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Live Review: Future Islands (Beauties of the Road)

The Future is Now: Samuel T. Herring searches desperately for a towel (photo: Claire)

Future Islands

Cambridge Corn Exchange (01/07/17)

Cards on the table, I’ve barely scratched the surface in discovering what modern musicians are capable of, but even so, it would take a monstrously detailed and impassioned argument to convince me that there’s a greater living frontman than Samuel T. Herring. And even if such a thesis was presented to me, I’d probably just counter with “yeah, but have you seen Future Islands live?” Because if you haven’t, then you’ll want to amend that as soon as possible. Listen (again) to the swelling, lung-dredging fervour that drives the likes of ‘Spirit’ and ‘Tin Man’. Now imagine the dials turned up even higher; the experience of witnessing such hurricanes of emotional outpouring in person. In the flesh, Herring is much more than a singer: he’s a force of nature, hellbent on reaching out to every single mind and body present in each audience. The man is a dragon.

Future Islands’ show at the Cambridge Corn Exchange (belatedly added to their exhaustive European tour, as the group made the hop from Belgium to Ireland) was surely a treat for all present, but for my sister and myself, it bordered on miraculous. Even given the group’s glowing reputation, we never expected the show to reach such magnificent heights. By the time the ecstatic ‘Ran’ rushed to a close, sweat was trickling from what looked to be every pore of Herring’s face. His forehead was gushing like a spring within the space of three songs, and in the space of two more, his whole shirt was sodden, moisture dripping from his elbows as he threw himself from one corner of the stage to another, his eyes never leaving the rapturous crowd.

Overwhelming perspiration is merely the most apparent symptom of just how much Herring pours into every single performance. Even his now-legendary display on the Late Show in 2014 doesn’t fully capture the extent of his animation onstage. The same fundamentals remained present and correct, but what was more palpable were the deep reserves of compassion and complexity powering those vocals and gestures. Herring pummelled his chest as if attempting to exorcise some great beast from his own lungs. His blazing eyes roved the crowd, locking and holding his gaze for prolonged intervals as he attempted to find a connection with as many individuals as possible. He flung himself onto the stage in belly-flops, leapt into high-kicks with remarkable elasticity, wrapped his mouth around his entire fist. He shrieked and yowled like a man possessed, looming and growling and towering over the audience, turning on a dime from manic to tender and back again, as starry-eyed synth-pop wept alongside him.

It was an incredible spectacle, yet charged with such great nuance and intense personal feeling that there’s no adequate way to do justice to his showmanship. It’s hard to fake such a reckoning of emotion and energy, especially considering that the length of the set stretched to a Herculean 100 minutes. And this isn’t to say that Herring’s bandmates were lacking in panache; William Cashion, Gerrit Welmers, and touring drummer Michael Lowry may have been much more outwardly stoic, but their taut, precise playing kept the show anchored and rich in melody. The sound was crystal-clear; to hear aching gems such as ‘A Dream of You and Me’ and the stunning ‘A Song For Our Grandfathers’ take flight was worth the price of admission. Welmers’ keys oscillated between pillowy and piercing as the urgency of the show dipped and peaked; Lowry hammered his kit with the recklessness of a John Bonham disciple, and Cashion’s melodic bass runs gave the night its backbone: the nucleus around which all else orbited. With over 1,000 shows in their wake, Future Islands are a well-oiled machine, able to leap from a simmer to full boil without breaking a sweat (with the obvious exception of one member).

Considering the sheer energy demanded of Herring for even a single song, it was revelatory that the pace of the evening never once flagged across twenty-four songs, democratically drawn from their whole catalogue. A chorus of hecklers repeatedly demanding ‘Beach Foam’ got their wish late in the game (“this is for all you motherfuckers who will not shut up” Herring growled, with a wink), and the scorchingly intimate ‘Little Dreamer’ capped the night with an atmosphere of hushed reverence. When the group finally left the stage – the frontman mopping his whole head with a towel that was surely well-past saturated – the venue still wouldn’t cool, fans pinballing around the hall, attempting to summon from within themselves guttural rasps to match those of Herring. The thrill held in the air like humidity; stepping out into the night was like returning from a different world, shaking ourselves out of a mesmeric funk.

My advice to everybody for whom it is feasible is to go and see Future Islands whenever the opportunity next arises. As pleasant as their recorded music can be, witnessing Herring’s ferocity – and sharing that experience in an audience of exultant fans – is utterly transporting. Don’t walk. Run.

