Archives for category: Live Review

Michael Gira

An awkward silence hung over the Birmingham audience as Swans took to the stage, either too polite, or too intimidated to applaud the arrival of Michael Gira and his legendary New York Experimental/Noise Rock band. It was the last moment of calm and silence that anyone in The Library would hear for over two hours. As Swans’ sucked the air from the room, any traditional concepts of melody or rhythm went with it, and the very idea of verse-chorus song structure probably would’ve been met with a sly smirk.

They opened with Gira shaking the room with his impossibly deep baritone, chanting “there are millions and millions of stars in your eyes” over a hauntingly shrill and sparse rhythm, sometimes singing it off-mic as he drifted around the stage with his own eyes closed. The rest of the band met his volume as they violently snapped through “Mother of the World”, a panting menace of a song from The Seer, Swans equally demented 2012 album. They ripped into it with such fervour that several earplugless individuals immediately fled the barrier.

Swans’ six man line-up ranges from your standard stern faced rhythm guitarist, bassist and drummer, to the more nebulous and hard to define multi-instrumentalist. Thor Harris, who lived up to his name by playing bare chested, literally provided Swans’ bells and whistles, along with brass and fierce percussion. Chris Pravdica provided the punishing bass catalyst of “Coward”, coercing the rest of the rhythm section into the songs intense severity. Gira sang and spat out the unnerving lyrics amongst the troubled rhythms, shouting: “I don’t know you / I can’t use you / Put your knife in me”. He seemed to be aware of every noise and note that each of his band members were making or playing; he would repeatedly beckon to them for more volume, or place his guitar down and conduct their corrosive cacophony with his convulsive dancing.

They played long and unhurried versions of their songs, indulging in long abstract noise rock sections that frequently pushed song lengths well past the 20 minute mark. They would play the same earth shattering mantric refrains until the sense altering volume finally began to white out. After 90 minutes Gira said that there set was only half over, it’s hard to imagine he was joking, and he only found time for one more song before the 11pm curfew.

Their dirge of anguished violent noise was enough to set your brain on fire, engulfing it as it found a form of ecstasy within Swans’ transcendent onslaught, becoming enamoured and alive with frisson as their volume shook your bones, and Gira spouted what must’ve been demonic tongues. The awkward silence had transformed to loud applause by their set’s end, and the band relieved the haunting tension by taking uncharacteristically playful bows.

It’s so easy to call the noise produced by some of music’s loudest bands a ‘wall of sound’. Any band who push their volume far into the red have probably had their live set described this way, but for Swans it just doesn’t feel like an apt description. The noise they created on The Library’s stage didn’t feel like an isolating wall, it didn’t block out audience, it enveloped them. It felt like you were within it, hurtling with it through dark and unsettling scenes, becoming ever more willing to hand yourself over to its all-consuming power, not even caring that it was turning anything caught in its wake to dust.

5/5

Advertisements

Yo La Tengo

A large portion of Yo La Tengo’s not-quite-sold out Manchester audience seemed to leave it dangerously close to the 8pm start time before arriving. You would’ve guessed the turnout was going to be disappointing judging from how empty The Ritz was just half an hour before show time, but it was mostly full by the start, and it was busy enough by the interval that getting to the bar became semi-difficult. Perhaps people just didn’t know that Yo La Tengo’s opening act was Yo La Tengo. They firstly took to the stage and sat in front of three cartoony model trees, for a whisper quiet acoustic set. Before returning for an electric (“JUDAS!”) set that slowly increased in volume, and about half of which consisted of long abstract guitar freak-outs.

But before he could get to those distorted heroics, Ira Kaplan led the band through a sparse take of “Ohm” with a thin guitar line. They stripped their new album’s opening sprawling epic bare, and all sang its sweet cooing “ooo ooo oos” in a hushed mumble. James McNew strapped his bass on for a similarly serene “Two Trains”; his thick notes resonated deeply beneath Georgia Hubley’s soft brush strokes and Kaplan’s airy guitar jangle. Kaplan playfully joked, whilst reminiscing about their soundcheck-less first tour, that the band are now “a well-oiled rock machine”, and their first set was quiet enough to let you know that the venue’s doors definitely aren’t. As the squeaking hinges temporarily became an unofficial members for “Season of the Shark” from 2003’s Summer Sun. Hubley missed her husband’s queue for acoustic set closer “Big Day Coming”, but followed McNew’s bass line to properly form the gorgeous Painful opener, which the trio somehow made it sound even more naked than the album version. It’s the perfect first set closer, as the two distinctive quiet and loud versions from the 1993 album seem to be the genesis of this distinctive quiet and loud set idea.

Yo La Tengo have the perfect discography to pull off this concept. Creating one set from their extensive and sonically varied back catalogue would result in many songs being missed out if they wanted to keep an even momentum going. But splitting them up allows for the band to show both of their sides, part unhurried acoustic and part hellfire guitar distortion. The acoustic set was pretty but the bump in volume at the beginning of the second set was very welcome, it was almost a revelation when Kaplan started to play with amplification. You knew they meant business the second you noticed that they’d changed their attire from sweaters to shirts during the interval.

