Let me premise this by saying that I began the evening by walking headfirst into a glass wall. That made me unhappy bunny in a crowd of smiling rodents. Nursing a red forehead, I look around and notice that half the audience seems to be made up of men with glasses and beards. Is this what the bearded listen to, Chvrches?
As the opening act begin to play I realise that Thumpers, sadly, are probably not one of the all time top ten bands named after Disney characters. The duo are joined by two keyboardist and a very enthusiastic backing vocalist and trumpeter, but I can’t help thinking that when they first formed, the drummer must have just said “I’m going to play the drum bits from Adam and the Ants songs, and you do whatever you like over it.”
As Chvrches’ lead singer Lauren Mayberry points out, this is the first headlining gig the band have played in Copenhagen since the release of their debut album, The Bones of What You Believe. Their warm reception here is unsurprising, given icy grip that synthpop has held over Scandinavia since Erik the Red first declared war on Mick Hucknall. The show is sold-out, and I can barely make out a giant LCD triangle on stage, and the bobbing head of some guy who has, for reasons unknown, decided this is the right place and decade to pogo.
It is uncanny when a live band manage to sound exactly like their records, and though this should be a compliment to Mayberry’s distinctively shrill vocals, I can’t help wondering what’s the point of aiming for that kind of perfection. But this is what Chvrches fans want to hear, and as Mayberry advises us to keep hydrated in the tropical climate of Lille Vega, I’m slightly ashamed at my cynicism and wonder if, on a day when I don’t career into transparent walls, I too could enjoy listening to a hyper-faithful rendition of “Gun” or “The Mother We Share”. Well no, let’s be honest, that’s not going to happen.
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There was a question looming of how Julianna Barwick’s atmospheric music would translate as a live performance. Her ethereal voice, largely wordless lyrics, and airy songs are so unobtrusive that it never seemed likely that Barwick would overwhelm a room with the force of her personality. And standing behind her keyboard, reaching across to twist knobs on her sampler and occasionally swaying behind her microphone, this is the case. Her accompanist for most of her set, guitarist Scott Bell, is equally benign.
It is interesting to watch Barwick build a track, looping layer upon layer of her own voice, and how effective her sporadic piano playing is. What is evident is her overwhelming vocal control, and the strength and clarity of her voice, which is necessary for her loops to work at all. But the fascination wears off before too long.
It is not unreasonable to believe that her voice is compelling enough to make her live show worth seeing, in spite of her physically stagnant performance. What is achieved is a sort zen-like state, conducive to meditation — or truthfully, were the chairs more comfortable, to sleep. It’s very peaceful and very pretty, but there is a limit to how engaging it can be.
With this in mind, Barwick has video rolling on a screen behind her. The images — of a seagull, of waves crashing, of a woman (possibly Barwick herself) clad in a lace dress, floating in water, tangled up in tulle — though intriguing, are incidental. The footage keeps rolling even between songs, and begins to repeat itself three quarters of the way through her set.
Her set is brief, coming in under an hour, including the encore. But it’s sufficient. If you missed it, you’ll likely get just as much pleasure out of buying a copy of her latest album, and curling up at home with it, a cup of tea, and a good book.
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Foals are one of those bands that make sense live in a way they never could on their records. Not even on this year’s Mercury Prize-nominated Holy Fire, nor on 2010’s Mercury Prize-nominated Total Life Forever can this band be fully understood without seeing them perform.
A big part of it is the dimension of the music itself. Jimmy Smith’s spindly rhythm guitar weaves into Yannis Philippakis’ heavier leads with the same dynamic as on their albums, but any subtlety they strive for in the mixes on their recordings is lost to sheer power. The synths and backing vocals never fade into the background, the bass is more present than would be expected for a rock band, and Philippakis’ vocals regularly break into screams.
But mostly it’s the antics of their performance. It isn’t necessary to know their songs to enjoy yourself, because the human energy on and off stage is so easy to lose yourself in. Philippakis struts and pirouettes through every song, pouring water on his head between songs and flinging the remainder on the crowd. He’s matched by Smith’s relentless pogoing, and even drummer Jack Bevan can be seen standing triumphantly on top of his kit at any interval. And the crowd love it. They are dancing and jumping and willing to catch Philippakis on the multiple occasions that he crowd surfs. It’s telling that the band can bust out their single “My Number” early in the set instead of needing to build up to it in the encore.
