Spectral Park – March 28th 2014: Lennon’s, Southampton

Speccy Parky

Closing the annual and primarily student organized SMILEfest, a quaint multi-venue arts festival in the South coast city of Southampton, Spectral Park takes to the stage in a unique one-off hometown show in a veritable multi-sensory feast. Those gathered in Lennon’s- the city’s prime after-hours indie-kid haunt, are treated to a miasmic selection of vintage sounds reconstituted in a contemporary context.  Both of tonight’s bands possess similarities in their mining of distinctly different eras for their respective re-imagining of archetypal styles and genres, whose original tenure ended long before any of tonight’s band members plonked away on their first Fisher Price keyboards.

Those who braved their way through streets of rollicking Friday night revellers are rewarded with venerable treat in the guise of the supremely talented local export Spectral Park, aka multi-instrumentalist Luke Donovan and his gaggle of assembled musicians. His eponymous debut album, released last year on esteemed indie label Mexican Summer, has been almost unanimously feted with praise for its daring ambition and sheer wealth of ideas that collide and contort themselves around each other in a psychedelic maelstrom, described most concisely as an explicitly kaleidoscopic and idiosyncratic musical vision.

Taking to the stage in front of a steadily burgeoning early doors crowd, Brighton-via-Jersey quartet The Art Club offer a convincing pastiche of a varied 80’s indie repertoire. Elements of Joy Division’s nihilistic and despondent gloom, Echo and The Bunnymen’s shadowy pop and quintessential Smiths jingle-jangle are all plied and suffused with the overt pop outings of such synth-totting walking haircuts as A Flock Of Seagulls and The Teardrop Explodes. The melodic simplicity of the synth lines burrow into the inner consciousness whilst the central concern of each song seems to be a relentless drive towards reaching that elusive two and a half minutes of sheer pop perfection. With each track busying itself in extolling the virtues of a snappy pop nugget, they seem to be caught in a formulaic rut. As such, a little variation and extended scope certainly wouldn’t go amiss.

Any fan or casual listener of Spectral Park’s music will be aware that the task of translating the somewhat schizophrenic approach to song construction to the live sphere seems fraught with difficulty. Endless technical complications are sure to abound, and the stage is littered with a selection of samplers and other gadgets geared towards sound manipulation and mimicry of nuance on the recorded tracks. Whilst Donovan himself admits that such an interpretation is still very much a work in progress, tonight’s performance seems considerably well-rounded, his vision surely nearing its full realization. With his band members aiding in offsetting the miasmic interjection of samples and sudden aural deviations, Donovan and his cohorts appear very much a well-oiled live act, bolstered further by the surprising clarity of the tiny club’s sound system. A surrealist visual backdrop exacerbates the skewed nature of the tracks themselves which dart hither and thither and fervently eschew flowing and linear structures in favour of a cut and paste effect that is just as likely to discombobulate as it is to enthral. With crowd interaction defiantly absent, it is left entirely to the songs to offer a connection and it is such a captivating connection that Spectral Park deftly provides. Album and set opener “L’appel du Vide” is a particular highlight and perfect signifier of just how well Donovan has managed to craft an engaging live show that stays true to the nature of his record. Warped fairground organs form the backdrop to Donovan’s lyrical discontent as an array of samples and aural tics rain down, Donovan and his guitarist sharing responsibility in activating their pre-recorded tit-bits.

As the concise set reaches its apex, it’s perfectly clear that Spectral Park has more than matched his on-record magic with his commendably tight and rather slick live setup. His enthralling wall of sound ensures that this year’s SMILEfest ends on an emphatic high.

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TOY / The Proper Ornaments – February 20th 2014: Talking Heads, Southampton

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Photo courtesy of @coraliepilte

 

Jostling at the helm of the UK’s latest wave of backwards-facing psychedelic revivalists, TOY are amongst the finest purveyors of the latest 60’s nostalgia trip that comprises of such fuzz-inclined and long-haired provocateurs as Temples and Hookworms. Each band showcases an aural bricolage and amalgamation of vintage sounds, construing their identities and ideals not just through the 60’s pioneers of abstract noise, but incorporating influence from earlier waves of revivalists- the 80’s indie underground and the newly treasured Shoegaze movement for instance. Subsequent waves act as reflectors to social conditions, ushering in a retreat from reality and absorption into the comforting blanket of all-consuming sound to gain access to warped, yet irrevocably attractive alternate realities, eschewing the burgeoning individualism and materialism that abounds in the Western zeitgeist. This revival is no different, the contemporary environment mirroring the circumstances of previous revival movements- a predominantly right-wing government blundering its way forward, a resurgence of conservatism and rampant capitalism commoditising anything big enough to have a hashtag plastered onto it. Some chose to fight, turning to the direct phlegm-laced confrontation and social realism of punk. Others, like TOY, turn inwards, using psychedelia as existential posture, throwing up walls of noise with which to shield themselves from the bitter reality and banality of existence, every new effects pedal offering fresh potential for introspection and losing oneself in a daydream of blissful noise. It’s nothing short of aural hedonism.

