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Reviews/Music/Perth Festival

Alter Boy: spellbinding signs herald queer deaf homecoming

28 February 2022

Alter Boy’s mesmerising, multi-layered performance underlines the power of music to validate experiences of marginalised communities, writes Patrick Gunasekera

Alter Boy ·
B Shed, Fremantle/Walyalup, 26 February 2022 ·

Every voice has its own inimitable relationship with its language. In Alter Boy’s magnetising live music show as part of Perth Festival, the six-piece alt-pop band — comprising Deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing artists — delivered a dynamic set with LED-illuminated hands popping in Auslan against the black tank shirts, mesh and robes of the three signing musicians.

For anyone unfamiliar with how signed languages work, its vocabulary can stretch and shapeshift prolifically with the signer’s body. Alter Boy utilised this beautiful quality of Auslan to heighten themes of pain, opportunity, destiny, loss and rebirth in the music. 

The Perth band’s music is an earthy layering of electronic beats, grounding extended tones and dissonant melodies. A palpable pulsing rhythm (central to the d/Deaf* experience of music) is the core focus of each song, accompanied inconspicuously by soft vocals with live distortion and reverb. Lead singer Molly/Aaron’s haunting and spidery voice was self-accompanied and backed in Auslan, with lead signers Jack Meakins and Laura Bullock bringing additional joy, passion and visceral catharsis to the stage. 

From magnifying scrutiny by reiterating the sign for “look”, to adding an element of camp by inflating the sign for “pray” — their mesmerisingly embodied Auslan lyrics held a stately balance, and added a rattling intensity to each song’s perceptive, hungering and ambitious meaning.

Two performers from Alter Boy dressed in black extend their hands to each other
Laura Bullock and Molly/Aaron, with Andrew Wright on keyboards. Photo: Dan Grant

The leading trio’s performance was expanded by piercing narrative gestures of conflict and love, and synchronised body choreography to the “movements” of beats or melody. Soaring between sharp and smooth, these body movements visualised the music and were at times also performed by remaining band members Josh Terlick (bass), Josh Hellis (drums) and Andrew Wright (keys and synths).

With a comprehensive light show (designed by Dean Gratwick) moving the band swiftly through many elevated moods, Alter Boy’s presence felt authentic. Their world is a spellbinding one reigned by their own frameworks of gender, language and voice — where communicating aloud is far from the default, and the primary meaning of masculinity is transness. Aligning the physicality of d/Deaf communication with the physicality of queer and trans experience was dynamite, moving to behold.

For me, the bodily feeling often triggered by seeing alternative queer art is akin to falling through a gateway of loving possibility. From the B Shed’s music stage, this unmistakeably empowering sentiment rippled leisurely through Alter Boy’s audience. 

Seeing an intergenerational mix of queer and disabled people swaying gently throughout the show revealed the vital connection between experiences like these and our collective wellbeing and endurance. Alter Boy’s cripping* of queer utopia is a dark and visionary realisation of live performance, a beloved ritual of homecoming. 

Musical group Alter Boy perform in a lit stage. Pictured three performers dressed in black at the front of a stage with drummer and keyboardist behind and the sihouettes of audience heads in foreground. The stage is lit is bright white spotlights
Alter Boy light up B Shed with their transformative performance. Photo: Dan Grant

Alter Boy draws creative inspiration from Christianity and their show, for some, may represent queer atonement. In a world that privileges and protects cisgender and hearing bodies, the show beckons rebirth with a grounding reverence for those reckoning with the “sin of existence”. Presenting queer, trans, d/Deaf, hard-of-hearing, and trauma surviving viewpoints, the show warmly evoked communion, redemption and darker themes of condemnation. 

Though there is something for everyone to enjoy in this stirring declaration of queercrip power, performances like this offer healing and transformation for queer, trans, d/Deaf and disabled people. As a hearing autistic person, I was temporarily liberated from the expectation to relate to people aloud, and was engulfed in relief and joy I could comfortably and confidently express through Auslan and movement. 

Rising from a rich heritage of creative resistance, Alter Boy’s show offered a rare and vital balm to soothe the pain of conforming to or being condemned by social norms. This is a bravely shimmering world that has always existed, and Alter Boy have given it a stage.

An accessible recording of this performance will be available soon. Follow Alter Boy’s social media for more details.

*Endnote: The term “d/Deaf” recognises a distinction between medical and cultural experiences. It’s part of “cripping” (applying a disabled way of being) language in an audist (privileging the ability to hear) world, as determined by d/Deaf people.

Pictured top: Alter Boy members, from left, Jack Meakins, Molly/Aaron and Laura Bullock. Photo by Dan Grant

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Zal Kanga-Parabia

Author —
Patrick Gunasekera

Patrick Gunasekera is a queercrip Sinhala artist working across performance, visual media, and writing. After reading a poorly written review on a show about disability, he got into arts writing to critically engage with touchy topics that affect him personally. He loved the monkey-bars as a kid because he wanted strong arms. Photo by Zal Kanga-Parabia.

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