Friday 29 October 2010

Warpaint, Fiction and 2:54 at Scala - 28 October 2010

Warpaint by Chromwaves

There’s a three line whip out.

I last saw Warpaint about six weeks ago at CAMP Basement and was totally blown away. So I’ve helped to dragoon a large posse of mates to witness the splendour.

First we negotiate the support acts. 2:54 stand in a line across the stage and look the business. Singer Colette Thurlow has cheek bones up here somewhere and sister Hannah looks cool and dangerous on her left. There are two guys in the band, but suffer the fate of all guys in all femme-fronted bands. Theirs is a lot of thankless anonymity.

What 2:54 serve up I really enjoy, even if I can’t say that they are anything other than a band that sounds like any number of others that are currently mining that seam marked ‘California Desert with a bit of spooky reverb’. Or chill wave or something.

So what we get is breathy, dispassionate pop that references the Phil Spector Wall of Sound in much the same way that the Jesus and Mary Chain do. While JAMC bought distortion and noise, 2:54 and their ilk strip everything down to a glacial ghost, devoid of feeling.

I sound like I’m damning them with faint praise, but I’m impressed with 2:54. I just wish I could engage with them at some emotional level beyond simply acknowledging a job well done.

They are followed by Fiction, a hotly tipped new band from London. And if they played any of their current repertoire before the world at large had embraced Vampire Weekend and Yeasayer, then I’m a monkey’s uncle.

This is not to say that Fiction are not pretty damn impressive. They are accomplished, jolly and get the party started. It’s just that everything they play reminds you of something else, often quite specifically.

It’s urban afro-beats all the way, and falsetto vocals from singer James Howard. The band completely divides the group that I am with, half are very disgruntled and half are happy to go with the flow. I’m in the latter camp. I think Fiction are good and I’d be happy to see them again. Fact.

Warpaint can do no wrong at present. The live shows are getting great word of mouth and everyone seems to love new album ‘The Fool’ too.

You are not going to get a contrary view here.

Tonight, Warpaint are absolutely bang on the money and the only regret is that it is unlikely that I’ll get to see them in a venue of this relatively intimate size anytime soon. And that they play a good twenty minutes past curfew, which explains the number of people clumping me on the shoulder and yelling “They’re great, but I gotta go!”

The band are as tight as a drum and utterly focussed. Many tracks are structured to run into each other, which causes difficulty for the crowd, who want to whoop, holler and stomp their appreciation, but cannot find a suitable entry point.

It’s a pretty much flawless show, which encompasses not only material from the current album and previous EPs, but also new material.

The last time I saw this band, I thought that they might be the best thing that I’ve seen this year. Now I’m sure of it.

Friday 22 October 2010

Hallogallo 2010: Michael Rother and Friends Present the Music of Neu! at Barbican Hall - 21 October 2010

You’ll be familiar with the sound of ‘motorik’ even if you don’t know what it is.

It’s that metronomic, fast ticking beat that powers along and forms an essential part of the repertoire of any act that proclaims itself to have Krautrock influences.

The pioneers were Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger, who collaborated as the band Neu!. In the mid Seventies they released three groundbreaking albums with the less than groundbreaking titles of Neu!, Neu! 2 and Neu! ’75. It was a fraught partnership and the duo had long since stopped performing together at the time of Dinger’s death in 2008.

Michael Rother has now come back around to that insistent, driving rhythm and tonight, with the assistance of Steve Shelley on drums and bassist Aaron Mullan he is performing under the umbrella title of Hallogallo 2010. The name of the ensemble is a reference to the landmark track on that original Neu! album.

However, this is an exercise in looking forward, not back, as the tunes that they play either unique to this group of musicians or are so heavily reworked as to barely nod to the originals.
For an hour or so the black-clad and largely er...let’s say ‘mature’ crowd sit in their seats and imperceptively tic and shudder as they absorb Steve Shelley’s furious yet extremely disciplined onslaught.

Songs are distinguished by swooshes of electronic noise or heavily distorted found sounds, such as at one point the slow metallic grind of a heavy iron gate.

Rother plays guitars and twiddles with miscellaneous pieces of equipment piled across a table. Mullan experiences some technical difficulty early on, but is soon in the groove, nodding along with the others in perfect synchrony.

In many respects, and perhaps rightly, it is Shelley who dominates, here working far harder than he would ever have to do with his other group Sonic Youth, his arms a blur.

This is a night about a beat, an urgent pulse of music that quickens the beating of your own heart. Imperious and mesmeric, Rother and company have tapped into the rhythm of life itself.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Soap & Skin at Union Chapel 18 October 2010

The Union Chapel is the perfect setting for this gig. The rows of pews, the light streaming in through the giant stained glass window above the stage are all elements that add to the atmosphere.

We are here to see Anja Plaschg, aka Soap & Skin, tonight assisted by an ensemble of various stringed instruments, a cornet and a backing singer who stands at the rear of the stage.

The lights dim and the musicians take their places. Plaschg pootles stiffly onto the stage, her hair wild, her movements apparently hampered by her tight costume.

She starts dead centre, her voice a desolate wail. The backing singer tracks her voice and everything seems fine.

Plaschg spends much of the concert seated at a grand piano, atop which stands a laptop computer. This marriage of traditional instrumentation with modern technology causes some difficulties with the sound mix, as the amplified voices tend to distort with reverb and are at odds the dark wooden saw of the cellos.

Anja Plaschg seems very on edge almost from the beginning, refusing to look at or acknowledge the audience and fidgeting in her seat.

As the evening progresses, it becomes clear that Plaschg is barely holding herself together and is struggling to control her emotions. In a cracked voice she dedicates a song to her father, and she appears to be in tears as she sings it.

The highlights tonight are for me (unusually) two instrumentals. During the first, the stage and audience are gradually enveloped in a creeping pall of dry ice. The second sees the stage bathed in blood red light as Plaschg hammers at the lower register of her piano, the notes rumbling like thunder, her arms stiff as sticks as she chops down on the keys ever, ever faster until she resembles a clockwork automaton.

Towards the end of the set Plaschg’s temperament gets the better of her again. During the song ‘Spiracle’, with its “When I was a child...” motif, she breaks down completely and has to stop, at one stage abandoning her piano to solicit a hug from her fellow singer.

She gathers herself for a final number delivered from centre stage, her eyes black fissures in a pale lit face. Her arms, flail, flap and mimic flying. It’s incredibly powerful.

After she leaves, the crowd stomp and holler for more until she returns to perform one last number unaccompanied. She clearly does not want to do this, but gig etiquette demands an encore.

It has been an extraordinary performance, which is obviously emotionally devastating for the performer. I’ve not seen an act wrestle with their demons quite so painfully since Soko. I hope that Anja Plaschg can conquer them.