In November I began working at DICE – one of the most forward-thinking outfits in the game when it comes to live ticketing. Here’s my quick review of what got me bouncing in 2017, which featured in DICE’s Best of 2017 round-up 👇
MOTH CLUB, LONDON | June 26, 2017
The stoic DJ and the wide-eyed songstress: it’s a scene straight out of karaoke. Gazing out from Moth Club’s gold-spangled stage, Peaking Lights’ vocalist Indra Dunis surveys the assembling audience with doe-eyed apprehension. To her right, husband Aaron Coyes looms intent behind a stack of plundered electronics. There’s a lot riding on this tour for the Wisconsin-cum-California duo.
Having worked with indie imprints such as Mexican Summer and Domino, Peaking Lights’ sweet-toothed take on psychedelic dub has steadily become trademark over the past decade. Earlier this year, they finally decided to go it alone. Their newly-minted label Two Flowers Records kicked off with February’s Little Flower / Conga Blue 12”, ahead of the band’s sixth studio album release The Fifth State of Consciousness on June 16th. With two young kids in tow, the decision to record, fund and tour the record themselves is bold by anyone’s standard. But as so many of their loose-limbed verses prove, Peaking Lights have a strong track record of slickly navigating the maelstrom.
The nervy opening to ‘Conga Blue’ suggests that Peaking Lights are all too aware of the risks at play. Coyes’ juiced-up bass loop initially overwhelms Dunis’ hushed vocals, but as he laces in waves of sparkling analogue oscillations a magnetic sample-driven crescendo slowly builds. A passive confidence emerges in Dunis’ swirling ruminations as she dips through Coyes’ swelling loops, and within minutes what began as cabaret transforms into an absolute four-on-the-floor belter.
It’s a similar story with The Fifth State of Consciousness’ opening track ‘Dreaming Outside’. Performed a fraction slower than on record, its sluggish plod eventually flourishes under shimmering glockenspiels, subterranean vocals, and a host of other melodic and textural interjections. Transforming eighth grade synth lines into chintz-fuelled charms, it’s at moments like these where Peaking Lights are at their very best.
Echoing a sun-kissed Talking Heads, the duo strike far more directly with ‘Every Time I See the Light’. Here Dunis’ valium-dazed verses take free reign over Coyes’ rampant slurs, proving that when the vocals are allowed centre stage, Peaking Lights can expertly pull off a twinkle pop banger. This dynamic is taken a step too far on ‘I’ll Be The Sky’, whose saccharine synthpop veers towards gloopy in the summer evening heat. Still, after a few forgettable verses, the duo’s marshmallow sequences multiply into an 8-bit celestial concord that could joyously soundtrack any number of N64 glories.
Oozing pheromones, Peaking Lights’ acid-laced pop is the perfect endorphin shot for balmy festival afternoons. At the same time, their pulsating cerebral collages would bubble just as ecstatically across laser-spiked dance floors. Occasionally the pendulum swings too far from one side to the other, but on the occasions where Dunis and Coyes straddle this confluence effectively, it’s nothing short of paradise.
HEAVEN, LONDON | MARCH 28, 2017
Before punk came along and pulled the pickle out of Britain’s mottled backside, old Britannia was really struggling for new ideas. Angel-faced choristers, sick of pulling the pud to Elgar’s refined pomp, had successfully swapped motion for motion, with bands like ELP, Genesis, and Yes knocking out intense, studied compositions to bedazzle their audiences into believing cosmic progress really could come in capes.
While Britain’s choirboys were raging firmly within the machine, things were looking a hell of a lot tastier Stateside. Born of the blues, musicians like Mingus, Monk, Miles, the Coltranes and Nina Simone were breaking through the stratospheres of spontaneous musical interaction, and using their voices to promote new ideologies, and greater civil liberties for black and female Americans.
With jazz choosing the right moment over the right notes, punk had to go one step further. Bin your scales; fuck it, bin your instruments, if it helps you get your kicks. Opening the door for the industrial, noise and no-wave movements that followed, punk ditched the choral tradition for whatever felt right, calling popular music’s basic architecture into question through feckless experimentation and wilful ineptitude. You gotta transgress to transgress, man.
In the middle of all this heat lies Thundercat (Stephen Bruner), the LA bassist who at 32 has already collaborated with the likes of Erykah Badu, Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus, and Kendrick Lamar, not to mention a nine-year stint in legendary LA thrashers Suicidal Tendencies. Bruner’s latest offering, Drunk – released February 24th on Brainfeeder – is a perfect combination of all of these influences, and his dizzying flurries of amphetamine-riddled smooth jazz have drawn all sorts to Heaven’s packed arches tonight.
