Monday, 30 December 2013

Retrospecstive 2013

I enjoyed doing my own version of a 'round-up of the year' post so much at the end of 2012, that I thought I'd do another one for 2013. Caveat: not all of it was recorded/released during the year - that's just when I managed to latch onto it! Please dive in at will - I hope you find something you enjoy and want to follow up.

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Empty Pools: I first heard this band on my friend Juliet's brilliant radio show "Indie Wonderland". (The show normally goes out live on Thursday evenings, 7-9pm, on ARfm - with the archive of old programmes here on Mixcloud.) Jules is great at pushing her listeners' Britpop and Peel nostalgia buttons, without neglecting new underground music or treating her remit with too much respect, ranging into anything alternative or unusual that takes her fancy. I love Empty Pools in particular because their songs are a bit thorny - math-rock without any of the alienation - and repay close attention. 'Exploded View' is the first single from the debut album 'Saturn Reruns' and is full of these moments. Like the way the vocals seem to take a few lines to lock into the rhythm...or when the main jagged riff starts at around 0:55, there's another guitar just gliding along undisturbed... or the moment of genius at 2:19 when the distorted accompaniment suddenly cleans up. Ace.

Dengue Fever: a US band who formed to play the style of music they loved - and who doesn't love psychedelic 60s Cambodian rock? - and recruited a fabulous Cambodian singer, Chhom Nimol, so they could do it properly. This is the title track from their new EP, but all three songs on it are gorgeous - nightmare choosing which one to include.

I've had a bit of a proggy 2013. Golden Void, following a lovely debut album last year, released a double A-side single for Record Store Day 2013, containing 'Rise to the Out Of Reach' and 'Smiling Raven'. No accident they went well together, it turns out, as here they perform the two tracks stitched into a medley. Below that, I've included the song 'Empty Vessels' by Wolf People, another group prone to what you might call guitar 'exploration' and bewildered-sounding vocals. I unashamedly adore all this stuff - I play it and in my head, I'm once again the bemused and delighted kid listening to the 'War of the Worlds' concept album or trying out Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. *puts on hat shaped like a pot plant*

Chvrches: Let me confess, their name really gives me the willies. Apparently, they changed the spelling so that it would stand out more, be easier to Google, etc etc. Well, it isn't bloody easier when one keeps typing 'churches' like a NORMAL PERSON, is it? *resumes regular breathing...* The sound they make gives me goosebumps, though - for synth-pop, it's a real assault on the senses, with a real squelch and rumble to the production - like in 'Lies', here, at 0:57 when the chorus fills out and those clattering claps come in. Thrilling.

2013 has also been the year when I found my 'opera feet' - literally, as my friend David and I stood throughout the entire Ring Cycle at the Proms this summer. (Well, apart from David's Pimms-induced 'emotional moment' during "Die Walkure", when a bit of sitting down was required.) I've spent a lot of the months since reading and listening more widely to as much opera as possible, but there is something about this - Solti conducting the funeral march from "Gotterdammerung" during the first Ring studio recording - that overwhelms me every time, even though there is no staging and, at this point, no voices. The music is elemental but Solti communicates something extra with his energy and expressiveness. I'm routinely in bits by the fanfare at 2:56.

The great new work by George Benjamin, 'Written on Skin', premiered in spring before I got my opera act together, but finding out more about it since has led me to other performances by one of its stars, soprano Barbara Hannigan. Hannigan is famous for a kind of fearless glamour and sensuality - no bad thing - but is also a restless champion and programmer of contemporary classical music. For all that, this clip of her conducting and singing Mozart is one of my favourite videos of the year - the rapport with the orchestra shines through, and the bravura nature of her talent is evident from the opening seconds, where she sets the tempo, then wheels round to face the audience and start the first aria. Inspiring!