Stepping onto the stage in the quaint and homely confines of The Talking Heads, four-piece The Proper Ornaments, who visually resemble a strange coalescence of The Kooks and The Jesus and Mary Chain, proceed to enact their best jingle-jangle Byrds impression but despite their best efforts end up sounding more than faintly reminiscent of REM. The response they elicit from the curious mix of bald heads and paisley-clad teens is a sadly underwhelming smattering of somewhat reluctant applause.

TOY follow the path cut in recent years by fellow 60’s pilferers The Horrors, melding the pulsating motorik rhythms of Krautrock to swirling psychedelic soundscapes, with inklings of pop sensibility vaguely comprehensible through the hazy maelstrom. Taking to the stage in appropriate pseudo-sixties garb of drainpipes and beatle boots, TOY launch into an hour-long furore of studious 60’s touchstones and various mutated strands of psychedelia. Opening with the fully instrumental “Conductor”, the first track from 2013’s ‘Join The Dots’, the band busy themselves in fashioning the first of many swirling drones. Such moments are designed for audience and band to come together in a state of shared hypnosis, complete sensory capitulation to the music, and sole catalyst for transcendence of the mind. But this intention is undone by TOY’s knack for penning bona fide melodies, the pop inclinations of the likes of “As We Turn” breaking the spell of hypnogogic mind-states that the droney psych-jams should induce. Neu!- inspired taut rhythms leave the psych-jams rooted by the rigidity of the machine precision drums, perhaps wisely restricting the jams from extending too far into an abstract expanse. “Endlessly” sees TOY mining the tremolo-arm tinkerers that characterized Shoegaze, emphasizing a slightly more direct approach to song construction. Stagecraft remains minimal, each member remaining rooted to the spot for much of the set, either out of obligation to the requirements of their copious effects pedals or the classic English umbrage toward histrionics. “My Heart Skips A Beat” is resplendent in its clearly defined melodies that provide one of the few moments of clarity amongst the set’s cornucopia of noise. The ten minute “Kopter” is held down by some supremely tight motorik drumming as the guitars set off on a tangent into the nether, keyboards nudging the piece towards a psychedelic carnival or rollicking sound. Closer “Join The Dots” fluctuates with greater zeal than on record, twisting and contorting through various phases and an astounding array of bewildering sonic wizardry. Rising and falling in a tantalizing fashion, great waves of aural heaven are reigned in and sent crashing repeatedly against the audience in a multi-sensory feast of almost empyrean rapture.

For the most part, TOY are an enthralling homage to the psychedelic heritage, enforcing a thoroughly English reserve through minimal crowd interaction and thoroughly allowing the music to talk on their behalf. At times however, their cosmic jams fail to reach a state of rapture that for most psychedelic fans forms the main attraction to the genre. As such, the songs often wash past without permeating the conscience to the degree they should, failing to rid the mind of unwanted outside thought or suspend it in a state of temporary bliss.

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Royal Blood – Southampton Soul Cellar – February 13th 2014

Royal Blood picccy

Not since the sleazy dance-punk of Death From Above 1979 have so many column inches been devoted to and so much buzz been generated by four strings and a set of drums. Royal Blood’s supremely groove-laden stoner-inspired riffs are currently the token of Radio One and the band’s name is perpetually fixed within every music publication’s 2014 ‘ones to watch’ list. It’s an ascension to the big leagues that can only be described as meteoric; the band currently the subject of Zane Lowe’s bouts of gushing hyperbole. On the horizon lays a Arctic Monkeys support slot, facing off in front of 40,000 adoring Arctic Monkeys fans in a London park whilst March sees the duo treading the well-polished stages of O2’s finest live music emporiums for the venerable NME awards tour. It’s a daunting prospect for most bands, carrying all the potential for crippling anxiety and nerve-induced pre-show puking sessions. Lesser bands may wither under the immensity of the pressure, crushed by expectation generated by overenthusiastic media and the immediacy with which they demand acts to embody the superlatives they so readily disseminate. But if their sold out show in the rain-saturated and miserable mid-week Southampton is anything to go by, their meteoric rise is anything but premature. Royal Blood, it seems, have taken to the challenge like Sylvester Stallone repeatedly takes to the role of barely-coherent punching enthusiast.

