Monday, 9 February 2009

Live: Howling Bells, Asobi Seksu and Red Light Company - London

Howling Bells / Asobi Seksu / Red Light Company
Islington Academy, London, UK
Monday 9 February 2009

There’s nowt wrong with Red Light Company, but they don’t give you many reasons for undying love either. They sound like the sort of band that A&R scouts sign up hoping to be the next big thing, who go on to release some moderately inoffensive radio fodder, and then disappear without trace at or before the second album. One song name checks Broken Social Scene, so in return I’ll namecheck them as a less imaginative Secret Machines, the prog replaced by Guillemot-isms with a pinch of Brian Molko. Expect them to be huge – briefly.

I don’t know what happened to Asobi Seksu tonight, but it’s hard to find positive things to say about their performance. From the flat vocals, to the keyboards that drowned out the guitars, to the lack of songs – it’s really just a tuneless mess. Then it gets worse, the sound is turned up to distortion levels, which fails to cover what just isn’t happening on stage. Near the end they begin to pull it together; their last track is C86 in feel, and has the merit of seeming to be going somewhere. Then they run out of time. If only more time had been spent on getting their live sound right and less on festooning the stage in fairy lights then everyone may have enjoyed themselves more.

When Howling Bells open with Blessed Night I think at last – a band! This is part of the NME Awards series of shows, and also the first gig for the new album Radio Wars. They use this to play all but one song off the new album, and it becomes a night full of surprises for band and audience. Juanita asks the audience to tell her something new, something she hasn’t heard before; “You look like a bloke” is yelled back. The highlights are from the new album; Golden Web is a genuine departure and all the better for it; the quiet allows the harmonies to shine through. Miss Bell’s Song is the sound of a band working together, and Digital Hearts is quietly subversive – the song builds, but doesn’t break.

Howling Bells have always been a competent enough live act, yet their shows have seemed to lack some intensity. Tonight is undoubtedly the best I’ve seen them, and for the first time I’m seeing them take some risks, but there are problems as well. Tying the song title Cities Burning Down to the Victorian bushfires was possibly misguided, and while Let’s Be Kids Again is better than the album version, it’s still childishly awkward. By placing so much focus on Juanita, there’s the risk of the rest of the band being seen as Sleeperblokes –anonymous and interchangeable male personnel behind the star. Setting Sun is a real mess, even after stopping it to try and get it right. I’m not sure they know how to read an audience either– the long instrumental lead in to Nightingale is really great; trying unsuccessfully to get the audience to clap along to the song proper isn’t.

They end with Into The Chaos, and I’m impressed, but their encore is so audacious I’m won over. They electro shimmer their way through Britney Spears' Toxic, and get away with it. Tonight shows a band in flux, when they take risks and break rules they’re genuinely challenging, at other times they feel as if they’re operating within fairly closely defined parameters. The question is, which path will they take?

© James McGalliard 2009
A version of this review appeared in Inpress, Melbourne, on 25 February 2009

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Live: The Veils - London

The Veils

The Macbeth, Hoxton, London, UK

Thursday 5 February 2009

Sometimes I’ll be asked why I’m going to see a band play again. Yet one of the joys of seeing a band many times over a period of time is to see how they alter and change. While sometimes they may evolve away from your tastes, other times you get to see them become something on a higher plane than when you first saw them.

Five years ago I saw the first line-up of The Veils launch their debut album; and eight months ago I last saw them, playing the fourth and final week of their Camden residency, road testing possible songs for their next album. Tonight they tell us that the finishing touches were put on Sun Gangs at the start of this week. They marked their return to the live scene by playing small venues over four nights at the four points of the compass around central London. Tonight was east, and found the four-piece in the cramped space of the Macbeth in Hoxton. The bar takes up about a third of the width of the room, and the band has to fight their way through the crowd to get onstage.

But what a difference the intervening months have made. From the opening notes of Three Sisters, it’s clear that they are more focussed and driven than ever. It has a searing urgency, and Finn Andrews’ ever-more insistent refrains of Oh My God build powerfully, with an underlying sense of menace. Whereas before the band were still compensating for the loss of the keyboards, now there’s a sense that a balance has been achieved without them. The sound is bigger, but also breathes - like a Henry Moore sculpture, the gaps are part of the whole, and not a loss. More than once I’m reminded of The Bad Seeds under Mick Harvey. Not so much for their actual sound , but the feeling of determination and single purpose, where the gestalt is much more than the sum of its parts. Henning Dietz’s restraint on the drums makes his flurries all the more powerful, while Sophia Burn is totally transported as she plays. Daniel Raishbrook’s guitar line on The Letter is wonderfully catchy, acting almost as a vocal response to Finn’s words.

And it’s not just the new songs that have been reinvigorated. Advice For Young Mothers To Be no longer canters along merrily – its steel spine is now felt. Jesus For The Jugular sees Finn mangling sounds out of his guitar; this is for real. Yet it’s not without tenderness. Sit Down By The Fire reflects a gentler side, and when broken strings bring things to a stop, Finn fills the time with a solo rendition of The Wild Son. The band rightly ignores the calls for Lavinia, which come like alarm clock on snooze mode, and they’re right to. For they’re not that band anymore, and the newer songs are far superior; I’d have loved to have heard more of them. They finish with a fiery Nux Vomica, and Finn comes back alone for the encore, and plays what he tells us was the first song he wrote upon arriving in London all those years ago. On record The Tide That Left And Never Came Back is a rollicking anthem; here it’s stripped back to its elegiac soul and becomes a beautiful and heartfelt requiem full of loss and regret. The Veils have always been good; they’re becoming magnificent.

© James McGalliard 2009

Three Sisters
The Letter
Advice for Young Mothers to Be
Jesus for the Jugular
Not Yet
Sit Down By The Fire
The Wild Son
Killed By The Boom
Nux Vomica

The Tide That Left and Never Came Back

A version of this review appeared in Inpress # 1058; published in Melbourne, Australia, on 18 February 2009