Actual drumsticks didn’t appear onstage until they played I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One’s “Moby Octopad”. Hubley shuffled them to Mcnew’s heavy bass leads, whilst Ira played keys and produced sounds that somehow went from jazzy piano chords, to an otherworldly organ riff, and then ended on a sprightly key melody. McNew joined the rhythm section with a snare and maracas for “Autumn Sweater” and “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House”, as Ira and Georgia showed that their hushed voices could still be heard even with some volume beneath them. A rocking “Is That Enough” continued the electric sets slow increase in tempo and volume, and a solid rhythm section on “Before We Run” set the stage for Kaplan’s first guitar freak-out.

An electric repeat of “Ohm” completely eclipsed the earlier version, the driving beat and volume lent it far more power than the exhaled acoustic version did. Kaplan’s earlier solos were revealed to be mere warm ups just minutes into second set closer “I Heard You Looking”. He conveyed more emotion through his instrument in the extended Painful instrumental than through any of his vocals. The lower he let his guitar slip past his waist the better his playing sounded, he eventually gave up on even wearing his strap and just waved the screeching instrument through an invisible fog of distortion as he deliberated untuned it and seamlessly switched to another guitar to start the chaos anew. He returned triumphantly to the main riff resembling a one man Marquee Moon.

With the arc and progression of their two set experiment complete, their encores provided a reset. They played two covers, “You guys like London right?” asked Ira, sparking a choir of playful boo’s before they played a faithful punk rock take on Alternative TV’s “Action Time Vision”. The second cover was the first of two requests that closed the night, someone had apparently requested their cover of William DeVaughn’s “Be Thankful for What You Got” through email, and they closed with Ira asking, almost demanding, that someone he picked out of the front row request a song. Despite the shouts for “Sugarcube” she requested “From a Motel 6”. Which they played in a stripped down form, closing the night on the note that was far lower key, and felt almost quaint, compared to the noisy and inspiring “I Heard You Looking” that we’d seen just over 10 minutes before. There’s kind of no comparison to seeing Ira Kaplan play and abuse his electric guitar. All of their styles went over well as they segued from their quietest to their loudest material, and the heights that Yo La Tengo reached wouldn’t have been anywhere near as beautiful without that slow and steady climb

4/5

The Men

The promise of an excellent support slot from Parquet Courts probably had a lot to do with this show being a last minute ‘tickets on the door’ sell out. The opening band are currently riding on the success of last year’s Light Up Gold, an album that continued to gain momentum and find new successes earlier this year when it was picked up by bigger music websites. The band delivered on the promise and blasted their propulsive bare-bones rock at the Garage crowd, and recreated the album’s seamless transition between “Master of My Craft” and “Borrowed Time”. Their two guitarists/vocalists, Austin Brown and Andrew Savage, both sing with a manic delivery and when bassist Sean Yeaton joins in it’s like the band are singing along to their own set. Just seconds after they joke about failing to warm up the crowd for The Men they played an electric final two songs. During a solo-laden “Stoned and Starving” Savage left his screaming guitar propped against his amp, changed his stance, and delivered an intense reprise of the lyrics of “Light Up Gold” with a Patti Smith “Land”-like delivery, seemingly winning over anyone who was previously unsure.

There was a time when playing a venue called the Garage would have almost been apt for The Men, but the oppressive punk/noise/garage rock of their first two releases has pretty much been eclipsed by the recently released New Moon, which continues the expansion and mellowing of their sound that they started with 2012’s Open Your Heart. Both keep the grit of their earlier releases but hop frantically through rock and roll sub-genres, making the band increasingly harder to define. With such a wide range of sonic styles to choose from it was hard to guess exactly what this set was going to entail. They’ve gained a reputation of playing very little songs from their current albums, instead opting to play sets of predominantly new material. This has always made them seem slightly out of sync with their audience, it’s nice to hear new songs but people mostly just want to hear what they know. This is an obvious problem that their relentless and constantly developing song writing and recording regime has caused.

With all these things considered, it was a definite surprise when pianist/organist/vocalist Marc Perro began playing the opening bars of “( )” from Leave Home. He played it as the rest of the band slowly arrived and joined in, until drummer Rich Samis showed up and hurled them into the song with a vicious snare roll. The choice to open with the oppressive punk of Leave Home can be read as an attempt to stop the bellyaching amongst that album’s biggest fans, who feel isolated and disappointed by The Men’s more recent output. But it was probably played just because it was an instant dose of frantic and pulverising rock and roll music. They quickly abandoned any theoretical appeasements and mostly left Leave Home’s mega fans in the dust. They only returned to the album once, with a rubbery and motorik take on “Night Landing”.

After the noisy dramatics of “( )” they delved deep into New Moon with the whiskey-sweat-sentiment of the heart pumping “Half Angel Half Light”, and then delivered two of its best pop cuts in the form of “Without a Face” and “Freaky”. A rallying “Turn It Around” filled in the pit, which had previously been spacious and violent. The crowd in general was surprisingly varied considering the band is named after a gender. A slamming version of the Open Your Heart title track featured a raucous guitar solo from Ben Greenberg, good enough to make you wonder why he didn’t move over to the instrument from bass sooner. He made the switch when The Men recently changed their live setup, and bass duties are now handled by Kevin Faulkner who is credited as a lap steel player on New Moon. Their ability to switch around and the lack of a frontman may suggest a sense of anonymity in their band, but it just adds to their varied approach to music, and each singing member’s voice is distinctive and great, even if they’re slightly less capable than other members.