But what they build up to is a finale of rock star antics that a man of lesser personality than Philippakis would struggle to pull off. Before “Electric Bloom” he passively suggests, “Let’s fuck this place up,” and then swaps his guitar for a floor tom, and unencumbered by an instrument or mic stand ricochets around the stage and audience. Back on stage for “Inhaler,” Philippakis’ intentions become clear when stares up agog at a stack of speakers. He restrains himself until the interlude of the final song, “Two Steps, Twice,” before scaling the stack, abandoning his guitar there, and then climbing up into the balcony. He takes the long route through the balcony to the other side of the stage, jumping down on to another stack of speakers and teasing the crowd before taking a final jump on stage. By the time he has his guitar back, a majority of the audience is crouched on their knees, ready to jump up as the final chorus comes in. It’s baffling and thrilling, and overwhelms in the best possible way.
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Copenhagen, I love you, but you’re bringing me down.
In the best of all possible worlds, I wouldn’t have to write this review. The city would have crammed into the smaller of the Vega siblings, and I could simply write the words “Factory Floor” and “East India Youth” for people to knowingly nod their heads and synchronise their inner bpm.
As it is, only the select few, the knowing or the fortunate, stick to the walls as Will Doyle, or East India Youth, poured waves of synth into the room. It feels like a scene from a film or tv, like Durutti Column playing in 24 Hour Party People, or even Julee Cruise stuck in that red bar in Twin Peaks. His set is constantly shimmering from one song to the next, full of brilliant melancholy and brash crescendos. Dom and Gabe from Factory Floor are listening in the middle of the room. “Pretty good, eh?”
Statistically, few of you readers will have seen him, so go buy Hostel, his latest EP, which as well as being a great record, also distinguishes itself for having been released by a strange new animal known as The Quietus Phonographic Corporation.
The yellow and blue glitch projections, as well programmes scattered around the place, are evidence of another in a long line of Factory Floor’s collaborations with visual artists. Tonight Dan Tombs is providing the sights, as part of CPH:DOX, the International Documentary Film Festival. In the middle of the oscillating images, the band begin the same way their record does, with “Turn It Up”, which in this case is a direct order to the sound man.
I often misuse the word hypnotic, applying more or less to anything vaguely repetitive or psychedelic, but Factory Floor definitely induce some sort of altered state. The volume is fantastic, and Dom’s short loops gain urgency as they slowly modulate, blending into Gabe’s drumming, which manages to add an afro-beat flavour to the post-punk and disco beats. Singer and guitarist Nik lays on heavily effected vocals, unintelligible words, and harsh guitar stabs. It sounds rather ridiculous when described, but the discord of a guitar hit with a drum stick is given some sort of structure by the bassline, so that I start to imagine chords where chords are impossible.
Though I’m able to recognise the main synth line or sample from most of the album tracks, we are hearing something entirely different. It’s not that song structures are substantially altered, or that the band is improvising on the themes, but rather that each song consists of certain elements that, when played live, are allowed the space to enter and exit as instinct dictates. This is a band that has spent years crafting these sounds, and is able to fit them together each night in a way that is always different, but always the same, to paraphrase John Peel. When I interviewed them, they talked about wanting to keep the human element in electronic music, and it is that mix of perfectionism and human error that creates a concert like no other.
So get on the next boat to Oslo and catch up with them, or pick up the album, but for god’s sake, do something.
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I am always surprised at the way people seem to suddenly materialise at Danish concerts when I have my back turned. Are they all given a secret timetable? Five minutes after wondering where the hell everyone was, and as Sekuoia begin the evening in a moody fog, I turn round and see the room is already half full.
These were evidently those in the know, as Sekuoia is reveal to be a careful and compelling layering of drones, beats and samples. A minimalist project from producer Patrick Alexander Bech Madsen, Sekuoia snatches vocals samples, one-note guitar riffs, even the odd Dr Dre inspired keyboard line. It’s music to sway to, all high-end glitches and deep keyboards, but I keep expecting or wanting something to punch me from the mid-section. Someone suggests a grime artist. I’ve heard worse ideas.
