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LIVE REVIEW: Alt-J, Tap1, 19.02.2015

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Alt-J (Photo: James Hjertholm)

Photos by James Hjertholm

Figuring out how to describe Alt-J can be tricky. Simon & Garfunkel with a sampler? Their latest critically acclaimed album, This Is Yours, endlessly mutates from art-rock to folk harmonies to bluesy riffs. At a sold-out Tap1, in the shadows of the Carlsberg buildings, the quartet highlight their rhythmic and anthemic sides.

Wolf Alice (Photo: James Hjertholm)

Opener Wolf Alice is a confusing listen. Stuck behind two obnoxious giants, I become temporarily convinced that I’m listening to Elastica. The North London band, fronted by Ellie Roswell, accumulate a wealth of sounds from 90s British indie rock, processing it through a vaguely shoegaze filter. Their live set emphasizes the raucous elements of their sound, but while their take on 90s nostalgia is expertly handled on songs like “Moaning Lisa Smile”, I spend most of the time trying to figure out what songs they are pastiching.

Alt-J (Photo: James Hjertholm)

Arriving in Copenhagen at the tail-end of a European tour, Alt-J are clearly in good form. Starting with “Hunger of the Pine”, they shift between registers and moods with confidence, giving the set a more coherent feel than the album does. Tracks like “Every Other Freckle”, with its weird medieval-esque interlude, and the bluesy “Left Hand Free” have an added swagger to them, aided by the idiosyncratic drumming of Thom Green.

Alt-J (Photo: James Hjertholm)

Though the close harmonies between Joe Newman and Gus Unger-Hamilton are not always completely in tune, even their odd little mistakes have a vulnerable charm. It helps that almost the entire audience seems to know every lyric, particularly on songs from their debut album like “Matilda”. No small feat, considering the phrasings of songs like “Bloodflow pt.II”.

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INTERVIEW: Gazelle Twin

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Gazelle Twin

Photos by Amanda Farah

Gazelle Twin’s second LP, Unflesh, with its viscerally minimalist approach to electronic music and singular conceptual vision, has received a good amount of critical acclaim over the last few months, allowing the formerly Brighton-based composer Elizabeth Bernholz to tour widely across the US and Europe. This week, on the occasion of her concert at Vega’s Ideal Bar, accompanied by her husband, visual artist and musician Jez Bernholz, we caught up with the pair.

Gazelle Twin and Bernholz, Elizabeth and Jez, have much to teach the world in terms of touring on a budget. The couple manage to carry all their gear (one sampler and one keyboard) in a single suitcase, travelling from gig to gig across Europe by train. I get the impression that, for all its practicality, it is the romanticism of train journeys that fires up Jez. His own brand of electronica pulsates with a passionate earnestness, typified in tracks like “Austerity Boy”, which complements the more sparse and aggressive compositions of his partner.

It is difficult in retrospect to reconcile the energy and terrifying blanked face of the character prowling the stage in a blue hoodie with the soft-spoken and charming woman I interviewed only a couple of hours before the gig. Backed by glitchy and hard drum and bass lines, this embodiment of teenage violence whispers, breathes and chants, half thug, half shaman. The imagery evoked in her words can be clearly guessed by glancing at the titles—“Unflesh”, “Exorcise”, “Anti Body”, “Guts”—eviscerating and tortured, innards and fluids sprayed on a backdrop of cold, artificial sounds. Hidden within that alienation, though, are traces of some kind of reserved humanism. Where “Belly of the Beast” uses the sounds of supermarkets to evoke ideas of parasitic consumption, the haunting “Premonition” reaches towards a more pastoral mode. The human voice, altered or dry, singing or just breathing heavily, stands above all else on the record.

Though many have already pointed towards some fairly obvious influences on Gazelle Twin—The Knife and Björk perhaps mentioned most often—there is clearly something quite unique and personal about Elizabeth Bernholz’s music which merits close listening. So on Wednesday evening, over dinner at a Thai restaurant on Istedgade, I am keen to find out what lurks behind the character and music of Unflesh.

Gazelle Twin

What has it been like to transition from recording to performing this record live?

For this record it has been almost seamless. It’s quite easy to perform live because it’s so minimal, and there was that intention to strip things away, half thinking that I wanted to be able to perform it really dry, with a solid sound, and not to have to rely on any effects.