For regular readers of this blog (thank you, darlings, thank you), the following acts will not really need an introduction. I've written about them all before, and will no doubt do so again - they are brilliant people as well as captivating musicians, the kind of artists whose work I simply want to press into the hands of friends and strangers. Whatever arbitrary radar is out there, they're operating beneath it to some extent, but they communicate enough joy and wonder to inspire devotion in any audience. Here, I've tried to provide slightly alternative versions/songs, alongside links to the blog entries where I covered them in more detail.

The studio version of this Bitter Ruin single is a hypnotic, mantra-driven spell of a song. In this delicate acoustic version, the beauty of the melody and intricacy of the guitar-playing move to the forefront. More on BR here.

Matt Howden - who performs and records as Sieben - has a new album on the point of release, and I'm going to write more about it early in the new year. This is a scintillating live rendition of one of the new songs, which Matt has been performing for a while. The video is full of great things: starting to strum the violin; putting the fiddle and bow down to sing the first verse; the eerie rhythm after the gorgeous first solo; 'brushing' the side of the violin - and that's all before the halfway mark and the bow-whirling....!

I've posted this track by Jo Quail before, but not this particular video. I never tire of this beautiful adrenaline-rush of a tune, and this version was performed in St Leonard's Church (not 'Chvrch', by the way) where she shared a bill with Bitter Ruin at a great concert a few months back. This gives you an idea of how powerful her sound and stage presence are in such a setting - the 'dance' to press the right pedals from 1:50; creating new layers at the two-minute mark to the flourishes with the bow at about 2.35, onto the astonishing downward run of notes at 2:55... and each time you think it can't build any further, it does.

I've covered Matt's music here, Jo's here, and their extraordinary collaboration as Rasp here.

The Disappointment Choir featured in my last blog entry here, and this is a lovely track from the newly-released album "Polar Ships". It shows everything that's great about them - harmonies from voices that seem to blend almost by accident, melancholy underpinned by propulsion, electronica jostling with acoustic guitar. At this rate, they'll give ballads a good name.

Another late-year surprise from a dark folk singer, Jordan Reyne, I first heard supporting Rome and Jo Quail in autumn. I'm sure any fan of those artists ... or, say, Dead Can Dance ... will love this. Certainly the most pagan Christmas record I've heard, and one of the best. (PS The video has strobe effects, so watch yourself..!)

Finally, I heard this wonderful piece by Arvo Part live for the first time this year. Particularly appropriate in the Britten centenary year, of course, this could be five of the most beautiful minutes of recorded music. Part created something not only respectful and stately, but also melodic and - importantly - still experimental. Seemingly limitless variations on the same scale work themselves out against a tolling bell, and the dynamics come from the volume and balance as different parts of the orchestra dominate. Very pleased to find this YouTube version shows the score - fascinating to see something that looks so sparse generate so much warmth of sound.

I'm aware that that's quite a sombre finish and I've managed to include what are essentially two pieces of funeral music in my best of the year's listening. See, it's not all 'Ho Ho Ho'! With that in mind, then, it's a good moment to lay 2013 to rest. Happy new year to you, and my best wishes for 2014.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Polar opposites: The Disappointment Choir

OK - full disclosure. The Disappointment Choir is a band made up of two friends of mine, Bob and Katy. I knew them both before they got the group together, and even played in another (way more casual) band with Katy for a while. So I'm not exactly an 'unbiased' listener.

That said, if I didn't really rate their music, it would be very easy, purely as an act of friendship, to share their announcements and links with little or no comment and just help get the word out. Well, 'the hell' with that. Their debut album "Polar Ships" has just come out and it's brilliant. Here's why.

When I first played it through, I experienced a kind of nostalgic rush - a flashback to the 80s, essentially. I don't mean that the songs sound retro - not in the least. I've seen the laptop Bob uses for music, and even the mouse pad looks like something only the children of the future could operate. I think it's more that the 80s - my decade of 'growing up to music' - is when we last really expected that pop music (not rock, not dance, not electronica) would also be soulful, would also mean something. Take your pick - for me, say, it might be Ultravox, Talk Talk or even the Human League - all in their own way picking up the Kraftwerk baton and conjuring something flesh-and-blood out of their youthful technology. Even my favourite pop of recent times doesn't quite do exactly this. The DC don't really sound like any of those 80s outfits, but they are unashamedly pop, and they are the first band in years that, for me, instil this definite sense of melancholy and longing into the chips and wires.

