Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Cure - Gothic Rock Stalwarts Rattle Off Hit-Heavy Show - Manchester Arena, Manchester, 29.11.16

“Hello Manchester, it’s been a long time,” Robert Smith, draped in black and smudged in kohl, hurriedly mumbles into the microphone as he switches guitars. It isn’t a curt greeting, but rather one born of nervous habits; Smith has never been the most comfortable man in the world when it comes to stage patter. What he lacks in apparent social confidence is made up for considerably in his talent as a musician, lyricist and conductor of some of the finest gothic rock material ever to come out of the movement, a curator of frozen pop gems and giddy heartbreak anthems. The Cure, for all its members, is driven by Smith and his angst-ridden melodies, and behind a microphone, he has not lost his touch for deft introspection and rousing melodrama.
Simon Gallup and Robert Smith of The Cure, live in
New Zealand, 2016. (Courtesy of thecuremexico).
The last time The Cure played mainland Britain, they turned out a trio of Christmas shows at London’s famed Hammersmith Apollo, each exceeding forty songs and three hours in length, an exquisitely crafted showcase of deep cuts and celebrated ditties that rewarded the hardcore follower. This outing – a positively breezy twenty-three song, two hour show – still takes time to tip its hat to the core fanbase, but otherwise skews towards the more casual devotee with the group cramming it full with some of their biggest hits.

Entering to Shake Dog Shake, taken from 1984’s The Top, Smith and company – including long-time bassist Simon Gallup, keyboardist Roger O’Donnell, drummer Jason Cooper and ex-Tin Machine guitarist Reeves Gabrels – are unsurprisingly tight after several years on the road together, but still find pleasing ways to freshen up compositions and performances. Flanked by a misshapen collection of amps and Reading F.C. flags, and backed by five horizontal strip screens, they experiment sonically across the multitude of genres that they encompass, embellishing A Night Like This with bluesy riffing and The Walk with disco-rhythm flourishes. On the relatively poppy Push, they take a heavier line, underpinned by swinging drums and a scuzzy lick or two from the fretboard.

The step back into arenas brings out hidden strengths to their performance, but also serves as an Achilles heel at points. The visual spectacle is impressive; during the springy In Between Days, the band are bathed in sharp, rainbow colours that gives the impression the normally dark-clad band have been involved in a paint factory explosion. Later on, for the punishing One Hundred Years, quick image flashes of the Somme, Auschwitz, Vietnam, Cambodia and Iraq – now all rendered in monochrome – appear behind the wall of noise the band creates, forming part of a hellish sensory overload.

At times however, the arena sound system undercuts what is a brilliant, thrilling show. During the beautiful, slinky lovelorn Pictures of You, Smith’s plaintive wail is buried under a messy mix that threatens to swallow him whole. On the driving Primary, Gallup’s bass blots out every other noise in the venue. But the band power through these technical gremlins to deliver some truly gorgeous renditions of Lovesong and Just Like Heaven, exquisite in presentation and reception. The warning shriek of Want is a high point, building to a noise-rock drenched crescendo, whilst Sinking, perhaps the rarest cut, culled from The Head on The Door, is a ghostly ethereal exercise in conjuring moody atmospherics, all echoing soundscapes that float on the breeze. It is gloriously gothic, superbly executed.
Robert Smith and Jason Cooper of The Cure, performing live at
Bestival in 2016. (Courtesy of Red Bull).
They return for a clutch of encores, which pivot from the bass-driven, post punk staple of A Forest to the rarer, industrial nihilism of Burn, their contribution to the soundtrack of The Crow. But it’s the final stretch that truly gets Manchester bouncing as they trade off the chiming, ethereal riff of Lullaby for the giddy, sun-kissed singalong of Friday I’m In Love, before backing it up with a bouncy rendition of early single Boys Don’t Cry. The sparse Close to Me is blown up by the mass singalong that erupts around it, whilst the high camp, joyous dance-pop of Why Can’t I Be You? releases a final wave of euphoria that lingers long after the lights come up. “Thank you,” Smith cries out, hand clutched to his heart. “We’ll be back.” Somehow, it seems unlikely there will be complaints if that’s anytime soon.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

The Japanese House - Bewitching Dream Pop Outfit Channel Power-Trio Dynamics - The Wardrobe, Leeds, 04.11.16

“What up?” Amber Bain poses to the near-capacity crowd at The Wardrobe in Leeds as she saunters onstage. Shadowed under blue and purple spotlights, she cuts a polite, if reserved figure. Backed by a drummer and bassist/keyboard player, she is The Japanese House, a curator of a curious collection of bewitching ambient dream pop stacked with the kind of vocal harmonies Jeff Lynne would applaud. Her brand of off-kilter indietronica is featherweight in sound and execution, and matches the androgynous moniker she has taken, low-pitched look, baggy look and all.
Amber Bain of The Japanese House, live at Manchester
O2 Apollo in 2016. (Credit to Trust a Fox Photography.)
Her gig in Yorkshire’s biggest city – a stop on a headline tour to promote her third EP Swim Against the Tide – may only be a brisk fifty-five minutes, but she crams all her released material, and then some, into it. Opening with Clean, The Japanese House weave a hypnotic tapestry of reverb-drenched vocals and staccato guitar licks over floating, airy synths that runs through all twelve songs showcased. Bain is often shy and a touch flustered, a demeanour influenced by historic stage-fright, and as such, she keeps dialogue to a minimum. “Thanks very much,” she murmurs, whip-quick after the first song. “I can tell this is going to be a fun show.”

In a way, The Japanese House are a twenty-first century answer to a power-trio. As they drop woozy fretwork over club-like ambience on Teeth, there’s an instinctive primal thrill that manifests itself in the recesses, yet remains reined in. Pools to Bathe In sees roaring, windswept flourishes underscore the looping guitar figure draped languidly across the track whilst they find a rare strut on the shoegaze-esque Good Side In, the tumble of tom-toms scattered freely across its body. There’s a loosely coiled tension that permeates their sound; a friction that is almost unnoticeable in the way that the material lulls with trance-like refrains.

It’s a shame then that the atmosphere lacks at points. Dream-pop is not the most invigorating of soundscapes and the constant ebb and flow often creates spells where Bain can’t hold the crowd. Newer songs such as the Caribbean-tinged Swim Against the Tide and the aching Letter By the Water are diminished by a disinterest fostered through gentleness. She does capture them back at points – the Bondian piano chords that kick off Sugar Pill bring much needed drama – but the lushly-stacked work on show proves a little too relaxed for some.
Amber Bain of The Japanese House performing live in
Los Angeles in 2016. (Credit to Mallory Turner.)
But Bain still has some aces as she finishes off; new single Face Like Thunder, perhaps her most direct stab at mainstream pop yet, is a gloriously pulsating slice of synthpop, whilst closer Still packs an emotional punch, built upon echoing synth drops that ripple like a vast ocean. “We’ll be over by the merch stand after,” she says, with a mischievous smile, indicating the aforementioned table. “Come say hi.” The Japanese House have something great in their musical DNA and have honed it well so far – now though, they have to shake it up a bit to keep their fans on their toes.