Was it more difficult with your debut album, The Entire City?

With the previous record, which I didn’t perform that much, it was much more difficult, because I didn’t write it with that intent. It was very sweeping, you needed a visual part to it. I never felt that satisfied performing it.

But now you perform live with Jez, what is that like?

Jez and I are married, and he kindly offered to perform with me. I used to perform with two guys who had their own projects, and it was always very hard to organise that part of it, to get everyone available. But also I’m just very anxious, and performing is quite a lot to get through for someone who is very sensitive, so it’s actually been very helpful having you [turning to Jez] just to have some security. Performing this way allows me to be more aggressive and play a role.

Does your approach to the songs change as your perform them more and more?

I haven’t felt the need to change much in the songs. I think we’ve to go a point now where we’ve done close to fifteen sets in this tour, when we’re starting to think it needs something else, something in the same vein, probably not a new song but a cover. In the past I’ve covered Joy Division, which is a bit audacious. “The Eternal”, which fitted into my older stuff. The most recent one is a Wire cover, “Heartbeat”. Credit goes to Jez for that. I always try to cover stuff that’s as different to me as possible, usually songs by men, rather than female-written ones. Prince is one.

“Premonition” has a very different mood to the rest of the record. Almost pastoral.

It’s just that one melody [sings it]. It has that medieval feel, it’s in lots of music, especially choral music—the bedrock of all my music—and then transitioned into folk music. But it’s not really anywhere else on the record.

Are you ever surprised by your work?

I never thought I’d be doing spoken word—or “rapping”, if you want to call it that. If you’d told me that two years ago I’d have cringed. But I try to do it as naturally as I can.

Is being natural important?

I like artificial sounds. I wanted the elements of this record to be very distinct from one another other: bass, drums, vocal, a background of choral vocals or synthesisers. I didn’t want too much synthesiser on this, or if I did I wanted it to sound like a human voice, and most of them actually are. I like the way I can affect my own voice. There’s an earnestness to the dry, natural voice, but I wanted to get away from that completely.

All the videos and promotional material for this album feature you with a pixellated face and blue hoodie. Where does this character come from?

It just comes from lots of childhood experiences, lots of memories that I unconsciously started to think about in the process of wanting to make music that was really aggressive. It’s all about school, displacement, being a young girl, really. There’s adult anger in there as well, but mainly it’s a teenage expression of anxiety. I just wanted to scream a little bit, which I never did at the time. But it’s not all meant to be deadly serious, there’s a cockiness to it, playful aspects which I hope come across.

And the hoodie?

Originally I’d wanted it to be a P.E. kit, but that would have been a bit weird, dressed as a child. There’s more room to disguise myself this way, and I’d had a blue thing going through my previous costumes. Blue is a bit of a school colour, a sporty colour.

As for the tights over my face, obviously there is this association with crime, this really masculine image. I always found that hilarious, butch guys with shear tights on their head. But it was just a way to blank my face out. I wanted to look pixellated. And it has this doll-head effect at the same time, so hard and soft.

Is it difficult to perform with that get-up?

There’s so much breathing that sometimes the hair of my wig goes down my throat. Really horrible experience, but I have ways of getting around that.

Do you plan on keeping the character for future projects?

The more I’ve externalised the character, the more I’ve thought “that’s it, there’s nothing more to say.” But I think there are still other routes to take it. My ultimate plan would be to stop touring the album and work the character into a graphic novel, so that the girl is a stand-alone character, existing beyond the music. I’m not sure the music is the fullest expression of that persona. I’d like there to be something that lasts and has a different kind of existence.

So which comes first, character or music?

The character came after I’d written most of the music. The music was just my experiences. It’s hard to remember, really, because so much is visual when I’m writing. I collect a lot of images and film, and sometimes I will just write down words and pick a word I want to write a song about. It always starts with a musical loop, or I’ll pick a word and imagine how it will sound. Or an image might give me a feeling for something to express. It’s a whole jumble, I’m completely all over the place when I’m making stuff. I just gather things, hoard things, just live with them for a while.

It reminds me of the kids I was scared of in middle school.

I wanted to look like one of those Cronenberg kids from The Brood. The P.E. kit was my version of that child.

