Tuesday 29 November 2011

Kvelertak and Toxic Holocaust at Underworld - 26 November 2011


It’s an early start at the Underworld. The place may be filled with black-clad hulks adorned with fearsome tattoos and facial piercings, but the management want these hordes of Satan out of the door by ten fifteen.

We start off with Wolves Like Us, who stand in a line across the stage and blast out a fine fast metal which gets the heads of the audience whipping back and forth.

The band sport impressive facial hair. You could imagine that in a very cramped dressing room that their beards could become entangled like so much Velcro. I like the band, they have a Motorhead no-nonsense simplicity about them.

Next act The Secret have taken the place of the rather more interesting Trap Them and I find it hard to warm to them. The singer is slightly too intense and gives the impression that this gig is a somewhat unpleasant ordeal that he will be glad to get through.

The band don’t really engage and I take the opportunity to look at the merchandising stalls. There is very little in the way of music to buy, but each band have a plethora of lurid T shirts on offer –this is clearly where the money is.

Toxic Holocaust are heaps of fun, and take me back nearly three decades to when I was sixteen or seventeen. This band are old school metal, certainly in attitude if not in actuality.

They are fast and furiously heavy and dedicate songs to the devil, songs to whiskey drinkers and they swear so incessantly that stage pronouncements become faintly ludicrous. You could imagine them announcing that someone in the muthafuckin’ audience had better move the muthafuckin’ Golf in the muthafuckin’ car park because they are muthafuckin.blocking some muthafucka in.

I enjoy them a great deal, but wonder if I am doing so ironically, as even though I love their noise there is a part of me that finds them funny. And of course the more serious they are, the funnier it gets.

I’ve been looking forward to the headliners ever since I was introduced to their album late last year. Kvelertak are a band from Norway and in this smallish venue they are like a bomb going off.

The stage is filled with sweaty men smashing at guitars and screaming. The crowd simply erupts and tries to storm forwards, often being fiercely repelled by a mean looking stage hand with a Zapata moustache.

Fists are pumped in the air; we are exhorted to “Fight! Fight! Fight!” and the drumming and flailing limbs are just tremendous. It’s big dumb fun.

However, as with all such bands, there’s not a great deal of light and shade in what they do and after some while fatigue sets in.

I do the management a favour by leaving well before the curfew, my ears ringing like a muthafuckin’ bell.

Saturday 26 November 2011

Wire and Talk Normal at XOYO - 23 November 2011


They’ve overdone the dry ice.

Heading down into XOYO there is such a chalky fug in the air that if you had a canary in a cage about you, the poor little fella would be turning his toes up.

The atmosphere does not appear to have anything particularly to do with the first band, Talk Normal. I take to them right from the off.

It’s a deceptively simple set up. Andrya Ambro stands behind a drum kit and sings, Sarah Register does unspeakable things to a guitar whilst also occasionally chipping in with vocal contributions of her own.

The percussion is particularly notable, a fast, skittering constant ticking sound that conjures images of insects and unease. Vocals are as often yips or barks as anything that might be called ‘normal’ singing. However, just because you can’t make out what is happening doesn’t mean that it is not exciting and enthralling.

At one point Register starts playing her guitar with a screwdriver. Harsh, metallic shards of sound result.

Talk Normal are very much in the tradition of classic New York ‘No-Wave’ bands. Their songs are punchy, urgent, intense and delivered with steely conviction. I’m extremely pleased to have seen them.

This is the third time that I have seen Wire in under a year and they have become better each time. Tonight they are on positively incandescent form, and clearly enjoying themselves.

Wire have almost progressed from being a band to something more akin to a cult for their devoted followers. Their audience tonight is almost entirely men in their late forties or beyond who have an almost encyclopaedic obsession with the minutiae of the group. It’s about collecting statistics as much as it is about the music.

The set covers the band’s lengthy career from the most recent ‘Red Barked Tree’ album to stuff off ‘Pink Flag’ like “Two People in a Room”. There’s even a version of mid-period favourite “Boiling Boy”.

