Oct 22, 2023

Review of Birds of New Zealand

Machine Wreckers, An Introduction to the Native Birds of Aotearoa

20th October 2023
St Matthew’s Hall, Hastings, New Zealand.

Review by Rosheen Fitzgerald,  Photos by Andrew Caldwell Originally Published via Ambient Light

Adrian Thornton is an ideas man. Anyone who has had the pleasure of encountering him across the counter of either of his iconic local twin business interests – The Little Red Bookshop, and Double Happy Screen Printing – could tell you that. Each of the many and varied projects he intersects with bear the hallmarks of a sharp and expansive intellect fuelled by virulent anti-capitalist, grass roots politics. (As one of the many posters that adorn the bookshop back room asserts, he prefers Labour’s early work.)

The Machine Wreckers is no exception. Named for the Luddites who sought to reverse the tide of the Industrial Revolution, by dismantling rather than raging against the machine, the work is art as activism…but the hippie type, harkening back to a nostalgic time when we believed we could change the world with free love and rock music. When this piece debuted at last year’s Fringe in the ‘Stings it came with the subtitle, ‘Capitalism is Suicide’. Though the message is no longer explicit, it still underpins the entire experience. An Introduction to the Native Birds of Aotearoa is a rallying call – more nature, less stuff.

Thornton would be the first to admit that, musically, on bass, he is carried by the rest of the band. But there is a reason he draws some of the region’s most talented musicians to his projects. He has the vision and the tenacity to conceive and execute singular immersive experiences, a feast for the senses and a balm for the mind. Though he plays infrequently, he makes each gig a happening, something worth being at.

Incense fills the space between the eyes before we even enter the room. Inside, St Matthew’s Hall has undergone a full transformation in the two days it takes the Machine Wreckers to build their set.

The walls are lined with drops of butcher’s paper stencilled and spray painted with images of moa, both living and skeletonised, and a tui. Facing one another at the centre of each wall, the band name and the show title are spelled out in a beautiful looping striated script, belying Thornton’s considerable skill as a signwriter (his day job).

A scaffold has been erected, and covered, crowned by a lopsided sun onto which lava lamp-like blobs are projected. The far wall, flanking the entrance, becomes twin screens, host for Thornton’s painstakingly hand made animations that accompany the piece.

A mechanical bird flies across the screen, crafted from cardboard, powered by wires, cogs and ingenuity. Moulded moa meander about. A tui transforms into a monster that eats itself before returning to its original form to peck open an egg whose yolk spells out the band’s name. Each image is infused with the magic of craftsmanship, produced old school style before those pesky machines ruined everything.

The stage is set in the round, surrounded by beanbags for the audience to lounge (with pews at the back for the weak of knees). A dense jungle of house plants, punctuated by old school standard lamps and speakers turned inwards demarcates the performance space. We are the rice in a sushi roll of artistry.

William Devine (Willie D) is already seated at the turntable with a side of keys. The air is thick with a cacophony of birdsong, punctuated by whomping bass sounds at the command of Willie D’s adept fingers. Slowly the band filters in. Thornton on bass. Kurt Yates on guitar. Alec Withers on Drums. Thornton announces the piece will be continuous, that we can save our applause (should we wish to give it) to the end. It gives the impression, less of a gig than of an act of devotion. The audience, featuring a disproportionate number of artists and musicians, feels like a congregation of the faithful. This is a church at which I, for one, am happy to worship.

From the opening strains of Morning Chorus we are captivated, uplifted, entranced. The rules of time seem to cease as we are taken on a journey of breathtaking intensity. My teenage daughter later tells me this is her favourite genre of music, ‘the kind you can feel in your chest.’

A more conventional critic might call it psychedelic progressive rock. Each movement, announced by a voiceover spoken in received pronunciation, emanating from Willie D’s turntable, takes native birdsong as its basis. The band grab this inspiration and run with it, riffing off, not just the melodies, but the offbeat musical structure of natural found sound. As in a symphony, as in the wild, themes and phrases flourish and fade, repeat and return reimagined, transformed and transmuted. The music builds from aching tension to joyful crescendo and back again, wrapping us in a comforting blanket of ambient sound reverberating around the room like a prenatal memory of a mother’s heartbeat.

Withers keeps a hypnotic, incandescent beat, sometimes syncopated, sometimes tightly contained, sometimes exploding with frenetic energy. Yates and Willie D tag team to take the lead melody between guitars and keys, the other providing a counterpoint. At peaks, Yates takes command, masterfully manipulating strains and variations to take us to all sorts of fantastical places. His prodigious skill would be a flex were the entire outfit so nakedly devoid of ego.

This piece is clearly a conversation, a musical communion of like minded souls. The players face each other, not the crowd. The concentration on their faces is reflected in the potency of what they produce. This performance in the round, the unconventional staging and setting, is testimony to the band’s egalitarian principles. This is activism in action, immersing the audience in an imagining of a better future. One in which the music is loud and important.

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