Gazelle Twin

LIVE REVIEW: Run the Jewels, Pumpehuset, 19.12.2014

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Photo by Tom Spray

Killer Mike and El-P’s three year bromance culminated in 2014 with the release of Run the Jewels 2, widely regarded as the best hip-hop album of the year. The look of pride and gratitude on El-P’s face is evident even at the back of the packed room at Pumpehuset. Half-serious, half-clowning around, there is a rare chemistry between the two men, bouncing onto the stage in well-deserved celebration to the sound of “We are the Champions”.

As a reflection of the year, RTJ2 is not a subtle album but a bold one, dealing with the contradictions of being at the top just as the fraught tensions inherent in the American justice system flared up again. Though the mood of these tracks is intense, what sets them apart is the lyrical approach taken by Killer Mike and El-P. For every classic boast (“I fuck and rap/  I tote the strap, I smoke the kush, I beat the puss”) there is a moment of brutal tenderness (“And I pray today ain’t the day you drag me away/ Right in front of my beautiful son”).

These contradictions might not be as evident in the live show, but the level of energy more than makes up for it. The audience know every hook, making the signature fist and gun sign whenever they aren’t busy out-jumping each other. There is a relationship between artist and audience that is unseen in other genres, a commitment, in the words of Killer Mike, to “burn this motherfucker down.”

Though most of the set is based around the latest album, there are some choice selections from their 2013 effort, including the seasonally-appropriate “A Christmas Fucking Miracle”. And after the party it’s time to hip RapGenius.

INTRODUCING: We Like We

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We Like We produce experimental chamber pieces that manage to allude to the works of minimalist composers like Arvo Pärt and Steve Reich while retaining the spirit of independent music. The Copenhagen-based quartet, consisting of violin, cello, vocals and percussions, meld the technical virtuosity of their respective classical backgrounds with a good ear for harmonics, dissonance and rhythmic dexterity, wonderfully captured on their debut release “a new Age of Sensibility”, released by The Being Music.

Though recently formed, We Like We are no strangers to the Danish music scene, having played their first live performance alongside Efterklang at Frost Festival in 2013. The release concert for their album will take place at Københavns Musikteater on December 16.

LIVE REVIEW: Swans, Store Vega, 23.11.2014

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Photos by Morten Aagaard Krogh (mortenkrogh.com)

As if to reiterate the fact that concert-goers can be a foolish lot, ear-plugs are being handed out on the stairs into Store Vega, perhaps to those whose only other encounter with Swans was their often-regretted cover “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. The ear-plugs are a small concession relative to the brutal onslaught which is to come: eight songs (give or take) spread over two and a half hours, beginning with a fifteen minute gong solo.

Said gong solo marks the opening of “Frankie M”, a staple of recent Swans shows, though as yet unreleased. Live shows are something of a breeding ground for Swans songs (lets get over that pun right now, before I am tempted to repeat it), with several of the tracks off To Be Kind constituting part of their live repertoire long before the album’s release. Gigs are, for frontman Michael Gira, a way to directly experience the odd mix of love and confrontation between band and fans.

Swans live at Vega

If Swans have become slightly less physically violent than they used to be, and Micheal Gira less prone to unleashing his genitals on stage, they have only turned more visually terrifying: a skeletal Norman Westberg hovers precariously to the right of the stage, while an ominous Christoph Hahn broods over his lapsteel on the left. Gira directs with wild hand gestures and looming over his band-mates, building up tension by ever more unbearable degrees. Though much of the set is based on drone noise-scapes, songs like “A Little God in My Hands” allow for a different, markedly more bizarre atmosphere. With its off-kilter bassline and rhythm, the song inhabits a Twin Peaks-inspired psychosphere, amplified by Gira’s tendency to garble the lyrics into a twisted baby-speak.

Swans

Though Swans are certainly uncompromising, they have a perversely playful side. Percussionist Thor Harris’s appearance is a Spinal-Tap-esque imitation of a caveman, bearded and bare-chested. The mercurial Michael Gira appears to be in a good mood, referring to the audience as “beautiful children” and making fun of the “language of dark sorrow” in a generic Scandinavian accent. One brief scuffle with someone in the front row amounts to nothing more than a stern reprimand, and our photographer remains unmolested.

