Wild Beasts manage to be more than the sum of their parts, and their parts are fantastic.
To some, the set-opener is the set’s peak. The crowd have emptied their cups while a gaggle of roadies back-and-forth about the stage. Shuffling on their soles, they are irritated, antsy. The house lights die. The cries go up as some impossibly exciting figures emerge from the dark. The first note strikes.
And tonight is like any other as Hayden Thorpe croons with maximum poise through the beatless early bars of ‘Mecca’, until the chorus drops, but the synth doesn’t. The Beasts stop, look around, nod, count and begin again. Croon. Chorus. Still no synth.
If you think about it, gigs are one great big call and response. Band plays music until the crowd replace it with cheers. Sculpted, carefully positioned silence finds the occasional gap within songs, but otherwise the noise is constant. The unscheduled quiet left by the abortive ‘Meccas’ is, by contrast, rare and offensive. An understandably piqued Thorpe, his vocal left dangling alone in the room, calls the band away, leaving the crowd in some sort of awful limbo. Our view is once again of roadies, but our minds are in gig time.
Wild Beasts have a strong following. The fact of their relative commercial insignificance – fourth album, ‘Present Tense’, reached their highest ever chart position of 10 – belies a feeling of surprise among long-term devotees that they’re still ‘an academy band’.
But what a pleasure to see them in a space for which you suspect they are too big. And what a shame, as it turns out, that such thick anticipation is shattered by technical hexes.
There is harsh irony in, of all things, the synth – the band’s much-vaunted new best friend – being the one cog to unclick. It’s not lost on Thorpe, who returns the mic with a wry, “If we stuck to guitars, this wouldn’t happen.”
Deprived the kickstart of a forceful opening, the Cumbrians must slow-cook their own momentum. They run through a few tracks, just to prove they can. Old favourite ‘Devil’s Crayon’ is nicely matured for the ‘Present Tense’ tour – this version has about 40% less jangle than that featured on debut album, ‘Limbo, Panto’. It is for a while a tail-between-legs affair for the band, however, who need a consuming moment to yank our collective consciousness forward, away from the bad thing.
And to the rescue comes, with some poetic vindication, the bleak, bludgeoning synth breakdown of ‘Daughters’, replete with sci-fi lasers, reaching out into the academy, erasing memories of the cock-up.
‘Daughters’ also administers our first full dose of Tom Fleming’s often overlooked voice. To call this man second vocalist is to be a grotesquely privileged band. His is a roar, a great booming challenge for Thorpe to raise his game.
Which he duly does. His, the more delicate instrument, curls and weaves its away around ‘Palace’ as it could not have done three years ago. It’s no longer clear where the falsetto begins and ends, which is the only downside of having a falsetto in the first place.
The rest of the set plays like a breath-taking vox-battle. Fleming fires back with ‘Nature Boy’, the tale of a rustic Romeo impossible for high society ladies to resist. With his inadvisable indoor combination of wife-beater and beanie, one assumes his voice did most of the seducing.
Thorpe is menacing and agile on ‘Bed of Nails’ and ‘Wanderlust’. Fleming gives everything to ‘A Dog’s Life’. As a contest, it’s too close to call. Fitting then, that the evening, ultimately a bruising, hard-earned success, should end with the two wailing in harmony, “Boy, what you runnin’ from?” on ‘Lion’s Share’. Wild Beasts manage to be more than the sum of their parts, and their parts are fantastic.
Watch ‘Wanderlust’ from ‘Present Tense’ here: