Vök – live at The Lexington, London

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Vök

London, The Lexington

“Apparently, our Icelandic gear doesn’t agree with your electricity.”

It’s not really a complaint from the Vök keyboardist, delivered as it is in that languid, minus-two-shits Nordic manner. But the point is pertinent:  there’s a conflict of currents here rarely seen in these parts – a charge of electrical particles that shocks a typically English crowd out of its comfort zone. It’s the Bloody-Nora! Borealis.

Born out of Iceland’s forbidding landscape, Vök’s glacial sound, while unmistakably of its region, forges an identity that’s paradoxically alien. The three figures on stage are certainly of mother-ship material, stationary and rigid as pens shoved up Kraftwerk’s shatwurst, while frontwoman Margret Ran’s voice broadcasts from all compass points, hypnotising in a directionless reverie that retains improbable grounding as it pulls with ferocious gravitational force. A cathedral of sound, the beauty of her voice is so ubiquitous it’s disorienting. Like saccharine strychnine, she sounds like a euthanasian angel of mercy, beautiful to the final breath.

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Circumnavigating this vocal like a centrifuge, the music pulsates with magnetic resistance, a confluence of minimalist old-school analogue through industrial gothic to striated dub-disco that finds light from the darkest sources. In a room so intimate, the effect is womb-like, as if wrapped in fleshy fluidity and amnio. Typified by the sax-led sultry pop-poltergeist of ‘Before’, the almost Brutalist architecture of the music is beyond language, a Tower of Babel that brings its own special electricity from an alien sky, with Ran’s voice weaving a sonic tapestry that makes patterns from half-missed whispers.

Transcendent and intransigent, Vök’s is a tangibly fluid sound channeling Archemides as it moves the Earth while standing absolutely still. It’s a presence that comes from everywhere and nowhere: the Northern Lights on strobe; déjà vu in situ. And once they’re plugged in, there’s just no turning off.

Apparently,  electricity doesn’t agree with them. Tonight, the currents fell in line as Vök settled the argument by giving it watt for.

Aurora? For realis.

Stephen Brolan

*This article is published in Record Collector (UK) and Flood (US) magazines

Vök / Roch – live@ The Lexington, London

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Vök / Roch

London, The Lexington

While we’re principally here for the debut London headline show of Icelandic trio Vök, it would be remiss not to make mention of the support. After all, what grabs our attention is a rare thing, not least on the capital’s live circuit: silence.

On stage, a diminutive singer calling herself Roch (and pronouncing it “rock”) is flanked by two minimalist males (one a Chris Lowe-esque synth zombie; the other strapped to a bass, possibly dead). The noise they make as we enter almost hides in all corners of the room, dark and conspiratorial. Suddenly, Roch locks her voice mid-song. A bassline fizzes, then fades into fibrous silence. In a Wild West scenario, the piano player has just shut the fuck up, and someone is about to get blown away. And when Roch’s crystalline voice, after a seeming eternity, returns to slice the silence like a blade, the entire Lexington saloon is effectively just that.

It’s a rare gift indeed to instil a note of respectful deference upon the capital’s customarily garrulous gig-goons (although tonight’s Vök crowd are not your average ape-like ilk), and for that Roch deserves rich applause. More than this, hers is a contemplative sound composed of such soul-bearing honesty as to expel exhibition: repose, not pose. And while most of the artsy crowd are engaged in the latter, the space in between their practiced stances is suffused by treacle-thick tendrils of noise that recoil and collide with magnetic resistance, with cleverly overlapping, undulating chord structures almost waltzing in opposite directions.

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Roch: star quality

The sound is so familiar yet alien – incongruous, like midsummer currents lost in midwinter. Roch herself is slight and statuesque, with a voice straight from a cloud’s catacombs – weightlessly deep; a million miles away yet somehow in your face. Around the room, dark musical shapes are on the move; Roch’s sonorous vocals sweep them ever on. Truncated beats tiptoe conspiratorially around rhythmic incantations like priests in purple cassocks, and the whole room transmogrifies into a gothic version of Alice In Wonderland directed by David Lynch. So weird; so, so close.

“This next song is ‘Closer’,” she announces, invoking more claustrophobia as the walls get smaller and oxygen darts out the fire exit. We draw a final lungful as ‘Closer’ draws things to a close, its seductive pop showcasing Roch’s Mazzy Star-like bone-china voice, which cracks for the last time like a brittle plate at the Mad Hatter’s party. The crowd remains respectfully silent, still and contrived as statues, but now almost amorphous – a collective closer to humanity than their shapes suggested at the beginning.

And even when we later discover art student Roch is potentially one of them, her craft eschews esoteric posturing in favour of incandescent, insouciant honesty. This is Roch: star (in the sculpting).

