Wild Beasts @ O2 Academy, Bristol, 30/03/2014

Wild BeastsThe boldness of the new direction Wild Beasts have taken with fourth album Present Tense, and the risk attached to such musical adaption in such an extreme way, is highlighted in the very first song of tonight’s set at the o2 Academy. The woozy and sultry “Mecca” is aborted twice owing to Ben Little’s malfunctioning synthesiser; Hayden Thorpe makes the acute observation that “this never happened when we were doing guitars-y shit.”

It’s an unfortunate hiccup, but one that manages to resonate throughout certain moments of the show. Present Tense is undoubtedly a brave and ambitious record, but there’s a certain tension between the gamble of adopting a more electronically-led sound and the necessity of pulling off a good show. Resultantly, much of the new material, adventurous as it may be, is performed deftly but conservatively. It subsequently seems divorced from the murky, volatile aesthetic that has remained central to the band’s appeal since their inception some twelve years ago. The clanging synth at the end of “Daughters” sound hollow and slightly brash, while the wavering choral sounds that underpin “Wanderlust” are drowned out by Chris Talbot’s insistent drum beat and another overbearing synth line. During these songs the band are far less performative. They become cocooned within the dense, swelling electronic swathes that they are trying to command.

In fact, it’s the songs from Present Tense that would’ve slotted most comfortably into their previous records which land the best. The remarkably spare and brittle quality of “Pregnant Pause”, relying on the interplay between a gently chiming guitar line, rippling piano chords and Hayden Thorpe’s voluptuous croon, brings a huge ovation from the crowd. The decision to close the main set with “A Dog’s Life”, a song which is many ways a composite of the slow-burning and softly menacing “Invisible” and “Albatross” from 2011’s Smother, suggests too that the new material Wild Beasts feel most comfortable with in a live setting is the more stripped back and coarse songs.

When the band go “past tense” as Thorpe wryly puts it, their performance becomes a far more visceral spectacle. Tom Fleming’s bass part on “The Fun Powder Plot” possesses jagged edges that aren’t immediately apparent on record and serves to exacerbate the threatening nature of Thorpe’s playful assertion that “this is a booty call, my boot up your arsehole.” The shackles are thrown off and the result is a far more engaging, audacious act. Thorpe’s yelping of “Watch me! Watch me” and Fleming’s mischievous, lascivious lyrics in “All the Kings Men”, a song which is wisely saved for the encore, lead to it being the best received song of the night. The more performatively daring Wild Beasts are, the more atavistic the audience response.

Tonight’s performance has left me somewhat perplexed by Wild Beasts’ new album, for while it is their most complete expression of consummate musicianship it seems to lack vivacity and vitality when translated to a live setting. Whether or not Wild Beasts will return to the ‘guitars-y shit’ which has served them so well in the past remains to be seen but on tonight’s evidence it seems to be the mode which best unlocks the playfully seductive and alluringly menacing aspects of their sound.


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