Setlist

Grease // Aladdin // Ran // A Dream of You and Me // Beauty of the Road // Time on Her Side // Walking Through That Door // Balance // Before the Bridge // Light House // Doves // North Star // A Song for Our Grandfathers // Through the Roses // Seasons (Waiting On You) // Cave // Inch of Dust // Long Flight // Tin Man // Spirit // Black Rose // Beach Foam // Vireo’s Eye // Little Dreamer

09/07/17

Albums of 2014: Honourable Mentions

Samuel T. Herring

Samuel T. Herring: keep reaching for that rainbow! (photo: mobtownstudios.com)

All through 2013, it felt as though we were living through a stonkingly good year for fresh music, with the bar set high across genres left-right-and-centre as influences bled into one another and hyperbole came thick and fast. Titles worthy of Best-of-the-Year came rushing in from all corners of the musiplex, culminating in some delightfully colourful end-of-year lists, and some of the most lavished albums of the past half-decade.

In the wake of such a prosperous year, 2014 looked ever so slightly threadbare on the horizon, with fewer forecasts for big releases, but with promises for radical curveballs generating an insistent buzz of excitement that grew with each passing month. In fact, many albums over which I was most feverish (Warpaint, All This is YoursSeeds) fell short of expectations, with the less assuming surprises making their mark much more insistently. It’s been an odd little year. But sifting back through the past twelve months, there are diamonds peppering the mixture, and in hindsight, 2014 was of equal – if not greater – strength than 2013, with the final end-of-year reckoning providing some revelatory moments of realisation. We’ve had some good times.

So, before unveiling the Top 10 list in full, here are a clutch of honourable mentions: ten additional records which I’ve greatly enjoyed this year, and have become integral fixtures in my personal soundtrack of 2014. They’re not necessarily placed at 11-through-20 in my end-of-year list, but they are deserving of praise and playback nonetheless. In alphabetical order:

Alvvays – Alvvays

Alvvays

I will gravitate towards peppy, dreamy-eyed guitar pop like a bear to honey, and the début from this Toronto quintet whoops and sighs in all the right places. On an album spring-loaded with jangly melodies and the requisite fixation on clashing hearts, the MVP in Alvvays‘ arsenal is Molly Rankin, whose deft command of that particular brand of swooning, keening vocals wins me over every time. She leads from the front in a record which counterbalances its sweetness with a crunchy undertow, indicating a firm steeliness behind the lighter-than-air earworms. The results are resplendent gems like the bouncy ‘Adult Diversion’ and the disarmingly lovely ‘Party Police’.

Beck – Morning Phase

Morning PhaseMy knowledge of Beck is far from encyclopaedic, but it’d be clear even to a non-hardcore fan that Morning Phase represents a sonic comedown for an artist renowned for fidgety reinventions. This time around, however, the shift is more akin to a personal (and musical) regeneration; the sound of coming to terms with some great burden. The sombre strings of ‘Cycle’ usher in a gentle, heavy-lidded album dripping with melancholy, studded with some confessional triumphs along the way. Syrupy it may be in places, but there’s a clarity and conviction to Morning Phase which keeps me under Beck’s spell, right through to the twanging conclusion of ‘Waking Light’. Roll on, perdedor, roll on.

Caribou – Our Love

Our LoveInitially, I was a little nonplussed by Dan Snaith’s sixth album under the Caribou moniker. For me, it doesn’t quite pack the same punch as 2010’s Swim, and the quality of its constituent components occasionally wavers, especially in its mid-section. That said, I was conscious of its keepers from the get-go, and these saving graces are powerful enough to propel Our Love higher in my estimation. ‘Second Chance’ is a blissfully straightforward banger, the title track’s careful mutation retains its ability to surprise, and in the irrepressibly beatific ‘Can’t Do Without You’, Snaith has unleashed perhaps his finest work thus far.

East India Youth – Total Strife Forever

East India YouthIn 2012, William Doyle downed tools in Doyle & The Fourfathers, and shouldered complete autonomy for his first solo album; the sessions for which became something of a long slog. Yet his toil was undeniably worthwhile, as this year, the album’s word-of-mouth success saw him notch up increasingly hallowed festival sets as well as a Mercury Prize nomination. The album itself is an impressive construct; a bold collage of full-blooded electronica, icy ambience, and remarkably catchy vocal refrains. Even the stitches where the record hangs loosely accentuate the excitement surrounding Doyle’s talent: there is much to expand upon here, and it’ll be thrilling to see how Doyle advances from this launchpad onwards. [Full review here.]

Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!

