There is nothing new about the playing of live music during film screenings. Dig back more than a hundred years and you'll find the pianist taking a central role as the Lumiere brothers premiered their images in Paris. For years, movies had no sound and it was left to increasingly elaborate scores from musicians to provide the mood. Talkies arrived and a great swathe of musicians lost their livelihoods. Could the times be changing again? Public Service Broadcasting were a festival hit in 2013 with their Pathe newsreel soundtracks and, after seeing Nordic Giants at Nottingham's Bodega Social club on Monday, I have little doubt that they'll create a similar must-see buzz in 2014 with their musical interpretations of artistic short films.
Before Nordic Giants take to the stage, the support act, Alright the Captain, don't. That is, only their drummer takes to the stage. I've never seen this band before so I don't know if it's their shtick or if they are forced into playing from within the crowd because the stage is so crowded with Nordic Giant gear but it's an idea that works well. There are three of them and they're jamming in a dodgy triangle. Guitarist, Marty Toner, faces bass player, Todd Wood, (who also crafts sound out of keyboards) whilst their drummer who could be called Jamie, throws his sweat on proceedings from above. As with the headline act, this is complicated, atmospheric instrumental stuff. A bewildering array of effects pedals help to provide a range of rock guitar sounds. With more time changes than days in the year, they probably give us post rock, surf rock, noise rock, jazz rock and math rock. It's certainly loud, technically proficient and possibly indulgent. Alright The Captain play with good humour, humility and enthusiasm and the crowd are polite in response.
Nordic Giants are a duo from Brighton but they could be from another planet. They don't speak and cover themselves in black feathery bird like costumes. The giant on the left mostly stands behind laptops, keyboards and screens but sometimes moves away from his equipment to bash a cymbal at the front of the stage and to play trumpet. The giant on the right mostly and wildly plays drums but sometimes, and in the gentler moments of this set, comes to the front of the stage to play guitar with a bow. If this was any other band, I'd be marvelling at their musicianship but, as in the silent movies, my attention is elsewhere. Amidst a dazzling, strobing and blinking light show, dulled by the haze of the smoke machine, the screen is the thing.
There's a mix of short films on show tonight. Some tell stories and have actors in you vaguely recognise. Others are animations, black and white sketches. All of them take you into another world, a different universe. These films have been made by men and women with vivid imaginations and it's to varying degrees, breathless, claustrophobic and beautiful. Each was made with its own soundtrack but the originals are muted to be replaced with Nordic Giant accompaniment.
The stand out films on the night for me are The Last Breath, directed by David Jackson and Pencilhead, directed by Pencilhead. The Last Breath is set by an idyllic countryside lake. You're made aware of the title and when you realise that this is a film about scuba diving you fear for those going underwater. That fear is justified but the plot is less predictable. Pencilhead is a stunning black and white animation. With a nod to anime, scenes creatively transform with the mark of the pencil being the only constant.
So, back to the music. What's it like? There are some obvious comparisons. At times it's epic, truly cinematic, layered with emotion and reminiscent of Sigur Ros. There are jump out of the skin moments, perfectly timed for maximum impact to coincide with explosions and collisions on the screen. There are pastoral, orchestral moments setting the scene for images of overwhelming beauty. There's a descent into a murky soul music for some accompaniment with pre-recorded vocals providing a laid back, almost XX like feel to proceedings; and then there's the preachy, Baz Luhrmann like prophecies that come to the fore in Together that are overlaid on Pencilhead . Suffice to say, it just works and the craft on display here is astonishing. Note perfect, technically excellent, its enhancing our viewing experience but not invading into it at every opportunity.
It's a busy room in Nottingham tonight but nobody is going wild. In between songs and films, one isn't really sure how to respond. There's polite clapping and a few whoops that rise above a general hushed awe. People aren't talking and only a few get their phones out to record or take snaps. Some try to dance or at least sway in time to the music but most stand to attention, hypnotised by the images on the screen, like extras from a Zombie film.
It feels like the eyes have barely had time to blink but a look at my watch reveals that 40 minutes have passed. The two giants come to the front of the stage and take a ponderous bow. They leave the stage as credits play on the projector. There is to be no encore here but instead we get to see how The Last Breath ends. Silently, we file out off the Bodega, very aware that weve just seen something very special indeed. Nordic Giants will be playing those festival tents this year. Make it your business to go and see them.