A piano interlude was possibly there just to kill time and mask the sound of the other members tuning, but by its end the full band had come together and they segued into “I Saw Her Face” with a light country jam. The song was extended to Crazy Horse levels and as they moved to Samis’ heavy bass drum; they played biting guitar licks and traded solos. Faulkner was also wearing a 2009 Neil Young tour t-shirt, providing a good indicator of the song’s influence for those who couldn’t effectively use their ears. It was a piece of crushing folk rock, with a galloping punk outro, all whilst being contrasted with Perro’s clear piano keys.

Nick Chiericozzi brutalised his throat on lead single “Electric”, as he tried to match the high octane guitar harmonies for volume, but he quickly recovered for the crooning “Candy”, which was scored with bottleneck guitar licks. They ended their main set with “The Brash”; Greenberg shouted and threw his mic stand to the floor after the first verse, matching the energy of the song’s devastating riff. For their encore they tried yet another style with the unabashed gritty Americana of “Bird Song”, which allowed Perro to add harmonica blasts while Greenberg ripped a showy guitar solo.

“We want dancing baby!” Chiericozzi requested whilst preparing for a song they described as being “very new”. It sounded almost like a shredding take on boogie woogie, complete with a tinkling piano solo. They played it with the house lights half up and ending it with Chiericozzi’s fun, panicked and repeated shouts of “We gotta go!”. It was of course another venture into a new area of rock and roll for The Men, but it still hit like a side swipe. It was a fun sampling of their future material that capped off a set of familiar and crowd pleasing songs. They hit all of the high points from their already extensive discography, and showed that when it comes to rock and roll, they can kind of do anything.

5/5

Kevin Shields

After brief stints in Asia and Australia, My Bloody Valentine have returned to play in the UK for the first time since Kevin Shields promised and delivered the impossible. This O2 Academy Birmingham show was a late addition to the UK tour, added after alternative music fans everywhere became swept up in the chatter leading up to the possible release of the band’s new album m b v. Many would have bet that by this gig the album would still be unreleased, but the Birmingham show improbably happened in a post m b v world, and while it wasn’t an official sell out, it was pretty damn close. Certainly not bad for a band who have disappeared completely several times, and whose most critically acclaimed album, Loveless, only sold 200,000ish copies worldwide.

The Birmingham audience was dotted with aging, deafened-veteran fans, but they were in the minority, some of those in the crowd seemed to be so young that not only were they not born when Loveless was released, they probably couldn’t even legally drink when the remastered version came out. The crowd was comprised of people that had discovered My Bloody Valentine’s amazing and truly unique music (unique before they inspired droves of imitators that is) at some time in their life, even if it was years after the fact. But some people had probably just been dragged along by someone else that had found the band’s music, and were about to get the shock of a lifetime.

Even with the focus on their new material being at an all-time high they opened with the melodious duo of “I Only Said” and “When You Sleep” from Loveless. The woozy synth leads from both boast two of band’s biggest hooks, and for ten minutes people seemed to forget that the band has a new record out. As “New You” started they were quickly reminded, Shields played his oscillating guitar line with head almost pressed to his speakers. The band stood in front of video loops that were as cohesive as their production is. The images were marked with the same corroded and kaleidoscopic beauty that defines their songs. It was only upon seeing “New You” live that it finally became clear that it’s Bilinda Butcher who provides the sweet lead vocals. Her and Shields androgynous vocals were just as similarly inaudible as they sound on their studio recordings, almost to an irritating extent. It becomes a noticeable problem with their music when you lose the intimacy of headphones or home speakers, getting the right balance between quiet-but-audible vocals and louder-than-hell guitars must be close to impossible in a live setting.

They became the ear shredders that legend foretold with “You Never Should”, which completely did away with the laid back serenity of “New You”. They started the Isn’t Anything track with a significant volume bump to what was already a loud show. The legends must have spread, because this gig’s audience had the highest percentage of people wearing earplugs that I’ve ever seen. By the time Shields’ liquid slide guitar on “Honey Power” started, people were likely thanking the pieces foam in their ears. The addition of some aggressive and lesser known early EP songs made for a nice mix of sonically varied material that continued throughout their set, and it was a testament to their new material that m b v’s songs fit so seamlessly next to older and beloved tracks. With “Only Tomorrow” the volume somehow seemed to increase again, the warbling guitar drop and pained outro licks shook the stage.

Except for Butcher, the band members’ gazes were still fixed firmly upon their shoes; only Bilinda looked out at the crowd, as she softly sung with her guitar hanging motionless at her waist. It was the band’s lone acknowledge of their audience, and with the vocal mix being what it was, it was hard to tell whether Shields had said nothing, or merely little, to the similarly sedate crowd. He seemed to be lost within his guitar sound during a dissolving “Come In Alone”. Colm Ó Cíosóig’s snare queued up the wonky “Only Shallow”, with its guttural bass and reanimated six string squeal. Their set’s final visits to Loveless’ came in the form of the gorgeously muddled “To Here Knows When” and its stomping post punk closer “Soon”. The two songs bookended and overshadowed a messy version of “Slow” that seemed to leave the crowd unmoved.

