Hobart—the capital of Australia's southernmost state—is beautiful, until you have to go there. Once you've taken a rickety plane (or a much longer ferry) it's cold and wet and sleepy, the quietest capital city in a country where all we have is quiet capital cities. If you aren't a nature person, you've likely never felt compelled to go to Tasmania to hike, or whatever it is nature people do there. I'm not a nature person, and yet this year I found myself heading down to Hobart during the coldest, darkest period of the year for the second year in a row, all because of Tasmania's gothy two week cultural festival Dark Mofo.
The mythology around Dark Mofo often hurts the festival as much as it helps. There's clout and expectation attached to the program, a quiet understanding that there's an experience – whatever that means – attached to the ticket price. The danger, then, is that if you're not served up 100% experience, you'll go home feeling underwhelmed.
Conscious of the way I navigated Hobart last year—not really understanding what was going on anywhere but generally having a great time everywhere—I tried to just have a chill, expectation-free time this year. Of course, that's easier said than done, and I still walked away from some events at Dark Mofo 2017 cold. Maybe it was just me? Maybe it was the performances? Mostly, upstarts blew me away and legends left me wanting, with the exception of Einsturzende Neubauten.
An early drawcard of the festival, Mogwai's set was long and tired. Their performance to around 2500 people in a mammoth shed hit all the right notes, but mostly it felt like watching a band that was ten years past their prime. Legowelt, a god of fucked up Dutch techno, played a great set at Saturday night's Transliminal event, but to a bizarrely thin crowd. Later in the week , Norwegian metal icons Ulver delivered a weirdly comical set that felt like watching a Muse show, with its lyric-video projections and lasers drawing pentacles in the air.
The festival was ruled, on the whole, by a contingent of young black radicals who made near-everything else on the lineup feel kinda boring and staid in comparison. On the first Friday, A.B. Original—a nascent but rightly lauded Indigenous hip-hop duo—played one of the festival's most raucous (and most crowded) shows. A.B. haven't played many headline shows, but their Hobart performance felt like a Greatest Hits set, delivering a goofy polemic against White Australia. Later that weekend, Gaika, the Londoner making odd, beautiful techno-reggae, played a brutal set at the Odeon supported by Kojey Radical, a more traditional (but no less impressive) grime star.
On the second weekend, LE1F and Juliana Huxtable, vanguards of New York's black, queer club scene, made their marks on the festival like few others. LE1F performed as part of the festival's 'Welcome Stranger' event which was basically a freaky haunted house type thing, except instead of a house it was multiple venues across Hobart, including an RSL and a Masonic Temple and a hotel and a church, among others. And instead of being haunted there was weirdo art and music in each room. LE1F played in a church, which felt like the natural setting for his set of art-freak dance music. Looking resplendent as he emerged in a gold-embroidered robe, he then proceeded to strip down, before getting into the crowd and dancing. It wasn't performance alone (although it absolutely was a performance)—it felt like community, like a vision of glamorous queer NYC nightlife projected into a sleepy Australian town for 45 minutes.
Juliana Huxtable's set at the second weekend's Transliminal avoided a lot of the problems I had found on the first weekend—there were heaps of people there, and instead of being a boring old white techno bro, she was a young, smart, black woman. Her sets are far reaching in terms of genre, which leads to some great Moments, namely the point at the peak of her set when she dropped a Princess Nokia track. Much of the festival to that point had felt like it was about regulation – black metal shows that looked like everyone was wearing uniform, experimental art pieces where you were told to follow specific instructions, and so on—and Huxtable set, so varied and goofy in its selections, felt actively about deregulation of the body and mind. There is immense power and liberation in nightlife, which was easily and keenly unlocked by Huxtable at Transliminal.
Other acts impressed too, mostly the young upstarts or more left-of-field bookings. On Wednesday night's Hymns To The Dead show (the festival's metal showcase) British firebrands Anaal Nathrakh stole the show from Norwegian black metal icon Taake, who struggled to reach the violent, beautiful heights of his support band. Sunday night's Xiu Xiu show, where the band played reinterpretations of music from Twin Peaks, was another display of power and control without pomp; the trio are incredible musicians and legends in their own right, but they chose to race through a short, sharp encore-free set. During a festival beloved for its indulgence, Xiu Xiu's decision to make their set as economical as possible felt smart and necessary.
That thing I mentioned before, about legends disappointing… Einsturzende Neubauten were the exception. Their show on Friday was spooky, but it was also funny and irreverent and clever and touching.
I like Neubauten, but I've never thought of them as the kind of band that inspires devotion. The first thing I learned from seeing them live is that people fucking love Neubauten. I heard multiple audience members refer to them only as 'The Germans', and quite a few people had seen them on their last Australian tour, when they played All Tomorrow's Parties 2013. I didn't quite understand the reverence. Call me a normie, but I don't really hear much in their recordings beyond 'funny industrial German band'. But after watching the set I got why you would obsess over a group like Neubauten.
Their stage setup is like a theatre set. Big and unwieldy and it looks custom made. There are podiums and ladders and nearly everything has a shiny silver finish, like in a factory or an auto shop. You hear 'industrial' and you think trendy asymmetrical black outfits and a spare stage plot; Neubauten deliver industrial in the true sense of the word. The band's music excels when it plays with dynamics. "Let's Do It A Dada" is an early highlight, the song's goofy power expanded onstage. The set is long, but it initially never feels boring or gratuitous; years of experience has turned Neubauten into a group that feels genuinely worthy of a long set. The efficiency and magnetism of Neubauten's set also serves to really illustrate just how dull the sets from Mogwai and Ulver actually were—each played a set shorter than Neubauten, but they felt much much longer.
The many, many homemade contraptions are fascinating to watch. At one point lead singer Blixa Bargeld pulls out an electrical drill attached to a record player, which he then grinds along a cup. Later, drummer Rudi Moser begins playing large metal pipes that are attached to a synth. In one of the most beguiling, and most brilliant, points in the show, custom-instrument player N.U. Unruh climbs a ladder and begins to drop pieces of metal to the floor, an incredibly abstract percussion method. It's interesting—a large part of Neubauten's appeal comes from the fact that rather than try and will 'traditional' instruments to fit the music they've wanted to make, they instead fashion instruments designed to serve a specific purpose or set of purposes. Not many musicians work like that – it make sense, then, that Neubauten have built such a following; the band's innovation and inventions are a show in themselves.
The set—or, the main set, at least—ends on 2000's "Sabrina". It's a gorgeous, mournful tune, and would have made for a great ending. But then, of course, come the encores. They played two of them. After a two hour set. There was a wonderful bareness to their main set, in that it was funny and it was long but it felt just long enough; never self indulgent. That changes, of course, when you tack two encores onto your set. The first encore begins with "Silence is Sexy", one of the most theatrical performances of the night; much of the song comprises silence, during which Blixer stands and stares at the audience smoking a cigarette. It's fun, if only for the silliness of it all. The other two songs of the first encore don't fare as well in comparison, and by the time the band leaves and comes back for their second (also three-song) encore, I'm fatigued, given way too much of a good thing. Protect me from what I want.
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All photos courtesy of Dark Mofo.