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Vok: ahh quality

After which, the organic craft of Vök shows what Nature herself can sculpt with the tools of geographic circumstance. Born out of Iceland’s forbidding landscape, this triumvirate’s glacial sound is one that demonstrates how geometry too can be a compositional element. And while it’s true the sound emanating from their homeland has a tendency to evoke Sigur Rós, Björk et al – just as, on the opposite side of the globe, Australian bands rock in perpetuity on an adolescent highway to AC/DC – the generic strain in the northern hemisphere is one that consistently evolves. The polite term for this contiguity would be ‘homogenous’ (in Oz: ‘homunculus’ ); the similarity, however, is redeemed by one simple fact: they do it so… fucking… well.

In the case of Vök, theirs is an evolution of sound that, while unmistakably of its region, forges an identity that’s paradoxically unidentifiable – alien. The three figures facing us from the stage are convincingly mother-ship material, stationary and rigid as pens shoved up Kraftwerk’s arse, while leader and frontwoman Margret Ran has a voice broadcasting from everywhere and nowhere – a series of points in time that converge at the slightest tilt of her elfin head.

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Surrounded by a mixture of beats and melodies that run the gamut from minimalist old-school analogue through industrial gothic to striated Blue Weaver-style disco, the chaos is anchored by Ran’s nursery-horror vocals that seduce and scathe with alternating abandon like a hibernating banshee. And while she remains fixedly positioned centre stage – flanked by synth-bound goalpost men – her distracted, almost desultory vocals writhe like fidget like knotted serpents brimming with poison. During soporific seducer ‘Waterfall’, the venom is like a whispered osmosis drip-drip-dripping into the heart of a cavernous, black-hole melody that implodes and impregnates itself. It’s as if original sin has found a soundtrack.

But despite the reference points – smatterings of Jan Hammer, Portishead, Kraftwerk, The KLF; Prussian hauteur meets Icelandic auteur – we’re still floating somewhere in the middle of nowhere, neither hot nor cold, neither human nor alien. This is music to simply exist to, with no definitions – no country or boundaries.

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“Apparently, our Icelandic gear doesn’t agree with your electricity,” one of the goalposts says, trying to hook up his synth and unearthing some cantankerous English voltage. The metaphor is as irresistible as the currents apparently are: theirs is a life force that can’t be translated; regions are so alien to their output that special adapters are required. And while their sound is fiercely and studiously confining, it staunchly refuses to be confined.

As the saxophone comes out on the sultry pop-poltergeist of ‘Before’, the musical shift is like a tapestry, its pattern familiar but alien, like déjà vu in reverse, with Ran’s voice running back and forth, weaving in and out, and sculpting itself around the living melody with ergonomic precision. With the sound of water overlain with soporific effects and throbbing, robotic bass, eventually evolving into metronomic beats and saxo-cacophony, it’s like a scene from Bladerunner the porno (dir. Fiddly Scott) wherein replicants upstage humanity with precision love-making. Passion never sounded so mathematical.

By the time the throbbing trance-like genesis of single ‘Circles’ brings us aptly full circle, it’s difficult to know whether this has been a cerebral or a sensual experience. The feeling is like love as an equation: precise as Cupid’s arrow unleashing chaos in the heart. The music is so replete with angles, its architecture a mixture of Brutalist and Romantic, it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly where and how it comes to meet you. All you know is: it just does. Vök’s music is a force that arrives without invitation, yet is somehow uninvasive; the sound, like the entity that makes it – on the surface of it yet another Icelandic triptych with synths and a frontwoman with airy, Björk-like vocals and dodgy, Björk-like hair stub – is just welcome without rhyme or reason – the expected unexpected. That this collective comes under the moniker of Vök is the only definition on offer.

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In fact, with regards the band’s name (pronounced ‘verk’), rumours abound that it’s a phonetic encryption, a composite word fusing various European linguistic pronunciations to make a rude word (basically ‘fuck’ in three languages). Whether it’s true or not is moot – it’s very apt: this is a sound that ventures out beyond all confines and structures to become something that defies geographical provenance. And a surreptitious, multilingual profanity is fine with us – it’s as good a definition as any: a Fuck-you Tower of Babel set to confound national grids and electrical currents all across Europe and the known world, with everything and nothing lost in translation.

By the end, we’re lost for words. The only thing that springs to mind has, like the music that prompted its utterance, seemingly come from nowhere: Vök me!

Stephen Brolan

* An edited version of the Vök review is published in Record Collector in the UK and Flood magazine in the US

REVIEW vs METAREVIEW: An appraisal and reappraisal of Florence & The Machine

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PART ONE: THE GIG

FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE

Bournemouth, BIC

Her star has risen with all the precipitous urgency of a volcano with a pressing engagement. That Florence Welch has seemingly gone from insecure waif of the side-stage to colossal high-priestess of the centre-stage owes as much to the tabloid circus surrounding her as her increasingly molten delivery.