They began their final act with the scraping slam of “Feed Me With Your Kiss”, an excellent blurry rocker with a dual vocal lead that trades between Shields and Butcher. But even midway through it you could feel people gearing up for the much hyped “You Made Me Realise”, with its supposedly apocalyptic and famed ‘holocaust section’ wherein the band play one note for as long and as loud and they can endure to. The beginning of the song came with another, possibly imagined, increase in volume, but the beginning of the holocaust section came with a definite and undeniable increase that redefined your definition of ‘loud’. As they dropped into it from the main riff you could feel the rays of sound tearing through your body and shaking your nervous system. Some of those without earplugs wisely covered their ears and others threw their hands above their head to fully embrace its might, as the volume slowly climbed past Jupiter and beyond the infinite. It sounded as if a rocket’s thrusters were burning and reverberating through the venue, conjuring visions of a hectic speed of light re-entry into our atmosphere.

For me, it provoked one of the strongest reactions that I’ve ever had due to live music or music in general, if ten minutes of intense distortion can even be counted as music. I was in disbelief that something so simple and theoretical had hit me so powerfully, that something so monotonous could be so beautiful and invigorating. Its frightening volume was probably the loudest thing I’ve ever experienced in person, definitely for such an extended period of time. That such a colossal, all-consuming noise was created by a small group of people with nothing but pedals and guitars is simply incredible. I feel bad for anyone that didn’t experience what I did within its blissful, troubled cacophony, and when the ten minutes were over my body was tingling.

It was awesome in the rarely earned non-hyperbolic sense of the word, an overwhelming and physical experience that no review or video will ever be able to faithfully capture or prepare you for, even I expected everything I’ve heard about it to be a ridiculous over positive appraisal of something that had to be a self-indulgent boring mess. But I’ve never been happier to be wrong, and for almost a quarter of an hour “You Made Me Realise” turned their good set into a great one. The section is completely dependent on its teeth shattering volume, and to turn it down would be to fatally defang it. Anyone who endured it without earplugs is dumb, but they have my respect. When the band returned to and finished the actual song part of it, it actually seemed quiet in comparison.

They broke tradition by not finishing with the song, and instead closed with the live debut of “Wonder”. Cíosóig left his drums and picked up a guitar as the pre-taped jet fuel percussion was piped into the Academy, and Shields’ unnerving vocals struggled to drift through the rumbling guitar layers. Following the distorted behemoth of “You Made Me Realise”, it was an unneeded but welcome addition to their set. It showed that My Bloody Valentine can still create loud and formidable anomalies that deafen you in the best way possible, even if their release dates are now twenty something years apart.

4/5

Foals

You’d probably guess that Foals are Sixth Form favourites judging from the predominantly youngish and enthusiastic crowd that was gathered to see them in The Institute. But upon closer inspection you’d notice a varied audience, and it’s easy to see why. The artsy, experimental sheen of Foals’ music is lightened, and made more accessible, by their aggressive pop hooks and dancey guitar lines. These elements make their music easy to sing, or drunkenly chant along to, and have likely caused the band to be embraced by general music lovers and laddish bantering students alike (these two demographics would probably make for a fun Venn diagram). Foals’ brand of Indie Rock/Pop will probably work for you whether you want to bang your head or dance your heart out. You can either slam along with the band’s measured aggression or simply let it move your feet.

The excitement noticeably erupted in the Birmingham venue as an intro tape of Anna Meredith’s “Nautilus” filled the room to announce the band’s arrival. They opened, aptly enough, with “Prelude”, the opening instrumental from their new album Holy Fire. Jack Bevan’s crisp percussive snare strikes and the looping textural guitar didn’t prepare the crowd for the song’s surprisingly sharp breakdown, which still worked even though it hit long after the crowd had pre-emptively gone nuts. After a brief pause their set shifted as Yannis Philippakis played the near-signature guitar line of Total Life Forever’s “Miami”, changing its definition from classical to post punk as the song progressed.

An early set appearance of “My Number” seized and converted any members of the crowd who weren’t already feeling it. Even as the excitable crowd slammed, crashed and careened into one another they still managed to generate as much noise as the band, by loudly singing along to the chorus as the air was squeezed from their lungs. It’s a song that is so catchy, and greeted so enthusiastically, that you’d think it was a much bigger hit than it actually it. After all it was even deemed to be funky and stone cold pop enough by gold standard Popists Hot Chip, who recently honoured the single with a neat remix. The infectious song hit the crowd and generated enough energy to make you believe that even the people outside of the venue, like in the song’s video, were dancing in the street. And you’d never be able to prove otherwise, unless you had the same unnervingly fluid, wall ignoring, Evil Dead II-like camera that was used to film said video with you.

As the song ended the transitional heartbeat bass drum of “Blue Blood” pulsed far slower than the majority of the circulatory systems on the dance floor did. The band almost lost momentum as the carefully allowed “Milk & Black Spiders” to build, but then they forcefully ripped it back with a glistening and galvanic middle section. They thrilled at half speed with the cruising smooth funk undercurrent of “Late Night”, which Yannis ended with a neon guitar solo. It was a paced and relaxed moment that Foals quickly dismissed with a violent looking stage dive that Yannis took during the dance floor fury of “Providence”.

Large chunks of the crowd tried to sit down during the serene opening of “Spanish Sahara”, which was probably so they could give the band the standing ovation they deserved as they furiously beat out the outros solid tempo. When they were back of their feet, people were jumping and ready to lose themselves again, even before the band kicked into the breakdown of “Red Socks Pugie” from their debut album Antidotes. The straight New York-like Dance Punk of “Electric Bloom” saw Yannis partly joining the rhythm section, whilst still fronting the band with an unhinged Byrne-ian energy as he brandished a pair of drumsticks and stormed through the refrain. Corrosive waves of distortion crashed through the venue and suddenly cut out at maximum volume as the song crashed into its ending and the band left the stage.

