Get on your hobby horse!

The Submerge Festival is on in Bristol this week, and yesterday I was lucky enough to see Gazelle Twin at The Exchange. Her gig will probably prove to be the highlight of the festival for me - as well as one of the best performances I’ll see this year!


Gazelle Twin is the moniker of electronic musician, producer and composer Elizabeth Bernholz. I’ve followed her ever since she released her first studio album, The Entire City, in 2011. I’ve long thought of her as one of the most exciting avant-garde artists on the electronic scene, and my admiration intensified when she released her second full-length album, Unflesh. But until yesterday, I’d never gotten around to seeing her live - probably because she hasn’t played in Bristol before! After yesterday’s spectacular performance, though, I will no doubt travel to see her if I have to.

At The Exchange yesterday, Gazelle Twin performed her whole new album, Pastoral. She was dressed as a nightmarish court jester, sporting red and white Adidas trainers, a red tracksuit top, a frilly collar and a white baseball cap. Her face was obscured by red tights with a hole cut out for her mouth, and she grinned madly as she skipped around on stage, occasionally playing the flute or riding an old-fashioned hobby horse. It is surely no accident that the red and white colours resemble those of the English flag, which has come to be associated with the far right in the UK. Pastoral gives a satirical take on the the hateful xenophobia and the toxic nostalgia that has surfaced since the run-up to the Brexit referendum in 2016.

The opening song, Better In My Day, set the tone straight away. Against a background of harsh, jagged beats, she barked out lyrics that could easily have been taken from the mouth of an elderly Daily Mail reader:

Much better in my day
No locked doors
No foreigners

Just look at these kids now
Just look at these kids now

No respect
No proper jobs

Tut Tut Tut Tut!
We worked hard!

Streets were safe back then
Boys were boys!
Girls were girls!

Much better in my day
Much better in my day
Ooh the golden days

Pastoral is an album filled with danceable, catchy tracks, but the undertone is one of menace and cold fury. This was certainly true for the live performance too. It was an exhilarating and fun show, but there was a palpable anger there. Gazelle Twin’s jeering jester followed a seemingly improvised, but precise choreography based on aggressive moves. She made whip-crack motions, threw punches, head-butted the air and stared down the audience in a decidedly threatening way. She parodied the hooliganism of Britain First as well as “blokes down the pub”. Stick it to the man! she hissed.

In Gazelle Twin’s portrayal of “little England”, the blame is not really put on the angry flag wavers who shout about getting their country back. They are sheep and pawns. She speaks about underlying forces that manipulate people to vote against their own interest before being “scapegoated by the provincial losses”. There are songs about state borrowing, public debt, insolvency and austerity - and about taking pride in serving yourself and trusting no-one.

In an interview with The Quietus back in September, Bernholz spoke about how the tabloids play a part in misleading the masses:

“[T]he voice of the tabloids] has become ever louder in recent years. It feels like it’s bristling at the moment and reaching its peak - hopefully just before a big decline. Where I live, the only papers you can get are the rags. I see people who seem educated, in touch with current affairs, but then I see them buying these papers and it baffles me. But it’s the norm. This is the news as far as they’re concerned. And they trust it and they believe it. I grew up in this era of tabloids. And it’s those colours again. Those colours... red, white and black. They’re the colours of fascism. And these colours are repeating themselves everywhere all over again.”

Fascism and nostalgia go hand in hand. As the album title Pastoral suggests, there are plenty of references to “ye olde” England, with its hedgerows and marmalade and tea rooms and dreams of a glorious past full of battles and conquest. It’s funny, frightening and grotesque. Bernholz herself describes Pastoral as a “musing on how a sordid past becomes ‘quaint’…” and points out that “there is horror in every idyll”.

The most horror-filled track on the album is probably “Hobby Horse”, which was the finale of the performance at the Exchange. This was the perfect ending to an electrifying show, and the audience danced along with the mad jester on her Victorian-looking hobby horse. Now that Brexit is just weeks away and we’re all on the metaphorical cliff-edge, it felt like a genuinely cathartic and communal experience.

Heidi Saevareid