However, despite the mainstream’s depressingly predictable attempts to mould her into another Amy Winehouse (rather than tapping her phone, they’re spiking her water supply) Ms Welch retains a focus impervious to intoxication, which is her strength under the spotlights, but also forms part of her shortcomings. For though what we’re witnessing borders on bewitching – Raise It Up, for example, has become some sort of incantation, with jutting arms and robes all aflow – there’s something stylised about this performance that flirts with contrivance.

Having seen Flo in, er, full flow upon her emergence – climbing the tent scaffold in implausibly massive platform heels at Reading; freeform howling at Lovebox – there’s a professionalism here that, while admirable, negates the sort of wild abandon that actually got her here.

Early in, What The Water Gave Me hypnotises but its séance-like mechanics also leave you floundering in séance-like wonder: ‘Is, in fact, anybody there?’

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Hostess: Raise it up

Set against a weird kind of art-deco hotel lobby backdrop, there’s a sense of juxtaposition here that kind of disturbs. When she starts thrashing around – in front of two backing singers who look strikingly similar (twins?) – it’s like a scene from The Shining.

It could be that Flo has been ceaselessly touring the same material over and over in a seemingly remorseless PR assault that has turned FATM’s energy into something slightly static. However, some of the newer material aired tonight – specifically encore Never Let Me Go – show flashes of the spectral goddess Florence Welch could and should be – like a version of a former high-priestess, but even more incendiary: yes, occasionally, she’s like a burning Bush. And when she ignites like that, we’re all like a flock of Moseses (Mosi?) receiving our instruction from on high (yes, those platforms are still in evidence) and seeing a vision of what the future holds.

The Machine may be a little rusty, but Florence has got more than enough of the magic, and love, to see her through.

Prephen Brolan (then)

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PART TWO: THE AFTERMATH

MetaReview

Florence And The Machine, Brolan’s Writing Desk

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Sages paraoles, mate

So, I write this review of Florence And The Machine for Record Collector magazine – which is to be every bit the detailed and accurate account you would expect from a trained and critical eye, honed from years of experience in the field of measured deliberation and the darkened realms of cogitation (which sounds like a booth for hire in Amsterdam, but assuredly isn’t).

Absorbing the experience, trusty pen and pad to hand (which is mainly for insurance, and almost certainly for ostentation for lack of a t-shirt saying ‘I Am A Fucking Music Journalist’) the show begins, and so starts the critical scribbles (every venue in the world is pitch black, by the way, and most of what’s actually written looks like hieroglyphics). The eventual report starts to take shape in the portals of a suddenly serious mind, while my companions, oblivious to all this, soak up proceedings with untrained yet enthusiastic synaptic responsiveness.

When my review is written, theirs will be a mere glimpsed experience of what the fully loaded, acutely attuned palette perceives – like they’re seeing some art and going: ‘Yeah, my bed looks like that in the morning!’, while I’m all: ‘Post-cognitive, meta-shambolic anti-creative indictment on the ephemerality of human/sub-meta-humanistic domestic pseudo-rebellious servitude compounded and fractured by Emin’s imperfectly perfect pillow-laced, quilt-like coquettishness. A triumph!’

Or something.

Anyway, I’m feeling empowered. So empowered I have to cross my legs. The pen, think I (probably), is truly mightier than the sword. Just wait til these people get a load of my perspective. At the moment, they’re watching a puppet show, but I’m gonna show them the strings – and what the puppet master looks like… Or maybe it’s a magic show I’m thinking of? Whatever, there’s a metaphor in there somewhere about tricks and illusions. There’s got to be.

Anyway, this review is gonna make nails rue the day God gave them a head (stigmata purgation?), such will be the force and accuracy of my hitting them square on.

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Postrogative: a woman’s write

So, job done, it’s time to bring in the readership. And who better than my own gig-going plus-one and, more crucially, girlfriend and most trusted confidante. The one thing I can rely on from such a trusted source is honesty. The other is some lovely love-infused hyperbole. And maybe some after-review backstage action. Um…

Review read, she sits back and pauses, presumably to take in some oxygen after nearly drowning in such depths of perception.

“What gig were you at?” she says, my heart nearly stopping for lack of hyperbole. “That’s not how I remember it.”

First thought: somehow I’ve shown the wrong review; second, I’m with the wrong fiancé. Neither tallies, which leads to the unthinkable third: I was totally fucking wrong.

So, as with so many utterances that issue forth from one who loves me, I’m forced to take a long, hard look at myself – the self, in this case, being this overblown review. And so, after a few mandatory, face-saving protestations – always simmering away in the back of any self-serving writer’s head – a long, hard look leads me into a reassessment of what I’ve written.

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Wrong tree: Dog days are assuredly NOT over

If you haven’t already read it, the review in question is on the blog before this. What you’re reading here is the world’s first (or possibly not) meta-review – a review of a review. And the reason I believe it’s necessary is simply because, as a writer and critic, it’s essential to get to the core of what you’re seeing and feeling, rather than revelling in the sound of your own fatuous ramblings. And to show a fiancé how brilliantly fucking humble you can be.