The crowd thickens out, and I noticed one of the greatest concentrations of pretty girls at any concert I’ve been to. I’d imagined it more as a snotty indie boy affair. Well, who knew that Washed Out were a fun band? No matter how much hate was heaped onto the term “chillwave”, I’ve always had a soft spot for them and Small Black, but I thought of it as essentially 2011’s version of shoegaze. And no one has ever accused shoegaze of being fun. But behind the hazy vocals there is a frontman full of charm and enthusiasm.
Best known for the heavy synth layerings of Within and Without, it looks odd to see Ernest Green playing an acoustic guitar. Consider that the guitar is also decorated with a red flower on the head, and he is grinning like it’s his birthday, I can’t help but think of Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips. Certainly, Washed Out’s newest album, Paracosm, dabbles heavily in psychedelia, and it is sometimes odd to hear new songs mixed with the old. The five-piece band are making all the right moves, and even the strange juxtapositions of songs are ironed over by a sense of general goodwill. There is even a cover, eerily precise, of Small Black’s “Despicable Dogs”.
The best thing about live music, and probably the only reason for going to see a gig in general, is to hear the recorded music transformed. If there was a noticeable difference between Washed Out’s previous albums and Paracosm, it is made completely obvious live. A song like “Don’t Give Up” might have sounded not too dissimilar to “Feel It All Around”, but to get any idea of their live direction, you have to go to “It All Feels Right”. The dreamy vocals are still there, but where the synths would be dominating, we find guitars. If there was something slightly icy about chillwave, it has been warmed up.
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It’s difficult to know what the right setting for James Blake would be. His show at Falconer Salen — bumped up from Store Vega because of demand — feels like it should have been shifted to a seated theatre rather than an open ballroom. Wouldn’t that be more suitable for Blake’s gentle, moody compositions?
But once the electronics of opening song “I Never Learnt to Share” kicked in, it’s immediately apparent that live, Blake’s music is less delicate than on his albums. Most notably, the beats are a lot bigger, and fill every inch of the room. Not that anyone is dancing; the audience mostly stands rapt, hanging on Blake’s every bobbing, slinking movement, but rarely moving their own feet.
The great appeal of Blake’s music is his voice, that smooth, silky falsetto that can melt hearts. And it’s there, and he hits every high note without effort, but it’s often drowned out by the volume of the electronics that surround him (literally and figuratively: he is hemmed in by his keyboards).
He is joined on stage by a guitarist/keyboardist and drummer, and with all due respect to his guitarist/keyboardist, it’s the drummer who is incredible. When the drummer has moments away from his electronic kit, his skill is displayed in furious lashes.
An hour into his set things break down into straight dance music, nothing delicate, just energetic. And the audience is responding by almost dancing. The energy would have dropped with any song that was any slower, except the next song he plays is his single “Retrograde,” and the room erupts in enthusiastic cheers when he hums the opening bars. He rolls this into downtempo set ender “The Wilhelm Scream.”
Coming back alone for his encore, he asks the crowd — which he admits has already been quiet and respectful — to be quieter still. He then sings the bulk of “Measurements” a cappella, looping his voice back with each subsequent verse, before tearing into his keyboards. In these last minutes of the show, he lays out his artistic and technical abilities so plainly, it would be difficult not to be moved. He leaves the stage quietly as his own voice continues looping. It’s a very impressive exit.
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Going on tour is hard work. There are long journeys, late nights, early mornings, sweaty clothes, cramped quarters, etc. On top of all that, you have to actually look like you’re enjoying yourself when you perform. How unreasonable. MGMT’s sold out performance on Tuesday night at Store Vega could have been an amazing concert, if they’d only bothered to smile and bob about a bit.
All the ingredients are ready before they go onstage for MGMT to put on a great show. The warm up band were popular, there’s a large white screen behind the stage hinting at a visual show, and they’ve only recently started the tour, so they should be full of beans. The audience are nicely pumped up, and the notoriously annoying fan base are not too bad. The lights dim and make way for an echoing robot voice cooing the band’s name over the speakers. This should be good.
However, it does not take too long to realise that this is not going to be a five star review. The show starts with the minor chord psychedelic track “Mystery Disease” from the new, self-titled album, a song that could be full of anticipation and low rumbling energy, if it was delivered that way (which it’s not). A trippy visual of contact lens-like shapes flipping and exploding accompanies the song. Just as well really, because the band are not proving very interesting to watch. There’s no energy, no passion, no movement. The group of jumping and thrusting bros down the front seem to be enjoying MGMT’s music more than the band are.
