Let’s hear it for those who take risks with their live show. On recordings as Manitoba or Caribou, Dan Snaith exhibits the demeanor of an electro-psychedelic perfectionist, layering sounds and textures into a dense swirl. That’s the kind of drag-and-drop approach that doesn’t always translate well to the stage, but it’s never thrown off Snaith, who has turned his band into a ferocious live animal. With a PhD in mathematics, Snaith is aware of the Boadrum Theorem– live awesomeness increases exponentially by the number of drummers onstage– and bolsters that rhythmic attack with projections, costumes, and a willingness to expand upon a song’s recorded blueprint.
For 2009’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in New York, Snaith was able to indulge those practices to their fullest with the 15-piece Caribou Vibration Ensemble, a two-off (including a Toronto warm-up show) project now commoditized into a limited-edition double-vinyl live release. You want drummers? They’ve got four of them, plus a horn section led by Sun Ra sideman Marshall Allen, Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden on the knobs, and a gaggle of other friends to broadcast the noises in Snaith’s head. The crowded stage allows him to gets closer than ever to replicating the overstuffed studio sound of Caribou, while also enabling a few flashes of deep musical exploration.
The songs picked for this set were already pretty busy on record, where Snaith seems determined to find the maximum amount of sound he can pack into a song without collapsing into chaos. Here, he finds that tipping point and then unleashes Allen’s alto saxophone into the carnage on the other side. “Skunks”, from the Manitoba days, already had a healthy dose of free-jazz skronk, so it doesn’t change much under this strategy. But “Barnowl”, from 2005’s The Milk of Human Kindness, gets a full makeover, almost doubling its recording length. On the album version, the song’s motorik beat chugs along relatively unperturbed; here, it’s tormented and decimated until it flies apart into a thrilling wall of freeform noise, then reconstructed more menacingly than before.
Not everything here is so densely exhausting. “Melody Day” is a haunting exception, reversing the more-is-more premise and stripping down the original to harmonies, a moving, unnoisy sax solo, and ghostly electronics. Other songs don’t receive dramatic reworkings from their album version, but still get a fresh gloss from the large ensemble taking the place of backing tapes. Manitoba/Caribou records benefit from being played at loud volume, but here the live mix does the work for you, unleashing the overwhelming drum corps stampede of “Every Time She Turns Round It’s Her Birthday” and “Hendrix with Ko” while Allen’s horn section wails like a circus tent full of frightened elephants.
Of course, hearing that noisy ruckus on wax is likely a poor substitute for seeing the set live; the multiplicative majesty of multiple drum sets is an effect that needs to be felt as much as heard. Through home speakers, the set feels a bit claustrophobic in a way that probably didn’t hurt experiencing it live in the Catskills, where all those vibrating reeds and drum heads would wash over and through the crowd. Such is the curse of any live recording, which makes it all the more important for the event being documented to be something special, to provide more than just crowd noise and stage banter. That’s not a problem here, where the brief, fascinating existence of Snaith’s impractical ensemble was definitely worth preserving.
— Rob Mitchum, October 6, 2010