Asian Dub Foundation at Liverpool Philharmonic: A Review
Asian Dub Foundation are currently touring with their live score of THX-1138, George Lucas’ first film. It’s clear from the other two films ADF (much less of a mouthful) have chosen to re-score, La Haine and The Battle of Algiers, which deal with topics such as racism, state brutality and imperialism, that they see re-scoring as a way of showing that a film’s themes continue to be relevant. Although THX 1138 is less directly political than these last two films, its vision of a society controlled by state surveillance whose citizens are treated as an expendable workforce has obvious resonance to the point where there’s a danger of it becoming a bit unsubtle – fortunately, ADF doesn’t hammer the point home, trusting the audience to draw the parallels themselves.
The line-up of ADF seems to be fairly fluid – Wikipedia lists thirteen members past and present, the most I could find simultaneously onstage was seven, their official website gives a current line-up of six (including one who wasn’t on Wikipedia’s list) and there was a comparatively lean four-piece playing at the Philharmonic. The newest of these was flautist Nathan “Flutebox” Lee, so named because he beatboxes into a flute. I don’t like to think of myself as musically conservative, but I’m still trying to get my head around that. I don’t even feel comfortable typing a phrase as baldly descriptive as “he beatboxes into a flute”, because I assume that the idea is so essentially ridiculous that I have to be saying it contemptuously – “he beatboxes, into a flute”. This is, of course, sloppy of me, projecting my own prejudices onto somebody else’s music. There’s obvious potential for an idea like fluteboxing to be gimmicky, but in this case, it’s weaved into the score in a way that makes sense – never for the sheer novelty of it, but as a way of injecting a spike of aggression into a scene. It helps that Lee’s an excellent flautist whether or not he’s beatboxing, adding an organic element to the score that works surprisingly well considering the oppressively clean, Apple-store aesthetic of the film’s setting.
The film itself has gained a strong following since it was first released, especially amongst musicians – Nine Inch Nails and Gang Starr are two other groups who’ve paid tribute to it – and it’s easy to see why. The design is excellent, especially considering the budget – the police androids are properly scary – and Lalo Schifrin’s original score is well worth a listen, often for completely different reasons to ADF’s. It was, however, a little tough to follow, often for the same reasons I found it so visually striking. The lion’s share of characters wear white jumpsuits and number one haircuts and the film’s second act takes place in a featureless void. There were quite a few points where I didn’t realise that I was following the same character over different scenes though I suppose it’s debatable whether that’s a reflection of the film’s design or my attention span.
Thankfully, even in the film’s less coherent moments ADF’s score holds the whole thing together. The score draws on a variety of styles from throughout their career, from slow, moody trip-hop in the opening minutes to glitchy industrial in the mind-lock scene below to the blistering rush of drum and bass in the climactic chase sequence (If this screening proves one thing at all it’s that in the future, ADF will be the perfect music for car chases . As far as I can tell none of the Wipeout games have had them on their soundtrack, and that’s kind of bullshit). It works exactly as a film score should – it pulls you into the film, and drives everything forward on a wave of momentum. This performance was a success in two ways, a chance to see both a fascinating, if occasionally bewildering, film and a group still producing sharp, compelling material in their twentieth year.