The opening night of the festival at the O2 Academy is a showcase of musical performance at its most theatrical, with a trio of acts whose work has spanned decades, and even generations, in a fantastic spectrum of styles. The grand hall of the Academy is decked out accordingly: foliage draped over lighting rigs and balconies, dappled by tropically-hued lights, and a magnificent central rose on the domed ceiling from which a disco ball hangs in place of a chandelier.
Future Islands take to the stage in a haze of synths, bravely debuting three new songs to start the night, before leaping into ‘Ran’, the lead single from upcoming fifth album The Far Field. At this point frontman Samuel T. Herring fully enters into his signature persona, crouching and weaving back and forth in a tribalistic dance while growling about loss of control, an idea which is embodied visually during ‘Cave’ as Herring’s movements lose their fragile composure and he lashes out physically and vocally, the chorus-line ripping from his throat in a flood of emotion. The stage antics only become more absurd with sudden floor slaps and an interpretative take on sensuality, but the performance is held together throughout by tight drums and weaving synths which fill the room while leaving plenty of space for bassist William Cashion to lead the momentum, as in ‘Seasons (Waiting on You)’, or undercut the sporadic pops of ‘Spirit’. Whether Herring’s inimitable voice is tearing into a sleek synth line or carrying a careening wave of instruments with it as it jumps from guttural growl to screech, it is never anything but exhilarating.
The grandiose stories told by Future Islands and their melodramatic delivery pave the way for Sparks, who take dramatic excess to the limit with raging irreverence. Their unique brand of byzantine pop has made its way through late ‘60s LA clubs and the glam rock scene of ‘70s Britain to the disco revival of the ‘90s, so it comes as no surprise that the Mael brothers’ live presence is still absolutely bonkers. They sing about the pros and cons of the missionary position, humanity flipping God the middle finger and hippos and Bosch paintings miraculously appearing in your bedroom while dressed as a fashion-conscious cartoon burglar and stern, moustachioed schoolteacher. Acerbic wit and lines such as “All I do now is dick around” are delivered in an operatic voice against a background of orchestral swells, heavy riffs and ballady piano. It doesn’t make sense, but in the most Sparksian way, it works. During ‘My Baby’s Taking Me Home’ the title is repeated for over two minutes while a melodic piano and choir builds gradually underneath, before Russell narrates the late night journey to a lover’s bed in celestial terms akin to those of Paradise Lost. This over-the-top theatricality culminates in a well-deserved bow by the Maels and their band, leaving the audience thrilled, but exhausted.
The night finishes with Goldfrapp, a heady combination of the electronic and classical elements of the previous two acts. The performance style is very much at odds with Future Islands and Sparks however – Alison Goldfrapp commands the stage with a minimum of movement, silhouetted by a single strobe in the centre of an empty stage. Her voice soars and whispers over violins and snaking Oriental synth effects in ‘Utopia’, where breathy coos of “fascist, baby” contrast with the dreamy soundscape. ‘You Never Know’ and ‘Ocean’ pair these orchestral sways and electronic haze with trip-hop beats, while ‘Become the One’ replaces the angelic harmonies with a demonically distorted hiss of “Synchronize, harmonize”. The pulsing, robotic tones of ‘Ooh La La’ and ‘Strict Machine’ are saved for last, bringing the momentum which had been building throughout to a head.
The night saw a carefully curated combination of acts each bringing a touch (or slap) of theatricality to the Academy’s stage: Goldfrapp is the flame-haired goddess/automaton hybrid, Sparks the comic satirists, and Future Islands the Shakespearean tragic hero. They don’t belong in the same drama, but experienced together they illustrate the fantastic potential of live music.
Image Credit: Amy Hawkins, BBC