L’Empire des fauves

Wild Beasts — Shepherd’s Bush Empire — 23rd November 2011

Can you tell a lot about a band from the fans who show up at their concerts? For a Northern quartet who recently upped sticks for Trendsville, Dalston, and whose stock is on the up even as they trade in lithe funk for pastoral art rock, Wild Beasts‘ assembled crowd pretty much fits the bill. Young, well-dressed professionals interspersed with the occasional gaggle of lairy, not-quite-scary freshers. Yours truly, straight from the office of a third-sector organisation; two pints swiftly imbibed during the forgettable opening  set from Braids. Snuggling couples lingering behind the bar, all-too aware of the lush romanticism at the heart of Wild Beasts’ recent offerings.

The band begin on an uncharacteristically sprightly note, all thought of Kate Bush and Talk Talk shoved temporarily to one side for the jaunty, swooping “Bed of Nails”. “O! Ophelia! I feel yer fall,” moan the sparring frontmen Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming—the Hamlet reference surely isn’t lost on such a hyper-literate crowd. The former deals in a seductive falsetto (halfway between Antony Hegarty and Kate Bush) while the latter shows off his bluff, Northern baritone (like a more sultry Guy Garvey). Against such distinctive vocalists whirr shadowy keys and delicately textured guitar-work. And, always, Chris Talbot’s intricate, polyrhythmic sticksmanship, colouring in the gaps with deft bongo fills.

From there, the set takes a more sensual turn, with a decent mix of new and older materials. The high drama of “We Still Got The Taste Dancin’ On Our Tongues” is followed by the sparse, sub-bass-heavy “Albatross”, for which the frontmen face each other across hefty banks of keyboards, like lovers squaring up for a fight. Respite from the relentlessly pattering rhythms comes courtesy of the post-rock suite “Two Dancers”, its two constituent parts reversed in order and shuffled around. We’re also treated to the otherworldly “Loop The Loop” and the gentle, wafting “Deeper” (both from the recent album Smother), with its muted plucking and pinging synths. Even here, they can’t resist their love of earthier stuff, with cavernous bass tones lurking around the song’s middle section.

When the band gets round to playing the hits from their previous album, Two Dancers, the crowd raise their game. In a live setting, you kinda forget the gritty homoeroticism of “Hooting And Howling” and “All The King’s Men”, and end up bouncing along innocently enough to this scrunchy, steely brand of pop.

Then, in the encore, they plumb new depths, with every ounce of disco-noire potential extracted from “Lion’s Share” and distilled into a heady, intoxicating concoction. The bottomless bass pulses combine exquisitely with Thorpe’s plaintive piano and the additional thump of touring helper Katie Harkin on floor tom. As a final hurrah, we get the epic “End Come Too Soon”, that paen to all things premature, whose rousing first section soon tumbles into a rising fog of quasi-ambient noise, simultaneously recalling Oneohtrix Point Never and My Bloody Valentine. As this wall of sound approaches the unbearable, the band return to the stage, bringing back the original melody for a colossal and richly-deserved finale.

There is nothing earth-shattering about this performance; nothing to place it in my pantheon of live music. But it is a glorious display of a group at what seems like the peak of their prowess. On the basis of it, I hope their artistry continues to grow—even more bass! even more ambience!—pari passu with their popular appeal. There’s something extremely wholesome to finding unpretentious lads making pretentious-in-a-good way music, imbued with emotive storytelling and a very particular aesthetic. Do catch them before they end up in a concrete corporate arena-cum-shed.

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