On stage, Thundercat’s studio recordings are enhanced with a series of madcap geometric fills, which are miraculously kept in check by his calm-set falsetto. He’s joined on stage by keyboardist Dennis Hamm, and drummer Justin Brown, whose left hand snare – some two inches deeper than that to his right – adds a gutsy acoustic weight that sits perfectly with Bruner’s six-string hollow body bass. On ‘A Fan’s Mail’, Brown’s drums could easily pass for a slap bass, whilst Hamm’s underlying synth rumble opens up the floor for Bruner’s bass to elicit a sequence of slick oily wahs. Maybe it’s just the sound of bottles popping in the mixing desk, but it all sounds way punchier than Drunk lets on.
The extended space between songs is where the band’s telepathic interplay really steals the show. With cerebral harmonics sparking from six flurried hands, the instruments’ own identities blur and interchange, and you’re forced to question whether you really are witnessing just three musicians on stage. Conservative and clunky in comparison, the studied unison of bands like Yes and Jethro Tull restricted them from ever cutting this loose.
With brain-melting riffs noodling out at a dizzying rate, many of the audience watch on in bemused astonishment. Others adopt the kind of hypnotized sway you’d expect Aphex Twin to summon. Unsure of what to hang shapes on, the audience just finds new ways to get down. Still, there’s plenty here for everyone. Thundercat’s set finishes on the more radio-friendly trio of ‘Oh Sheit it’s X’, ‘Friend Zone’ and ‘The Turn Down,’ whose obsidian R&B whirlpool is the perfect antidote to two hours of intergalactic trans-instrumental deviation.
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly – whose slick production bagged Bruner a Grammy – knocked rock and roll off its dusty perch, crowning hip-hop as popular music’s sharpest political tool. Now once again, Thundercat has flipped the script, using his genre-hopping explorations to screw with the basic physics of instrumentation. Yes, there are points where Hamm’s marauding synth sax lines lack a little on the high end, in a way that a live saxophone wouldn’t. But even the JBs would struggle to knock out two hours at this intensity. It’s a small price to pay to see a band dextrously take jazz beyond the capacities of embouchure. Transgression, man.
MILTON COURT, THE BARBICAN, LONDON | OCTOBER 23, 2016
First broadcast by Channel 4 in 1985, Robert Ashley’s landmark television opera Perfect Lives stumbles through bank robberies, cocktail bars, hotel rooms and starlit plains to create a fragmentary exploration of the Midwestern American experience. Pondering mortality, banality, chintz and selfhood, the seven-act work proffers a peppered snapshot, humorously bound by Ashley’s self-delivered libretti. Through whistled purrs Ashley gives a wry and tangential performance, flitting equally between sassy satire and unassuming tenderness. Halving the original runtime, Matmos’ stage adaptation cuts four of the original seven acts to run at a digestible 90 minutes. Skilfully condensed, the work sacrifices plot for stylistic fidelity, artfully presenting Ashley at his wicked, ruminative best.
“To perform Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives you need to be respectful to a score that is precise about cadence and the tempo of delivery, but is also very open and non-traditional,” says Matmos’ Drew Daniel in the programme notes. Six years before his death in March 2014, Ashley bore witness to Matmos’ version of Act VII of Perfect Lives, ‘The Backyard’, during a performance in New York. Their interpretation was met with his approval, and the duo “ended with a feeling of legitimation; that he thought our interpretation was valid, even though we had broken with some of the basic rules.”
Today’s expanded performance adds two acts – I. ‘The Park’ and IV. ‘The Bar’ – with Matmos’ other half, M.C. Schmidt, starring as narrator. Daniel mans the electronics, whilst a string trio, flautist, two female backing vocalists and a pianist also feature at various other moments. Behind them all a screen shows visuals mixed in real time by Max Eilbacher, which incorporates snippets of John Sanborn’s original material for TV, as well as other vintage footage not used in the original production. The visuals play their part effectively, but it’s Schmidt’s incorrigibly theatrical performance that truly brings the opera to the stage. His finest hour comes during the sleazy boogie-woogie of ‘The Bar’. Regaling incessant Martini-fuelled small-talk with a half-measure of cabaret croon, he captures the rhinestone chintz of the original in a manner that is arguably more convincing than Ashley’s soft prairie lisp.
