Friday, May 1, 2015

Smoke Fairies (8.5/10), Public Service Broadcasting (3/10) Manchester Ritz 29th April 2015

Public Service Broadcasting lies at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum to Sharon Van Etten: far from being an intuitive response to feelings, their show is pre-determined in almost every detail. This extends as far as the talk between songs, which is recorded in advance. Only one song contained vocals: the others were accompanied by archive speech samples. This formed a rigid framework to which the live musicians conformed; hardly a formula for emotional engagement. Yet, the sold out venue was packed and PSB's 2015 album The Race For Space reached no.1 in the Indie Album Charts in the UK. This may be explained by nostalgia, as PSB skilfully combines archive footage with electronics, clever stage design and lighting. However, it wasn't as visually immersive as watching a film at a cinema, since the video projection screens and retro TVs on the side of the stage were tiny in context of this large ballroom.

An audio visual expert and a percussion, bass and flugelhorn player joined the two core members of PSB, multi instrumentalist J. Willgoose Esq. and live drummer Wigglesworth. They were dressed in the manner of a 1970's school teacher, the four band members sporting matching spectacles. Their musical influences are wide: electronica, trip hop, rock and in the song Gargarin ,funk, Yet, I found it relentless and wearing: the volume was excessive, and the driving beats become monotonous; the whole lacked humanity. The tone was set by the geeky humour epitomised by the IT Crowd sitcom: for me, more subtle works of art that truly illuminate the beauty of science, not jokey animations. The predominantly male audience seemed largely passive: there was little by way of conventional stagecraft to provide engagement, and instead they relied upon props such a model Sputknik satellite. Yet, there was one spark of musical interest for me: in the song Valentina, Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies joined PSB on stage, contributing beautiful vocal harmonies in a tribute to the first woman in space.

Despite their role on The Race for SpaceSmoke Fairies inhabit a completely district musical universe from the bombastic, pompous and calculating main act, bringing subtlety and atmosphere. This was my first experience of the duo from Sussex, and I was surprised by their live energy which was far from pastoral English folk in feel. The two school friends spent time in New Orleans, and the resultant blues influence is wholly beneficial, underpinning the importance of rhythm to their music. They may have supported Laura Marling in the US, but I found them closer in feel to Warpaint. Where PSB sounded relentless, Smoke Fairies slower tempi gave space to breathe, drawing you into an eerie, melancholy world. The lyrics are deep and introspective, whilst the musical influences extend beyond PJ Harvey far back in time to eerie medieval plainchant.

Their most recent, self titled full length album also embraces contemporary influences, making use of electronica, shifting their palette away from guitars towards keyboards. A highlight of the 45 minute set was its opening song, We've Seen Birds. Fortunately sound problems, not for the first time recently at this venue, didn't too seriously undermine the effect, as feedback and a hollow midrange are preferable to the affliction of inaudible vocals. Whereas there is a hint of blandness to some of their studio work, on stage the atmosphere felt almost sensual, thanks to the duo's extraordinary weaving, coupled vocals. The new album was released after a period of self-doubt, when they considered giving up the project, yet they've emerged revitalised as a live band I'm eager to experience in a headline show.

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