The fan boy scuttlebutt is that Wire’s next project will be a re-visiting of the songs that were to form their unreleased fourth album, and which only appeared on the disappointing and confused live album ‘Document and Eyewitness’. Some of these tracks may have been played tonight – there are certainly things going on that sound both new yet somehow familiar. This is of course a very Wire-y thing to do, looking forward and backward at the same time.

Tonight’s set ends with a version of “Pink Flag”, which clocks in at around six or seven minutes. It’s certainly shorter than the ten minute version that they played in Paris in May this year. (If you can’t beat the stattos, join them!)

Another Wire gig for the collection. And a very fine specimen indeed.

Thursday 24 November 2011

The Besnard Lakes, Suuns at Scala 22 November 2011

The Besnard Lakes (photo: Patrick Kelly)

There’s a sparse crowd in the Scala as Suuns take to the stage.

Whilst this would obviously be a disappointment to the band, it feels eerily appropriate to their music. Suuns are all about the space between notes, the crackle of electricity that buzzes through the ether after an instrument is sounded.

They start off with an upbeat, keyboard heavy number that pounds its way down the autobahn. The crowd, finding the grove, nod their heads in unison.

Vocals are often indistinct and electronically distorted, just another component in a maelstrom of sound. ‘Songs’ are nebulous concepts – a beat starts here, a guitar is struck there, loud and quiet, fast and slow.

If I have any criticism of the band at all, it is that on occasion it can seem as though they have got a little too caught up in an interesting sound effect rather than a coherent tune, but mostly this is majestic, epic stuff.

After watching the first couple of numbers from headliners the Besnard Lakes, I realise that I am here under a misapprehension. I had somehow got it into my head that they were a different act entirely (as it turns out, David Vandervelde). I’m glad to be wrong.

Besnard Lakes play a slow, woozy, fuzzed up version of classic US rock. It’s the Mamas and Papas on half speed, or Urge Overkill on opiates. Although of course Urge Overkill WERE on opiates at the time.

Centre stage is Jace Lacek, dressed up to the nines in leather jacket, huge sunglasses and mullet hair cut. Looking at him, I get flashbacks to Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople.

Lacek has an unexpectedly powerful falsetto voice, a pure keening sound that slices through the often monstrously heavy sludgy sound.

Equally impressive is singer and bassist Olga Goreas, effortlessly one of the coolest women in rock. She’s a powerful presence and clearly the subject of much fan boy love – which she accepts with good humour.

It may be a small crowd, but it is a warm and welcoming one and there is a great rapport between stage and audience, with banter back and forth. We are invited to “heckle the fuck” out of the band, but what follows is basically conversation rather than confrontation.

I really enjoy the band and would be happy to see them again. Ironically, the band have an album called “The Besnard Lakes are The Dark Horse” and for me, tonight, they were.

Besnard Lakes - Albatross (Live) from Big Ass Lens on Vimeo.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Givers, The Shivers at XOYO - 08 November 2011


I walk down the stairs of a chilly XOYO to be confronted by the fascinating and aptly-named-in-the-circumstances New York duo The Shivers.

Although confining themselves to guitar and keyboards, the band conjure an impressively wide range of music.

Keith Zarriello is pugnacious and direct and looks as though he might be useful in a fight, yet posses a voice that is sometimes a growl, sometimes a throaty roar and sometimes a near operatic trill. His colleague Jo Schornikow is one of the best keyboard players that I’ve seen, clearly properly trained rather than relying on the traditional two fingered ‘what does this button do?’ hopeful prodding.

On one track the pair sound as much like Sly Stone as it is possible for two people to get, on another there are traces of the Eighties Noo Yoik sound of Billy Joel. This is of course a good thing.

The Shivers are a bit jazzy, a bit muso, but are pleased to be here and have a good rapport with what is still at this stage a rather thin crowd. In fact, such is the sensitivity of their sound that a bit of space and quiet around the stage does them no harm at all.

Next up come local band Zulu Winter. This lot have back projection, stylish hair and are clearly under the impression that they are going places. I’d be amazed if this were the case.

The band lack spark. It would be lovely if they could parlay their swirling, windswept sound into something vital, but the truth is that they don’t have a single song that doesn’t fall short of its intent.

