It’s difficult to know where to begin with a review of this extraordinary event at the ACCA. Elizabeth Bernholz, better known as Gazelle Twin, is a lauded composer, producer and performer of dark electronica. Returning to the place of her music-student days, she always swerves any preconceptions. You might say Bernholz is a chameleon-like performer, taking on the persona her music demands: the lycra-disguised jester on a hobby horse of ‘Pastoral’, poking and writhing with Britain in decline; or one of the shadowy figures swathed in red and black for the ‘Deep England’/NYX spell circle. The thing is though with Gazelle Twin it never becomes a stage show, she inhabits all the sounds and the imagery, the surreal feels real. So the promised presentation of her new album ‘Black Dog’, a haunting examination of memory, self and depression, dares you to second guess the impact of what may be coming.
‘Warming up’ the audience for a Gazelle Twin experience is a tough call but UK-based Slovak singer-songwriter Nina Kohout produces a powerful set which steadily dials up the emotional intensity. A recipient of the Gazelle Twin scholarship and now studying further things musical at Sussex, the poignancy of what is possibly one of her biggest gigs is not lost on the performer. Right here, right now, with Gazelle Twin plus her father, flown in from Slovakia that day, stood at her side with his clarinets, ready to weave lyrical lines into the sounds… there’s plenty for Nina Kohout to deal with but deal with it she does.
Moving between loop station, keys and a classy telecaster, Kohout glides through a seven-song set with presence, careful pacing and her confident, expressive vocals out front. Here’s music that thrives on the fusion of emotive Slovak folk melodies with lush dream-wave pop, dramatic neo-goth beats and the occasional hint of tense trip hop undertones. Sounds potentially messy but Kohout’s obvious songcraft creates a voice of its own. That shows tonight from the moment the looping Balkan choir and Kohout senior’s snaking reed patterns welcome in the eerie opener ‘EMA’ and continues to the jangling sway of closer ‘Song Of An Unborn Mother’. Elsewhere surprises sneak up and thrill, the crunching doom riff coda in ‘Little Butterfly’, the delicate minimalism of the lullaby ‘Prebúdzanka’ and it’s all carried off with a tinge of Florence And The Machine theatrics. She’s playing a Hidden Herd night at the Hope & Ruin on Jan 24th so set that reminder now.
The stage set for Gazelle Twin reveals a scene that could almost suggest cosy. An old velvet armchair and fringe-shaded standard lamp stage left, the large bohemian rug in the centre, a stool, an angle poise and upright reel-to-reel tape recorder to the right, home movies and a quiet night in for Elizabeth Bernholz maybe? What follows is more like stark exposure and sonic intensity both toxic and intoxicating.
Talking about the ‘Black Dog’ album, Gazelle Twin has pointed to childhood dreams, potent creature images, associations with her family home and premonitions now she is herself a parent. Tonight as we are taken into those rooms and thoughts as she unravels the complete ‘Black Dog’ narrative, it’s like stepping way beyond any visitation into something more personal and honest. Beginning in darkness except for the back projection of a lonely house, the bucolic ring of ‘Sweet Dreams’ tingles innocently as the tension ramps up. You are aware of the singer lurking somewhere, or maybe not, then that voice, clear, pristine, arrowed, “I disappear in the night/swallow begins its flight…” You can sense the collective gasp of an audience hooked on sound without any visual distraction.
Yes, Gazelle Twin, the disturber of equilibrium, is on a mission and from here you feel there’s no turning back. The standard lamp flicks on, perfectly timed, to frame her arched in the chair whispering the start of ‘Black Dog’ as the growling electronics and fractured dub beats career around the room. Her shadow form is projected behind her, curving through a diminishing cascade of multiples, kaleidoscopic and disorientating then snap, lights off… a pause for recovery… and applause.
As powerful as this set piece is, Gazelle Twin is not chair-bound all night. She moves stage centre for some songs and it’s there in the spotlight, shiny sky-blue trouser suit, dark hair slicked back, strikingly gaunt, that the aura of the Thin White Duke shimmers. She’s also stoically hand-micing tonight, relishing the freedom of movement it brings for the operatic chaos of ‘Two Worlds’ and the heavy glitch, darkwave paranoia of ‘Fear Keeps Us Alive’. It’s here that her exceptional vocal characterisation paints the mood with a morphing switch back between the predator and pursued, while the frantic physicality of her dance against the thudding beats mesmerises. At the song’s abrupt end, she exhales deeply and drops the mic to the floor.
With this performance you recognise how key the lack of instrument paraphernalia is to Gazelle Twin’s dramatic intent. The focus, like the song’s themes, is on everyday things, a chair, a carpet, a stool, a person and their subconscious interconnections. An extended ‘The Long Room’ (maybe looped with the older track ‘Phobia’ from the ‘Out Of Body’ soundtrack) is a pitch-perfect illustration of the approach, Bernholz sat next to the tape player rocking and singing to the outsider lullaby borders the hypnotic.
But Gazelle Twin is still the conductor of this otherworldly soundscape, blending and sequencing the songs with barefoot dexterity through pedals deftly placed around her props. From subtle, inconspicuous actions she conjures up some stunning electronica, the incredulous reverb around her voice as the massive beats of ‘I Walk Through Walls’ pound or the glistening Numanesque synth waves that break through the rhythms. She can also find and communicate resolution in these deep caverns. The throbbing incantation of ‘Author Of You’ probes on exhaustingly until the bass pulses calm, then quits. Immediately the full house lights go up revealing us to her, and her to us, in a brilliantly realised moment of shared catharsis. From her chair she closes with the heart-swelling piano/voice ballad ‘A Door Opens’ that edges close to hope with “a sweet dream for now” and that final sighing major chord.
Appreciation is high, standing, clapping, gathering thoughts but Gazelle Twin slips off briskly with the lights cutting back to black as suddenly as they came up. How could we expect a conventional encore ritual? Soon the forceful advance of staccato strings fills the room and Gazelle Twin is centre stage, fragmented in the strobe effect for the brutalist hymn that is ‘Unstoppable Force’. The beats are kept rampant with Bernholz’s movement relentlessly self-punishing and intent on leaving an indelible impression. It succeeds and people leave strangely energised if slightly off balance. The ACCA has the knack of luring singular, seminal artists to play in its impressive concert hall and is developing a reputation as a place where the very special is never far away. With Gazelle Twin came another addition to its growing list of nights to remember.
Find out more about the upcoming Autumn shows at ACCA here
The Attenborough Centre For Creative Arts, Friday 24th November 2023
Words by John Parry
Photos by Victor Frankowski