Fellow Brightonians Tiger Club are charged with getting the crowd’s juices flowing. Their brand of apathetic grunge-soaked indie gets head bobbing appreciatively, the vocalist channelling Kurt Cobain through both his charity shop cardigan and his grainy vocal groans although any threat of spontaneous gear destruction is replaced with a quintessentially English politeness. Although their set sags in the middle, it’s bookended by a selection of stomping songs, each smothered in an immense fuzz that fails to obscure the group’s alt-pop leanings. For their efforts, Tiger Club are rewarded with a rare supporting act accolade of a short lived “one more song” chant.

Eschewing technicolour house lights in favour of minimalist stage illumination, Royal Blood initiate proceedings in a no bullshit manner, delivering the goods in a fashion that belies the band’s thus far ridiculously short lifespan before promptly pissing off. In their wake, they leave a crowd of sweaty youth and a room full of certified believers in the duo’s intoxicating noise-rock. The dynamic “Hole” opens proceedings in its Queens of the Stone Age worshipping groove-metal riffs, copious effects pedals contorting Michael Kerr’s bass tones into a sledgehammer crunch. Immediately and rather inevitably, things start to get rowdy. Each of the five or so songs in internet circulation are aired and responded to in an escalating adulation, whilst an equal amount of unreleased tracks pepper the set. The breakneck riff at the tail-end of “Figure It Out” sees the boisterous throng of inebriated adolescents churning and writhing with increased ferocity. New single “Little Monster” indicates a new-found propensity for penning bona fide choruses whilst sporting some seriously heavy classic rock riffs. “Come On Over” is a satisfying stoner romp, its opening riff already a signifier accepted by those in the crowd of rowdy-inclination as a green light to remove t-shirts and swing them wildly over their heads. By the time set closer “Out Of The Black” is brought out the front half of the crowd is engulfed in a rabid frenzy, bodies flying across the room as Michael and supremely talented sticksman Ben bring an impeccably tight set to an abrupt stop, enacting the important hype-band attribute of leaving the crowd baying for more.

Tonight’s show proves that Royal Blood are indeed the real deal. It’s only the start of a run of sold-out shows in provincial toilet venue hangouts, designed so that the beard-sporting Brighton two-piece are afforded the chance to hone their barrage of riffs to a sharpened point. Yet, judging by tonight’s emphatic performance, the duo already possess a commendably solid repertoire that oozes a swaggering aural vigour.

 

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London Grammar – Brixton Electric 28/11/13

London Grammar pic

Returning to the same infamous Brixton ex-nightclub a month after they last graced the stage, London Grammar seem poised to ascend to the heady heights of past collaborators Disclosure, who coincidentally hold court to a sell-out Academy crowd at the other end of the high street.  The Electric though, is where bands explode; a make-or-break venue where acts rocket into the mainstream conscience or alternately return to the murky backwaters of the toilet circuit they worked so hard to surpass. It seems the three piece, described by the Guardian as “a PG-rated XX”, have made a concerted effort to avoid the lukewarm reviews that greeted their last performance here. Of course, the band will never be one to exert flamboyant histrionics as their musical disposition remains rooted to a quintessentially English reserve.

Having adopted a refreshingly anti-image stance that – in increasing rarity throughout a depressingly image-obsessed music industry – sees the band’s burgeoning success resting solely on the merits of their music rather than showy gimmicks. Tonight however, there’s a whiff of a previously absent self-assurance that means between song banter never amounts to incoherent mumbling. Moments of potential awkwardness, such as a shirtless punter proposing to a bemused Hannah Reid, extorts laughter from both crowd and band as she instead offers the services of multi-instrumentalist Dot Major to the semi-naked fan.