There is no doubting that this is a test of endurance. The weaker elements of the audience (or those who have work in the morning) start leaving after an hour and a half, and so Gira’s request that the house lights be raised in order to see the audience has the appearance of an appraisal of our strength. The final bows and the promise of kisses at the merch booth are like being offered tea after being punched in the face, and masochists that we are, we lap it up.

Swans live at Vega
Swans live at Vega, Copenhagen 2014

VIEW THE LIVE PHOTO GALLERY HERE

 

 

LIVE REVIEW: tUnE-yArDs, Vega, 13.11.2014

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tUnE-yArDs (Photo by Morten Aagaard Krogh)

Photos by Morten Aagaard Krogh (mortenkrogh.com)

Tune-Yards, as those of us too lazy to keep pressing the shift key refer to them, have reached a level of critical acclaim that might be surprising for a band whose first album was created using a hand-held voice recorder. Frontwoman Merrill Garbus’s lo-fi origins are still evident in her skillful use of loop pedals to create beautifully intricate layers of drums and vocals, and the overwhelming passion that has brought her this far is on clear display tonight.

The enthusiasm with which Tune-Yards are greeted onto Lille Vega’s stage is evidence that this is an audience composed principally of dedicated fans, rather than casual listeners following hype. There are countless reasons for being attracted to this band’s work, from the infectious danceability of tracks like “Sink-O” to the R’n’B melancholy of “Wait for a Minute”, but the true reason to be here is that they are one of the very best live acts around.

tUnE-yArDs (Lille Vega, Copenhagen)
tUnE-yArDs (Lille Vega, Copenhagen)

The latest record, nikki nack, replaces the saxophones of Tune-Yards’ sophomore effort with backing vocals, and it is unsurprising that most of the set is comprised of material from the former. Exceptions are “Gangsta”, in which the vocals play a much bigger part than the original saxophones. For all the talent of her backing musicians (particularly evident on the delicately complexity of “Bizness”, in which the backing vocalists manage to recreate the synth line perfectly), it is Garbus’s talent and energy that are centre stage throughout. Her vocals can be soulfully raw or quirky, but they are always arresting.

There are several similarities between Garbus and St Vincent’s Annie Clark. Both are supremely talented women who have managed to recapture a musical energy which has largely been spent in the last 20 years, and twist that energy into something new and unique. But where Annie Clark’s sense of theatricality is predicated on a sense of cold alienation, Garbus is all warmth. Before launching into the encore, she invites questions from the audience, and in return offers the story of the Myspace origins of the strange capitalization of the band’s name.

There bands whose talent is almost off-putting, but in the case of Tune-Yards I would not be surprised if half the audience left wanting to get their hands on a loop pedal, a dictaphone and some drum sticks. I can assure you I did.

tUnE-yArDs (Lille Vega, Copenhagen)
tUnE-yArDs (Lille Vega, Copenhagen)

 SEE THE LIVE PHOTO GALLERY HERE

 

LIVE REVIEW: St Vincent, Store Vega, 05.11.2014

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St. Vincent live at Vega, Copenhagen, 2014 (photo: Morten Aagaard Krogh)

 Photos by Morten Aagaard Krogh (mortenkrogh.com)

When you start to attend gigs with any kind of regularity, you start to encounter moments when, no matter how much you might like the band, you can’t help wishing you were listening to this on your headphones at home. I might not be completely allergic to sincerity, but there are only so many “soulful” and “stripped-back” sets I can deal with. Which is why I am delighted by St Vincent’s carefully choreographed appearance on stage. Scuttling across the stage like a short-circuited Stepford wife, front-woman Annie Clark embodies a sense of manic, joyful alienation.

Her latest and eponymous album deals with issues of identity in relation to technology, as evident in the lyrics to “Digital Witness” (“Digital witness/ what’s the point of even sleeping?/ If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me/ what’s the point of doing anything?”). Whereas in previous albums her angular guitar-playing worked as a brutal counterpoint to the prettiness of her voice and lush backing tracks (see “Cruel”), her newer material shifts the emphasis. Relying much more heavily on cold synth sounds, St Vincent sees the guitar transform into an expression of rebellion against the rigid structure imposed by digital music.

St. Vincent (2014)

 

It should be no surprise, given the effort Annie and her backing band have made in coming up with choreographed routines, that the performance is beautifully precise (minus a few front-of-house issues towards the end of the set). You begin to truly believe that Annie must have some cybernetic implants when you consider how she manages to sing, play intricate guitar lines and dance in high heels flawlessly and contemporaneously.