The songs are uniformly strong, although the album is slightly front-loaded with what you might call 'the hits' (the wonderful 'I Heard You're In Love', which sounds like the Pet Shop Boys telling the Magnetic Fields to sort themselves out, is followed by two more storming, pacey tracks) - which, following extensive research, makes the first half of the album slightly better to hoover to than the second. But the more tender and searching tracks, like 'Fairy Lights' or 'The Lock Keeper's Song', lodge themselves in your head as securely as the fast numbers.

The vocals are also key to why the record works so well. Bob mostly anchors affairs with a deadpan, yet intimate croon while Katy has one of those 'don't hear THAT very often' voices which combines steel and vulnerability to angelic effect. Unlike those acts (often families or siblings) where, so the cliche goes, the harmonies make this seemingly impossible, inseparable blend - Bob's and Katy's voices are absolutely nothing like each other whatsoever. This is actually a fantastic thing - they harmonise beautifully yet retain their quite distinct characters. You can listen to some tracks on repeat, focusing on one voice, and then the other, and get a whole new take on the song.

And that attention to detail leads me to the final thing I want to say about the album that makes me like it so much - it isn't seamless. In places, it belies the amount of machinery involved by acting knotty, angular and in-your-face. The arrangements and production are full to bursting with invention, so that instruments and sounds move in and out of the picture, constantly shifting - rhythms and beats change shape and mutate - blasts of synth one minute, followed by acoustic guitars the next.

They sound like a band of ten people, with the ideas of twenty. I am really, really proud of them.

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Allow me to bestow some links unto you.
  • You can hear the album on Soundcloud.
  • You can download it on iTunes and eMusic, although note that if you buy it from Bandcamp, you get an extra track (acoustic version of 'I Heard You're In Love').

Get it as an extra last-minute present to yourself.

And with that, please have a happy, safe and peaceful Christmas. I'll try and post something (lots to write about!) just before/after the New Year arrives, depending on ability to move out of dining-room chair, string sentences together, etc... Take care.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Ritual and reverence: more on St Leonard's

A few days ago, I wrote about one of my favourite bands, Bitter Ruin, and how they followed up a powerful live performance at St Leonard's, Shoreditch, with the release of a mesmerising new single. I also said in that post that I would almost certainly come back to the concert - and here I am, doing just that, while the experience is still lodged near the front of my memory. And 'experience' is the right word, because as the evening went on, it felt increasingly inadequate to think of it as just a 'gig'. It was actually a masterfully programmed event where every element slotted together like a jigsaw, and it provided a similar sense of elation as the concert came to an end and the final piece fell into place.

To begin with, I really admired the choice of artists: Mary Hampton played first, followed by Bitter Ruin, then Jo Quail, with Jarboe headlining. (Regular readers of the blog - thank you, darlings, thank you - will already know that I have favourites from this line-up, namely the middle two acts. Given that I found out about them at totally separate times and places, you can imagine how delightedly stunned I was to find them coincidentally sharing a bill.)

The artists involved are so original that there was no question of them all sounding like each other. But I did sense a kind of shared aesthetic that made the line-up click. Not visually so much (although the visuals played an exhilarating part in proceedings - see below)... more that they were all perfect choices for the St Leonard's acoustic, and each creates music carrying a certain level of ritual and reverence appropriate to the setting.

