Few artists are truly legendary. Whilst Damo Suzuki is a name more-or-less unknown to the general public, amongst more dedicated listeners his early ’70s stint with Can provided three genuinely revered albums. The man himself has attained something of a mythic status amongst those who buy into such things, if only for the infrequency of his live shows and his disappearance from music after his departure from Can – reputedly to become a Jehovah’s Witness.
Quite how much of the myth that has built up around the man is true remains very much in question but no one would blame Suzuki if he were to capitalise on the ever-growing fascination around his ’70s work and roll out a greatest hits tour of sorts, revisiting fan favourites from his halcyon days in Can. Suzuki’s refusal to do just that and rest on his laurels is key to the thrilling success of his contemporary live show, however. Suzuki last appeared in Brighton only 7 months ago – a short enough time-frame that no one would have expected him to come up with a whole new set. However, anyone who attended his last Brighton gig would know better than to expect a similar experience this second time. Ditching anything as traditional as a set-list, Suzuki and his band – which changes from night to night to incorporate local musicians – instead explore the far reaches of sound in a wild hour-or-so journey through murky psychedelics and juddering, industrial drones.
It’s unclear exactly how much of the uninterrupted 55 minute performance at Brighton’s intimate West Hill Hall is improvised, but Suzuki and his band – this time local noiseniks Zofff – create such a dynamic, undulating soundscape that the whole thing feels created in the spur-of-the-moment. It is, by turns, utterly exhilarating and trance-inducingly dreamy. Even by the standards of the avant-garde, it’s a remarkably intuitive and ever-changing piece of music. Anyone crafting 55 minutes of continuous auditory exploration risks boring their audience but Suzuki glides around this potential pitfall just as gracefully tonight as he did at his last show in Brighton. Viciously dynamic, Zofff guide the music through sonic troughs and peaks, an unwieldy stack of analogue synth equipment and a sense of staggering ingenuity their most startling assets. Although Suzuki gets top billing tonight – rightly so given his monumental impact of experimental and alternative music – Zofff deserve to be commended for an impressive sense of harmony with the ever-changing directions in which Suzuki led the performance.
At times immersing the audience in a subtle, snaking reverie of airy guitar and lightly caressed cymbals and at others assaulting the airwaves with dense, repetitive grooves and a Hawkwindian assault and battery, it was an hour of music never lacking for variety. As profoundly vital as Zofff’s sonic wizardry was to the evening, Suzuki’s role cannot be overstated. During his time in Can, he gained a reputation for wildly passionate and utterly unpredictable vocal performances that would see him go from crooning in little more than a whisper, to vitriolically screaming joyous nonsense down the microphone – often within the space of one song. Whilst Suzuki, now 67, isn’t quite as uncontrollable a presence as he once was he’s lost none of the visionary spark that made his unique brand of frontmanship so appealing, especially during the throes of improvisation.
Although a mostly stationary figure tonight, his vocal work is anything but still; as wildly dynamic as the music, Suzuki’s presence is one of enduring originality. Unmistakably the same man that sang ‘Halleluhwah’, Suzuki nonetheless explores wholly new sonic territories tonight. From half-heard murmuring to dramatic grunts and howls, Suzuki’s style as a vocalist is one that can be hard to do justice to on paper. Experiencing it first hand he’s a genuinely captivating frontman; there’s no need for dramatic showmanship tonight, the journey that Suzuki takes the audience on is such an effortlessly compelling and essential one that traditional notions of what a lead singer should be or do fall down entirely.
It’s deeply admirable that Suzuki has chosen to continue the Can spirit of exploration by relentlessly experimenting even now. The temptation must be there, surely, to simply revel in past achievements and take the easy route of playing songs he wrote song forty five years ago instead of the vivid musical experiments he continues to helm. It’s not that the inclusion of some material from his old band would be unwelcome – quite the opposite, in fact – but hearing Suzuki create new, wildly different music every night is so deeply rewarding that any desire to hear personal favourites from an album he recorded the best part of half a century ago fade within minutes.
Can may be paramount to popstars amongst those with an ear for the avant-garde, but it’s in freeform experimentation that Damo Suzuki currently finds more merit. Whilst some may go to a show of his expecting familiar material, the fresh new sound he explores today is so deeply enticing that anyone left initially cold is soon won over. When Suzuki and Zofff leave the stage after 55 minutes it is to raised hands, whoops of adulation and wild clapping. It’s a warm reception and one very much deserved.