Musically, they sound fine in a populist Coldplay kind of way, but their tunes have no bite, no crunch, no soul. The word that I initially wrote in my notebook was ‘invertebrate’- they have no central spine, but are rather an amorphous pudding-y blob of a band.

Givers are a five piece band from Louisiana. I’m glad to finally see them, as their last scheduled London show was cancelled due to the summer riots.

It’s a small stage at XOYO, but Givers make it smaller still by crowding right to the very front, their equipment teetering on the edge. How Tiffany Lamson’s drum kit (one of two in the band) doesn’t end up in the crowd is a thing of wonder.

Lamson shares vocal duties with Taylor Guarisco, who clutches his guitar to his chest as though it were a loved one. The reports of Givers as being a ludicrously exciting and joyful band are about to be borne out.

Lamson smashes her drums with more power than seems possible. Watching her jump up and down, hair flying everywhere, her arms a blur is to immediately think back (or forward) to Animal of the Muppets.

A typical Givers song is an intricate beast, comprising several movements, a pounding Afrobeat and dual vocals that are part Merrill Garbus, part Yeasayer and partly something completely other. They aren’t songs that you can whistle, but your soul will be uplifted anyway.

The band is very chatty and engaging, which helps to distract from the unfortunate problem that they are rather disorganised and that they take way too long between songs. Even allowing for a bona fide five minute technical hiatus at one point, the band runs slow and late.

It is impossible to be cross with them though. They are as happy as a whole bed of clams and I am too. I climb the stairs of the venue with Givers’ mighty encore of ‘Up, Up, Up’ ringing in my ears. It seems appropriate.

Thursday 3 November 2011

Jeffrey Lewis at Heaven - 2 November 2011

Jeffrey Lewis

I arrive at the venue and am immediately taken aback. The place is absolutely rammed solid, a heaving mass of checked shirts and unfortunate facial hair.

The opening act , Seth Faergolzia (ex of Dufus) is just doing his final two songs. Judging by these I’m eternally grateful that we didn’t get here earlier and saddened that I didn’t arrive fifteen minutes later.

We edge nearer the front. An extremely nervous and uncertain girl with an acoustic guitar shuffles onstage. This is Alessi Laurent-Marke (aka ‘Alessi’s Ark’) and I have rarely seen anyone so unprepared and out of their comfort zone.

It doesn’t help that this venue in a converted railway arch tends to suck sound into the void above our heads, and this, coupled with her weak voice and lack of presence means that not only does Alessi fail to engage, but she has to keep stopping and apologising. It’s a pretty excruciating sight.

It is sad to say that her entire act depends upon the expectation that an audience will be tolerant of a simpering girl listlessly strumming a guitar and bringing very little to the party. Such environments may exist, but this isn’t one of them. If she wasn’t so lacking in any kind of spark, you’d feel sorry for her.

Jeffrey Lewis has become a pretty big act these days, which I’m sure surprises him as much as anyone. When he and his current band appear, they are welcomed with whoops and squeals of delight more appropriate to Justin Bieber.

Frankly, Jeff doesn’t look at his best this evening. He seems frazzled and exhausted and he is going to have to address the issue of his receding hairline sometime soon – a lank and greasy comb-forward is not a cool style and doesn’t even cover the gaps. Embrace the razor, Jeff, and you’ll be liberated!

He is joined tonight by his brother Jack and also by the lovely Nan Turner, moonlighting from her regular band Schwervon.

Jeff’s new album “A Turn in the Dream-Songs” is given a hefty push this evening. The songs fit seamlessly alongside his earlier work and his talent for witty, clever and self-deprecating lyrics that focus on his own predicaments (“Cult Boyfriend”) or which tell bizarre stories (“Krongu Green Slime”), is well to the fore.

The band are energetic and tight, but as with the support act, they don’t seem to quite cope with the cavernous acoustics in here.

Jeff also treats to several of his trademark illustrated story songs. Tonight, we get a tale of an alien inventor and a history of the life of Marco Polo, Jeff crouched on the floor, beaming images onto a sheet at the back of the stage.

The old material is not entirely forgotten and Jeff plays a bravura rendition of (shall we call it a classic?) “Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror”.