Though the set consists mainly of material from the latest album, there is enough diversity within those songs to maintain rapt attention. The manic angularity of “Born in Reverse” gives way to “Huey Newton”, which sounds almost like a Dr. Dre track. On a couple of occasions Annie pauses to recite little monologues which are witty enough not to sound too cutesy. These too are obviously rehearsed, but if one is searching for spontaneity and sincerity, it is enough to see her expression of delight at the close of the set. The effort and talent on display are a sure testament to the dedication St Vincent has for her audience.

St. Vincent (2014)

 VIEW THE LIVE PHOTO GALLERY HERE

LIVE REVIEW: Amen Dunes, Huset, 14.09.2014

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A Sunday night in Huset, remarkably sold-out, is a slightly surreal affair. The weight of the upcoming week, added to severe lack of sleep and some very cheap ear plugs, give the effect of viewing a gig through a fishbowl. This might not be the best set of circumstances, but they find their match in the acoustic psychedelia of Amen Dunes. Damon McMahon’s “anti-love songs” work well as anti-lullabies from the Land of Reverb, aided by a drummer and ambient guitarist/keyboard player.

Love, Amen Dune’s latest release, is a little sweeter and more lush than the noisy negativity of Through Donkey Jaw, but Damon’s onstage presence shows that dark irony lingering just behind the surface of his otherwise laid-back attitude. He does the very singer-songwriter-y thing of introducing several songs, but these are welcome forays into his approach to his music, rather than indulgent ramblings. This evening he reveals the origin of “Ethio Song”, claiming it to be a cover of a piece of unknown Ethiopian music coming through the walls from his neighbour’s apartment. Tonight’s version of the song sounds very un-Ethiopian, with none of the trebly guitar lines from the record, but this is but one instance of a general impression: Love, more than previous efforts, is the closest thing to what Amen Dunes sound like in the flesh.

amen_dunes-0215

Standing right in front of Damon allows the audience to the clean acoustic sound of the guitar behind all the effects, adding some meat to the live sound. The vocals are incredibly high in the mix, cutting through everything else with ease, as if to confirm that Damon’s freak-folk tinged vibrato is the sine qua non around which everything else revolves. There are, of course, exceptions: “Rocket Flair”‘s picking style and low-key, driving drums, is the closest Amen Dunes get to 60s psychedelia as most would recognize it.

Throughout the evening, it is revealing to observe Damon McMahon offstage. Is commitment to music, not just his own, is clear in the intent look on his face as he quibbles with the sound engineer during the opening act, Xander Duell (ah yes, nepotism’s black tentacles reach far into the music industry). He nods along to the second act, Hand of Dust, and leaps to the merch booth the second the Amen Dunes set ends. It’s been a long evening, but a musician’s job never stops. Fortunately, that is not the case for a music reviewer.

VIEW LIVE PHOTO GALLERY HERE

LIVE REVIEW: Blonde Redhead, Vega, 13.09.2014

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Blonde Redhead have spent almost two decades doing their very best to attract opposite descriptors: stripped-back and baroque, chaotic and elegant. As John Peel said of the Fall, they are always different, and always the same. Always eager to follow an album with its diametrical opposite, the band exhibit a fearlessness which is matched by the dedication of its fans. Their latest effort, Barragán, was released less than two weeks ago, yet songs like “Dripping” and “No More Honey” are greeted with enthusiasm from the outset.

The venue is sold out, and spirits are high, egged on by local boys Cancer. Fronted by the respective singers of When Saints Go Machine (only 7th in the top 10 worst band names in Denmark) and Chorus Grant, Cancer is all Antony Hegarty-mimicking vocals and elaborate guitar lines, a combination that clearly resonates with this lot.

blonde_redhead-9948

The stage curtains part as Amedeo Pace (born in Milan like yours truly, and therefore automatically better than most people before he even picks up a guitar) finger-picks the instrumental “Barragán”. But the introspection of this and “Lady M”, and of the new album in general, is here transformed. Simone Pace’s drums sound positively gigantic, emphasising the rhythmic bones of even the quietest Blonde Redhead songs. The surprising beefiness of their live sound is emphasised in “Falling Man”, which cranks up the melodrama and distortion, as if to remind the audience that the noise band of La Mia Vita Violenta and Fake Can Be Just as Good still lurks among us.

