Test Dept at studio 9294Support: Shelley Parker| UKAEA
April 26, 2019 at studio 9294
Promoter: Baba Yagas Hut
More socialist art collective than conventional band, Test Dept originally took shape in south-east London, releasing History – The Strength of Metal in Motion in 1982. The next fifteen years saw Test Dept keep up a ferocious work rate releasing, on average, an album a year until 1997 when the band decided to call it a day with the release of Tactics For Evolution. One of the early industrial bands, Test Dept utilised discarded industrial detritus in the creation of their music and, alongside their writing and recording, curated several large art events. Throughout the 2000s Test Dept members stayed active in the arts, and in 2014 core members of the group reconvened producing DS30 to commemorate the Miner’s Strike of 1984–5.
In 2016, Test Dept:Redux played a series of concerts and festivals including Raw Power; these concerts continued into 2017 when material for a new album started to be played. Also in 2017, Test Dept’s name appeared as co-curators with Aaron James of the Assembly of Disturbance in partnership with Ernesto Leal of the Red Gallery. As part of the festival, Test Dept presented an exhibition, talks, DJed, performed a live soundtrack to film, performed as Test Dept and also, in collaboration with other artists, as Prolekult.
Last year saw more news coming through that long term Test Dept members Graham Cunnington and Paul Jamrozy were working on a new album, Disturbance, released in March this year, on One Little Indian Records. In November, the first new Test Dept track for 20 years, ‘Landlord’, was released followed by the album which lived up to any expectation as a superb piece of work, combining visceral, riveting, finely honed industrial music with coherent, well informed, incisive political polemic.
On Friday 26 April, Test Dept played Studio 9294 in Hackney Wick for an “album launch”; the area around Hackney Wick station is interesting, like a post industrial zone that has been colonised by the arts, with the venue tucked round the back of the station. We get there at Eight-ish: cool smallish space, nice staff; the stage is intriguing, with metal frames, an old tyre hanging, something that looks like an old ship steering wheel but made out of metal. Sometimes you feel you’re at something significant.
At some point the sound of a bell rings out – it’s the start of Shelley Parker’s set. Now I don’t know anything about the kind of music she creates, but apparently she had an EP out on Hessle Audio called Red Cotton, which “sees Parker combining her abstract sound sources with dance music-adjacent rhythms and club-ready doses of sub-bass”. To me it sounded exciting, mesmerising, engaging, nuanced and intelligent dance music. May well see if I can hold of her EP. Excellent.
At just gone 10 pm, Test Dept start: Paul Jamrozy is blowing on some horn/bugle thing; it seems like a wake-up call and simultaneously reminds me of the Elves appearing at Helm’s Deep to stand with the people of Rohan against the forces of Moria. (Except, in The Lord of the Rings the elves join up with a community aware of what’s going on and planning their next move, whereas in Britain it feels like most people would be down in some cellar getting pissed and talking about football.) From the first track the music is controlled intensity constructed to achieve an objective; form follows function. The crowd at Studio 9294 must be predisposed towards the message Test Dept are sending to be here, understand its importance, or they couldn’t endure this bombardment of the senses; most people here must share the same politics as Test Dept or they couldn’t withstand this assault. The four figures on stage move from instrument to instrument: Paul who had the bugle thing is now hammering on a huge drum, then on a heavy duty tyre, now some scrap metal; Graham Cunnington is at the mic again, his vocals injecting even more tension into the mix; the percussionist moves to her left and starts hammering on something metallic; a fourth person is doing something DJish with a box of tricks at the back; and this intense, superbly constructed maelstrom of anger, horror and conviction keeps moving, forensically dissecting late capitalism, exposing it for the (hidden) Horror Show it is – “The dirt behind the daydream”, to quote Gang of Four.
We are looking over another bombed-out Middle Eastern city; which one? Iraq, Syria? Has “the West”’ and/or its allies attacked it directly or through proxies? Neo-liberal capitalism, in the form of a hyena, pads relentlessly on looking for the weak, and the vulnerable, to isolate, rip apart, devour. A CAD-style representation of a drone reappears emphasising its role in modern warfare and modern surveillance. Refugees or migrants (does it matter? People!) are packed into a dinghy that looks in imminent danger of going down; can we imagine how appalling their lives must have been to have risked people-smugglers, Libya, the Mediterranean, in the slim hope of a crap life in Europe; are they from the bombed out city we saw earlier? Then, Grenfell Tower, the word JUSTICE, protesters, and a smirking Theresa May dancing on stage to Abba; Boris Johnson grinning down at us from his position of invulnerability.
I have to go or I’ll miss my last train. I gabble something to the merch people about how amazing the gig has been. I’m agitated, angry that the media has generally justified late capitalism’s morph into something that feels a lot like sophisticated fascism; agitated that I am complicit; frustrated that in all probability many of those who vote will again support a party whose policies have contributed to 120,000 excess deaths over eight years.
I get on the train, sit on the train, still disturbed by what I’ve heard and seen.
Two hours later I go to bed.
Main Photo: David Altweger