Friday 28 May 2010

hAngry+Angry at Camden Underworld 27 May 2010

We’re on Japanese time.

Having seen the queues outside the Underworld and with firsthand experience of the way that J-Pop shows work, I’m glad I’m in position at eight o’clock sharp.

Not that I’m alone. The venue is semi-jammed. Everyone is as close to the stage as they can possibly get and everyone is waving a glo-stick. There is lots of chanting and excitement.

We’re here to see J-Pop superstars hAngry&Angry, aka Hitomi Yoshizawa and Rika Ishikawa. And there’s plenty to see, as the duo are leading lights in the musical style known as ‘Visual’, which as might be guessed from the title, emphasises elaborate dressing up, and extreme hair and make-up.

Hitomi (hAngry) is dressed in a succession of leather straps and sports a startling orange Mohawk. She looks stunning. Angry (Rika) is attired more in the Gothic Lolita style, in a powder blue frock coat and her hair in black ringlets. She is as cute as a button.

The crowd is fit to be tied as soon as the two hit the stage. Once the set starts the whole venue just becomes a seething mass of smiling faces and waved glo-sticks.

hAngry&Angry’s music is a thunderous combination of metal guitars and rave-y synths. Motorhead meets Tiesto with what to Western ears sounds like impossibly high pitched and squeaky vocals over the top. It’s quite unlike anything else.

Not that the two bother with anything so mundane as instruments. All the music tonight is on backing tape, controlled by a third member of the band, equally as eye catching as the main attractions.

We start off with the title track from the new album ‘Sadistic Dance’. Everyone knows all the words and joins in. hAngry&Angry work the stage consummately, ensuring that the crowd remain at fever pitch.

In breaks between songs, the two read from prepared pieces of paper and describe what they have done in London today. “I saw Big Ben, London Bridge and beautiful shipping!”

All the favourites are blasted out – ‘Angelina’ , ‘Romantic Ni Violence’, ‘Lady Madonna’ (emphatically NOT the Beatles track, but rather an epic track that involves a complicated routine of choreographed waving of hand fans).

They finish with the quite astonishing ‘Kill Me, Kiss Me’, their first single and how I discovered the band on my last trip to Japan. It’s pretty much the perfect pop song, catchy as hell and with enough spikiness to cut the sugar. And the video was somewhat arresting too, particularly when it's four storeys high on the side of a building...

For an encore they come back to perform ‘The Peace!’ , their most straightforwardly heavy metal track. As they leave, we are promised that there is more to come.

What follows is something that says everything about Japanese pop bands. Hitomi and Rika come back on stage and hold a question and answer session with the audience. The questions are very mild, but the answers are even blander – there is no danger of offence on either side. Even so, some of the questioners are so overcome to be in the presence of their heroines that they can barely speak. Various competition winners get to have their photos taken with the band and we are then dismissed and hussled towards the merchandising stands.

hAngry&Angry are not just a band, but are also a fashion label. So as well as the music, there is a rather naked emphasis on selling.

Minds comprehensively blown , we adjourn to a nearby pub. It is dark and mostly empty. One of the customers is riding round the bar on his bike, flashing his lights. After hAngry&Angry this seems entirely normal behaviour.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Metric / Wolf Gang at Shepherds Bush Empire 24 May 2010

Wolf Gang

Off to Shepherds Bush Empire on a hot summer evening. Having had multiple bad experiences here before (poor sightlines, worse sound) we decide to stand on the left hand side of the auditorium.

We are thus well placed when Max McElligott in his guise as Wolf Gang takes the stage to deliver a sumptuous set that is almost flawless. Not remotely original, but terrifically well done.

This is Eighties influenced stadium-sized pop rock. They start off a bit like ‘Sam’s Town’ era Killers, but soon leave comparisons with those imitators behind. McElligott doesn’t sound like a copyist, he sounds like the real deal.

This is of course the tragedy. In the absence of Top of the Pops or Saturday morning kids’ TV, or even an old school Radio One, acts like Wolf Gang are basically knackered. His true audience will never find him unless his backers can spring for an expensive or eye-catching video.

The highest praise I can give to any hitherto undiscovered band is that they sound like I’ve always somehow been aware of them. Wolf Gang go better than this – they sound like EVERYONE’S always known them. Frankly, if I couldn’t sell Mr McElligott in his own right, I’d snap him up as a songwriter toot sweet.

Headliners Metric are a band that I have followed since their very beginnings, playing deep in the dear departed and demolished Metro Club in Tottenham Court Road or in an under filled Camden Barfly. I’ve cheered as their star has risen, initially on the back of leading light Emily Haines’ involvement with Broken Social Scene, but gradually because Metric are such a damn fine band.

So I’m really looking forward to seeing them. Yet when they hit the stage there immediately seems to be something wrong. The sound is so muffled that you can literally barely hear them.

Even once the band turn their strobe lights on full, and the ebullient Haines starts capering and declaiming from side to side of the stage, they still sound like your noisy neighbour from four houses away playing something that might be pretty good if you could just make out what it was.
I try to give the band time to sort things, but after twenty minutes of this I just want to leave. I want to go and listen to some Metric.

Tonight’s show is rendered an utter waste. Not just of the time of the audience but of the efforts of the band themselves. When the support act sounds fine, but the headliners make you think that you’ve got your head in a bucket of water, there is something badly wrong.

I stomp off in frustration.