When you read the review – if, indeed, you can be arsed – there’s plenty of clever talk of contrivance/staged professionalism on the part of the protagonist (Florence) and jarring juxtaposition (her Machine) that seemed to occupy my chief objections. And while I stand by these assertions in the main – I have seen better performances in her earlier, less publicised days – what I’d actually missed was the main point of the show: that it was actually GOOD.

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Full Flo: ‘I’m coming for you, Brolan’

This is what was baffling my fiancé upon reading my words – we’d actually had a great time. The gig was phenomenal (she reports it’s one of the best she’s seen), yet all I could concentrate on was the flaws and, more crucially, the context.

Rather than looking at the show from a fresh perspective, I was contrasting this performance against the backdrop of so many other performances I’d seen of Florence And The Machine, and that’s where I believe I – and possibly many journalists before me – completely lost the point. Suddenly I realise I’ve become just the sort of writer I’ve always despised – the CRITIC: that noisome little entity that will point out the essential flaws in your choice of favourite crisp if he thinks he can elevate himself with it (Salt and vinegar? Tish! A veritable tyrant of a crisp – more like the Sultan Vinegar). What I’d missed here was the essence, and surely that is the job – the absolute obligation – of anyone who makes a living being offered free gig tickets whenever he demands.

And maybe that’s the chief problem. For while 99 percent of the crowd that night would have purchased, ebayed, blogged and begged for tickets – and, once procured, would have counted the days in anticipation – mine (and my beloved plus-one, I might add) was a mere email away. The main problem with this, as I see it now, is journalists in this field are far too blasé about what other attendees see as the highlight of their week, month or year. When attending so many shows throughout a calendar year, it’s hardly surprising the flaws become the primary focus – almost as if I’m trying to justify being there in the first place. While all around me are there for no other reason than loving the act in question, and honestly purchasing a ticket (or desperately mortgaging to a dishonest tout), I’m there mainly because I’m working but, more pertinently, because I can be. Just like that.

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Stage against the Machine

Of course, nobody wants to read a reviewer who writes like Fearne Cotton speaks – i.e. absolutely everything is BRILL-I-ANT – but what my girlfriend’s critique has told this critic is that, rather than concentrate on what makes me sound like I know what I’m talking about, or what elevates me beyond the actual content I’m writing about, it might serve to actually absorb the experience, feel the atmosphere and the sheer power of what a truly good performance can do, rather than pontificating on niggling subtext or nagging context.

How about writing what I feel? Perhaps that’s what years of writing about such things has blunted – the essential feeling. The most legendary hack of all, Lester Bangs, once postulated that writing about music is like tap-dancing about architecture. If that is so (which it probably is), perhaps the only thing to do is stop tapping and make some cement.

And there you have it: my meta-review. Might start doing more of these (will, in fact; stand by for magazine launch) – maybe that’s the only way to get to the essence of what I’m bollocking on about in my actual reviews. After all, self-criticism is one of the few ways you can truly understand yourself – and possibly the only way a girlfriend will give you some backstage action, if only for the price of admitting she was right all along.

SB

Stephen Postlan

* Stand by for more MetaReviews with a new magazine launch coming this year…

DAVID GILMOUR LIVE – Record Collector edit

Photo: James Cooney
Photo: James Cooney

DAVID GILMOUR

London, Royal Albert Hall

23/09/15 (View: Stalls, centre)

David Gilmour is caged.

On a stage bathed in a blue wash, his six-string superconductor wails like a pained angel, a sound in stasis that screams to be free. He has a back catalogue, you see. And new material. But rather than imposing, the new songs are interwoven – a patchwork blanket that leaves us both comfortable and numb. While not intimidated by the might of Gilmour’s albatross, new material like the middling Tom Petty pop of Rattle That Lock is overshadowed by its wingspan, yet is somehow congruous. Elsewhere, lugubrious anti-ballad Faces Of Stone waltzes in homogenous tandem with The Division Bell’s surreal romance, concluding with the impish whimsy of an accordion wig-out. And when you find yourself in the Royal Albert Hall scribbling the words “accordion wig-out” in your review notes, you know that not only are you a pretentious dick, you’re a pretentious dick at something special.

“Hope you enjoyed my new album,” Gilmour asks sheepishly to a muted response. Almost hurriedly, Wish You Were Here breaks the silence, and feels both welcome and intrusive. For while the song’s yearning sentiment appeases the Floyd faithful, the nostalgia counters the new material’s steady osmosis.

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Crazy diamond

Peppering the new with the old, David Crosby and Graham Nash perform backing vocals with varying degrees of success, most notably on Comfortably Numb’s colossal closer, a song that spreads its wings and bursts through the great Hall’s confines and, in spite of an oblivious Crosby howling centre stage, leaves the audience therein combustibly dumbstruck.

