Silver Apples at the Cambridge Junction – Live Review

live reviews "a renewed vigour for their craft"

Fifty years since they first formed—and two reunions, the death of their original drummer, a car crash, and god knows what else, later—Silver Apples, or more specifically, maverick, polymath, and synthesist, Simeon Coxe III, are back with a new album, a new tour, and quite clearly, a renewed vigour for their craft.

The makeup for the crowd at the modestly sized Junction 2 is as predicted. Many older men, likely there or thereabouts to witness the original incarnation of Silver Apples; a fair few early-thirty-somethings, there when interest in the group was revived during their mid-nineties return; and my own demographic, the second wave of millennials, who somehow found their way to the group through rather arcane means.

Before the evening’s main attraction however, is London-based Italian/Australian duo, TOMAGA. It is likely, if one concerns themselves with such things, that you have seen or heard of these two musicians before, even without realising it. Boasting between them a CV of every notable band within their particular sphere of music (Vanishing Twin, The Oscillation, Shit and Shine, Fanfarlo, to name only a few), they are also regulars at venues such as Café OTO and Barbican, part of London-based collective, School of Hypnosis, and as a duo have performed with the likes of Pierre Bastian. One of them even runs their own label, and I could go on still…

TOMAGA live at Cambridge Junction 2 - 05/09/2016

This experience and knowledge is evident throughout their set. Quite literally oscillating between the improvised and the scripted, the set feels less like a collection of songs, and more like a 30-minute piece which journeys through 5 or 6 distinct moods. A highlight comes around a third of the way into the set, where bass guitar feedback begins to slowly morph into spectral chords. Before this new harmony has settled rhythms appear, and then a melodic loop emerges. The chords seem built from the harmonic series of the root of the underlying bass groove, and glisten marvellously around the room as a result. Every beat is tight, and every transition seamless and virtuosic. Structurally, nods towards free jazz and noise music are frequent, while sonically and rhythmically the constant and propelling swirl of psychedelia and New York minimalism push the music along its course.

This is a very visual music, and one that perfectly straddles the ever-fainter line between contemporary classical and leftfield popular; an ambiguity engaged and played with throughout, as bass guitars, laptops, and hi-hats clash with tuned percussion, analogue synths, and an array of drum accessories. It ultimately satisfies because it never quite capitulates to or indulges in the hedonistic or cerebral extremes of either, and equally resists becoming overly complex to the point of inaccessibility or contrived esotericism. This degree of restraint produces a wholly new murky cloud of sound, that is completely their own.

Silver Apples live at Cambridge Junction 2 - 05/09/2016

Visually, tonight’s main event is somewhat understated. As a 78-year old Simeon Coxe takes to the stage in a plain t-shirt, he stands behind a table of indecipherable gadgetry, with an office fan and a stack of paper for company. Sonically though, from the first space-age whoosh, it is unmistakably a Silver Apples show. He performs with the same dexterity he was celebrated for all those years back, and although the vocals struggle to cut through the mix at times, when they do emerge his voice still soars as it did in 1967.

To Simeon’s credit, he does not rely on the work he did some 50 years ago to fill this set. He incorporates as much new material as he does old, reminding us that clearly he got back into this game for himself. Indeed, by his own admissions, we are the guinea pigs, and he is the scientist (as if his credentials as a mad professor were ever in question!).

Classic tracks such as Seagreen Serenades are surprisingly omitted, and deeper cuts such as Gypsy Love are disappointingly absent, but we are still treated to a mix of older material. You And I gets a faithful recital, and Lovefingers broods as ominously as it did on their debut record. New single, The Edge Of Wonder, feels fresh but not disparate; fanciful lyrics, surprisingly hooky vocal melodies, and softer but no less spiralling groves follow the classic Silver Apples formula, but with a welcome modern spin. ‘Hit’ single, Oscillations, gets a 10 minute re-working as a finale, and veers from original samples to fully new material built upon the song’s pre-existing framework, creating a new piece of music in its own right.

Simeon does not say too much on stage, but occasionally breaks a fairly taciturn exterior with the odd quip or remark. “That’s it, it’s finished. I just can’t shut this thing off! It’s got a mind of its own!” he declares to a rogue oscillator as it continues beyond the song’s end. All that said though, there is a sense that things have been tamed. Digitalised, certain charms and characteristics feel numbed, and without the visual whimsy of ‘The Simeon’, perhaps a degree of eccentricity is lost. The aforementioned anecdote may be the only indication of the tangible sense of unpredictability and spontaneity of early shows.

The absence of Danny (original drummer who sadly passed in 2005) is obvious and keenly felt, however his pre-recorded beats, which Simeon regularly samples, retain every nuance of his instantly recognisable feel, and when they are employed, if you close your eyes, he is right here with us.

Perhaps as a result, the music on show is difficult to place. Not just its chronology, but the very fabric of its physical and metaphysical resting place in our very broad landscape of post-war music (clearly, due to it being electronic, that is the only temporal assumption one can arrive at). This music is quintessentially retro-futuristic, and perhaps it is this, the fact that when it sounds old we hear it as pioneering, and when we hear it as futuristic we almost hear it as a bemusing and disorientating onslaught, that Silver Apples as an entity appear to occupy a different reality altogether. The music does not hark back to 1967, nor project us to a year far into the future, but rather it spans between these two spheres.

That said, what appear as ‘alien pop songs’, are not alienating, at least not in the same way as some find many of the names often uttered alongside Silver Apples’ (Merzbow and Karlheinz, we are looking at you). It is actually all rather fantastical; rather than instruments he is using rocket controllers and obscure dials beyond the comprehension of us mere mortals.

Indeed, this is music beamed from somewhere unknown, but the Silver Apples sound has been modernised, perhaps in lieu of the fact that it is 90’s music and 21st century leftfield listeners that have pushed their renewed popularity. For some, this may dull the enjoyment and authenticity of the performance to a degree, but then again, listeners well-versed with the Silver Apples aesthetic, and indeed the qualities which made it so unique and revered in the first place, should be able to see past any modern day veils.

Ultimately, Simeon was always a pioneer, into everything he could be, investigating and trying out things almost because he knew they would not work. Of course he was going to engage with newer technology; it is what he does. It is better to hear an artist continuing to be creative and performing with a renewed sense of inquisition and excitement, than to witness perfect renditions of songs created in a different time, by a different man, for a different purpose. That is what records are for.

With all that in mind, this evening’s concert provides the perfect bookend to my own experience and journey through Silver Apples: balancing the old and the new, leading me to realise my own personal relationship to this entity that came and left our world decades before I was even on this planet. Like so many pockets of music fans, I now know how Silver Apples are relevant to my generation and my wave of listeners. Somehow, five decades on, their fruit is still ripe for the picking.

Words by William Crosby
Images by Rich Etteridge

Latest