Gloomy Dark Mofo subverts the festival norm

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Hobart’s annual Dark Mofo festival is one of the most profoundly depressing musical experiences you can have. That’s what makes it so great.

It's 8.30pm Friday night. I'm lying slothenly on my bed, fully clothed. Empty cans of Tasmanian beer are scattered across the gaudy hotel room doona. 

As someone who prides himself on festival stamina, it's hard to accept that Hobart's Dark Mofo has almost defeated me. I'm emotionally drained.

I turn the TV to Better Homes and Gardens, a show I despise, because I need to feel something positive. I need the fake smiles of the presenters. I need something bright and bubbly to counteract the darkness that has engulfed my whole being.

Dark Mofo is a celebration of all things dark. The sun sets around 4pm, there’s a constant bitter chill and it rains more than you’d like. The festival's imagery - all blood-red and black smudges - oozes evil vibes. It embraces Hobart’s gloomy winter solstice and it’s dangerously effective.

This festival, done properly, is not for the faint-hearted. If you let it, Dark Mofo will fuck you up.

The bleak modus operandi is consistent throughout the entire program. The smouldering 44-gallon drums of fire dotted throughout the city give off a wasteland feel. There’s not a cheery musical act on the bill, the art is wicked and the film program is packed with frightening features.

 

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Who needs Better Homes & Gardens? Brighten up your winter nights with fire drums. Photo: Dan Condon / Double J

Bringing Antony and the Johnsons and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra together at the Odeon Theatre is a coup for the festival. It’s an incredibly affecting set. Antony's voice is otherworldly. When she sings, we’re not in Hobart, it’s not zero degrees outside, we’re not in a theatre, we’re in Antony’s world.

It takes a significant presence to dwarf an entire symphony orchestra, but she does it. She doesn’t speak at all, except for ten minutes discussing the plight of the Martu community in regional Western Australia before playing an encore.

They open with ‘Mysteries Of Love’, while a video of someone sucking on a pig’s teat plays behind them. It’s the opening scene from Chiaki Nagano's bizarre 1969 film, Mr. O's Book of the Dead, which provides visual accompaniment throughout the set.

"I always wanted life to be filled with pain and bruises,” Antony sings in ‘Cripple and the Starfish’ and its sentiment feels so apt in this festival’s dark environment.

‘Cut The World’ is hugely stirring, while the heavy, prolonged silence in ‘I Fell In Love With a Dead Boy’ is incredibly powerful in the live setting. ‘You Are My Sister’ and ‘Hope There’s Someone’ elicit a strong response, but nothing is as loudly acclaimed as her cover of Beyoncé’s ‘Crazy In Love’ – and the standing ovation is entirely deserved.

German electro duo Oake are explosive and fascinating. Part searing noise, part new-age vocalising, they are equally beautiful and brutal, confounding most of the audience.

Not as much as EYE:CIRCOM, though. The latest project from mad musical genius Yamantaka Eye (of Japanese noise anarchists The Boredoms) has him perched in the middle of a circle of musicians on laptops. For an hour he conducts the musicians with a series of theatrical hand signals, occasionally standing up and chanting over the cacophony. It’s a physical experience as much as an aural one. It vibrates your entire body, massaging your internal organs.

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EYE:CIRCOM massaging internal organs. Photo: Dan Condon / Double J

 

US sludge metal masters Pallbearer on the other hand are among the more straightforward acts - their style a brilliant blend of classic and modern Sunn O)))-inspired doom metal. Their melodies are pure evil, every drum crash feels like a slap in the face and the force they have as a unit is giddying. The combination of bright orange light and smoke machines sometimes makes it feel like the band are playing in hell itself.

Sitting somewhere between the straightforward and the bewilderingly bizarre is Melbourne’s My Disco. Their noisy, tribal art-rock is driven by booming drums and washes of guitar squawk, but is overshadowed completely by an immersive, powerful light show.

The strobes are so overt that it’s disorienting, but it’s also beautiful to behold. They’re bathed in a red glow for most of the set – while Pallbearer’s light show made it look like there was fire on stage, My Disco look like they’re drowning in blood.

I’m not convinced their music has improved since I first saw them in a share house basement 12 years ago, but you have to admire their ambition.

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Pallbearer - "every drum crash feels like a slap in the face". Photo: Dan Condon / Double J

From an art perspective, there is some truly frightening work on show. Standing inside the meat locker that houses Bass Bath is like living a nightmare. Intense frequencies rumble at dangerous volumes, while harsh red and white lights flicker, making the cold industrial space truly terrifying.

Anthony McCall’s Solid Light Works turns a warehouse into an extraterrestrial wonderland. Standing in the midst of his beams of light, as the haze gathers around you, it feels like you’re about to be sucked up into the sky.

Despite these experiences, Dark Mofo doesn't always get it right. The Fire Organ is a white elephant. A boring set of pipes that flame up every now and then. American sludge band The Body are kind of like a fire hose. They pummel, but what emerges is bland.

And can someone explain all these rave reviews for Blacklist? The hour I spent in Hobart’s Town Hall was the most boring of the festival. I walked every inch of the space – inside and out – and the most interesting thing to happen was a security guard telling me I couldn’t enter a restricted staff-only area. Perhaps it was bad timing.

Dark Mofo is bleak. The only way anyone is getting joy from the art presented is through sheer masochism. But this event isn’t about joy per se, it’s about celebrating the season, about embracing the grim conditions and exacerbating the feelings that come with it.

In a festival landscape heavily populated by regurgitated indie headliners (and, increasingly, expensive multinational clothing stores) Dark Mofo is a revelation. Anyone with cajones and cash can put some bands in a field, but to curate something so niche, so emotionally specific, and to pull it off, is astounding.

I could write a book of advice to anyone wanting to go next year, but if there’s one thing I can impart, it’s that you should try and break up the darkness where you can. Bring a Chevy Chase movie, or a book of Peanuts comics – something mindless that will cheer you up. Otherwise you might end up getting drunk and watching Better Homes and Gardens in your hotel room. Nobody wants that.

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