With locks rattled and the shackles lying at his feet, Gilmour’s caged albatross is singing again.

Stephen Brolan

*This article is published in Record Collector magazine. See below for the gargantuan unedited version.

ALMA, “Alma” self-titled album launch, live at St Pancras Old Church, London

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Band photograph: Oliver Glosby

ALMA

London, St. Pancras Old Church

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“Let us prey”: Alma begin converting the flock

That the launch of London-based Alma’s eponymous debut album, from which the leading single was the grandly titled ‘To The Stars’, is in a celestial, spiritual location such as the pre-medieval St.Pancras Old Church (built circa AD 314), might suggest some U2-esque, messianic grandeur. Except this isn’t the Vatican nor the Cathedral of St. Bono In The Fields. No. This setting is grand yet intimate, a poetic paradox that fits tonight’s sound – sublime yet unassuming, like a shy angel. Much like the band themselves.

When they take to the stage/altar, they do so reverentially, almost apologetically, especially terminally diffident floor-examiner guitarist Ciaran Morahan, and the opening notes of what’s simply called ‘New Song’ (working title, I’m guessing), it’s almost hymnal, like we’re at the beginning of a sermon – perhaps even a conversion.

The sparse and melancholy opening ‘anonymous’ invokes, in perennial sermon style, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost – that being Michael Stipe, Tim Booth and Thom Yorke – all fighting over possession of singer Pete Lambrou’s soul. Nobody wins. This is a voice and stage presence that not only invokes that trinity, but brings it into alignment and creates something uniquely soulful. (“And ye, the Rock Gods created Human”, I think it goes.)

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Pete Lambrou: when one mic is just not enough

Following this, the hypnotic piano tickling of ‘The Great Escape’ is like rainfall in the soul, a cleansing that threatens to drown. The arrival of Lambrou’s febrile vocal falsetto dares you to dive in – a baptismal cleansing delivered to a reverentially silent congregation. Believe me, at a London gig, silence is rarer than a mosh pit at a legitimate mass. Unless it’s a gospel mass, obviously. And extending the religious comparisons more, if you’ll indulge me (which you will, or you’re all off to Hell), ‘While Nothing’, the closing track on their forthcoming album, is an angelic aria that swims around the hallowed walls and almost entraps us with a spiritual yet achingly human embrace, the words “See your soul, remind yourself/That every heart must be dear”, the double-meaning on the word ‘dear’ highlighting the divide between the material and spiritual world. And when it’s delivered with such eyes-closed fragile sincerity, and a voice that shames the angels, his soul emotes almost palpable presence. It’s ethereal, transcendent and seems to challenge the human condition. The venue is undoubtedly the perfect setting (hey, they should do a church tour!), but this music could sanitise a brothel.

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Morahan: Greenwood’s floor-bound successor

The title track ‘To The Stars’ brings out the band’s Pink Floyd operatic proclivities – the change of tone that reminds us worship need not be tranquil, sedate and reflective. Let’s fucking celebrate, hey? (oop, forgive the profanities, O Alma). with the piano gone from tinkling to hammering, and undulating, perfectly executed strings from beautiful coupling of violinist Marie Schreer and Naomi McLean on cello (hey chaps, why are they at the back?), Alma bring another dimension to their repertoire. Suddenly, floor-watching guitar man Morahan is actually on the floor, making like Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and fiddling around with his myriad banks of effects pedals, while also making like Jimmy page and bowing his guitar strings with a drumstick. The song is as haunting and disturbing as it is uplifting. A bit like church, really.

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All ye faithful: St Pancras Old Church

Finally, a word on Pete Lambrou’s incredible and dextrous voice. Mostly falsetto, always angelic, but with an underlying menace and passion that brings to mind Thom Yorke, but with a more direct approach to the notes, rather than taking the odd warbling chicane. Indeed, the music of Alma (which, fittingly, means ‘soul’ in Spanish), and its forthcoming release, could almost be the album Radiohead should have made twixt ‘OK Computer’ and what became the musical blancmange ‘Kid A’. While a change of direction is admirable, making such a quantum leap was, for many (myself included) too much to handle. This debut from Alma is the transitional crossover – the right of passage; the bridge of experimental waters – that would have made the perfect album to bridge the divide.

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Lambrou: Go in pieces, to love and serve…

To highlight this, closing track ‘The Lighthouse’, a true album highlight (geddit?), sends the newly converted off with both a sense of closure and a feeling of enlightenment. Lambrou’s falsetto voice, while threatening to shatter the stained-glass windows, also seems to embody their divine, inviting, almost imploring wisdom and luminescent colours. A perfect closer, the music builds and builds with no specific language but that of intent and direction – a Tower of Babel that everyone understands and reaches for Heaven, but has a sparse openness that feels almost confessional. You don’t feel separate from Alma – when onstage, they are yours, and by proxy, you are theirs. It doesn’t happen enough in music these days, but it’s happening now. Halleluljah!

