Archive for July, 2012

Churches aren’t really an unsigned act. Their line-up comprising members of Aereogramme, Blue Sky Archives and the Twilight Sad, they are a group who have enjoyed keen label attention since day one. Add to this their purposely sparse online output (one song made available, to date) and secretive demeanour (reportedly under instruction to limit the amount of interviews they grant) and you have a recipe for frenzied hype and extensive expectations.

As such, the excitement proves difficult to contain as the descent of the staircase leading to the Stereo basement culminates in the discovery of a venue already packed to capacity, giving rise to the feasible musing that support act Churches have perhaps served as more of a pull for tonight’s gig than headliners School of Seven Bells.

The cavernous space buzzes with eager chatter and excited conjecture, as skinny-jeaned obscure indie t-shirted types swig from cans of Foster’s and wait for what they clearly hope will turn out to be their very own version of the Sex Pistols’ 1976 Lesser Free Trade Hall gig.

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The electro pop trio emit fairly nervous vibes as they make an entrance completely devoid of aplomb, pausing for a second in front of their keyboards and microphones to furtively take in the swelled audience before them.

From the moment Iain and Martin begin to bash out the first notes of the group’s synth-based ditties though, frontwoman Lauren appears to find her ease and sink into the relaxed pursuit of matching her undeniably excellent vocals to the atmospherics provided by her male counterparts.

For reasons which will be outlined later in this feature, it wouldn’t be appropriate to describe any of the members of Churches as being in possession of an onstage persona, per se. However, in saying that, Lauren has certainly made an effort to look the part, resplendent as she is in Lily Allen-esque dress and gold chain combination with eye make-up paying homage to the likes of Adam Ant and David Bowie.

Unfortunately, Lauren is where any regard for appearances or aesthetics comes to an abrupt halt, the other two members clearly preferring to let the music do the talking. Drably dressed and seemingly uninterested in their outward appearance, the guys could easily be two audience members who entered through the wrong door.

It’s not until the second of the songs that Lauren’s Scottish accent begins to shine through and this is one of Churches’ definite positives. Although the vocalist’s origins are plain to hear and she makes no attempt to modify or conceal them when she sings, it is subtle enough that it compliments rather than defines the music of which it forms a part.

It is hugely refreshing not to have the same old clichéd Scottish accent aurally foisted upon you (something numerous West of Scotland bands have recently been guilty of) throughout every song, with all the subtlety of an ALBA bumper sticker, to the extent that the artist actually seems to be putting on their native twang. For their refusal to participate in this despicable crime against the Scottish music scene, Churches are to be applauded.

For the crowd’s part, they appear rapt throughout the performance. However, even the most basic powers of deduction would provide one with niggling doubts as to the trigger for this state. Given that, by the end of the third song, no one onstage has spoken a word and the trudging tempo has remained stiflingly monotonous, it seems that either the crowd are simply ecstatic to be at the epicentre of the Churches hype machine or patiently awaiting the rendition of the one song they’ve already heard and approved.

To return to the aforementioned absence of onstage personas is to highlight the biggest gripe with tonight’s performance. It isn’t just that the members of Churches don’t transform into modern-day Ziggy Stardusts when they take the stage; it’s that their collective performance is bereft of any stage presence whatsoever. When the fortune and speedy rise to fame of the threesome is considered, this lack of vigour feels like an insult to the multitudes of other unsigned Scottish acts who have been plugging away for years in hopes of gaining this sort of profile. Lauren, Iain and Martin should be ecstatic tonight! They should be bouncing off the walls of a room charged with crashing synths and the feeling of a grand unveiling. As it is, this feels more like a shoegaze resurgence for the iTunes generation.

As lacking in momentum or volatility as the performance may be, the first few songs are still fairly enjoyable and, from this, one is spurred to consider that perhaps the chagrin being experienced is just the inevitable disappointment that comes with seeing an enigma made flesh.