It’s a touch of flair you sense that Ashley would appreciate. Indeed, before deciding to recite the monologue himself, Ashley had initially bookmarked David Byrne to take on the opera’s sprawling libretti. But Schmidt’s isn’t the only voice that brings Perfect Lives to the stage in such successful fashion. Backing vocals from Caroline Marcantoni and Jennifer Kirby add a doubting deadpan to ‘The Park’’s Motel Lynch claustrophobia. Though largely confined to textual displays in the original broadcast, the vocalists’ blurted exclamations of “No doubt,” “A fact,” and “Of course” imply a sarcastic inner critique from the corners of the narrator’s psyche that heightens the air of emptiness and alienation. Daniel’s decision to replace the soft toms of the original with an Arthur Russell-tinged tabla drone adds a finger-tapping restlessness to the moment – further proof that this is not merely an adaptation, but a progression of Ashley’s original.
With clarity and imagination, Matmos have neatly repackaged Perfect Lives from a three hour TV broadcast into a 90 minute stage production. Respectfully devout yet courageously original, it’s a sublime reworking.
New River Studios, London | September 25, 2016
“Upset, angered and terrified” by the influx of racial assaults that have continued to trail June 23rd’s divisive Brexit vote, Teeth of the Sea’s Sam Barton refuses to wallow in helplessness. Determined to counter the political apathy that sparked the whole brouhaha, Barton and his TotS bandmates responded with Unity, a day of live music to raise some cash for anti-hatred organisation Hope Not Hate. Dave Brooks made his way down to Stamford Hill’s New River Studios to check out their headline set.
It’s almost a year since Teeth of the Sea released their galloping fourth installment Highly Deadly Black Tarantula. Plating together a snarling combo of sinister Kraut disco, blaring post-industrial electronics, and itchy-fingered Morricone brass, HDBT had all the makings of a Coil-penned Tekken soundtrack. But there’s no disputing that there’s more to this four-piece than mere button-bashing.
Mike Bourne’s theremin conjurings kick off proceedings, quickly floating en arrière scène to underpin Jimmy Martin’s squalled distortion. Barton interjects with lustily garbled trumpet, before the intrusive clang of HDBT’s splintered opener ‘All My Venom’ slams into recognition. Barton switches to a lusty South American battle call, defiantly navigating Martin’s stray twangs as drummer and vocalist Mat Colegate prepares to enter the fray. Unleashing a pummelling drum sequence and spitting out demonic glottal rattles, Colegate rallies an architectural crescendo that pairs a 28 Days Later paranoia with pure amphetamine fury.
As ‘All My Venom’ builds to a climax, it becomes clear that something’s wrong. Sound levels go awry, beats are missed and hands wave frantically to the sound desk. A busted band-facing PA is promptly replaced, and Bourne and Colegate take to the toms to usher in ‘Animal Manservant’’s retching clop. As Barton riffs on hard disco voluntaries, Bourne’s Tangerine Dream synths bleed into violent modular glitches. A charged, confrontational ferocity builds; the preceding technical shortcomings a catalyst for greater fury, sinew, and violence.
Fortune didn’t favour Teeth of the Sea today. But when presented with unwarranted adversity, they came out snarling and harnessed the room. As Unity has acknowledged, society as a whole is facing far greater hurdles than a busted PA. Ever the iconoclasts, Teeth of the Sea remain ahead of the curve.
To help Hope Not Hate continue to provide a positive antidote to the politics of hate, please donate here.
Coronet Theatre, London | August 18, 2016
In a fashion befitting post-rock’s leading name, Godspeed You! Black Emperor make to the Coronet Theatre stage in their own good time. The 2,500-strong crowd have filled the venue to capacity, and on one of the hottest nights of the year even the lofty art deco ceiling offers little respite. With Godspeed some 20 minutes late, the crowd’s attention is drawn to the sound desk, where a sweltering camera crew meticulously loads film reels onto four blazing projectors. An ebbing drone begins. Underneath the illuminated screen, the Quebecois eight-piece slip through the shadows to slink on-stage one-by-one. A cello groans; a double bass growls; a fishbowl rolls across the projectionist’s glaring beam. Over the next ten minutes a great oaken drone builds. Distorted and all-consuming, it engulfs three solipsistic guitars before the drums signal the start of a crashing apocalyptic clamour. Sweaty brows make way for goosebumps. Lift your skinny fists like antennas to heaven: Godspeed have arrived.
The band squeeze just eight expansive tracks into their two hour set, including their 2015 album Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress in its entirety. First up is ‘Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!”, whose monolithic eastern swing sounds like Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir blasted through tar. Its weighty riff sparks mesmeric movement through the heavy air; onlookers sway transfixed as Super-8 roadtrip visuals cruise ever onwards. Powerfully minimalist, the footage, like the music is all about the journey.