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The sky’s the limit: ‘Alma’ (Fierce Panda) Out now.

At last, music on a higher plain. I, for one, am converted.

Amen.

Stephen Brolan

*Edited versions of this review will be published in Record Collector in the UK and Filter magazine in the US

*Live photos by Drew Suppa & Magda Wrzeszcz

EMBRACE live at Shepherd’s Bush Empire and Absolute Radio. The final sessions.

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Photo: Julie Burgess

EMBRACE

London, Shepherd’s Bush Empire / Absolute Radio

‘Tally ho!’

The first thing that happens is I get tagged.

At a pub in Shepherd’s Bush, the Embrace faithful are waiting. No sooner than I arrive, a label is thrust upon my chest with all the ceremony of bovine branding, bearing me with the title: “Stephen, the writer”. The stickers have been lovingly crafted by staunch Embrace devotee Elizabeth, complete with what has now become an iconic image – the album’s tally marks. Around me, a whole section of the pub has been taken over by similarly branded folk, who have congregated pre-gig in what seems to be a massive group hug.

This is the Embrace Family – into which I have now been adopted/abducted – a collective whose passion for the band is such that even eight years of buggering off cannot diminish. This is the final leg of a tour that began with a Secret Gig in which the faithful were made to dress up as zombies and the military (the corpses vs the corps), and ends here in an emotional farewell that includes many people who’ve been through the whole journey.

As a journalist for over ten years, this writer can with the utmost authority inform you no band has a more fervid and devoted following than Embrace. There are people who have, over the course of this new awakening, travelled from all corners of the globe – Linelle Bird from Australia and Nohemi Davila from Mexico, to name a few – and tonight there is a palpable sense of melancholy that this is all winding to a close.

Well, this was never going to be a party that would fizzle out with a whimper. From our drinkies at the pub, a militaristic march forms en route to Shepherd’s Bush Empire, each bearing the now formidable and ubiquitous marks of the Tallyband.

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All these good good people

There had been similar camaraderie on previous jaunts – Bristol in particular was a high point (eternal thanks: Nohemi/Sonia/Eddie) – but there’s something about tonight that makes everything seem more febrile, bringing us closer.

What better way, then, to start the set with rabble-rousing anthem Ashes. Until now, the band had formulaically stuck to opening with the first three tracks on the new album. Tonight, starting with their call-to-arms roof-raiser seems fitting – they have truly risen from the ashes and tonight is proof of that resurgence. The lyrics “Watch me rise…” have never felt so apt, the entire venue already shaking the foundations as a musical epiphany reminds just what this band are capable of. My immediate new-found Family are bouncing me all over the place; next to me, Darren –the world’s most avid Embrace supporter, dear friend and borderline maniac – decides now is the time to squeeze my eyeballs out of their sockets by clamping my head in his hands. All in the name of love, obviously.

The whole venue, within one song, has gone ballistic. This unbridled passion Embrace seem to engender is personified by all around me – the tallied-up clan are either arms aloft or arms around each other. Has there ever been a more appropriate name for a band?

With new album tracks In The End – a stomp-a-thon of a tune – and Richard McNamara-fronted single Refugees, which has the whole place in a huge clapping contest, the seamless segue with the older classic shows just how they’ve maintained their high standards. And in some cases, surpassed them.

The already classic Follow You Home, which has a refrain that will keep you awake at night, and is constantly reprised by an apparent new cult of the “Ahh-ohh ahh-ohh” order (head priest Steven Firth, who wields his bassline with all the scruples of a whore on happy hour), is proof that Embrace still have a knack for addictive melody. Once this song finishes… well, it just doesn’t finish. The crowd keep baying for their choral fix, with Madame Firth all too happy to encourage the frothing throng.

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A drummer’s vista

This track has now become to Embrace like a football team’s chant (our farewell to the irrepressibly sweet Sonia Foo upon her exit was a uniform chorus of “Foo-ohhh Foo-ohhh”) and the entire party has adopted this track’s implacable plainsong as a tribal call to arms. Much like the album’s visuals, it is instantly recognisable and creates an indelible bond.

The song is sandwiched between older standards Gravity – a Coldplay-penned track that really has become sub-standard – and debut album classic Come Back To What You Know – which, after poorer appearances in earlier shows, has come back to what we knew. The fact that Follow You Home manages to eclipse both of them says much about Embrace’s resurgent oeuvre. The term ‘instant classic’ has never been more apposite.

Once the yo-yoing chorus eventually dies down, another new classic hits the floor, Quarters embodying its roof-raising refrain of “I feel myself surrender” as the entire room follows suit. Seeming to have crafted a setlist designed to murder by euphoria, Embrace follow this with Save Me, a colossus of a tune that requires a straight jacket for you not to reach for the sky. Down front, in a huge Embrace-mad sandwich of mentalists, the words “Save me” take on a double meaning: I’m both waving and drowning in a sea of flailing limbs and lurching torsos.

