​Alessandro Cortini / Phil Western Fox Cabaret, Vancouver BC, April 23

​Alessandro Cortini / Phil Western Fox Cabaret, Vancouver BC, April 23
Photo: Steve Louie
Drawing a decent albeit chatty crowd for a Thursday night, there was an interesting symmetry to this evening of synth nerdery. With Sarah Davachi and Richard Smith finishing up their set around the same time as the Canucks playoff game, this set the table for one of the most awkward sets imaginable. One of the unsung heroes of the Vancouver music community as a mentor, sound guy, and contributor to so many Download, Kone, PlatEAU, and Skinny Puppy projects, Phil Western had planned to start off ambient and build intensity throughout his set, peaking with a mosh of strobes, fog, and aural chaos. Unfortunately, the building had other plans.
Right off the bat, fog blanketed Western's station so thickly that you couldn't see the old Fox porno theatre marquee behind the bar from the front of the stage. The lighting was kept minimal at first, just a few sparse blues draped across the floor and strobing white and red behind the performer as he layered ARP Odyssey and bass guitar over an evolving ambient base. Unfortunately, ten minutes in, the power onstage suddenly kicked off. The house turned on a string of lights, but they were comically useless in fog that was so dense you couldn't even see five feet away. Western emerged before long, wandering around the venue to try to find the breaker box, mumbling that he had no idea where it was. It would be another nine minutes until his station regained power.
With the house lights turned back off, Western picked up where he left off, heading towards a noise-laced crescendo. The blinding strobes blitzed for a seizure-inducing five straight minutes, forcing most of the crowd to either close or avert their eyes, which could have been a cool effect, but the venue turned down his volume a touch when he needed it to go bigger, and then his power cut out again anyway. This time, he decided to call it a day and started breaking down his gear, looking understandably annoyed at having only made it 25 minutes into his idea.
Contrastingly, Alessandro Cortini had a much easier go of it. Granted, it didn't appear that he was taking quite as many risks as Western, going for more of a meditative instead of nauseating effect. The expert knob twiddler for Nine Inch Nails and How to Destroy Angels reportedly set his mind to present a live version of his 2014 solo album Sonno, an album made entirely with a Roland MC 202 and delay pedal, although several of the tracks he ended up presenting sounded more like the music from his Forse trilogy, which was all based on the Buchla Music Easel. In any case, in this setting, he performed on a pedal board, doing live manipulations of audio tracks he prepared earlier that would play and pause in between. Yet, Cortini was obviously getting in there and tweaking things, his renditions of "Rovine" and "Voltaggio Solitario" adding a greater depth of sound while slowly evolving blurs of recording gear and nature (waves, trees, and the like) projected on the big screen behind him.
With the smoke thankfully dissipating throughout his set, Cortini kept his head down, his face mostly concealed by glasses and the brim of his hat. He wasn't showy, but he nodded out the beats while tweaking sequences with untold effects, sounding closer to early Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works II than his work with Trent Reznor. His set was perfectly timed out to 45 minutes, coinciding to run out while the last inch of magnetic tape passed over the head of a reel-to-reel onscreen. Its perfection provided a rather fascinating if unintentional contrast to the chaos of Western's set.