Whitehouse, Vienna Rhiz, 8 May 2008

Over to the Rhiz for the second night in a row to witness one of the last ever concerts by Whitehouse. If KTL represent one facet of contemporary noise – murky, lowering and insidious – then Whitehouse represent its obverse – seething, ferocious and even celebratory. And if the end of Whitehouse is also the end of the power electronics genre they singlehandedly birthed, then there is no finer way to mark those passings than with the kind of blistering performance they gave last Thursday.

Whitehouse have been an important part of my musical journey for around fifteen years. Unlike some of the other groups I met along the same path, such as Einstürzende Neubauten, Swans and Current 93, I can’t pinpoint exactly how I first made their acquaintance. I do remember going into the old Vinyl Experience shop on Hanway Street sometime in the early ’90s and asking if they had any Whitehouse albums in stock. The assistant reached under the counter and handed me a copy of the Another Crack of the White Whip compilation. Holding my nerve, I bought it and took it home. The furtive manner of this purchase, together with the rather unsettling Trevor Brown cover art and the sinister aura that I realised surrounded Whitehouse, led me to believe that I was now in possession of something unutterably clandestine. I wasn’t, of course; it was just a compilation album. And yet hearing the album for the first time, I found that its boldness and explicitness undermined the surface ugliness and brutality of the music. The music kept calling me back, seduced as I was by the sheer audacity of it and by the realisation that I was caught up in something I only wanted to experience, not to justify or explain.

To a greater or lesser extent, that wish for immersive, unmediated experience has governed much of my personal response to music over the years. In the case of Whitehouse, however, it’s always been the primary impulse. As if to illustrate the dichotomies at work, last week’s concert was frenetic, disorientating and above all highly entertaining. William Bennett spent most of the time staring impassively at his Vaio, a picture of “don’t f*** with me” serenity with his dark glasses and expression of scowling menace. Occasionally he would abandon his workstation to deliver a charged, suggestive lyric, his voice ramped up to peak levels and his microphone lead coiled around his neck like a noose.

The star of the show from a performance point of view, however, was Philip Best. In marked contrast to Bennett, Best seemed to want to spend as little time as possible behind his laptop. His array of movements and gestures was great fun to watch, from pinching his nipples to drenching them with saliva, from salaciously stroking the collaged pages of his lyric book to humping the amps at the back of the stage (which looked in grave danger of toppling over as a result). The overall impression was of a kind of deranged sexuality wholly in keeping with the graphic outpourings of Best’s lyrics. On Bennett’s rare excursions to centre stage, he and Best would interact hilariously, caressing each other and holding their arms aloft in a gleeful posture of rock-star triumphalism.

As for the music, it was exceptionally livid and abrasive. Surging treacherously from the speakers, the layered drones, rhythms and frequencies merged into a sublime totality of noise. What came over most strongly was how carefully orchestrated it all was. No improvisation, no taking chances; Whitehouse know how to manipulate an audience for maximum effect. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any louder and more delirious, they would make the merest adjustment and the whole edifice would become yet more frenzied and euphoric. It’s dangerously addictive stuff, the kind of live experience you don’t want to end. But end it now has, and whatever William Bennett and Philip Best decide to do in the future, music is a duller and more predictable thing now that Whitehouse aren’t around any more.

Photos by David Murobi here.

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