27th January | Thekla
Photos: Hannah Rooke
Arriving at Thekla for Elder Island‘s sold-out performance, there was a definite air of anticipation among the quickly-gathering crowd. As part of their national tour, they’d already made an appearance the same week at Rough Trade and signed some records for those lucky enough to get a ticket. Thekla, with its grand and industrial-looking appearance seemed like the ideal setting for their epic sound.
Opening up the evening was the duo, Small Hours. They featured a vocalist and a multi-instrumentalist with a mixture of guitar, bass, keys and a box full of tricks which coughed up various drum loops and samples. The songs were relatively short and took the form of R&B pop ditties with a somewhat industrial, grimy undercurrents. With a relatively typical pop template, they were well executed and beautifully sung, but lacked any significant curveballs to spark my attention to begin with.
The track ‘Red Line’ had a much more narrative vein and almost hit on folk territory in some ways. Although not the most complex lyrics or story ever, it was captivating and personable. They finished with their upcoming single ‘Shoe Box’, which was more of a ballad. The vocal performance of this track was particularly impressive and filled with passion. It was a powerful and snappy tune with what seemed like wanton showing-off of vocal inflections – entertainingly so. With some galvanising of the songwriting this act could go a long way.
After what seemed like an endless interval, the somewhat excessive dry ice lit up in a dark purple mist as it mingled with the lights. The stage was backed with the Elder Island logo, adorned with patterns reminiscent of their ‘Welcome State’ video. The synth slowly started pulsing as the bass angrily rumbled. Katy began the set singing gently, which she does to great effect, as the beats and guitar gradually joined in. The Disco/New Romantic guitar sound swaggered like a peacock as they played ‘Key One’. The plucking of the notes meandered the groove playfully as Katy slowly unleashed increasing levels of her inimitable swing/jazz-style vocals. The synth, meanwhile, resounded tones not unlike some of those heard in Hans Zimmer’s Blade Runner 2049 score.
With the song ‘Black Fur’, there was an almost surf rock feel as the guitar simmered beside the infectious beat. As the more traditional 90s-style dance music aspects slowly seeped their way into the tune, the synth increasingly growled its presence and, as with ‘Key One’, the subtly-infused expectation made the mid-song drop and leap back in with increased magnitude, so much more satisfying.
The bass in the venue was truly overwhelming, and not in a bad way, but the backing vocals and cello did get a touch drowned in it at times. ‘Garden’ was well placed near the start of the set to bring us down a notch. The harrowing and reflective cello, playing along with the earnest and almost haunting vocals, peppered with the occasional falsetto, combined to make a melancholy that became somewhat enrapturing after a while. Although rather bleak, the track managed to squeeze every modicum of beauty from that feeling that exists, as the cello closed the song in solo lament.
Last year’s single, ‘Bonfires’, received the enthusiastic response that was expected, with the opening bars instantly recognised and prompting an excited cheer. By this point, we were all sweat-drenched and aching, which in no way hampered the ensuing dancing in response. Katy had become noticeably lost in the music and was elegantly swaying and dancing herself. Given that they are in the middle of a tour, they seemed to take the evening in their stride. There was an apparent ease of delivery and deserved degree of confidence on stage.
In many ways they are the furthest from your standard pop act that you can get. The on-stage behaviour was characteristically understated and they do little to ‘add colour’ with their flamboyancy. Instead they display a deep concentration, being well and truly lost in the music. This was typified by the encore, where they told the crowd they were just going to stay on the stage as it’s really awkward wandering off and coming back on again.
What makes the performances so enjoyable and captivating is the fact that the songs are so carefully and and intricately constructed. In many ways, Faithless are of a similar ilk, in the way they reach that fast-paced and heavy dance strata, but gather around it a multitude of flavours from a myriad of other genres which adds a profound depth to the music in the same way Elder Island do.