This ceremonial atmosphere was established so successfully, I believe, because of the way the event was allowed to build. It helps, of course, that St Leonard's has most of us ranged in pews and that there is no to-ing and fro-ing to a noisy bar throughout. But you don't get a crypt-like silence from a crowd just by removing distractions. Mary Hampton initially looked for all the world like a textbook opening act - and playing solo and seated, she could easily have been a little too low-key, had she not sounded utterly beguiling. That otherworldly voice, high but strong (and she performs one song with no instrument at all), focuses the audience completely on her static figure and her set is over before you even notice the time.

Bitter Ruin are more used to a bustling audience and seize the opportunity to make the most of everyone's undivided attention. They bring catharsis to the ritual - effortlessly mobile, but carrying off some truly staggering singing and guitar-playing, they enact their dramas-in-miniature as if each number was their last. Some of their songs hold back, the rhythm or energy going round in cycles, never quite losing control (the single, 'Diggers', is a good example of this) - while others are all about release, and build to colossal climaxes that threaten to raise the church roof even higher.

So, with the inaudible buzz in the congregation now running at a higher pitch, it was the perfect time for Jo Quail to take the stage. I've written about Jo a couple of times now (after first seeing her live, and as part of Rasp with Sieben's Matt Howden), but there is always more to say. For those unfamiliar: Jo's solo live act is just her, an electric cello, and a loop station. Without any pre-recorded elements, she builds up instrumentals of stunning variety, whether cool, measured, near-ambient meditations or raging, highly rhythmic pieces that build layer by layer into expressions of sheer orchestral joy.

A few things make this performance particularly special. For a start, it's the longest set I've seen Jo play - so, result. Also - and I touched on something similar about Bitter Ruin's presentation, too, in my previous post - Jo looked absolutely spectacular. As she mentioned onstage, she was wearing a dress made specially for her, and it really was remarkable - folds of material swirling round her, but with enough room for manoeuvre so that her feet, as usual, could dart left and right through the fabric like lightning to operate the loop pedals. It was like a feminine armour in rich, earth-tones that seemed so fitting for the music (which takes a great deal of inspiration from geographical locations and phenomena) and - perhaps by happy accident - the church backdrop, where Jo seemed to form a natural, visual focus for the candlelight and wood around her.

I realise I've wandered away from the music to discuss this, but this gig was special enough for the people involved to dress up. This isn't trivial. By this time, I knew I was at something unique. Act by act, the evening had surpassed my already high expectations, over and over. Visually, as well as aurally, it was starting to spoil me for future concerts. I can conjure up Jo's music in my head anytime I like, but now it's almost always accompanied with a view of her onstage that appears painted by a genius - where everything toned, matched, connected and sang.

And - I had never heard Jo play 'unplugged' before. During the set, she moved to the side of the stage and played a piece from her forthcoming album on a 'normal', acoustic cello - so no pedals or effects. As you start to lose yourself following the beautiful melody, a chiming note begins to recur alongside it, and for a few seconds you think - 'Ah! there's the loop.' But of course, it isn't - Jo is doing all of it, all at once, live, sounding the note with her left hand while playing the tune with the bow. I love the playfulness of that - the fact that JQ 'regulars' (like me) would be waiting for a 'loop', which duly comes, even though it shouldn't - wedded to the consistency of approach: the electronic facility might not be there, but the hypnotic, recurring elements should remain, and so they do.

Strictly speaking, Jo was 'my' headliner, as Jarboe was the act on the bill I knew the least about. I had admired her work in the band Swans, and heard her solo material in fits and starts, but was reasonably certain I wouldn't have heard anything she was due to play (supported solely by P Emerson Williams on acoustic guitar).

It didn't matter. Jarboe was clearly intent on maximising the ritualistic element. Again, the visuals were deliberate and important - PEW appeared in faintly druidic garb (dark, hooded) and didn't so much strum as caress sounds out of his guitar, displaying a delicate, ringing style that hinted at free-form. In a slight departure from the solemn-rite approach, he was clearly having a brilliant time and spent much of the set grinning broadly. I approve of this sort of thing. Jarboe, however, in a long red dress, barefoot, didn't once depart from her own personal space: never acknowledging the audience, between songs gazing at either her feet, or the art in the church. And I found myself approving of that, too. They made a good double act, PEW animated and fluid, Jarboe - her lyric book on the lectern - largely fixed to the spot, sha(wo)manic, spellbound, like a pagan angel. She sang beautifully, and we were in the palm of her hand, even though we may as well not have been there.

