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Live Review: Genesis Owusu @ Tank, Art Gallery NSW

6 July 2024 | 11:18 am | Shaun Colnan

While physically, Owusu was so close you could almost touch him, sonically, he was in another galaxy.

Genesis Owusu

Genesis Owusu (Credit: Bec Parsons)

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To take a trip down to Art Gallery NSW’s ‘live venue’ art-music space is to approach an infernal world Dante would marvel at. Beyond spellbinding projections beaming from the wall as you descend the glowing escalator, past the luxury car people are taking photos at, past the less showy art on the walls, you move down a spiral staircase into a darkened, all-concrete void world.

Here Naarm-based DJ, RONA. feels like the distant dream of a club, abstracted by many tinnitus-plagued years. The sound echoes and decays in the absurdly massive void space. People mainly stand about vaguely swaying. Of course, it’s only 7:30 pm on a Friday night by this time, and the ambient joy of the music is caught up in the swampy drone of the space, which traps sound and may never let it go.

The set is enjoyable yet gaspingly brief. The music could be a vibe, but the waves of decaying notes from minutes ago drown you in a sea of what could’ve been. Music is often - correct me if I’m wrong - a feast for the ears and something you feel in your body. Yet, this space seems little concerned with the basics of acoustics, favouring aesthetics above all else.

This became even more pronounced with a visually stunning set from Genesis Owusu. The local artist is part of the sparse bill of ‘four visionary headline artists’ in what the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Volume program has touted as an ‘innovative music series…push[ing] the limits of sound and live performance.’ Some of that may well be true.

As the Ghanaian-Australian, Canberra-raised rapper took to the darkened stage, a sound could be heard—low and droning. Primal. Owusu stands with his back to the crowd as slowly a commotion becomes apparent. An illuminated Mongolian throat singer, Bukhu, makes his way through the crowd as his guttural tones consume the space, and the space, in turn, consumes the sound. He makes it to the stage to play his horsehead fiddle as the band moves slowly into animation.

Owusu was fully aware of the space's kinks, stating on Instagram: “Every song has to be played very differently otherwise the room will just eat it all up.” Yet, even a “brand new show, built just for this space” wasn’t enough to conquer the former World War II oil tank. 

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The stripped-back set featured tracks from his 2023 concept album, Struggler, as well as his 2021 breakout LP, Smiling With No Teeth. The opening track, Leaving The Light, showed the shift, moving away from the high-intensity performance style Owusu has become renowned for, and utilising more light and shade, rapidity, and slowness. The infectiousness of the track was somewhat diminished in the space. This was the case across the board. 

Beautiful and striking visuals adorned the presentation of Survivor which grew in stature as the projections cut the space all around us. Yet, again and again, audiences who have seen Genesis in the last few years would’ve felt a little muted given the insurmountable sonic limitations of the space. 

Harder songs became slow ballads. While physically, he was so close you could almost touch him, sonically he was in another galaxy. And here we were, drifting in space, waiting for something to bring us back down to earth. And yet we were in the historic bowels of the city’s cultural centrepiece.

Those looking for an escape from the sonic swamp were compounded by disappointment: the bar closed half an hour before the set was due to conclude (even though it started late). It’s hard to fathom what the gallery is doing and if they care at all about live music. Perhaps it’s the absurd gripe of an alcoholic. Perhaps it’s a telling indication as to the motivations of the ‘festival’ as a luxury car beams at you as you surface for air.

What could work in a space like this? It’s hard to say. What could remedy such sonic headaches? Sound engineers should surely have their say. As Genesis said on Instagram, “if you clapped, you would hear it for another three minutes”. Can there be a future for a space like this, blending art and music as the gallery says it will? Or will sound suffer so art can win out into eternity?