The crowd was wild enough by this point that not playing an encore just wasn’t an option. Yannis returned alone to open the encore with a solo version of “Moon”, which he introduced as a “twisted little number”. The song is a slow burn and he temporarily lost the still hopped up crowd, who began to chat amongst themselves during the pretty but sleepy number. He instantly won them back with an unimaginative but effective shout of “Are you fucking ready?” as his bandmates returned for a venue shaking rendition of “Inhaler” that hit with a supersonic force. A call from Yannis of “Let’s desecrate this building” prepped their closer “Two Steps, Twice”. It layered and layered and dragged the perfectly willing crowd through a final sweaty crush and dance along.

Foals play many of their songs live in a fashion that is far more vicious and thrillingly ill-mannered than any of their studio recordings, and the band was clearly loving their growing successes as they fed off of The Institute’s crowd. A crowd that couldn’t quite decide how to react to the music, but clearly loved it. The exhausted and beaming fans filed out of the venue to the sound of AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long”, which is probably the only song that could keep the party that Foals started going.

5/5

The Joy Formidable

That they take a moment during their set to wish one of their biggest fans a Happy 71st Birthday, is a testament to incredibly varied nature of The Joy Formidable’s fan base. The Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall was full of fans of all ages, gathered to see the explosive part-welsh three piece who are touring in support of Wolf’s Law, their recently released second album. The album is kind of a mixed bag with its incredible highlights unfortunately being tarred by some skippable pace killing filler. But many albums with a similarly wide scope encounter the same problems, and Wolf’s Law still feels like a success, because it’s refreshing for an artist in the shape of a rock band to have the balls to aim so big. The assorted turn out shows they are well on their way to becoming a band who are just as gigantic as their volatile songs.

As a live band The Joy Formidable shed album lowlights and go hell or broke with their supercharged breakdown laden songs. They’ve honed their live chops as the support act for several giant arena level bands, giving them repeated tastes of, and fueling their appetite for, a highest level of success. The arena exposure seems to have awarded the band with a quiet confidence whilst performing. Frontwoman Ritzy Bryan conveys a perfect balance between self-seriousness and awareness as she zigzags around the stage and belts out her mammoth choruses. She knows when to be subtle and when to be larger than life, and demonstrates an embracement of the lovably dumb theatrics and guitar heroics of rock music.

They bring a learned arena rock fury to the comparatively modest Wulfrun Hall and almost immediately blow the roof off with the soaring chorus and unstable guitar riffs of their set opener “Cholla”, and encourage a sing along with the consciously designed crowd chants of “Austere”, from their 2011 debut album The Big Roar. Rhydian Dafydd’s fuzzy bass riff explodes with the help of a giant gong crash from drummer Matt Thomas and flashing guitar line from Ritzy, as the song rips open with frisson inducing hysteria.

Nothing quite says “We want to play arena rock” like a drummer with a gong and chimes, and Thomas beats the holy hell out of his front stage left drum kit for the entirety of their set. Becoming their chaotic driving force through Wolf’s Law opener and highlight “This Ladder Is Ours”, as Ritzy sung the thrillingly rushed vocal melodies of its excellent chorus. She moves around the stage with a bouncy energy and looks out at the crowd with a fun mischievous stare. There’s never any degree of intensity about her, she instead channels her aggression through her instrument and gives nothing but love to her audience. The band also don’t appear to be too cool for school, and don’t scoff at a group of fans who are wielding inflatable guitars above their heads, and dismiss and playfully mock the duelling crowd shouts of “BASS SOLO! DRUM SOLO!”. “I play Bass and even I don’t want to hear a bass solo”, says Dafydd.

After leading a sing along during the kinetic outro of “The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade”, and knocking her microphone stand over as she blasted through an extended version of “Cradle”, that seemed like it had a 50 megaton breakdown, Ritzy handed the guitar lead over to Dafydd for “Silent Treatment”. An acoustic ballad that gives their propulsive set a brief moment of pause. She took back the lead with the intergalactic synth guitar solos of “Maw Maw Song”, which really came to life in a live setting, highlighted by its dramatic glam rock intro and motorik drum beat during the verses. They close out their main set with the epileptic guitar of “The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie”, which concludes with an impossibly increasing racing tempo that somehow never quite falls apart as it rockets towards infinity.

When they return for their encores only one song is on people’s minds, but they open by dedicating a version of “Bats” to their 71 year old fan, “This is ‘Bats’ for an old bat” says Ritzy. After a blitzing “Forest Serenade” the anticipation for their beloved “Whirring” is at a fever pitch, and the gentle opening piano chords of “Wolf’s Law” are greeted by a noticeable feeling of tedium within the crowd as they lose patience and hope that the night isn’t a giant anti-climax. The hidden title track itself builds to a satisfying dizzying crescendo, but the band knows their audience and as they reach full volume during the song’s conclusion they erupt into “Whirring”.

The song is about as perfect as a dazzling crowd rousing closer gets, with its goliath sing along chorus, furious double bass drum lead, and stacked crash endings. It finally causes the band’s energy to fully spark within the crowd, and riles the front rows into a frenzy. The band gallop through it with wide grins on their faces, always teasing and delivering yet another crash ending. Amongst the madness Ritzy went to the barrier and allowed her fans to paw at her and her Stratocaster, before running back to the stage and triumphantly standing atop the drum kit for a final (for real this time) crash ending that laid waste to the Wulfrun Hall.

