Caught Live: Wild Beasts + BRAIDS @ O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire, London
Well-read Northerners – and recent Lady Gaga remixers – Wild Beasts get their two-night stand at SBE underway beneath bars of flame-grill lighting. Nearing the end of a year that's seen them once more bask in the critical limelight (as well as scale new commercial heights), they're here to air their stylish songs of searing lust, which perfectly capture the dark melancholy that so often accompanies the ecstasies of carnal obsession. They are four Cumbrians, as they remind us on early single 'The Devil’s Crayon', from The Lake District’s Kendal hub. Their recent third LP of assured baroque pop, Smother, may be a somewhat more restrained affair than 2008’s Limbo, Panto and '09’s Mercury Prize-nominated Two Dancers, but that hasn't stopped some commenters from dubbing it one of "indie rock’s great humping albums".
The band set up with dual synthesizers facing each other, neatly bisecting the stage - a tactic which, while perhaps unusual, possibly serves to dilute their in-situ charisma. Frontman Hayden Thorpe nevertheless does his literate, ribald tales justice on crowd-pleasers like ‘We Still Got The Taste Dancin' on Our Tongues’, his right leg constantly circling behind him, almost as though he’s wearing a skate and is stood over a tiny patch of ice. The singer's bass lines, meanwhile, pump in the foreground like lead guitar - just as Peter Hook’s used to in Joy Division. His vocal style recalls the fervid lyricism of Jeff Buckley cut with the falsetto of The Associates’ Billy Mackenzie.
Guitarist and keyboard player Tom Fleming assumes lead singing duties on the title track from the group's aforementioned second album, following the song’s atmospheric opening. His voice is a Scott Walker-reminiscent baritone - something that makes his more recent vocal turn on Smother cut ‘Deeper’ almost literally appropriate. And his own dancing – a kind of hop that gives the (presumably misleading!) impression of someone desperate to siphon the python – contrasts with Thorpe’s more stately presence. Elsewhere, ‘Albatross’ sees both vocalists facing each other at the keyboards to share the lead.
As this writer has previously found, you need to give WB's grandeur time to work its spell: indeed, when encountering the band for the first time (especially in a live setting), their songs have an unfortunate tendency to bleed into one another. Perhaps as a result of this, and in spite of the obvious cupidity of their material, the overall feel tonight is slightly studious; it's all just a bit stilted at times, and never quite erupts into the banquet of raw excitement that might have been hoped for. Nonetheless, the sterling likes of 'Hooting & Howling' and 'The Fun Powder Plot' do eventually get the crowd bringing their hands together in time with Chris Talbot’s stomping bass drum.
The best is primarily left until last, with the chirpy pop rhythms of Smother highlight 'Reach A Bit Further', followed by an encore of crowd favourite 'Lion’s Share' alongside 'All The King's Men' (their "song about virginity"), making for a strong finish. Thorpe and co. then depart the stage to the strains of their now-customary send-off, 'End Come Too Soon', with its playfully elongated instrumental passage, not to mention a whole lot of 'hooting and howling' from the assembled masses.
Opening act BRAIDS, on the other hand, had earlier performed under lights that moved about like idly twirling parasols - which, oddly enough, was more or less how this hack felt whilst watching them. While there were some intermittent signs of melodic richness and interesting drum patterns, the Canadian outfit's performance – made up, for the most part, of songs from this year's Native Speaker LP – lacked any real variation. Most of their art rock-infused numbers had a raga-like quality, steadily building in intensity to a climax. In fairness to the band, some of their inherent lushness was sadly lost thanks to The Empire's less-than-perfect acoustics, which resulted in a noticeably removed and distracted audience, and much thumb-twiddling from yours truly. To be blunt about it, the ethereal singing of Raphaelle Standell-Preston sounded like the periodic far-off cries of a child in a school playground, as the frontwoman struggled in vain to be heard above the instruments.