After the generation of such mysterious hype, limited interview exposure, secret live appearances under different monikers and the restrained decision to release only one (absolutely mind-blowing) song, the in-person unveiling of Churches – replete with beards, baseball  caps and Sub Club chic – is a sobering sight indeed.

Perhaps if the group hadn’t been so hyped up by all and sundry – before they really got their foot in the live performance door – tonight would be a much more impressive spectacle.

Fuckin’ music bloggers, eh!?

All such ruminations aside, by the penultimate song the hipster melancholia has become inescapably wearing. This is a rainy Sunday night in Glasgow and, the performers being natives of this fair city, they ought to be as aware as anyone that people require a soothing and uplifting antidote for the imminent onset of the Monday comedown. What they don’t need is hipster posturing and post-emo phrase-mongering, à la “there is no violence in your heart.”

The absolute highlight of the evening comes when Fix Up, Look Sharp… – Sorry… Lies – kicks in. The performance of this absolute party-starter of a tune is almost worth the entry fee in itself and very nearly makes up for the drudgery that preceded it, as the volume and impact levels ramp up and the room-quaking bassline and carefree vocal-play see this finale stand in stark contrast to the rest of the set. The motions of the crowd make it clear that this is what everyone here has been waiting for and, if Churches can produce more material of this standard, they are onto a definite winner.

Infinitely superior to the rest of their output and undoubtedly destined to top any ‘Best Newcomer of 2012’ list, this portion of electro pop genius – witnessed in a live setting – makes the move to only release Lies seem suddenly all the more shrewd. Was the limited availability of material actually because they knew that Lies is, to date, their only exceptional song?

There is certainly no denying that it is an absolute banger but, if tonight’s recital can be used as a legitimate marker, the live Churches experience is simply below par for those who like their stage shows lively and their musicians awake.

The vast majority of the material showcased would be better experienced as part of a background playlist in the car, rather than as filler for a live show based around one (albeit phenomenal) hit.

Of course, it may well be the case that Churches are destined to unleash many more hits like Lies and that they’ve naively succumbed to the demands generated by their own hype and embarked upon a stint of live performances before being equipped with enough strong material to back them up.

For now though, the earlier comparison to the ’76 Sex Pistols gig seems like an outright slap in the face to the punk icons (even considering Mr. Rotten’s latter-day transformation from aural terrorist to purveyor of margarine) as, in contrast to the much-documented danger and excitement of that performance, this one is entirely benign.

To invoke Public Enemy’s Chuck D…

“Don’t believe the hype!”

Churches on Facebook

Lies Music Video

Upon reaching the peak of the well-trodden King Tut’s staircase, the first thing that strikes you is how much more open than usual the venue feels, as there are no barriers in front of the stage or guarding the steps up to the sound desk. This gives the already very intimate setting an even more personal feel for the evening and the Hector Bizerk logos adorning every wall serve to remind you exactly why you’re here.

Tonight is the official album launch for the, of late, hotly-tipped duo’s freshly-pressed Drums. Rap. Yes. offering and, as such, now seems as good a time as any to provide some coverage of how far the pair have come in the eight months since their last appearance in these pages.

“Are you ready to go Hector!?” challenges frontman Louie, instigating a deafening chant of “Hector! Hector! Hector Bizerk!” which reverberates around the room until the group see fit to strike up the first track from their new album, also titled Drums. Rap. Yes. Although this – along with selected other cuts from the album – was only leaked this week, both crowd and entertainers immediately enter into a flawless call and response routine which sees the set’s first offering quickly metamorphose into a sort of rallying call for the ferociously fanatical fanbase which has amassed throughout the group’s journey towards where they currently stand. Even at this very early stage in the proceedings, it is perfectly clear that King Tut’s belongs to them for tonight.