Godspeed’s visual-audio interplay is no finer than in ‘Dead Metheny’, from their 1997 debut F# A# ∞. As its off-beat guitar loop begins, the hand-operated film reel flickers into life. Bruised strings throb as monochrome box cars pump through frozen industrial towns. A glockenspiel rings, freight trains accelerate, drums clatter as Morricone trumpets sound, harking the arrival of grainy scrub prairie, solitary onlookers and black outhouses. It’s bleak, charged, expansive and inconclusive, the unforgiving crescendo rumbling ever louder as their freight wagons pass on.
For a band whose catalogue is largely instrumental Godspeed have never been afraid to voice their political views through their music. Until footage of the Eric Garner protests shows during set closer ‘BBF3′, the band’s set tonight largely shies away from such societal criticisms. Instead, Godspeed proffer an audio-visual trip of psychoacoustic exploration, melding blistering cacophony with derelict abandonment to unsettling yet hypnotic effect. It’s a masterful performance: captivating, intoxicating, and frankly unmissable.
Battersea Arts Centre, London | August 3, 2016
Long exiled to the Mancunian night, Jamie Lee – lead singer of lit-pop darlings MONEY – returns to his native South London in high spirits. A poet as well as a musician, he prefaces tonight’s performance with a trademark novel skit, tonight referencing the likes of F Scott Fitzgerald and former American Poet Laureate Billy Collins. Pulling out a crumpled edition from his anorak pocket, Lee rifles through its yellowed pages, struggling to find his marker. Muttering “This is just so me: winging it all the way to the end,” he opens proceedings on a performance that dextrously ties humour, fury, self-awareness and self-parody.
MONEY’s set tonight draws largely from their second album Suicide Songs, released earlier this year on Bella Union. Foregoing the expansive choral indie of 2013’s The Shadow of Heaven, Suicide Songs offered up 43 minutes of much-matured songwriting: each squalid, saintly, savant verse offered with a beatified ale-slurred dexterity. Channelling his finest Shane MacGowan on ‘I’ll Be The Night’, Lee mumbles “No one owes you any favours” with world-weary abandon, before stepping away from the mic to blurt “They only owe you wine.”Later on he recoils from a particularly strong bout of reverb, dashing a look of incredulity to the audience with pure charlatan charm. MONEY’s transition from barstool balladeers to the grand stage is all the more successful for these pub-wrought moments.
Elsewhere MONEY’s performance nods to their savant influences, whilst maintaining a commanding hold over the Battersea Arts Centre’s sold-out crowd. On ‘Hopeless World’ Lee throws in a few giddy Dylan whoops, whilst ‘Letter To Yesterday’ descends into gutsy echoes of “Oh there’s blo-od;” a rousing reminder of the conviction and fervour U2 held before ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Beautiful Day’ and Match of the Day and all that garbage.
Lee’s continuing vocal improvement is particularly clear during breakthrough single ‘Bluebell Fields’. It’s a bizarre rendition – vocally ambitious, his virtuoso risks overreaching so as to clash with his bandmates’ woozy indie patter. It’s an anachronism that marks MONEY’s progress since 2013, though future performances would benefit from toning it down a little, if only to keep the fans happy.
Fusing Britpop strings, lofty background chants and drums that could have come off a Brian Jonestown Massacre record, ‘I’m Not Here’ is unmistakeably the set highlight. Underpinned by Lee’s dogged acoustic strum, the band and accompanying string section build into a jubilant and stirring crescendo, soaring triumphantly until Lee finally pulls the plug. The audience are left with little more than dogged strums and prolonged cries of anguished self-abandonment. For such a melancholic ending, it’s stunningly cathartic.
Increasingly a vessel for Lee’s poetic performance, MONEY’s set ends without bandmates Charlie Cocksedge and Billy Byron. Accompanied by cello and viola, Lee strums a meandering encore of pastoral sketches, that are in all honesty a little too unrehearsed. Still, given the progress he’s made as a vocalist and songwriter over the past few years, he’s probably earned the right to wing it a little every now and then.
MONEY play End of the Road Festival on 4th September. For full details and further dates check here.
Islington Metal Works, London | July 4, 2016
Kid A got me into Autechre. Amnesiac pushed me more towards Miles. Jeff Buckley was next after hearing The Bends, whereas King of Limbs was the Dutch courage needed for Zomby’s Where Were You in ‘92. For so many twenty-somethings Radiohead have eclipsed the competition as the tastemakers-in-chief, consistently releasing records that point to the outer edges; gateways to something less chart. Thom Yorke’s Ableton frotting may be a Pitchforker’s wet dream, but in recent years the true torchbearer has been Jonny Greenwood. By penning critically-acclaimed soundtracks for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, The Master and Inherent Vice, and touring with the London Contemporary Orchestra, Greenwood has chaperoned a listenership more In Rainbows than into Reich towards the world of contemporary classical music.