The crowd lap it up and you get the impression that if it wasn’t for pressure from the venue’s management, who want us out so that they can get a club night started, that Jeff and co would play all night.

So we get an encore of the silly “Mosquito Rap” and one last illustrated story detailing the adventures of “The Creeping Brain”.

This has been Jeffrey Lewis’ biggest ever London show and I don’t think that it has been entirely comfortable. His charm and ingenuity are ideally suited to intimate spaces and I don’t think that he has quite adapted to a more amplified, less forgiving sphere of operations.

However, Jeff is amongst friends here tonight. And every time that he plays, he makes more.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Britney Spears at Wembley Arena - 31 October 2011

It's Britney, bitch

It’s Halloween and I’m surrounded by zombie schoolgirls.

I’m here at Wembley Arena for Britney Spears on her ‘Femme Fatale’ tour.

I had expected spectacle, but what follows over the next ninety minutes is just astonishing, both in terms of excess and quality. The tickets weren’t cheap, but you can see where the money went.

There is a theme that runs through the show, something about surveillance and persecution and the role of the Femme Fatale in history. It doesn’t make a jot of sense, and I almost feel that someone designed a brilliant stage set based around the industrial bleakness and spikiness of the ‘Saw’ franchise and that the supposed story that runs through the song list was a bit of an afterthought.

Once the wheels are set in motion, there is no let up. Indeed, unlike many mainstream performers, Britney pretty well eschews ballads and anything else that might slow down this juggernaut for a second. Instead, Brit and her dancers and acrobats gyrate and pound their way through a series of ever more lavish set pieces.

At the beginning our heroine and the female dancers are imprisoned in a series of cages, menaced by the guys in police uniforms. They soon escape and a short time later are dancing on top of a pink mini convertible that has appeared on stage. In the back of the vehicle support act Joe Jonas is manacled to a seat and lap danced to within an inch of his life.

The dance routines are punctuated by video footage of an apparently menacing evil mastermind who somewhat laboriously introduces the theme of each new extravaganza.

At one point Britney appears on a gigantic Egyptian barge to a backdrop of towering neon pyramids; later, she’s dancing her way through an endless procession of picture frames, or singing the only slow song of the evening in a swing high above the auditorium, with an acrobat dangling beneath her.

The volume is deafening and is produced by two guys playing on banks of equipment up in a gantry. They are never introduced or thanked. It is unclear how much of the vocal track is actually live – certainly all the guest raps on particular tracks are performed via film on the giant video screens.

However, the strength or authenticity of Britney’s voice is not really an issue. On all her recent albums, her voice has been distorted and digitally mashed about and just becomes one component of the overall song. A typical Britney track could be performed by the ‘robots’ of Daft Punk – and no one worries if they are miming.

What Britney has is the tunes and the unswerving love of the crowd – even before the concert has started it is noticeable that everyone you see milling about the Wembley concourses is just ecstatically happy to be here.

The great show stopper is ‘Piece of Me’, Brit’s thumping riposte to the then tabloid scandal surrounding the break up of her marriage, her weight, her shaved head. Tonight, the song is played out to a backdrop of golden Armalite rifles and exploding hand grenades. It’s a Bond film credit sequence come to life. It’s fabulous.

The show never slackens its pace and just gets ever more way out. ‘Toxic’ sees Britney in a kimono, with various ninjas propelling themselves around her ears.

By the time of the encore, the baddie has been defeated and the entire cast are clinging to two life size electricity pylons while nuclear bombs detonate behind them. By this stage this seems entirely logical and appropriate.

Some critics have been a bit sniffy about this show, but I think that they miss the point. This is a grand spectacle designed to ensure that everyone has a great, inclusive time, and to make your jaw drop, even as you dance your ass off. Britney may be playing to her core audience, but there are very few acts that don’t.

The previous evening, I had seen P J Harvey at the Royal Albert Hall. It was another superb show (but not one that was sufficiently different from the last time that I saw her to justify a separate review). It was meticulously staged and orchestrated and perfectly presented to a fan base that hung on every note and loved every moment of it. I see no distinction between this and Britney Spears playing to an arena full of zombie school girls.

The show ends and we pour off into the night. Everyone is happy, even the undead.