The majority of The Joy Formidable’s songs use this same structure, and you know the breakdown is coming, but it’s still an invigorating adrenaline rush every time. When their massive songs peak and detonate it’s easy to see why their audience is so varied, and it makes you wish we had more bands who aim for the skies.

4/5

Dinosaur Jr

If playing insanely loud rock music for close to three decades doesn’t give you a good enough insight into the state of J Mascis hearing, then the three towering Marshall stacks crammed onto the Electric Ballroom stage definitely will, and judging from his comically sized set list he’s as blind as he is deaf. Dinosaur Jr.’s vision blurring volume must have an effect on him, but his forever laid back demeanour makes him seem immune as he shreds through and forms a third of their deafening sensory assault from behind his glazed eyes.

The Amherst trio arrived in support of last year’s excellent I Bet on Sky, the third album in their improbably great reunion streak, and this Electric Ballroom show is the last of a rare UK tour. A tour that has allowed many people to see if the band lives up to the legend of their supposedly frightening volume for the first time. You don’t even need to hear one note played through Mascis and bassist Lou Barlow’s imposing setups to figure that question out, but it’s their drummer Murph that might be the loudest. He slams his drum kit and provides a pounding assault from under the fuzzy stringed madness. You can feel a real fury in the air when they launch into their set with “The Lung”, from their 1987 classic You’re Living All Over Me. After which Barlow kicked his monitor up, aimed it towards the audience, and blared his gnashing bass line from Bug’s “Budge” right into the faces of the front row.

The three I Bet on Sky songs they played showed their worth by fitting perfectly alongside their more classic material. The scratchy guitar lead of album opener “Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know” was topped with a solo that was far more vicious than the album version, but the triumphant blazing outro of “Watch the Corners” was left mostly intact by Mascis. Barlow took the lead with an enthusiastic croon on “Rude” and a harsh shriek on their version of “Training Ground”, a song from one of Mascis and Barlow’s first band Deep Wound, who date back to a time when Mascis had yet to trade his drum kit in for a guitar. “This is a song about me starting college, which I regret” says Barlow before they tear into its blistering hardcore punk flesh, “school sucks” he adds after a thrilling grinding blur of a song. The fierce shouts of “Little Fury Things” and the guitar refrain of “Crumble” devolve into some of Mascis’ best vocal melodies, which greatly contrasts the savage aggression of the Deep Wound song.

Mascis’ squealing guitar and Murph’s punchy fills mark a particularly colossal sounding “Start Choppin’”, and “Freak Scene” doesn’t receive as big a reaction as you’d expect, but everyone still comes together for its two excellently messy solos and the big sing along line of “cause when I need a friend it’s still you”. A racing version of “Feel the Pain” is the runaway crowd favourite, with its frantic speed up slow down structure and multiple breakdowns sending waves through the shoving crowd.

A super extended version of “Gargoyle” ends the main set, building and building as Barlow sings and swipes furiously at the neck of his Rickenbacker. “What songs do you want to hear that we’re not going to play?” taunts Barlow playfully as they return for their encores, “How about a song by The Cure?”. A question that makes you realise that it’s always been bizarre that a band with such a mammoth sound chose to stomp through the gentle Cure classic “Just Like Heaven”, but their reinvention of it sounds predictably incredible tonight as Robert Smith’s sweet melodies are trampled and left to bleed out underneath Dinosaur Jr. crushing momentum. They close with a demonic “Sludgefeast”, and Murph, J and Lou blast through its multiple riffs and tempos, and ignite with a perfect skull rattling heavy metal outro. They leave to the sound of Barlow’s whooping bass distortion, having proven again that their second life isn’t a fluke.

5/5

Wye Oak

2012 has been a sedate year for Wye Oak, unless you count the excellent solo singles released by vocalist/guitarist Jenn Wasner’s under the name Flock of Dimes. Or her upcoming balls out pop project with White Life/ The Art Department’s John Ehrens: Dungeonesse. The only new music released under the Wye Oak name this year was the lone track “Spiral”, which sounds like it probably would’ve been released under the Flock of Dimes name had it not been commissioned for Adult Swim’s Singles Program. It sounds great, but is definitely more poppy and in line with Wasner’s other non-guitar heavy projects. The task of keeping their fans engaged seems to have fallen to Wasner, but if drummer/keyboardist/bassist/genuine musical everyman Andy Stack is as busy offstage as he is on, then he must have at least an equal amount of projects in the works.

With their lax year in mind, it made perfect sense for them to open with a new song. Instantly giving an audience who were eager to know what they’ve been up to a preview of what is to come. They played several great and exciting new songs that all hinted at a more airy and sonic direction, whilst still being anchored by Wasner’s melodic and distorted guitar tone. The first known song they play is the bouncy and explosive “Holy Holy”, Stack provides both the serene scene setting organ and the blasting death strike that launches Wasner’s shivering guitar climax.

The duo seemed far more relaxed than they did during their last London show at the XOYO in November 2011. Where they appeared exhausted at the conclusion of a long year of touring that followed the release of their acclaimed third album Civilian. This results in a more fun, laid back, and sweaters-still-on kind of show. “This is cosy” notes Wasner, showing that even she knows that this is a comfortable feeling show. Which makes them seem almost effortlessly and casually great, making Wasner’s fantastic voice seem even more enviable as she offhandedly sings her mournful lyrics. “I’ve never been on stage in a sweater before”, Wasner says blaming it on the cold Scala venue. “We’re freezing but we’re looking forward to getting warmer under the lights”, which was said with a confidence that suggested she knew their performance was going to warm up the crowd.