Most of the set, naturally enough, is concentrated around material from Barragán, the rest of the songs coming mainly from 23 and Misery is a Butterfly. Nothing at all from their penultimate release, Penny Sparkle, perhaps because the low key electronica of that album is a little at odds with the rest of the band’s back catalogue. The trio have to rely quite heavily on pre-recorded and programmed tracks for their more maximalist songs, but this does nothing to water down the likes of “Spring and By Summer Fall”. Amedeo’s guitars and Simone’s drums occupy so much space that Kazu Makino easily fills in the gaps with bass, keyboards or extra guitars.

A technical failure during “Melody”—Kazu’s keyboards sounding like a 16-bit videogame soundtrack—is an opportunity to witness the degree to which fans hold the band in affection, cheering them on and asking them to start again. But the real crowd-pleaser is left for last, with a thunderous rendition of “23”, causing the crowd to completely obscure the stage with waving arms and air punches.

With a band as long-lived as Blonde Redhead, one spends half the time making a mental list of all the songs they don’t play (the bass-tastic “Equus”, “Misery is a Butterfly”, “Melody of Certain Three”), but this is wilful masochism. Never will you hear a critical comment towards Blonde Redhead from me. I’m sure I have plenty of bile for another day, another band.

blonde_redhead-0014

VIEW LIVE PHOTO GALLERY HERE

LIVE REVIEW: Lower, Jazzhouse, 29.08.2014

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“This is a strange set-up for a punk concert.” So says our dear photographer Morten, and to some extent he is right. I didn’t quite expect the poetry readings and the hour-long performance piece that lead up to Lower. Half an hour into the slow-burning piece, in which some blond guy shyly and ploddingly gave out lighting instructions, the mood becomes restless. But it is really a testament to the tolerance of Copenhagen audiences that they last that long. But the second part of Morten’s statement, that this is a punk gig, is the one I have problems with.

At some point the international press has to stop talking about the Danish “punk” scene. Whatever the influences of Iceage, Lower, Communions et al. might be, the sounds that emerge from these bands have quite specific reference points: the baroque post-punk of the Chameleons and the Comsat Angels, and the twisted Americana of the Bad Seeds and the Gun Club. Even the standard uniform (baggy, buttoned-up-to-the-collar shirts and waist-high jeans) is more reminiscent of 80s goth and new wave. Black Flag this ain’t.

Lower (Jazzhouse, Copenhagen)

Though their music has as much dramatic flair as any of those previously mentioned bands, something in the demeanor of Lower indicates that, however emotional or personal their music might be, they don’t take themselves too seriously. Halfway through the set guitarist Simon Formann serves the whole band, including an extra percussionist and a pianist/cellist, cocktails. The sight of frontman Adrian Toubro singing while holding a pink concoction in a lowball glass harks back to the decadent crooners of the 60s and 70s (also referenced by Iceage in their Mina-inspired “Morals” and in the video for “The Lord’s Favourite”).

Lower’s debut album, Seek Warmer Climes, is full of chiming and wiry guitars, the mid-range vocal crooning favoured by 80s darkwave bands, and drums that sound like they are falling down several flights of stairs. The rhythmic chaos of songs like “Lost Weight, Perfect Skin” are enhanced in the live setting by the extra percussionist, whose tom and snare work almost takes the band into Adam Ant territory. The added cello and piano are a clear attempt to push Lower into different territory, though by now it has almost become standard in Copenhagen, with Shiny Darkly and Iceage using classical instruments to greater or lesser degrees.

Lower (Jazzhouse, Copenhagen)

Among all ruckus of drums and guitar, Lower have a melodic heart in Tourbro’s vocal delivery, particularly evident in the glorious chorus of “Soft Option”, the standout track from their debut. It is almost impossible for me to write about Copenhagen bands without making a very long list of references (often very obvious ones), but that is not to dismiss these acts as carbon-copies of their heroes. Perhaps none of them would fit well in a chronological chart of the “progress” of pop music, but they are a reminder that the important thing is not to create a sound that has never been heard before, but to make the music sound new.

View the photos from Lowers concert here

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