, tonight Wright gets back to his own roots with an extended voice-loop piece that ends up very much on home turf.
Remaining in light if not always in view, Wright layers his already rich voice into a wordless chorale that starts off like the Hopi incantation from Philip Glass' soundtrack to Koyaanisqatsi before mutating into a series of harmonies that take full advantage of St Pauls' high-ceilinged acoustics. Disappearing occasionally to presumably adjust the pedals facilitating such a display, Wright bobs back up into view to shuffle and shimmy out a little tribal jig. Eventually, the chant that is formed, - “Glory-Glory-To-The-Hibees” - both low-key and euphoric - “While-The-Chief / Sunshine-On-Leith” - is both a purging and an all too necessary affirmation of faith.
Where Collings and Wright prefer to keep the lights on, Hecker's people plunge the room into darkness prior to his set, with candle-light the only illumination once a seemingly unending procession of pilgrims finally make their way from the presumably ark-like propensities of the bar. Bar. As the headlight beams of passing buses and ambulances pass across the stained-glass windows from the main road outside, the sepulchral swathes that burst forth from Hecker's kit build from ice-cracked chimes to a swirling fuzz-based pulse seemingly bathed in celestial permafrost conjured up by some long-buried ghosts in the machine.
Whether the ritual is one of possession or exorcism, as the volume increases, it sounds increasingly like choirs of lysergically enhanced angels storming the gates of Heaven. As the final piano patterns peter out, the raging calm that follows casts light at every level onto one of the most beautifully immersive events of the year thus far.
The List, May 2012