The playing of one man rhythm section; Andy Stack, is really a site to see. He plays drums with his right hand and keyboards with his left, on which he usually is playing bass rhythms. It’d be incredibly impressive even if their songs weren’t good. He was also celebrating his 28th birthday: “He’s been putting up with my shit for 10 years”, says Wasner. He took on yet another role during “Spiral”, which saw him playing bass and tweaking knobs. The song comes across excellently live as Wasner apes the hypnotic marimba loops on guitar strings, whilst knelt in front of her pedals. The echoey and rubbery keyboard bass on the restrained, measured and gorgeously paced “Plains” builds to a brief but all-consuming conclusion. And Wasner’s hushed lyrics and loud guitar strums during “Take It In”, from their second album The Knot, perfectly shows the band’s contrast between fierce and subtle beauty.

After several songs they stare at each other, waiting for the other to start the next song. Before they are both forced to admit that they forgot to bring out their setlists. After Stack fetches one, and Wasner playfully claims that a lot of work goes into their ‘elaborate’ and ‘organised’ live set, they play a great version of “Hot as Day”. The slow heavy stomp of “That I Do” features the best solo of the night, a mangled flurry of notes over Stack’s heavy drum strikes. The build up to the guitar seizure in “Dogs Eyes” is momentarily ruined by a broken drum pedal. Which, much to Wasner’s delight, Stack immediately swapped out with a standby replacement. She gleefully taunted him for being so organised: “You nerd!”, “We’re playing with rented equipment and he had the exact thing we needed!”. Miraculously, after the unplanned and funny interlude, the guitar stills hits hard.

They ended their main set with “Civilian”, its opening chords sparking the biggest response of the night. They returned for a lone encore of “For Prayer”, during which Stack was attacked by an unfortunately timed smoke machine throughout the beautiful opening, before it ended the night perfectly with an electric and feverish climax. It sounds as if this was the last Wye Oak show for a while, at least until they have a new album, and even the band didn’t seem sure of when that will be. But hopefully as Wasner says, it won’t be “too too long” before we hear from them again.

4/5

Kurt Vile

The run up to The National’s ATP festival has caused a mass influx of American Indie Rock bands with Folk leanings to the UK this week, and this ATP promoted Kurt Vile show seemed designed to give three of those bands something to do before they make the drive to Camber Sands. It also gave the non-attendees a chance to see three of the festivals best.

First opening act Dark Dark Dark play a set of material from their great new album Who Needs Who. Like the album, their live sound is a jazzy-piano heavy breed of Folk Rock. Which features an accordion, some brass, and a atypical bass-drumless drum setup. Vocalist Nona Marie Invie’s performed all but one song seated behind the keyboard, and her rich affective voice blossomed during “It’s a Secret” and “Meet in the Dark”. It’s great and mellow enough that even the light mumble of audience conversation doesn’t detract from their great set.

Baltimore’s Lower Dens politely announce that they’re ready as they begin a slow and gorgeous set of their ‘Alternative’ music, in the hard to properly define sense of the world. They’ve been labelled with genres as varied as Dream Pop and Post Punk, but their sound is both too dark and too majestic to fit comfortably within either. Their excellent 2012 release Nootropics is proof that it’s music that requires patience. They use stiff drum beats and synth to play their wistful and illusory music within a traditional band structure. Serene opener “I Get Nervous”, from their debut album Twin-Hand Movement, shows off Jana Hunter’s and Geoff Graham’s off kilter harmonies, and the unnerving and nebulous beauty in Hunter’s voice emerges during “Propagation”. The more bass heavy “Brains” and “Stem” are almost proggy as the band descends from the soundscape for something more straightforward. Their fantastic set trails of more than it concludes, but even those who weren’t won over could feel their dark music lingering in the air as they left the stage.

It’s been almost 2 years since the release of Smoke Ring for My Halo, Kurt Vile’s breakout album from early 2011. Outside of a few live shows, it’s been a low key year for Vile. This is perfectly inline with his apathetic lyrics (“Think I’ll never leave my couch again”), but in reality it’s probably because he just has a second child with his wife, and is recording a new album. Somewhere during his time off Vile became an incredible guitar player, he was always good but at this gig his playing is pretty much the whole show. His guitar was deafening in his central monitors during opener “Hunchback”, and the tone sounded incredible all night. Ranging from his chunky, purring, folk guitar drawl to his excellent acoustic fingerpicking. He spent the majority of the set bent forward, his long hair draped only inches from the necks of his multiple Fender Jaguars, as he unleashed and lost himself in long guitar jams.

“Got no room for those two minute pop songs anymore”, he says after the light and poppy “Freeway”. A statement he proves with mammoth and grungey version of “Society Is My Friend”. The lengthy laid back guitar jams are far more to Vile’s speed now than the playful “Freeway”, the song’s yippy vocals sounded great, but out of place even on Constant Hitmaker. His Crazy Horse equivalent, The Violators, leave him alone with his acoustic guitar for several songs, allowing him to temporarily embody a solo Americana folk figure. He knows to pull back the volume for the magical fingerpicking of “Peeping Tomboy”, making it a stunning highlight.

