Wild Beasts – Live, Cabaret Voltaire Edinburgh, Wednesday 30th September 2009
I’ll admit before I start writing this review that I am oddly ambivalent about Wild Beasts, and that this gig didn’t entirely cure that. Some of their songs I absolutely love, a couple are just a little too weird, and a couple don’t quite light the fireworks. For the most part though, I really like them, and this performance generally cemented that impression.
Interviewing them beforehand for Fresh Air Radio was interesting too. Apart from the fact that they came across as incredibly nice, down to earth guys, it was interesting to hear about the emotional state which led to some of the wilder aspects of their music. Originating in the bustling metropolis of Kendal*, they decided to make the move to Leeds specifically to take a chance on their music careers.
Consequently, according to the band, a lot of the desperation in the howls and yelps on Limbo Panto was just that: a shrill proclamation of their existence. The risk they took to arrive in a new city and try to make themselves heard in an already bustling music scene drove them to extremes, and you can hear it in the album, which has a kind of manic, dark energy to it. Follow up, Two Dancers, is mellower and less ragged, with the band now achieving consistent recognition and admitting to consciously taking it a little easier on their audience.
Nevertheless, the transition from being a band who had to shout just to be heard to a band enthusiastically pimped by the NME and one who are now as cavalierly dismissed as being good as they were previously just cavalierly dismissed has been a little weird for them. They have only just taken the next big risk: that of becoming full-time musicians. This is a terrifying time for any band, because it’s a circular dilemma. The only way to become full-time musicians is to take the chance and just do it, because without devoting that kind of time and energy to it, you can’t make it work well enough to justify the decision in the first place. And even then it might not work. But basically the only way is to just do it and take the chance and in the current music industry, where no-one really knows where the money is coming from, that’s a big risk – something of which the band are acutely aware.
I can’t really tell whether that newfound confidence which they describe as being present on the album has transmitted in any way to their live performance. They do strut confidently on stage, but the fourth wall is generally left intact. Ben talks to the crowd occasionally and a little uncomfortably but Hayden, chatty, thoughtful and sincere during the interview, tends to stay hidden behind a wall of hair. He has already admitted that he finds the recent increase in demand for live acoustic sessions to be a rather trying because it is a little too personal, and a little too unforgiving, when he would rather keep a little distance between the performer and the person.
On stage you can see that quite clearly, although they aren’t as theatrical or as flamboyant as you might expect. In fact they’re a pretty straighforward four-piece: drums, bass and two guitars with a bit of keyboard thrown in from time to time, when called for. The real difference comes with the math-rock flavoured drumming, the simple but brilliant guitar riffs and the interplay between the two lead vocalists.
As my gig companion Morgan said, it’s weird to see a group switch lead singer mid-set, because it fundamentally changes what you perceive to be the character of the band. I suppose we tend to project a lot of the musical emotion onto the singer, and having to shift that to someone else after three songs is quite strange. Having said that, the interplay between Ben and Hayden’s voices is amazing, and is just about my favourite aspect of their music. One is wild and pleading, the other more vulnerable and sympathetic and that seems to be the dynamic of the music itself. Wild Beasts are simultaneously fractious and vulnerable, and that contradiction is probably what I find so engaging about them, despite the fact that I don’t love every song they’ve ever written.
Even during this set, which I really enjoyed, there were songs I found to be a little too full-on. Particularly with their early stuff I can find the songs getting away from me a little when the theatricality is at its strongest. At the same time, and slightly paradoxically, there are times when I find the songs a little bland – where the twin sparks of pop sensibility and innovative belligerence just fail to ignite something exciting and the song never quite gets off the ground.
So I come back to where I started: Wild Beasts have done a lot of brilliant songs, and the ‘one hand giveth while the other taketh away’ dynamic is something I find really exciting, but there are definitely times when I don’t really connect, for various reasons. An intriguing band though, and a really good gig.
Wild Beasts – All the King’s Men
[audio:http://songbytoad.com/tunes/WildBeasts-AlltheKingsMen.mp3]Wild Beasts – We Still Got the Taste Dancin’ on our Tongues
*For anyone who doesn’t know Kendal, this description might not be entirely serious.More: Fresh Air, wild beasts