As that chiming opening riff from “Time to Pretend” takes over from “Mystery Disease”, everyone in the venue, in a predictable fashion, bursts into energy and enjoyment, and there seems to be potential to salvage this concert. Everyone, that is, except MGMT, who continue to stand and play without smiling. Colourful videography decorates the back wall with amazing psychedelic visuals, including silhouettes and projections of the musicians themselves, moving and stopping, pixellating and smudging. The band are not matching their vibrant show.
Now don’t get me wrong. Musically, MGMT are performing brilliantly. Better than I had expected. The band range and rove over three albums, and every sound is refined and considered. The large number of performers in the live band skillfully recreate that rich, synthy signature sound. Store Vega is even graced with a giant cowbell player, “Be Aware” emblazoned on her instrument, for “Your Life is a Lie”. “Kids”, the hit track the band has tried to ditch from its live performances for a few years now, is played, and once again proves itself to have one of the best opening riffs of the 21st Century. It’s bigger and better having had a few years’ break, with a large instrumental section. MGMT should look so proud of this song, but they just continue to look remarkably bleak.
I’ve been trying to work out frontman Andrew Vanwyngarden’s fuzzy, brown, polka dot trousers all evening. I decide that they’re really pyjamas, because he looks half asleep. If it hadn’t been for the graphics, it would have been more fun listening to the concert whilst looking at the wall. The band have only recently started their tour, and won’t stop until January. It’s a bit early to be looking tired, chaps.
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Against unbelievable odds (an awful PA, miniscule room and a career largely built on one song), CSS managed to prevail. The Brazilian quintet played a short, 50 minute set, bringing a large quantity of punk brashness and wild enthusiasm to their particular brand of electro-rock. Singer Lovefoxxx made up for the shitty PA, which would have disgraced a 5-year-old’s birthday party, by inciting the crowd, sharing oddball linguistic insights (the main one being that “tak” is too short a word to express gratitude), and generally being very loveable. Chatting to her after the gig, next to the drawing of a slow loris riding a Christiania bike, I realized I’d spent the set trying to like the music as much as I liked the people making it. In a way CSS seem to run solely on an enthusiasm. No one can deny that even such a short set was full of some very unremarkable and very similar songs, but it’s hard to care about that. They appear amateur in a refreshing way, happy to be doing what they are doing.
I’ll be honest: I went to hear one song, and one song only. And when CSS played “Lets Make Love and Listen to Death from Above”, I was ready to forgive any inconvenience. Like Editors the night previous, they do rely heavily on certain musical styles and tropes, but CSS do so without cynicism. They are brash and, when considered soberly, almost irrelevant musically. But they are a party band, no one has to consider them soberly.
The few early birds at Store Vega are greeted with five Belgians singing in eerie harmony over a sparse rhythm section. Balthazar are a puzzling band. A naysayer would call them derivative, unoriginal, erratic. They seem to pinch from everyone and everywhere: the odd poppy bassline, occasional spaghetti western guitars, Bob Dylan-drenched lead vocals, chimes, a violin, big group choruses, tremolo picked guitars. On paper it sounds like awful cliché. But no matter how highly you choose to prize originality, Balthazar have an undeniable if elusive idiosyncrasy, and more importantly, a fantastic live sound. Songs that on record seem rather unremarkable, like “Sinking Ship”, completely transform on stage, in this case into a thundering, Bruce Springsteen chorus. Another name, another influence, I know, but certainly not a criticism. They are constantly surprising, veering in unexpected directions, always simple, but never facile or boring. Even with five people on stage, and countless musical influences, they are able to leave enough space in their sound for every instrument to be distinct and vital. They are, in this sense, quite the opposite of Editors, who will spend the next hour and a half filling up every space they possibly can.