And what does actually save me is the arrival of one of the most beautiful ballads ever written. That’s All Changed Forever was the song that made me fall in love with Embrace in the first place, and Danny McNamara’s rendition tonight is heartbreakingly tender – at once nostalgic and forward-looking, the embodiment of the notion of love’s endurance. Tears are shed, and it’s obvious the only thing that won’t change is the power of this song – forever.

Gospel-like album closer Thief On My Island has had dubious showings on this tour, mostly due to the vocals, but tonight it absolutely soars. Rumours of Danny McNamara’s ailing voice have abounded since the start of this re-emergence – and some have been justified – though tonight not a single note is out of place. There’s also an elevation in his onstage persona that makes his already tall physical status even higher. He’s beaming; he’s reaching out to the crowd, who are probably all too familiar by now – even pointing a few recognisable faces out. The only thing missing is a stage dive. Danny? How about it? Be assured, this lot will catch you. And then proceed to eat you.

Following this is All You Good Good People. What more can you say? I’m back to waving and drowning, and this is where the crowd actually becomes louder than the band. Their most iconic track is given a huge airing to what is pretty much an iconic collection of fans, and the embodiment of the track’s titular address – there are no more good good people than this.

The encore is herded in with more “Ahh-ohhs” from the whole of Shepherd’s Bush Empire, and album opener Protection spills its dark electro/soaring-pop paradox into the starving crowd with electric-shock vigour. One Big Family, on the other hand, has myself and my adopted brethren in a hands-aloft mass surfing on the track’s unstinting energy and sentiment. We got family here, for sure, and the love it’s sharing is absolutely palpable.

Which all makes perennial show closer The Good Will Out almost too much – its triumphant coming together outro, while as stirring and life-affirming as ever, is also the sound of journey’s end. While in the audience there are moistened eyes and tender embraces, onstage even guitarist Richard McNamara has tears in his eyes. It really has been a beautiful journey, and as it is with the end of summer, the taste is as bitter as it is sweet.

We had a time – and these are such times you never want to end…

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Myself, stage front, with an absolutely beautiful collection of people

Absolute

And suddenly they begin again.

After the fond farewells, the very next day sees the band due for an acoustic session at Absolute Radio, a station whose mostly insipid output is nevertheless welcoming Embrace into the fold. The times they are a-changin’. I’m not scheduled for attendance, but a kindly invite from a fellow Tallybanner – big hugs to Katie and DonLo – means I’m centre stage at the radio station’s HQ mid-afternoon for an audience with Embrace…

Except I’m not. Meeting up with the rest of the faithful in Leicester Square at the Capital Radio/Xfm building – where it’s assumed the Absolute studios are also based – we soon discover, ten minutes before the start of the recording, that we’re at the wrong fucking building. Absolute, it transpires, is absolutely not here. It’s a taxi ride away, and it’s starting to piss down.

Taxi!!

Like a bunch of escaped lunatics, we’re running towards an understandably hesitant cab driver, and once inside it’s ‘tally-ho!’ for a newly soaking wet tallyband.

By the time we’re in the Absolute offices – having abandoned the cab because of roadworks and legged it through a pissing-it-down Noah would’ve raised an eyebrow at – we’re at the studios and standing in a tiny space barely a few feet from the band.

“Hello again,” singer Danny greets with sardonic knowingness. He’s familiar with all of us goons – even as we stand there in our rain-themed camouflage.

Kicking things off with old favourite One Big Family, which seems quite apposite, Richard McNamara takes centre stage and our small crowd are with him all the way, taking up the chorus with gusto but slight hesitation (this is being recorded, right?)

Fears are allayed when Danny demands we join in on the next track Ashes, last night’s rabble-rouser now an almost mournful, introspective number – a song stripped down to its bare bones. On hearing these tracks in their rawest state, it becomes clear that, despite Embrace’s huge sound, these songs can stand alone without the bluster – because they’re built from the ground up. These are songs that have been crafted organically. It’s the way Embrace have always worked. In this environment, it shines through.

RikandI

Me and Rik (thanks for the crouching, lanky)

As if to prove this, a febrile version of lead single Refugees, for such a massive sounding song in its recording, translates to an acoustic setting with a tenderness that is breathtaking. Richard’s vocals are delicate, and the accompanying music is possibly more dramatic because of its understated delicacy. The measure of good songwriting, for this writer, is how well it can wear its own skin when stripped bare. This stuff is handsome in extremis.

The final track, the already legendary Follow You Home, makes for quite a hilarious scenario. The gathered crowd are still very conscious of the recording, and thus dubious about whether it’s OK to shout their lungs out. With such an impossibly shoutable song laid out before them, it’s like a scene from A Clockwork Orange, the faithful almost puking with restraining themselves at the song’s refrain. The floor is spared from puke, and everyone just lets goo-ohh ahh-ohh ahh-ohh…

After this, the band sticks around for a chat and some photo shoots with a bunch of people who are the most devoted group of fans I’ve known, and some of the most special people, making the end of this road so much more poignant.