Thursday 20 May 2010

The Pack a.d. / Rich Aucoin / Woodenbox with a Fistful of Fivers at The Lexington 19 May 2010

We start with six guys on stage. Five of whom have beards. Two of them are respectively clutching a trumpet and a saxophone. I fear the worst. I am proved massively wrong.

Far from being earnest and dour young miserablists being all lovelorn and sensitive, Woodenbox with a Fistful of Fivers are a jolly band of lads. The most cumbersome thing about them is their name.

It’s uptempo raggle taggle enjoyment al the way. The brass section swings, there is joyful off-mike singing. Main singer Ali Downer thumps his guitar and orchestrates a jaunty knees up that belies the fact that this is the band’s first appearance in London and that they face a long and gruelling journey home on the “£10 Megabus”.

Woodenbox with a Fistful of Fivers describe themselves as ‘horn tinged folk rock’ but they have confounded my expectations and get the evening off to a flyer.

I suspect that the next set by Canadian Rich Aucoin and his band will live long in the memory of all who experienced it. This white-uniformed bunch of funsters hail from Halifax, Nova Scotia and have honed their act into an all immersive multi-media extravaganza in which the audience works as hard as the band.

It starts with a projection of a screaming goat. The audience are encouraged to scream along with it. It ends some half an hour later with us all in a mass pile up of balloons and confetti chanting “We Are The Undead”. In between Aucoin has had the entire venue on its knees bawling out the choruses to his synth and percussion driven anthems, the words flashing up on screens that appear to be showing a distorted version of the Dr Zuess cartoon “The Grinch That Stole Christmas”.

The whole performance is akin to joining a cult and I’m totally brain washed. If Aucoin and co had ladled out toxic Kool-Aid, I’d have drunk it. This is a text book example of the advantage of live performance over other forms of musical delivery – a CD or DVD of this show would be utterly self defeating. You have to be here.

Headliners The Pack a.d. hail from Vancouver and are a stark and simple contrast to Aucoin’s gallimaufry. Maya Miller drums and Beck Black plays guitar. That’s it. However, in this band’s case, less is definitely more, more, more.

Miller looks like a laconic Suzi Quatro, laying down thunderous beats and acting as wry commentator. She is well aware that her function is to add direction to the astonishing power of the whip-thin Black.

Becky is an extraordinary performer, and one of the most potent guitar-slingers I have ever seen. She hollers in a rasping, blues shout, straining every sinew, belting out each song with such force that it looks as though her jaw must crack.

This is real down and dirty no frills rock and roll, delivered hard and heavy. The audience throws indie decorum to one side as hair is tossed and the air guitars come out.

It’s a blistering show, with the highlight probably an iridescent version of ‘Deer’ from their new ‘We Kill Computers’ album (a version of which can be found on the mixtape player at the top of this screen). Damn these two are good.

I leave the venue deaf and exhausted and weighed down with merchandise. Gig of the year so far?

Tuesday 4 May 2010

Camden Crawl Day One - 1 May 2010

It starts off well in brilliant sunshine.

Walking down the road I get caught up in a guerrilla gig at the corner of Hawley Road. A band piles onto the pavement, plugs in to a portable generator and perform an exemplary set of anthemic power pop. These are Call Me Animal and I instantly like them lots, particularly the lead singer bouncing about in the road to such a degree that he is in danger of disappearing beneath the wheels of passing buses.

While awaiting other members of our party, we make our way to the large temporary arena erected near to the Elephant’s Head pub. We see underwhelming performances from DissolvedIN, Kasms (now apparently reinvented for the hardcore audience) and Let’s Go To War.

It starts to rain.

After a hapless attempt to get into various venues we find ourselves crammed cheek by jowl in the Camden Eye. It is hell on earth in here and a lacklustre set from The Standards does not help matters.

It is now seriously pissing down and we duck into Camden Rock, for what turns out to be a protracted sound check by Veronica Falls. This waiting around for something to happen becomes a theme for the rest of the day – most of the bands start times are synchronised, with the result that wherever we go there seems an inordinate amount of time standing in empty venues hoping that something might happen.

Once the clock reaches their allotted hour, Veronica Falls start their show proper. They are actually ok, in a regulation lo-fi manner. Unfortunately, by now I am in a depressive haze and am not able to function properly.

Off across the road to the Jazz Café for Welsh psychedelic frolics from Race Horses. They are extremely good at what they do, but what they are is essentially a minutely detailed simulacra of 1960’s ‘pots of tea and LSD’ whimsy of the type favoured by Syd Barratt. Fine in small doses.

The rain beats down as we trudge up the road to Dingwalls for the always dependable Bo Ningen. As ever, there is a long wait, but what really surprises me is that even when the band are onstage, how poorly attended this performance is – a real pity as the Ningen are a guaranteed good time and will render you deaf for the rest of the evening. Tonight’s set is fitful, but once they really get going they are like a jet taking off.

A small personal landmark is achieved by actually getting into the Barfly during a Camden Crawl. In previous years it’s always been so crowded that such a feat has always been beyond me.

Tonight however, the place is only about half full for the gentle jazz stylings of Eliza Doolittle. She’s very pretty, very sweet and very high pitched. Easy on the eye and ear, but not one to linger over.

My depression has still not really lifted, and the teeming rain and a horrendous journey home doesn’t help matters. By the next morning neither my mood nor the weather has lightened and I abandon the second day of the event completely.

Due to my demons, I was unable to do justice to this year’s Crawl. Even so, with the honourable exception of Call Me Animal, it seems to me to have been a poorly organised, disappointing event, which has become bloated beyond control. I will think long and hard before I attend again.