In a final masterstroke, typical of the whole evening, Jarboe did not even stay to acknowledge applause. In the dying bars of her final number, she exited down the church aisle. PEW kept playing while Jo Quail took the stage once more, and they closed the event with an absorbing, exuberant duet. It seemed designed to bring the audience out of their trance, and walk back out of the church with strings ringing in their ears instead of bells.

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Since I've talked so much about how well the evening was put together, I should mention the organisers - Alan Pride and collective Chaos Theory - so you can watch out for other events they put on.

Also, here for your convenience are two videos that you should definitely see if you haven't already (I've posted both before and am unashamedly repeating myself): Bitter Ruin's splendid single 'Diggers', and the amazing 'Laurus' by Jo Quail.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Single-minded: Bitter Ruin

All of us are snuggled up into our jackets in the pews of St Leonards, Shoreditch. We are one act into a bill of four artists (who all perform so brilliantly that I think I'm probably going to come back to this concert in at least one further post). The church is dimly lit, with an almost sinister splendour, and provides spine-tingling acoustics.

Bitter Ruin take the stage. I've written about them before, but for those of you unfamiliar with either the band, or this blog (welcome, welcome), a summary: as a duo performing live, they are Georgia Train (vocals) and Ben Richards (vocals and guitar). Whatever might have instantly leapt into your mind while thinking 'a girl, a boy and an acoustic': forget it. Georgia has astonishing range and flexibility and can switch from operatic power to seductive whisper within a verse; Ben - no mean singer himself - displays similar dexterity on the guitar whether he's firing off flamenco-like runs or hard rock riffs.

This is ideal, because the songs don't slot easily into any genre: you might think they're folk one minute or a kind of jazz / torch song approach the next - no, wait, that's metal - my mistake, it's Americana. I mean this entirely as a compliment: both they and their songs are so full of distinctive character and presence that they make all these influences gel quite seamlessly. They amplify their music not just aurally, but visually, too: they bring in a sense of performance art and choreography, habitually dressing in a particular, near-matching style, and acting out some of the more intense numbers with utterly convincing ferocity. They may cover the whole stage for one song, take seats for the next, perform a third back-to-back - constantly stimulating the audience's eyes, ears and minds.

This song is their new single, 'Diggers' (which is available for download here). It's a perfect demonstration of the band's restrained power, as if coiled ready to strike, and how they can take what might seem to be something straightforward on first listen and layer it with complexity and elegance. Ben's repeated chant is the first element to get under your skin, and then you might notice how Georgia's vocal orbits around the mantra, constantly shifting parts of the tune, singing part-words. (Georgia's descending vocal just past the two-minute mark - not heard anywhere else in the song - is heart-melting.) This 'more than meets the ear' quality keeps me coming back to their music time and time again, always hearing new things after God alone knows how many plays. 'Diggers', in particular, is like a beautiful haunting.

The St Leonards gig is the first time I've seen them play live as a support for some time, so there is a slight difference in the dynamic from when I've been watching them lately as part of 'their' crowd. They look a little bit different and rather brilliant - the muted colours are absent and Georgia has swapped her usual flowing skirt for glittering leggings, Ben is sporting a patterned shirt. I mention this not to draw attention away from the music or discuss image or glamour - more to say that the attire made them seem somehow more lithe, agile and hungry. They made more space around themselves. They adapted from their usual rock venues - more claustrophobic environments like the Borderline (for London dwellers), say - to fill the sky-high space of St Leonards with their personalities and tune after glorious tune. They moved away from the microphones to sing and play their final song among the audience, directly into the acoustic - literally walking into our space, coming to get us. Succeeding.

