Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Grimes - Chameleonic Style Can't Mask the Flaws - O2 Academy Leeds, Leeds, 07.03.16

There’s a kaleidoscopic element to Clair Boucher’s audience at the opening night of the UK leg of her Acid Reign Tour at Leeds’s O2 Academy. Predominantly students, but with a smattering of younger teens and considerably older patrons, the vast majority are drenched in neon and glitter, with wildly colourful hairstyles in shades of blue and orange. It carries echoes of the emo trend in its DNA but owes itself to rave and punk sensibilities in equal measure.

The same could be said of Boucher, better known by her stage moniker Grimes. The discography she possesses – four albums, a pair of EPs and a few guest spots – is difficult to categorise beyond the broadest strokes of pop, an ambient chill, proto-industrial noise encompassing everything. As an individual, she is equally chameleonic, with no look or appearance ever the same. In a world of processed, packaged corporate artists, from Rihanna to Imagine Dragons, she holds an outsider authenticity that appeals to the weird and wonderful on the fringes of the mainstream.

Grimes performing live at Laneway  Festival, 2016. Courtesy of Getty.
For how long Grimes remains there is another question. Fourth album Art Angels took her into the UK and US Top #40 and was named as one of 2015’s finest albums by numerous publications. She’s just signed up to front Stella McCartney’s latest range. This is a record that brazenly beckons the charts; this concert had to be upgraded from the neighbouring LBUSU, such was demand. Boucher is on a rapid ascent and it shows in her music.

Opening track Genesis, from 2012’s breakthrough Visions, is defiantly old-school Grimes, all hi-def chiptune video game melodies, a dream-pop number that seems straight out of Final Fantasy X. But what immediately follows is a roll through Art Angels’ sleeker, polished sound, indebted to eighties new wave more than floating trip-hop lullabies. Stock Aiken Waterman horn breaks herald the arrival of REALiTi, in the vein of early Whitney Houston. Lead single Flesh Without Blood spins fuzzy guitar under hi-NRG synthesisers and an insistent drum track. Album closer Butterfly is a highlight, its oriental riff and geisha-like vocals weaving over euphoric synthpop.

“Normally this is where I’ll ask you all to dance but you’ve already been dancing,” gabbles Boucher at one point, introducing the floor-filling Venus Fly, a driving dance-rave that periodically clatters to a standstill in a cacophony of drums. You expect her to be poised and icy; rather, she’s a bundle of nervous energy, unfailingly excitable and polite, pink hair pulled back and dressed in a neon blue sports top. Vocally, she is solid, recalling the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser in register, though there often appears to be an abundance of backing on the multi-layered tracks that can deceive her full contribution. On the harrowing SCREAM, she struggles to replicate its histrionics live, though her writhing on the floor is alarming, her jerky movements drawing images of a manga gender-swapped David Byrne to mind.

Grimes performing live in Seoul, 2016. Courtesy of COS.
Vocals are not the only issue; the sound mix fluctuates wildly throughout too. Some tracks, like latter highlight Go, sound superb, an electro-freak take on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. But Flesh Without Blood’s bite is lost when Boucher’s guitar and vocals are buried too deep. The setlist is short too and geared towards only Visions and Art Angels. And every song seems to dissipate into squealing electro-feedback; good once, but not so much a dozen times. It feels churlish perhaps, when the reception for her every move is delirious, to criticise, but it often feels incomplete.

But her presence is magnetic; backed by a trio of dancers set against a honeycombed net that fractures lights and lasers galore, Grimes is mesmerising to watch even when the songs aren’t. And a closing run through old favourites – Symphonia IX and Oblivion – is refreshingly ethereal and pleasing. “Do you mind if we just do our encore now?” she coquettishly asks as she reaches the hour mark and with a roar of approval, bursts into the bubblegum synthpunk standout Kill V. Maim. Whatever way Boucher goes from here on in, you can’t say she’s not giving it her all. Rough around the edges still, with kinks to be ironed out – but Grimes knows how to play them as well as the rest.

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