A recipient of the most flowery of journalistic adjectives in the guise of the label “ethereal”, a term originally presented to Scottish pioneers Cocteau Twins – the allusions to the dream-pop trio manifest most explicitly in London Grammar’s live set-up. The three figures, exuding minimal movement, alternately enveloped in rays of heavenly light or obscured in a dark blue glow, the band’s two male members employed in the creation of a dark ambience whilst Hannah’s extraordinary voice commands unwavering attention through a flawless projection that belies the nerves she later purports to have suffered.

Taking to the stage under darkness and no fanfare, they launch into the delicate intro of ‘Hey Now’, slowly building until the interjection of Hannah’s vocal, so stunning in its clarity that it halts just about every conversation in the room. Throughout the span of eleven tracks her powerful voice never falters as it negotiates a commendable range of versatility, sparse instrumentation allowing a wide territory for her vocals to explore, effortlessly switching between potent mid-range and a spine-tingling soprano. Yet, in the band’s few moments of aural rambunctiousness, such as the propulsive beats that erupt at the climax of “Metal & Dust”, Hannah’s vocal remains an authoritative focal point that more than holds its own amidst the maelstrom.

A clever and endearingly simple cityscape backdrop mirrors the band’s aural minimalism with digitalised fireworks erupting at the pinnacle of their set, adding to the celebratory feel that encompasses their performance. “Wasting My Young Years”, the track that initiated the band’s online hype, is awash with a forlorn melancholy and earnest truth in the contemporary uncertainty of youth that sums up the band’s allure to tonight’s crowd and indeed, the hundred thousand or so buyers of their sublime debut album.

Despite the bare bones instrumentation and low-key approach, the crowd remain mesmerized throughout the show with their deftly subtler and incredibly affecting take on Kavisnky’s “Nichtcall” drawing particular ovation from a crowd in tune with a style of post-XX starkness that leans solely on restraint. The set highlight however, is undoubtedly the tantalising slow build of “Metal & Dust”, a track clearly awaited eagerly as its driving drums illicit crowd movement for the only time of the night. Responding to voracious demand for an encore, London Grammar apply their fragility to Chris Isaak’s sultry classic “Wicked Game”, upping the atmospherics from the original with Dan Rothman’s delay-ridden staccato guitar lines acting like the forlorn ghost of the original iconic riff.

Perfectly paced and executed, London Grammar’s set holds the audience within their collective aural psyche of troubled ambience in a performance that, in keeping with their gimmick-free stance, places the emphasis squarely on their musical attributes. By all means, a year from now, London Grammar will be joining Disclosure in the exclusive list of bands to have headlined the Brixton Academy, rather than the old nightclub down the road.

Set List:

  1. Hey Now
  2. Darling Are You Gonna Leave Me
  3. Interlude
  4. Shyer
  5. Wasting My Young Years
  6. Stay Awake
  7. Flickers
  8. Nightcall
  9. Strong
  10. Metal & Dust

Encore:

  1. Wicked Game

 

 

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Death Cab For Cutie - Transatlanticism

Death Cab For Cutie Plays Transatlanticism – August 31st, 2013: Troutdale, Oregon

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Death Cab For Cutie‘s landmark album Transatlanticism, the band decided to do 2 concerts where they would play the album in its entirety. One of these shows was headlining the Bumbershoot festival in Seattle, WA while the other was in Troutdale, Oregon at a popular outdoor venue named Edgefield. Transatlanticism is a very important album in my life, and quite possibly my favorite album of all time. So when I heard that they were gonna be playing the album live I wasted no time buying tickets.

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Warped Tour 2013 Discussion

As another summer comes to an end, so ends another busy season of festivals and tours. There’s Coachella, Bumbershoot, and of course, Vans Warped Tour. Since its beginnings in 1994, Kevin Lyman’s “punk-rock summer camp” has become one of the go-to events of the year for music fans across the nation (and now internationally), as well as the tour to play for up-and-coming bands looking to get their lucky break. For those bands, playing all or part of this almost two-month long tour is an opportunity to introduce themselves to crowds of potential fans, cement their place in the scene, and to hone their skills daily. This summer I had the opportunity to attend the opening weekend of the tour in Seattle and Portland. Over the course of the weekend I was able to see sets by many bands I have loved for years as well as groups I was introduced that day, catching almost 50 different bands’ performances in total. Below, you can find a summary of my personal top 10 bands from the tour. As deserving and talented as many of the main-stage bands are, my goal with this discussion is to highlight some of the younger bands. If you went to a date of Warped Tour yourself, head down to the “comments” section and leave stories of your favorite acts from this year’s lineup! (Bands sorted alphabetically)

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