Bitter Ruin's new album 'Waves' is due out next spring, but as well as 'Diggers', you can listen to their previous EPs on their Spotify page here, or go to their website for more information. Make haste!

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Voice-activated: rediscovering opera

Recently, I started going to the opera. Properly. I had been a few times when considerably younger (early 20s - mine, obviously, not 'the') and I'll come back to those experiences a bit later. Since those days, I had listened to plenty of classical, choral and operatic music but only really tackled the first couple of categories live.

However, regular readers of this blog (thank you, darlings, thank you) may recall that I had a baptism of fire during the summer - literally, given the temperature in the Royal Albert Hall - by seeing all four operas of Wagner's Ring cycle in a week. I realise this was quite a 'high-risk' enterprise and that I could've emerged thinking that was enough opera for another twenty years, but I had the opposite reaction. I was immediately desperate to hear more, although perhaps while making use of a seat and not reaching desert-exploration levels of dehydration.

Cue my initial, wary investigations on the Royal Opera House website. I went for the Royal Opera House rather than the English National Opera at the Coliseum, by the way, not out of snobbishness, but because I just feel instinctively that I would prefer to hear the operas in their original language rather than in translation. It feels to me along the same lines as watching a dubbed film instead of a subtitled version. One of the early opera visits I mention above was to a production of 'Eugene Onegin' in English. Against the climactic crescendo of the second act (if I remember rightly), with all the dramatic power she could muster, the soprano sang: "There goes a shepherd. The world's at peace. I'm not." And we're talking a local theatre budget here, so there wasn't even a shepherd. I made a mental note to try and hear operas in their original language from that point on.

The Royal Opera House website is clever, attractive and slightly scary. Once you find a production that interests you, you will see ticket price ranges like "£7 - £160' *faints*. Then, you move on to the booking stage, and come across seating areas with matchlessly flamboyant names, like the Donald Gordon Grand Tier ("Hello, Donald!" "Hello, Gordon!") or the Amphitheatre Upper and Lower Slips. Fortunately, the Google street van* (*possibly - not sure) has been round the auditorium and photographed not only the view from every seat in the place to show you what it's like, but also the seat itself. And no wonder, since a lot of them seem to carry a health warning. The really cheap options tend to have some kind of restricted view element, occasionally with the description "not suitable for those of short stature". Others aren't even fixed to the floor. (Not sure how these seats actually retain their position in the space-time continuum - maybe people are just all wedged in and held in a kind of stasis? "Warning: this seat isn't actually there.")

This continues once you actually receive your ticket. Mind the steep stairs! No armrests! What next - "Beware! Contains opera!" on the envelope? Opera needn't carry any kind of reputation for being elitist - not at all - but extreme? Yes! This isn't for wimps. You don't necessarily need affluence, but you do need application.

The truth is: once you get one visit under your belt, this sort of thing never worries you again. I had been to the Royal Opera House before - another of those early brushes with arias and graces - to see 'Turandot' with my friend Laura from the US. That evening is a very fond memory, and my excitement on returning was definitely blended with nostalgia. However, it was different this time because the House had undergone its most recent facelift a few years after that visit. Inside, you now glide past pre-performance diners on an escalator through a palatial atrium up to the roof terrace. This extra shot of modernity actually suits the place well, and its air of slightly posh chaos takes away any potential intimidation.

I've now found that the main Amphitheatre seats suit me very well (and they will be even better if I can slightly reduce my own 'rear stalls' at some point), so I go for those when booking. They are broadly speaking, the price of a mid-level rock gig. You are high up, but this gives you the opportunity to take everything into your field of vision - the stage, of course, plus the surtitles - without straining your neck - and you also have a view of the conductor and orchestra, which I really enjoy. (Just for the avoidance of doubt - as it's quite a jargon-y word - 'surtitles' just means the English translation, like subtitles, displayed above rather than below the action. I confess that the first time I came across this word it was hearing it aloud, and I couldn't make sense of it at all. "Ah! Sir Titles! Have you met Lady Appellation?")