By the time the second number (the inimitable Burst Love) punches into life, the aforementioned lack of barriers has become absolutely impossible to ignore, mainly due to the onstage presence of Louie. Exercising his customary command of the room, tonight he immerses himself in a performance that evokes a persona even more captivating and confrontational than usual, seeming to push further into the collective face of the audience with every beat. With no barrier between frontman and crowd and such a volatile atmosphere of barely-restrained mania, the interaction – visually, at least – bears more resemblance to a street brawl than a gig.

Meanwhile, Audrey weaves her typical effortless mastery of the beat, with a resolutely self-assured and professional air. Where Louie is the born frontman of the two, Audrey is the calm and collected driving force to match, and this idea echoes in their stage positioning which sees Louie launching his lyrical assaults from the frontlines as Audrey maintains rhythmic control from the rear.

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Already, a couple of developments are apparent since last time. For one, the self-referencing which permeates their set suggests a massive progression in self-belief. No five minute segment of stage-time goes by without a chant of “Hector Bizerk” or the tossing around of the “Drums. Rap. Yes.” credo and, although this would be an embarassingly limp display if the crowd’s response wasn’t up to scratch, Louie and Audrey’s loyal subjects do exactly what is expected of them with absolute gusto, each time positively roaring back whatever the moment calls for.

The other, perhaps even more blatantly obvious, change from the Scottish hip-hop outfit’s earlier days is that the duo appears to have – in some instances, at least – become a foursome. For selected live dates (tonight included) and some of the tracks featured on their new album, Louie and Audrey are joined by Jen Muir, for keys and percussion, and Fraser Sneddon on bass. The original impetus for these additions was a result of the confirmation of T in the Park and Wickerman appearances, where it seems the duo were concerned their original line-up wouldn’t sound sonically full enough. As such, the occasional inclusion of these other members appears to be more the equivalent of taking a backing band on tour than a genuine alteration to the group’s permanent set-up.

Nonetheless, it would be easy to succumb to a mixture of feelings, as regards this – albeit tentative and impermanent – shake-up of musical personnel. The intention behind it is understandable enough and, if tonight’s performance is anything to go by, it seems to work in a live context. However, when it comes to recorded efforts, it could be suggested that moving away from the admirable and innovative ‘one MC, one drummer’ set-up also acts as a movement away from their roots and the raw, visceral sound that came from such a stripped-back arrangement.

Drums. Rap. Yes.  works just fine, without letting it turn into Drums. Rap. Keyboards. Bassist. Etc.

In fairness, if looked at objectively, it is plain to see how the Hector Bizerk blueprint could generate fears of a sound that is a bit sparse or empty but, subjectively, Louie is a gifted enough lyricist – and Audrey a talented enough stickswoman – that each bar hits with such unparallelled force, as to make any other input – however adept – surplus to requirements.

—–

The crowd has become a seething, frenzied rabble by the end of Burst Love and, as Let it Go strikes up, the ominous shaking of the second-floor venue is becoming more than a niggling concern. As the song progresses, though, unperturbed and kind-hearted volunteers begin to work their way through the uproarious throng of bodies, distributing Hector Bizerk masks which are willingly snapped up and immediately held aloft by all recipients.

The remainder of this already treacherous task is rendered completely futile, however, when there is a sudden furious surge backwards, as Louie – seemingly out of nowhere – brandishes a flag that is simply much too large for the confines of a space like King Tut’s, bearing the legend:

DRUMS.

RAP.

YES.

HECTOR BIZERK.

This heralds the arrival of what is undoubtedly the evening’s most poignant and uplifting moment, as Louie alternates between waving the flag with reckless abandon and standing rapping with with it propped up over one shoulder. Against their best intentions, all present are immediately part of a moment of pure patriotism and pride as the forerunners of Scottish hip-hop literally fly their flag. It is the poetic nature of this scene, coupled with the sight of a frontman so utterly devoid of the slightest shred of self-doubt or inhibition, that turns the already insanely rowdy crowd almost feral and gives rise to a certain excited concern that the good-natured swaying and stumbling of the more inebriated contingents could turn slightly nasty. This is not to suggest that the atmosphere becomes unsettling, so much as it is an acknowledgement of the materialisation of the familiar, and almost welcome, sense of danger that comes with the emergence of anything exciting from the underground to the mainstream.

