Lydia Lunch’s Retrovirus at Cafe Oto, London, 06.03.16

Lydia Lunch’s Retrovirus plays a long-awaited show at the Café Oto in London

lydia lunch retrovirus london march 2016Lydia Lunch is a no-wave icon, her career spanning many decades and pulling punches all along the way. Lunch is generally one not to stick with the same band for too long, her collabs including Rowland S Howard (and other members of the Birthday Party), Sonic Youth, Einsturzende Neubauten and many, many more. Retrovirus sees her covering older, “classic” songs in her back catalogue with a hard no-wave edge to add a new twist to each track.

After timing issues last year it was a bit up in the air whether Retrovirus would make it to London this time – the band had tried to play Café Oto in the summer but a strike/riot around the Channel Tunnel had prevented their access to the country. Nothing the band could help, of course, but it did feel like a bad omen. But here they are, playing the hip Café Oto near Hackney in London with support from the Dustbreeders – an experimental and noisy trio in a similar vein as early Einsturzende Neubauten but without the custom instruments. The Dustbreeders shook the dust out of the rafters with their drones, scrapes and general apocalyptic sounds (if such a thing exists, here it is).

Retrovirus spun out a bit of intro sound for the arrival of Lydia Lunch to the stage, a waft of goth-perfume surrounding her. Lunch launches straight into her unique and often intimidating persona, her voice and lyrics taking no prisoners. There’s an overall theme of murder, sex and simultaneous sex & murder – something in the air made it apparent that a lot of the hipsters in attendance weren’t expecting this at all.

“Some boys have the urge to kill”, sings Lydia, her tone hinting that there’s probably nothing more in the world that she wants. The music has an undercurrent of violence throughout, but without actually sounding violent. It’s a hard mix to get right when it’s so easy to just make a song “heavy”, the usual route most take when what musicians are really looking for is a way to convey passion, anger, a whole range of the darker side of emotion. Retrovirus can be heavy at times, with cutting guitar and gnarled and distorted bass, but then here’s Lunch, idly smoking a cigarette and gently winding up some of the men at her feet.

The set took a strange turn with a cover of Pere Ubu’s “Final Solution”. A quick straight-armed salute from Lunch alongside guitarist Weasel Walter’s choice in clothing (knee high black boots and green jodhpurs) gave it the late 1970s attitude of Siouxsie Sioux, the Sex Pistols, even David Bowie: “we hate Nazi-punks but lets dress like Nazis to piss off our parents”. I think such a statement doesn’t work as well in 2016 and after a set of songs with no obvious political suasion it felt off the mark.

What Lydia Lunch does best is create an idea of herself that everyone at her shows just has to buy into, from the heartache of missing the late Rowland S Howard to singing about how it’s a turn on that her lover wants her dead. It’s a stark contrast at times but Lunch delivers it all with her unique and tough demeanour. Here is a woman who has never been afraid to use her voice or her image to cut straight to the point. And what’s the message here? Probably something like: “I’m Lydia Lunch. Deal with it.”

Lydia Lunch on Bandcamp