For the uninitiated, Drogheda can be deceptive.
A small, sleepy Irish town with an ever-diversifying population, some have deemed it a mini-Dublin due to the mix of the historical and the modern (no greater example than how the Scotch Hall Shopping Centre sits closely to the Boyne). And in recent years, it’s seen a greater influx of tourists attempting to tap into this vibe.
But Drogheda has a much darker and (dare I say) macabre side to it.
Aside from the obvious (displaying Oliver Plunkett’s head in St Peter’s Church on the main street), it’s worth bearing in mind Cromwell’s massacre in 1649 and the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. While the former has lingered in the popular nationalist psyche as an example of the brutality inflicted upon them by the British, the latter is regularly commemorated in triumphant fashion, with these being one of the many foundations that the recent conflict was founded upon. The spectres of the Rosnaree Hotel shooting and the killing of Dominic McGlinchey still remain for those who know and arguably feeds into the sound of the town’s drill scene.
So, Drogheda is the perfect setting for Norman Westberg. Like the town, his music embodies dark pasts and new beginnings. Renowned for his tenure in Swans (after Killing Joke, The greatest band to have walked the Earth), the last ten years have seen a steady number of solo releases from the Detroit legend, going for a mix of ambience and drone.
Located on Stockwell Street, the Droichead Arts Centre is a fitting place for the evening’s show owing to a small auditorium which provides a reverential atmosphere, something that Westberg himself acknowledges at the start of the set.
Beginning with a gentle but persistent loop, Westberg proceeds to play his guitar but, instead of the traditional sound of the instrument, it is fed back into the array of pedals on the table in front of him and comes out around a second later as a counterpart to the loop.
The direct consequence of this is that the hour-long show can be divided into three measures: the first twenty minutes sees Westberg produce sounds that lean towards the ambient/chillout side of his work, then the second segment becomes darker and heavier (thanks to the use of muted palming) and the closing part sounds much more pastoral, signifying birth and new beginnings.
It’s quite the journey, but one that is exciting, sensuous and evocative.
All the while Westberg is playing, a film plays behind him. Beginning in darkness, before taking on the form of lighting seen out of a rain-streaked car at 3 in the morning and growing to encompass the screen, it manages to be sinister, comforting and psychedelic at the same time. Perfect match for the music.
All in all, a highly successful evening proving that Norman Westberg is much, much more than Michael Gira’s right hand man.
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.