—–

You can almost hear the hearts of the crowd sink as Louie announces that The Rhythm Theory will be “the last tune of the night” and, likewise, feel the elation as the voracious requests for “ONE MORE TUNE!” are granted.

As Audrey jumps back astride the drums for a solo that sees the metaphorical spotlight focussed firmly on her, Louie takes the opportunity to introduce each member onstage in a gesture of professionalism that exceeds the group’s years and experience. The audience are then treated to an encore of Sometimes I Wonder, which feels as though it was made for this exact moment of triumph, dripping as it is with cocksure lyrics – “sometimes I wonder what other people’s problem is” – and knowingly faux-arrogant posturing, courtesy of the “what? what? what?” refrain.

At this precise juncture – with crowd in a seething uproar, drums reaching a crescendo, Hector masks waving frantically and frontman standing before his subjects, replete with billowing flag – Hector Bizerk feel like an act that long ago outgrew this size of venue and have merely returned to pay homage to their humble beginnings.

The conduct of the performers and response of the crowd make tonight feel like the inauguration of Louie and Audrey as bona fide superstars and it would be easy to attribute this boost in confidence and fan loyalty to their recent high-profile support slots and festival appearances. However, to do so would be to take away from how tirelessly the pair have worked to get to where they are. The Hector Bizerk legend has been built through their own sweat, toil and dedication and tonight sees that legend take the headlining slot it rightfully deserves.

Perhaps the most telling moment of the evening, in this respect, comes with the line “we like yer tunes but you sound like a ned” in the track entitled Niche II. Back when the twosome were starting out, this seemed a candidly astute observation of their biggest hurdle. Now, however, it seems like a whimsical throwback to an obstacle that’s been brutally kicked to pieces and then smashed in the chops with a Bucky bottle for good measure.

Listen to Drums. Rap. Yes.

Hector Bizerk on Facebook

First impressions of tonight’s headliners having been derived entirely from the experience of listening to their track Cynthia on a late-night drive home from a gig in Pivo Pivo, during which the atmospherics of the music seemed to perfectly tie in with the passing darkened scenery, a very high level of expectation has already been cemented.

With this in mind, there lingers the consequent concern that the live performance simply won’t be able to live up to this pre-set standard and said fear isn’t at all abated by the levels of hype that have quickly built up around the instrumental output of the post-rock four-piece.

In recent months, Vasa have been hotly tipped as ones to watch, but seemingly only in more involved musical circles. As a result, the boys seem to be the generators of a subtler buzz than others in the Overlook stable, coming across as something of the connoisseur’s choice of Glasgow Indie.

As bassist John, drummer Alex and guitarists Blaine and Scott ready themselves to perform, one microphone stand remains conspicuously on the stage. Presumably, this is intended to be used for nothing past introductions, between-song banter and pleasantries. These early gigs might, however, posit a stronger statement of intent and exude a higher level of confidence in their set-up if the idea of on-stage mics was dispensed with entirely.

Of course, the accuracy of such a musing remains to be seen…

Without an introduction, Vasa spark up their set and instantly succeed in establishing both a mellow tone and an atmosphere that seems to simmer with a sort of expert restraint, subtly suggesting the deluges of distortion that will soon flood forth. The ability to create an engaging atmosphere is, of course, something a strictly instrumental band could not possibly survive without and, although this first song holds the small crowd enraptured, there is the distinct impression that the absence of vocal hooks and post-10pm stage-slot on a Thursday night (the spiritual start of the Scottish weekend) mean they will have to pull something else out of the bag pretty soon.

