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