The Utopia Strong – Live at The Ritz, Manchester 25th March 2023
A forty minute meditation, drawing rapt attention from the audience, stilled by the slowly moving and developing drone improvisation. Supporting Steve Hillage, The Utopia Strong had a crowd that would follow them on their forty-minute meander.
The improvised set begins with shapeless sound and gathers form as the members come into the sound, responding and clarifying ideas. Kavus Torabi from Gong and The Cardiacs plays the harmonium while Michael J York, from Coil and The Holy Family is working electronics, sequencer, keys. Steve Davis processes and adds to the sound through his modular synthesiser. Focussed and semi-hidden behind their kit much of the time, Michael and Steve’s jobs are not visibly distinct, making the overall sonic montage a pleasing group effort. Of course the imposingly tall and thin Kavus gets a lot of attention when he takes front stage but, within the music, there is no grandstanding.
The first piece (there are only two in the forty-minute set) carries a degree of beat and the band alternate between chiming bells, bagpipes, harmonium, bagpipes and a venerable Casio VL-Tone synth / calculator. Torabi grabs visual focus with his guitar and with his wordless vocals but there are no histrionic guitar solos, despite his visible pleasure in the sound. The second piece is the meat of it, opening with slow sounds that have the feel of a farewell, Kavus steps up and, with his waving arms,facial expressions and vocals, appears to be making a lengthy benediction. Steve turns up the heavy sound production making deep and intense pressure, smiling as he gets it how he wants. Kavus comes back in with an electric vibrato tool applied to his guitar and Michael grits his teeth and concentrates, manipulating the sounds he’s produced on synth and wind, stretching and forming them.
The whole is a surprisingly tasty swim in a protein-rich soup of tone and sound-pressure. Live music is almost always best and, despite tasty examples of the band’s performances on Bandcamp, the experience of being undistracted, following the creation and manipulation with eyes as well as ears, makes the performance absorbing and refreshing.
This was an ideal opening for Steve Hillage, whose band was the whole current Gong line-up, including the ever-busy Kavus Torabi. Gong are currently a storming band, capable of kicking up a psychedelic storm and should be caught at any opportunity.