Live Review: The Rebel + Merlin Nova at The Windmill, Brixton

I have always found it difficult to suppress feelings of reinvigoration and expectation brought on by the first transitory waves of summer heat. This year is no different. Over a hundred thousand innocent people have died at the hands of a virus. A virus that has thrived under a government ideologically opposed to a central body – itself – doing anything to help anyone. And are the people livid? Fuming? Shaking with anger? According to statistics they are not. They think the prime minister is a liar but they cannot envisage an alternative. Now that the sun is out I understand these feelings of political apathy. I think Johnson is a narcissist but hey it’s hot and frivolity calls my name. Few songwriters are better suited to shaking me out of my synthetic summer indifference than Ben Wallers. A man who has performed under many monocles, most famously as the frontman of The Country Teasers and currently as The Rebel, and more often than not uses misogynistic, racist and generally horrendous language to, in his own words, get people to pay attention to his songs. While Wallers may claim his shock tactics are merely window dressing, enticing ears to tune into his melodies, they are also a glimpse into the headspace of a nation, formerly a colonial colossus, now having to align their reduced standing with their inherited notions of exceptionalism. So I’ve come to see Wallers, as The Rebel, in a venue with no windows, get the sun out of my eyes and reacquaint myself with what I know to be a grizzly reality.

I arrive at Brixton’s legendary Windmill, currently in a state of mourning after their much beloved Roof Dog passed away. It’s quiet but for a few regulars inside, in the shadows. Outside there’s two full tables of middle aged fans and two teenagers sat opposite drinking. On the older tables, a man with two or three gray hairs left on his head, cheers that though his hair is receding he is happy with how slow it is doing so. On the younger table they discuss whether they would be able to pull off an army jacket. I imagine both tables are, in a small way, envious of the other. I am spared from further eavesdropping when a barman announces the first act is going on. With a mini synth, melodica, impressive soprano range and auto tuner pedal for vocals, Merlin Nova’s first two tracks are akin to an actor’s video reel; demonstrating talents, but not formed into a complete work. For the third track she makes literal my metaphor and delivers a monologue, in which a character demands to know when they will be going to the gym and when it will end. The crowd laughs and cheers while Nova sets in motion a hazy waterfall of background noise. Taking a bucket of water from the stage she sits among the crowd and begins singing, with no microphone while bathing her hands, staring into the bucket. Her captivated state is infectious and the audience stares onwards, at their new ambassador for water. Finishing, we all enthusiastically clap and sip our beers. It won’t be until morning that we understand the irony of a piece, eulogising water, performed in front of a crowd actively dehydrating themselves.

With Nova finished everyone is back outside for more of the long awaited summer. We’re soon beckoned back inside though, this time no barman is needed, we can all hear a bombastic electronic beat. Inside Wallers flits between pedals, guitars and two gameboy consoles, one fitted with a Nanoloop sequencer chip and the other a Korg DS10 sequencer chip – he told me these details, I of course have no idea how any of it works. Inspecting, removing and returning his spectacles to his features, it is as if he has entered into the circuitry, moving from input to input, with instinctive precision. Tuning his guitar in true analogue fashion; moving a plastic peg into the correct position to create the note he wishes to tune his string to, I can’t help but smirk at a man who understands how to extract music from a retro gaming device but does not want to adopt a traditional tuning pedal and save himself time every show. Wallers kindly sent me through a set list for the night, from which I know track one is appropriately titled ‘Intro With Vox Phantom Guitar’. More a comical and spontaneous showcasing of an instrument than a song. Flashes of harmony between droney organ and twanging guitar expose my own knee jerk desire for all songs to be of the pop song variety. ‘Intro With Vox Phantom Guitar’ is not this though, like Nova with her bucket of water it is an artist wanting to share their fondness and appreciation of a resource, not the necessary human extraction.

Wallers moves through a couple of upbeat but obscure numbers, the low ceilings of The Windmill housing the reverberating vocals and keeping the rhythms pronounced. An impressive rendition of The Cure’s ‘Killing An Arab’ allows Wallers to show off his intricate guitar skills. In the simultaneous moment of subversion and pop, with Wallers hunched over his guitar, I am reminded how indebted Saul Adamczewskil of Fat White Family and Insecure Men is to Waller’s music and fashion. The set takes a deconstructed ramble as Wallers punctuates his different soundscapes with his retro tools, like an electronic hoarder trying to justify his obsession. Just as I begin to wonder what it all means, he delivers a rendition of ‘Little House On the Prairie 9/11 Rape Scene’. Playing the opening chords my mind scrambles to remember what famous song he is covering before realising it is one of his own. The first line of the track is the title and I am reminded why it isn’t famous. Moving it is though and I find the final line ‘it only means what it says’ a necessary prerequisite for enjoying any of Waller’s work.

From the Pavement-esque progression of this he starts again with experimental prodding and spontaneous noise making. Only for ‘David I Hope You Don’t Mind’ does he limit himself to one tool. The audience sings along with a chorus of hands raised for the final voluminous verse. A fine moment of meta-writing, with the songwriting process becoming the content itself. Now fairly drunk I struggle to think of another song that deconstructs the craft as brilliantly. I can only think of that Tenacious D song about writing the greatest song ever written. The next day I wake up and immediately remember Leonard Cohen’s ‘Tower Of Song’ and punch myself in the dick. The night finishes with Waller’s guitar head used to summon industrial beats from a pad over a cacophony of reverbs. The audience wants an encour to which Wallers replies “no encore tonight, that was the encore”. Off I run to catch my train and think about what I will write.

It’s nearly impossible to write about Waller’s songwriting without writing about politics. It’d be like writing an essay on Prince without mentioning sex. However, Waller’s use of character perspective has a deceptively escapist quality, for most of us only ever imagine ourselves as the hideous cowboy, it is our worst side and so we keep it internal. Summoning it to the forefront is not dissimilar to watching a superhero fly; none of us can fly but we all sometimes want to and of course we sometimes want to say and do awful things. His brand of political music gives the progressive left a clear mugshot of its enemy while tantalising them to tend to their own hideous gardens. This said, it was notable that Wallers has dropped some of his most shocking tunes from his set and there wasn’t an N-word or lady-dog-word uttered all night, though I do recall one song where he called a swan a homophobic slur. Wallers has a number of dates coming up in London, performing as The Rebel and it is clear he still has a desire to write and use the Avant Garde to challenge societal norms. It will be interesting to see how new audiences treat his songwriting in an age where racial slurs have become the political norm.

Review by Patrick Malone

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