With the party atmosphere in full flow for Liverpool Music Week’s Opening Party, Getintothis’ Paul Higham and Mike Stanton report on a night equally rich in art as hedonistic abandon.
On paper thus looked set to be a big one, a stellar line-up assembled to kick off this year’s incarnation of Liverpool Music Week in grand style. Nagging doubts that competing events over at Grand Central Hall might detract from the eagerly anticipated opening party were easily assuaged. The early evening atmosphere in the Kazimier Garden was positively buzzing as party-goers sought some nearby refreshments before heading inside the Kazimier for the main event.
With the air filled with a Friday night party atmosphere, the late line-up looked set to deliver to a crowd of hedonists looking to revel away the early hours. While those in search of pure fun might have been a tad disappointed, main attraction Holly Herndon‘s set more than delivered in quite different ways.
On the back of acclaimed album Platform released earlier this year, her set was ferocious and powerful in its wealth of electronic sounds that pounded the senses with a rarely seen ferocity. This was a brutal aural assault that lacerated to the core. On many levels her’s is conventional dance music, revealing a background in techno and experience of playing live in clubs.
Yet, much like on record, Herndon‘s music when performed live offers so much more. This is sonic art wrapped tightly around a strong yet often subtle social and political message. It is music that, in its discomfiting textures, aural abruptness and glitchy expansiveness, makes you think and challenges your preconceptions.
It was thus on Friday night as her music played over a digital collage of images flying chaotically in space. Reflections offered on technology are later hinted at with allusions to its corrosive influence, particularly on human interaction, information flow and memory.
This was evidence that cerebral, challenging music can be fit for the late night dance floor. That it challenged people to listen and to mentally engage rather than mindlessly dance perhaps provided indication of its success. Indeed the set was enthusiastically received and looks a worthy addition to the to the legion of supreme Liverpool Music Week gigs.
Earlier Darkstar had similarly impressed, warming up the audience for Herndon with restrained artistic intent that indicated that electronic music can be equally informed by brain as well as brawn. In revealing newer material from latest album Foam Island, the Warp Records duo effectively fused some of their earlier more dance-inflected material with the poppier elements that had permeated more recent work.
In combining harsh and hard beats with bright synths and Aiden Whalley‘s plaintively expressive vocals, this performance blended the muscular with the thoughtful. It was perfectly poised, balancing the competing musical directions with a skilled hand in a set of experimentally constructed compositions. Where at times the music was uptempo and poppy if elsewhere abrasive and challenging, it was bound together with a queasy and uncertain atmosphere that set a particular tone throughout.
Foam Island is a very political record highlighting the disconnect, and the resultant erosion of hope, between the affluence of government and the post-industrial north. Even without the spoken word recordings that pin the record together, Darkstar‘s message still seemed to shine through in an edgy and firmly relevant performance.
Kicking off proceedings were BODY. with an unexpectedly upbeat set. Opening with a sample of Rozalla’s Everybody’s Free, they launch into a very Orbital-like set of house grooves and melodic techno. However their trademark cut and paste samples and effects laden production is ever-present and the set slowly morphs into darker territory as they move into one of the two tracks they have recently teased us with, ACID2. This growls with menace beneath witchdrums and and layers of loops and samples.
Luke McCulloch (D R O H N E) and Dan Ellis (V E E D) stand side-by-side, heads bowed and nod along to the propulsive beats as Richard Craddock (also of D R O H N E) stands to one side alternating between guitar and keyboards. It is heady and intoxicating. Beats and layers of drone swirl and merge, enveloping the slowly building audience in a concentrated cloak of sound.
It’s a brilliant start and the tumult of sound belies the understated performance of the three lads behind their table of electronics.
In contrast to the opening act warped drone-tronica of BODY., VEYU launch into their set with some heavier and grungier new material that reveals a darker side to the band with a harder and more bass-heavy sound complete with huge swathes of reverb-drenched rock.
Running follows and it’s back to familiar territory, shimmering and melodic with Tom McCabe’s drums powering the song forward. Another new song follows but the title is lost in the echoing acoustics of the Kazimier. They close on The Everlasting, a profoundly epic yet intimate song awash with the elements of ambience and tangled rhythm that informed their first EP. If this is a sneak peek into their new sound then it bodes well for the new album we’ve been anticipating for some time.
Micachu & the Shapes are impossible to categorise. Glitchy, industrial, avant-pop; Mica Levi leads her band through so many genre-bending alleyways that it is sometimes difficult to keep up. Here at The Kazimier it was sludge-driven grunge rock that they begin with. Raisa Khan on keyboards resembles Delia Derbyshire creating sounds and effects rather than playing traditional chords and melodies, creating a brilliant counterpoint to Levi’s scorched guitar and Cobain-esque tortured voice.
Drummer Marc Pell extracts a thunderous sound from what is essentially a jazz kit, using touch and sometimes brute force to propel the whole procession into some kind of hurtling form. He revels in his rendition of the playful Sad. Highlight is her rendition of Oh Baby, full of discordance and the soulful angst of Levi’s drawl. An energetic and feverish performance is lapped up by the now full crowd and they roar their approval for a set that has thrilled everyone present.
Outfit emerge to palpable anticipation among the now heaving crowd. They open with the sublime and ambient New Air, with Tom Gorton’s jittering synth leading in to Andrew Hunt’s slow and full piano. It is ambient and layered with ornate instrumentation and lyrical flourishes. Framed follows and is a shining example of how their songwriting has matured, bass and piano driven it is replete with deft touches of synth, guitar and David Berger’s syncopated drums.
We are then treated to three songs off their first album Performance; the anthemic Elephant Days with its hints of psychedelic-driven pop, sounds huge in the room and the band seem to revel in playing it. The wistful, chamber pop of Spraypaint is followed by Thank God I Was Dreaming, the most pop-driven track from the first album. Throughout these songs the band are obviously enjoying themselves, smiling and bantering, riffing off each other.
They close out with the shimmering and magnificent Swam Out, mirroring the opener; it is sweeping and epic in its scope. Hushed vocals over mellow piano give way to huge constantly spiralling synths backed by propulsive bass and effects-laden guitar. It is a thunderous closer and shows a band at complete ease; confidence in the material and a complete mastery of their art ensures their performance is charged and euphoric.
With Outfit‘s crossover appeal having paved the way for the twin successes of Darkstar and Holly Herndon, it was left for Jam City to close the party. Hitting the stage soon after Herndon‘s set had drawn to a close, he was faced with the unenviable task of playing to a dwindling audience almost too blown away by what had gone before to perhaps contemplate more music.
As the hordes sought release in Rat Alley, Jam City played an intoxicatingly curious set that was half-electronica half-jangly guitar, with the twin elements often competing in glorious cacophony that whipped those who had ventured inside into a frenzy. Drenched in reverb and making full use of phaser the set swirled in heady distortion as guitar notes were bent and twisted and synths shimmered brightly.
As a solo act it perhaps lacked a bit of stage presence, never quite being able to assert himself as a performer rather than just a DJ after the main set had concluded. Nonetheless its more straightforward and immediately accessible sounds provided welcome release from the suffocating tension that had built up over the preceding sets.
Judging by the success of 2015’s opening gambit, Liverpool Music Week once again has proved it has the capacity to both entertain and to challenge. Yet where it comes in to its own is in its impeccable curation; in celebrating the acclaimed while at the same time promoting the new, it really does work. Coupled with a line-up that made perfect sense, it augers well for the rest of the week.
Pictures by Getintothis’ Martin Waters and Christopher Flack.