Vile can be casual and laid back with his singing style to a fault, he sometimes sings his lyrics out of time. Some members of the crowd hushly mumbled along with him during “Baby’s Arms” and “Peeping Tomboy”, and his messy vocal style may have held them back from being great sing alongs. It’s customary to his lovably lazy stoner rock persona, as he is singing with as much energy as his lyrics are conveying, but it’s also an obvious weak point that he lets his masterful guitar work make up for. His stage banter is just as incoherent, but it’s sparse and saved mainly for one word thank you’s and song dedications to unknown people like “Stephanie”, who probably struggled to comprehend that the dedication was intended for them. “We’ve got to catch a plane to ATP” he said before a pre-encore version of title track “Smoke Ring for My Halo”. Spoken in a way that left no one quite sure whether he was joking or not, as they tried to remember if Camber Sands is actually far enough away from London for that to really be his method of travel.

His guitar sound continued to be the best thing about the show, as well as being its biggest problem. Its force was awe inspiring, but became a problem for the non-drummer Violators. Their rhythmic licks and other contributions to the folk guitar wall were near impossible to pick out as Vile dominated within it. It made his fantastically name backing band seem almost pointless. It was hard to tell if he played any new songs or not (he didn’t(?)). But it almost doesn’t matter what songs he played, it was a thrill just to watch his guitar playing weave through multiple styles and tempos. His songs have always been more about mood and tone than they are about hooks.

An encore of “Freak Train” appropriately featured a spaced out pedal mashing distortion freak out that destroyed its sampled beats with otherworldly guitar shrieks. Vile closed with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”. With an arrangement indebted to the Gun N’ Roses version, but Vile’s voice returned it to its mumbling Bob Dylan origins. He isn’t the most adept frontman, and he is clearly more Dylan than he is Axl. But he seems to have no patience for that sort of thing, and is at his most comfortable when shrouded in his exhilarating guitar tone.

4/5

sve21-shervin-lainez

If this show being rescheduled from October to December so Sharon Van Etten could perform on Later… with Jools Holland, wasn’t a good enough indicator of her progression in the music world, then the ever increasing sizes of her London shows definitely prove it. She has moved from the Cargo and Scala to Shepherds Bush Empire in just 9 months. She’s had a busy year, which started with the release of her outstanding third album Tramp, and continued with countless live shows in countless countries. This, as she later notes in disbelief from the stage, is her and her band’s sixth trip to Europe of the year.

As she stands in the view of the venues multiple balconies the set begins with “All I Can”, which builds slowly and allows her band’s sound to bloom around her. They follow it with Sharon going electric for the more warped Tramp opener “Warsaw”, and then into the light country rock of “Save Yourself”, from her second album Epic. “Give Out” is gorgeous and Van Etten demonstrates that she now has the confidence she craves for in the lyrics. The confidence she knew she would need to move to New York: “I wrote this song when I decided to move to New York. I’m still not sure that was a good idea… Well, I’ll think about that in my own time…”. She says breaking her initial all business approach, Sharon appears to have overcome feelings of self-consciousness whilst singing but apparently still feels it when addressing the crowd. Even though she seems enjoy it, she tries to get a move on and just play, despite the crowd loving her funny, affable and somewhat goofy stage manner.

Her and keyboardist/backup singer Heather Woods Broderick’s voices harmonise perfectly on the masculine titled duo of “Leonard” and “Kevin’s”, but midway through the set her band members leave her alone on stage as she performs a solo version of a new song she is working on. The audience remaining deathly quiet as she sings the devastating, vulnerable and violent lyrics about the regret she feels for letting a former lover control her. She sings: “break my legs so I won’t walk to you, stab my eyes so I can’t see that you like it, when I let you walk over me”. It was weighty but incredible, and the lyrics are likely aimed at the same ex that the majority of her other songs are. It might be her most direct and dark song about that period of her life.

“Serpents” is explosive, fun and loud. Putting a match to the emotional and introspective powder keg that Van Etten and her band had flawlessly assembled. Her voice remained unaffected by the illness she claimed to have, and an audience shout even questioned its legitimacy. The main set closed with the two closers from Tramp. The band played “I’m Wrong” as a systematic frenzy of melody, with Sharon playing the distortion from her pedals over drummer Zeke Hutchins ringing cymbal bell patterns. After the song’s giant crescendo and as Doug Keith’s violin bow guided guitar distortion bleeds away, Sharon slices through the crashing tones and plays the beautiful opening guitar chords of “Joke or a Lie” as the dust settles. Her repeated singing of the refrain isn’t even interrupted as someone sneezes during one of the song’s most quiet moments, Sharon adds a “bless you” to the lyrics and quickly eases everyone back into the song’s magic.

She finally breaks out her stage banter as she returns for an encore, prefacing a performance of “Ask” with the funny story of its awkward date origins. A loud blast of noise caused by some unseen failing sound equipment concludes the song, which Sharon meets with a fist pump. “We saved the fireworks for the end”. But the real conclusion is a stunning version of “Love More” from Epic. Complete, finally, with a Harmonium. Another clear sign that she is becoming more successful, as she had to apologise for, and make do with, its absence at her previous UK shows. It’s a perfect ending to a fantastic set and year for Sharon Van Etten. The stages are getting bigger, but her personal lyrics and beautiful voice can make any venue seem intimate.

5/5