Happily, they soon do just that as they lead wordlessly into a second song that eviscerates the previously mellow vibe with a veritable crash of sheer noise and lighting-rig insanity, which lasts just long enough to assert that this is not a set during which to rest on laurels, before the onlookers are just as abruptly lulled back into a calm slumber-like state.

This same transition is soon orchestrated again, as The Art School is pulled gradually but assuredly into a particularly grungy segment which soon sees eardrums assailed by guitars that whistle maliciously and seem to goad those gathered into downing the remainder of their drinks and crusading deeper towards the front of the crowd.

The next song is vocally introduced and, as predicted, this undeniably acts as an unfortunate detraction from the hitherto established mystique. As if in a conscious effort to counter this, however, the songs have been becoming gradually more atmospheric – undeniably aided by the simplistic yet striking lighting dynamics – and cavernous venue.

At one point in the proceedings, the drummer sees fit to dispose of enough garments to facilitate a scenario where each enthusiastic drumbeat threatens to set chebs a-shoogle and each break in rhythmic proceedings grants the opportunity to flex and set the ladies’ pulses a-quiver. Although this noticeably contrasts with the plaid-shirt and sensible t-shirt aesthetics of his bandmates, it serves as a gentle but decisive nod towards a rockstar mindset. This is echoed when the last song sees one of the guitarists abandoning the stage and backing a determined path through the small crowd, thereby exploiting a renowned Sixteen Sixteen Six soft spot and certifying a positive response with regards to Vasa’s capacity for showmanship.

In terms of professionalism, the guys handle their share of the technical issues – which have unfortunately plagued tonight’s gig – admirably and without any diva moments, even when a cymbal crashes from its stand and comes worryingly close to decapitating Alex.

It is notable that this same decorum was distinctly lacking in the members of one of the earlier acts on tonight’s bill who succeeded in sullying the evening with a disappointing display of supercilious twattery, in which other performers were openly belittled. As such, the maturity of the Vasa contingent wound up seeming all the more admirable, as their performance managed to neutralise the negative tone that could easily have continued to permeate the event.

If a band opts to entirely omit vocals from their repertoire, they have to ensure that the rest of their output does enough talking to compensate (as intimated in 2011’s As In Bear feature) and, judging by tonight’s performance, it seems safe to say that Vasa have given this careful consideration and prepared accordingly.

The fact that they choose not to make a song (no pun intended) and dance out of their instrumental tendencies shows they don’t feel they owe any explanation for this choice and this plays hugely in their favour. In all honesty, the inescapably haunting atmospheric guitar work that threads through their performance serves as a perfectly sufficient vocalisation of both meaning and intent.

Further to this, a definite upside to the lack of a vocalist in their line-up lies in the scope this allows for the challenging of the traditional stage set-up. Given the absence of an ostensible frontman, Vasa’s bassist doesn’t seem at all out of place in his centre-stage position and, visually, this provides a very welcome break from the norm.

This is, however, not to say that certain precautions should not be taken. Although tonight’s gig worked very well, it has to be considered that it fell on a night when the audience were free to move on to their choice of club afterwards. This is fortunate because Vasa definitely don’t work as the crescendo of the evening.

By no means is this intended as a slight against their performance, which was outstanding. It is merely an acknowledgement that this is not music to go apeshit to. Sure, there are blindingly heavy moments but they’re utilised as part of a running theme of intelligent musical contrast, rather than as a call to arms for the exorcism of the week’s pent-up rage through flailing limbs and thrashing heads.

The material, although proficient and engaging, comes across more as something to be enjoyed pre-night out, whilst one readies one’s self for a chaotic trawl of some seedy club, or post-night out, as heads nod through smoky senses and trance-like mind states.

As such, Vasa should continue to monitor their placement on prospective bills and ensure that they continue to be given the chance to perform in segments where there music will function best.

That said, tonight was exactly what one would expect from Vasa – based on their recorded work and growing reputation – and, as a result, it seems currently safe to believe the hype.

They should definitely dingy the microphone though!

Vasa on Facebook

Listen to Vasa