Tonight’s performance at the Islington Metal Works showcases the influence that the Radiohead guitarist’s pilotage has had upon his followers. Launching their debut album Oil, London-based saxophone quartet Kaleidoscope have paid reverence to the master, prying three of his compositions into a set list that also includes works by Gavin Bryars, Oliver Christophe Leith, Steve Martland, Jenni Watson, and Kaleidoscope’s own John Rittipo-Moore.
Leith’s ‘A Day at the Spa I’ springs into life with flurried slews of shell-shocked soprano, before Greenwood’s ‘Iron Swallow’bounds into play, Sally MacTaggart’s wry lead hovering elegantly above a mischievous succession of taut orchestral stabs. Another Greenwood creation follows – this time it’s (deep breath) ‘Toki no Senrei wo Uketeinai mono wo Yomuna’ from 2010’s soundtrack to Tran Anh Hung’s Norwegian Wood – before Leith’s ‘A Day at the Spa II’ bleeds into focus.
Splitting it into its two movements for the first time, today’s performance marks a fresh start for ‘A Day at the Spa’. The piece – written for the quartet by close friend and collaborator Oliver Christophe Leith – has been a staple of the quartet’s repertoire for over a year now, but today’s performance brings new light to its wealth of textural and microtonal intricacies, not always so apparent without Greenwood’s more user-friendly interlude. Ornamented by swathes of jumbled saxophone-key patter, Part Two’s anguished sopranos float arrhythmically above a cyclical baritone accompaniment unwaveringly upheld by Rittipo-Moore, who with each new breath elicits sumptuous cascades of lustrous harmonics: dust sparkling in moonlight.
A shift in dynamic comes a few songs later, when Rittipo-Moore’s gutsy baritone bombards into a dexterous re-imagining of Steve Martland’s ‘Short Story’. His bluff rasp faithfully underpins the trio of far-reaching altos; the addition of a drum kit and bass guitar adding a hip-hop marching band punch that wouldn’t sound out of place in Geoff Barrow’s Quakers – coincidently another act that has paid its dues to Greenwood & Co. Though allowing plenty of space for fleet-fingered counterpoint, Chris Brice’s drums are unfortunately a little too muted. A bold addition hesitantly executed, they’d benefit from a little extra muscle to really propel the marauding baritone backings. If Kaleidoscope can manage this whilst maintaining their vibrant alto-based counterpoint, they could even open doors to something as yet undiscovered.
‘Short Story’’s 3/4 stomp concludes assertively with two vertiginous stabs, and all that’s left is the album’s eponymous lead, Rittipo-Moore’s ‘Oil’. Moonlighting as a film-maker, Kaleidoscope’s Ian Dingle has prepared a visual accompaniment for this final track, though his sumptuous, aqueous study is largely lost on an audience craning their necks to make out the stage right screen. It’s a shame: given the right layout the footage would further heighten the impact of Aaron Burrows’ bracing modal keys cutting through ‘Oil’’s twinkling introduction, some three minutes in. There’s a distinctlyAmnesiac-era Radiohead feel to the mournful horns and distorted E-bow tremolo that ensue, and the significant restraint shown in not descending into cacophony echoes Radiohead fan favourites from that era such as ‘You and Whose Army?’ and ‘Pyramid Song’.
It’s right that Kaleidoscope’s performance gives a salutary nod to Greenwood’s work. The man has done more than any other to dispel contemporary classical’s reputation as an art form too high-brow, too pretentious and too inaccessible for your everyday six-stringer. Introducing ‘Toki no Senrei wo’, Rittipo-Moore jokes: “Unfortunately Jonny couldn’t be here tonight.” Still, Greenwood’s influence is felt. More importantly, Jenni Watson is here tonight, watching on from the audience in delight as Kaleidoscope give an emotive rendition of her composition ‘Tinged’. Oliver Christophe Leith is here too, manning the electric guitar and E-bow duties during ‘Oil’’s glimmering outro. There are a lot of good minds in and around this quartet, and Kaleidoscope could take their project in any number of directions. This one’s optimistic.
Oil is available to purchase on Kaleidoscope’s website now. You can stream Oil on Spotify and iTunes as well. You can catch them at the Buxton Festival, Derbyshire on July 16th, and at the Wallace Collection, London on 25th July. Full tour details are available here.