There aren’t enough walls and there aren’t enough pens to tally up just how much this experience has meant to me – not just the music and the re-emergence of a band I have loved from the start (and the fact I got to be their biographer), but from all the beautiful people I met along the way.

The fact is, the tally marks are an apt symbol for a collective who’ve not only been counting the days, but are forever imprisoned by a love for something they wear proudly on their chests. Embrace, likewise, elicit exactly what their moniker suggests – just a gigantic hug from people who still know how to love music, and recognise how that relates to being with one other.

In the end, Embrace embodies just that: togetherness.

Stephen Brolan, May 2014

*An edited version of this article will be published in Record Collector magazine in the UK and Filter magazine in the US. Embrace’s Absolute Radio session will be broadcast on Sunday 8 June: http://www.absoluteradio.co.uk

DELAYS – ‘Faded Seaside Glamour’ tour. Live review, London Borderline

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DELAYS – ‘Faded Seaside Glamour’ tour

Borderline, London

Backstage, Greg Gilbert is pacing.

This is the first time the Delays frontman has played in the capital for a long time – and it’s showing. Ohhhing and ahhhing in various octaves, his random vocal callisthenics alone are worthy of a favourable review, but even this finely attuned voice can’t help but feel the jitters. A beer is proffered; he declines. I decide it’s time to help out. Hic! Before stepping out into a yearning crowd, he paces some more, a wanderlust that doesn’t quite know which direction it wants to go. Stage time, and there’s another Wanderlust that has to be unleashed onto a crowd that, in the intervening years, has wandered nowhere.

The 10th anniversary of the release of debut album Faded Seaside Glamour has prompted this special tour, and it seems the audience for that particular milestone is still hearing that knocking in their souls. Standing on a small stage with a swathe of expectant faces glaring up at him, Greg Gilbert unleashes his unearthly falsetto – and the whole room draws breath. As reviews go, silence says it all. It seems a decade hasn’t made a single dent in Gilbert’s voice – the angels in heaven are still pissed off they’re playing second fiddle to him. Or harp. Musically, the opening track still retains its ethereal quality, and within seconds the walls of this cavernous venue seem to have evaporated.

Tonight, the entire debut album is played out consecutively, track by track, and once the opening song fades into the ether, Nearer Than Heaven descends like another commandment from on high – dripping with nostalgia, but still as vital and vibrant as when it first emerged. Likewise, crowd favourite and supernaturally sonorous classic Long Time Coming has aged less than if it had a portrait of itself hiding in the attic – a Wilde accusation. How can it grow old? It can’t. And Greg Gilbert’s impassioned delivery paints it as the portrait of perfection it still is.

Track-by-track enactments can be a bit stultifying, though the fresh energy reigniting these tracks feels like a rebirth – You Wear The Sun doing just that, a shimmering mirage of heart-on-sleeve splendour; hit single Hey Girl rocking a little harder than its recorded version, to which Greg Gilbert acknowledges once again his gratitude to Radio 1’s Mark & Lard – staunch supporters of said track.

Midway in the night’s salient track, Stay Where You Are, Greg gives a wave in my direction during the chorus, aware as he is of my love for this song, but also seeming to have settled into himself and his performance – those pre-gig jitters apparently exorcised.Image

Typified by the delicate waterfall of Satellite’s Lost, Greg’s fibrous vocals have never sounded so pure. Finishing the album off with the stunning outro of One Night Away (“The feeling is love”) and an aptly relentless On – which sees Greg’s brother Aaron taking the reigns and conducting the audience into a minor freak-out –the album comes to a close.

But they’re not done yet, the encore reminding how much this band have in their repertoire. Hideaway has the crowd doing anything but – a hands-aloft extroverted celebration that celebrates the joy of life on its sleeve and doesn’t give a shit who knows about it; perennial b-side favourite Lost In A Melody gets the disco started, while the Aaron-led party trick that is In Brilliant Sunshine has the entire room in absolute raptures – the roof under threat from its transcendent chorus.

Finishing off with some of the best tracks from this great album’s successor, You See Colours, Delays close the show in glorious Technicolor, with a garish version of You And Me and the most roof-raising interpretation of Valentine that threatens to bring the house down. “We are Delays,” Greg says humbly to an audience who, on this showing, will never will forget just who they are.

They exit, with a tidal wave of applause and admiration flushing them out the doors.

What the hell was there to be nervous about?

After the show, we’re backstage, and Greg Gilbert is pacing again. This time it’s a different kind of wanderlust – these footsteps are alive with anticipation. The nerves have been exorcised, and it seems he can’t wait to get going again.

Nothing has faded; the glamour remains.

Stephen Brolan

*An edited version of this review will appear in Record Collector magazine in the UK and Filter magazine in the US