Flying LotusIf I dived into Steven Ellison’s fifth album with no knowledge of its name or song titles, then I’d probably respond to the end product completely differently. But thanks to those irreverently pulpy headings and some jarring online promos, You’re Dead! thoroughly mainlines the mystery, wonder, and sensory atonality signposted by that playfully brazen title. Tumbling through You’re Dead! is disorienting, unpredictable, and cohesive all at once, with Ellison’s smash-and-grab approach to free jazz, g-funk, and everything in-between both technically and aesthetically mind-blowing. Unlike the twinkling sumptuousness of Until the Quiet Comes, everything passes in freefall on You’re Dead, and the experience is dizzyingly addictive.

Future Islands – Singles

SinglesAs gorgeous as it can be, the music of Future Islands is only half of the story. When an act goes interstellar after years of steadfast dedication to The Long Haul, they seem much more able to withstand the spotlight’s gaze than the poor newbies pounced upon by the bloodthirsty music press. As with many other long-awaited success stories before them, the members of Future Islands seized their moment with aplomb, but any threat of hyperbole was already nixed thanks to a cracking album of simple, synth-kissed alt-pop. There are moments of real lushness sprinkled throughout Singles, but it’s Samuel T. Herring who gives these songs the oomph required to scrape the skies; his pure conviction giving these tunes license to soar.

GrouperRuins

GrouperHushed and solitary, Ruins is an unflinchingly stark work of ambience, reputedly conjured by Liz Harris with nothing but a 4-track, a stereo microphone, and an upright piano. In its fuggy, bare-bones approach, it evokes the cavernous atmosphere of its recording setting (a ruin-pocked coastal town in southwestern Portugal), yet the pooled sounds are spacious enough to allow listeners’ imaginations to plug the gaps. The omnipresent hiss of tape and the palpable limitations of the recording apparatus indicate the bald isolation at the record’s core, with each piece drifting into the next like a cycle of snowflakes. When the vocals can be plucked out from the haze, they’re often ghostlike themselves, wispy in sound and context: “Every time I see you / I have to pretend I don’t,” Harris breathes during ‘Clearing’. The entire listen is mesmerising, able to creep under the skin as something simultaneously haunting and comforting.

Kate Tempest – Everybody Down

Kate TempestIn an illustrious career that already spans several mediums, Kate Tempest has succeeded in realigning the properties of poetry as something malleable, lending her hand in bridging the increasingly blurry divide between slam poetry, novelistic cohesion, and hip-hop. On Everybody Down, she proves her mettle as a remarkable talent, spinning a narrative around three principle characters whose lives become entangled after a number of chance encounters and dubious choices. The drama that unfolds is suitably juicy, but Tempest’s tenderness and her tangible sympathy for these people keeps the album’s heartbeat prominent throughout. While the backing beats are a little tinny, they work well in underscoring Tempest herself, whose precise, wonderfully woven wordplay is given ample room to dazzle.

Perfume Genius – Too Bright

Perfume GeniusWith his third album as Perfume Genius, Mike Hadreas expanded upon his familiar fusing of fragility and boldness by stretching the two extremes further than before. The delicacy is none-more quavering, yet a furious defiance shudders throughout Too Bright. This dichotomy is unpacked cleanly and brilliantly on the opening pairing of ‘I Decline’ and ‘Queen’: the sparseness of the former blown away by the goosebump-raising glam of the latter, which stomps, huffs, and glitters in a perfect crystallisation of Hadreas’ anguished path to triumph. The remainder of Too Bright is studded with such brilliance, encompassing torchlit balladry (‘All Along’), booming ’80s soul (‘Fool, ‘Longpig’), and shrieking freakouts (‘My Body’, ‘Grid’). It’s appalling that the world is still not liberated from the intolerance against which Hadreas protests, but the man’s growing confidence and extroversion are harbingers of a beautiful ascendancy.

Real Estate – Atlas

AtlasI reviewed Atlas soon after it dropped in springtime, and my quibbles with it then still largely stand. I find the New Jersey group’s patently ‘plain’ approach a touch too conservative at times, but paradoxically, that’s the entire point of their endeavours: to echo the meandering, unassuming nature of suburbia. Ultimately, the band deserve props for sewing together a distinctive and immaculate signature sound on Atlas, evoking the atmosphere of sunbeams filtering through deserted streets. The wonderful opener ‘Had to Hear’ sets the precedent that Atlas runs with for 40 sweetly sad minutes: yearning, warmth, and loneliness, channelled through glittering jangle-pop. It’s rarely electrifying, but when it succeeds, Atlas absolutely nails the bittersweet restlessness that comes with frittered time, and the effect is wholly transporting.

And lo, there they go – every one worthy of a listen. Several of the albums listed here came agonisingly close to cracking this year’s Top 10, but hair-splitting has always been central to this list malarkey, and it just reaffirms the vastness of riches that 2014 had to offer. Return tomorrow to see my take on the record that just pipped these to the post, as the countdown gets underway. Thanks for reading!