Not that the audience is exactly filling the place. The balcony section has been closed off due to low ticket sales, and the back of the room is less than packed. Perhaps the casual concert-goers were already satisfied with Editors’ performance only a few months ago in Tivoli. What the crowd lacks in numbers it makes up for in enthusiasm, as the cute-couple contingent at the front and the back-rows of post-punk veterans/old farts hail the headline act’s opener, “Sugar”. The ice machines and backlighting give the place a churchy feel, and I feel an infidel among the faithful. People around me are beaming, singing along, awkwardly trying to dance, fist-pumping, or being arseholes with their camera phones. Admittedly the band have a swagger I would never have expected from them, with Tom, the singer, making witchy hand gestures and bassist Russ constantly climbing onto the drum podium. And they do manage to make each song sound exactly like the album recordings. There is just something I’m just not getting.
It’s strange. After all, I was the perfect age when The Back Room first brought Editors to international fame. I used to mouth the words. These songs should make me nostalgic. This is the first gig of their new tour, and after having toured The Weight of Your Love extensively, this is a chance for the band to dip into their four albums at will. Indeed I get a twitch at the beginning of “Munich”, a slight tingle at “Bullets”, and I have the impression, probably wholly incorrect, that the rest of the audience reacts most strongly to the songs from the debut album. But I am constantly held back, no stage theatrics or sing-alongs carry me into the same state as the people around me.
Halfway through the concert I move back to the old farts’ section, losing in sound quality, but making up for it with the sight of overweight, 60-year old men in New Model Army t-shirts making strange arm gestures at the blatant Echo and the Bunnymen ripoff opening riff to “A Ton of Love”. My god, they must have been my age when Ocean Rain was first released.
Why is it that I can defend Balthazar while being completely baffled by people’s love of Editors? It has nothing to do with considerations of originality, or even stealing sounds, but rather that the sounds Editors chose turned out to the ones I find least interesting about those post-punk bands we enjoy. There is no surprise, no subversion. Editors are a band guided by emotion, but evidently not one I happen to share. But it was exactly what a couple of hundred people in Vega wanted, so who can fault them that?
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As I was walking to the train station today, I noticed something rather depressing and undeniable. Autumn is here. I’ve been denying this fact for about two weeks now, but this evening there’s no fighting it, I am cold. As I reach Ideal Bar in the Vega complex, the cold quickly melts away due to the body heat of the audience and warm up band, like a sticky, sweaty log fire. But the real warmth comes at 10pm, when French Films jump onto the stage (after roadying themselves), play a long reverberating note to bring everyone’s attention to the fact that they’re ready, and launch into their set of infectiously good, surf pop songs and rough, punky vocals.
From their new album ‘White Orchid’ comes the title track to start proceedings. It’s a solid track, it’s engaging a few people, but the general consensus appears to be that this is a song they don’t know, and therefore don’t especially care for. By comparison, the five piece then move on to “Take You With Me”, a decidedly more popular choice. Suddenly, the audience seem to have remembered why they came and are dutifully tapping their feet and nodding their heads. A few seem to be smiling. Better keep this up, boys.
As the gig continues, the kids onstage become increasingly peppy and sweaty, as do one group of particularly enthusiastic punters, waving their slick mop tops back at lead singer Johannes Leppanen, as he waves his. And the positivity of both the music and the young band onstage can’t be helped: the audience are enjoying themselves. It is impossible to stand and listen to a track like “Escape in the Afternoon”, and not feel perky, smile and move your feet. These three minute pop songs, with their expert melodies and riffs, effortlessly define the summer feeling, and Joni Kähkönen on guitar is proving particularly impressive tonight. Some Americans standing behind me are clearly a little perplexed as to why no one’s dancing along. I’m with you on that one.
As the band play “Golden Sea” towards the end of the set, a very cheesy montage of flashbacks from summer 2013 lodges itself into my mind. It’s lame, but I have to hand it to these five young guys for helping me end the season with a bang. “You Don’t Know” initially closes the gig with a big noisy finish. Classic. They hop back onstage for an encore, and play “Where We Come From”, from ‘White Orchid’. This time compared with the opening however, the audience are loving the new sound, and Leppanen crashes into the audience to join the mop tops down the front in gratitude. Finland is not a hot country. Neither is it especially sunny, from my understanding. It is ironic, therefore, that a band from Finland should play such sunny surf rock. Seriously, these guys sound like they just stepped off the plane from San Diego, with sand from the beach still stuck between their toes. Outside it may be Autumn, but inside, French Films’ feet are still firmly planted in summertime, and that’s a very good thing.