By complete coincidence, extremity has been a major factor in the first couple of operas I've seen there since my 'sabbatical': 'Elektra' by R Strauss and Berg's 'Wozzeck'. The former is myth, the latter modern - but the parallels are striking. For example, in how they're performed: 'Elektra' is a single act, and while Berg's opera is divided into three acts of five scenes each (it's a stylistic tour de force where each section is based around a musical form or technique, and it directly reflects the fragmentary state of the main character's mind), it was played out with no break to alleviate the tension. They are both studies in madness - Elektra driven demented by her desire to revenge her father Agamemnon's death, and Wozzeck the victim of medical experiments sanctioned by the authorities - and both call for extraordinary onstage deaths.

Elektra (who normally survives in most versions of this part of the myth) has to die at the climax of a jubilant dance once vengeance is achieved - and this production solved that slightly odd decision brilliantly by having her energy desert her before she collapses, exhaling, seemingly of a heart attack. Equally, Wozzeck - after killing his lover, has to wander into a pool where he has thrown his bloody knife, and drown. The extraordinary stage set, tiled like a laboratory as if everything we see is played back in the lab-rat Wozzeck's mind, included a series of tanks - one filled with water, already blood-red from the earlier murder. Simon Keenlyside, in the lead role, climbed in right in front of us, submerged himself and stayed still, underwater, for the remaining 10 minutes or so of the opera. They use an almost invisible breathing tube to achieve this (and avoid ritualistically slaughtering baritones) but the effect is spine-chilling.

Having my love of opera re-ignited by concert performances, I'm actually still getting used to seeing proper staging, and the alternative interpretations it allows. In 'Elektra', there was a deliberately early 20th century appearance - the notes on the House website helpfully explain that the production is designed to evoke the emergence of psychology and loosening of morals during that time, appropriate for the 'actual' era of the myth. As such, the palace has a glassy wall and the entrance is by a revolving door. Brilliantly, horrifically, the offstage murders at the climax as Orest carries out the revenge are shown by the blood splashing the glass from behind, until the battered, dying Agisth careers around in the revolving door, only to be pulled back in to be finished off.

Clearly, the whole look of the productions has preoccupied me, because that element is still, for me, the novelty. As it turns out, what I've seen first has been 'horror-movie' intense (I'm not really expecting much of this sort of thing when I see 'The Marriage of Figaro' next year). But none of it would work without the sublime playing of the Royal Opera House orchestra, and the fearless performances of the casts. I've already mentioned Simon K's athletic feats during 'Wozzeck' and even more impressive, for me, were Christine Goerke as Elektra and Iain Paterson as Orest in 'Elektra'. Elektra is a 'rite of passage' role for sopranos with stamina, and Goerke simply owned the stage, always on the move, relentless and malevolent. Both she and Paterson were particularly accomplished at singing such a demanding score while really acting - again, something that is less prominent in a concert performance. For all the blood and thunder, I will never forget Orest, the deed accomplished, sinking down by the desk where Elektra lies motionless, unable to look at the body or answer his surviving sister.

Musically, both of these operas are 'challenging' - there's not much in the way of pretty melodies (although plenty of dark, anguished beauty) or show-stopping arias - but only in the sense that the dissonant, edgy, sinewy music matches the equally disturbing subject matter. Seeing them live brings home the idea of opera as Wagner's 'total experience', where the music and drama unite to create a kind of separate artform. The way the music conveyed by both singers and orchestra can act on your emotions, sometimes independently of each other. The volume and power that the great performers can give a line. Where they choose to be, what they do, and what happens in the silences.

Productions like these show how vital, energetic, arresting and uncompromising opera can be. But now, after being smacked about the head a couple of times with my cast-sheet, the next opera I'm seeing is long, mystical and heady: 'Parsifal'. I'll report back.