Wild Beasts at The Music Hall of Williamsburg – 02/28/10

When you’re pretty much completely unfamiliar with a band and you choose a live setting to be your first exposure, a lot of different things can occur. I had committed to a ticket for the Wild Beasts’s show before even knowing who was on the bill, because…well, I’ve been starved for live music lately. When I headed out to The Music Hall of Williamsburg last weekend to catch Wild Beasts, I’d given their recent release Two Dancers barely a cursory listen and was pretty confused by what I heard. The vocals jumped out at me first; they felt somewhat strained and bordered on out of place in the lush guitar tones. Given where I’m at right now, I have take whatever opportunity to go see a show that presents itself, so I did my best to enter the venue with an open mind.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a show in New York City, long enough ago that The Music Hall of Wililamsburg didn’t exist the last time I was around as a concertgoer. It’s a pretty satisfying space; ample room in front of the stage and a nice raised section to either side made getting a clear view of the show easy. Even though my broke ass didn’t take advantage of it, the happy hour that occurred before and after the show sounded lovely.

After about a half hour on the sidewalk hawking the extra ticket we had after the 4th in our group bailed, I walked in on what I thought was Violens opening set. The show listed them and Canada’s Still Life Still as the openers in that order and again they were both bands I was completely unfamiliar with. Before the show, I took passes at each of their myspace pages, getting a feel for what to expect. I took a liking to Still Life Still’s rough indie rock sound, but found Violens kinda bland. All the websites I saw listed the openers in a different order than expected, so for most of Still Life Still’s set I was misguidedly under the assumption that I was watching Violens. The ‘meh’ I had projected onto their recordings bled over onto Still Life Still’s set. I wasn’t as happy with the Ben Gibbard-ish vocals that got particularly aggravation when they dipped into a bit of Bright Eyes at the overly earnest moments. The band’s two singers together yielded unpredictable results, harmonies not totally nailed and I found myself pulled out of the songs as a result. Musically, they utilized a lot of driving percussion winding amidst the showegazey builds, which when the vocals weren’t a problem, I found it fairly innocuous. Midway through their set, someone in the crowd yelled out, “Canada!” and I suddenly realized I wasn’t watching Violens. I drew the connection then and realized at their best, Still Life Still channel fellow Canadians The Stills, pouring out a good dose of reverbed melodrama. As always with that kind of songwriting, you walk a thin line between charming and childish penning such overbearing songs about girls you may or may not have kissed. They seemed to continually misstep, sticking out of place tone shifts into songs that I would have otherwise enjoyed. During the song “Pastel,” off last year’s awkwardly titled Girls Come Too, featured the repeated shrill yelling of the phrase “We really need to be friends” just came across as equally stumbly as the album’s title. From my first glance at their music, that song leaped out to me as a quality track, though it just didn’t seem to carry over live. Some of the builds in their songs did work well, blossoming into glimmering, wordless explosions. Less hindered by the awkwardness of the vocalists, they used their riffs to push the emotion. The tail ends of their songs were often heavier and that works best for the band, as proven by their raucous set closer.

The actual Violens came out next and their sound rested in a weird niche in somewhere between late 80’s modern rock and the current folk indebted, post-Grizzly Bear world we currently inhabit. Their set was comprised primarily of slow numbers, wrapped in 3 part harmonies and brushed drums The singer’s voice alone worked fine, though it was far better when accentuated by his bandmates at the lush choruses. He hit an odd register often sounding like 8 different singers in any given song: at times akin to what it’d sound like if Dirty Projectors’s Dave Longstreth actually took the medication I’m fairly certain he is prescribed and neglecting. Other moments he reminded me of Glenn Tillbrook of Squeeze, with the numbers accompanying that leaning more towards the appropriate modern rock sound. It was a more restrained and mature sound, especially following the earlier band’s chaotic set, drenched so heavily in an earnestly that, due to the instrumentation occasionally hit regrettable near Coldplay levels of drama. Some of the keyboard sounds chosen were unfortunately cheesy pads, campy pan flutes that were probably cringed at in the early 80’s. Their slowest songs, which every band is entitled to, are not their strong suit, lacking the pulse of the more likable, forward moving numbers. Without tempo, they sank deep into the glacial and became forgettable, those moments I found myself drifting off to study the crowd in order to pass the time.

But I forgive them, because their set was hefty on atmosphere and that doesn’t always lead to compelling listening. Some of what they composed was certainly strong and I feel like given more time, they’ll produce something that’ll garner attention. Being completely unschooled in either of the opening band’s catalogs left me with far different results in what I felt about each band.

Next, Wild Beasts prepped the crowd with a weird track of guitar tones and spoken word, which kinda made my hair stand on end and feel like I was in for a long headlining set of music that was going to bug the fuck out of me. Once they finally emerged on stage and took up their instruments, the first song burst into life with a lovely wall of backwards guitar, spacey polyrythyms, and high bass tones. Immediately you could feel that the band was confident and practiced…the contrast made sharper by the uneven openers. Their sound is wonderfully complex; fitting a jigsaw of oddly shaped guitar parts, keyboard atmospherics in with the two singer’s unique ranges into something quite compelling. The end result of much of their music becomes something confusingly dreamy and aggressive at the same time, but with time it grows on you. What I didn’t love about Hayden Thorpe’s voice on record works almost magically live. His range is warmer, less grating on the ear when fitted with the great mix at the Music Hall venue. Another key asset to the band is the drummer, Chris Talbot who also found some added dynamism in the live mix vs. on record. His unexpectedly funky polyrythmic fills push the music forward and ties it together tightly with some stalwart pop lockstep for the less indie dance numbers.

All their songs are moody and evocative, which is inescapable with their shimmery guitar tone & near operatic singing. I have a note that I scrawled during the show that just says “.” I’m not sure if there’s any way to properly translate that, but I found a connection during Wild Beasts’s slower, keyboard driven moments. Much of their music is a warmly enveloping surge bolstered by the tight bassist and drummer. I feel like I could draw some line to a less aggressive Muse, but I’ve honestly never directly listened to them. I make that comparison just by the first 30 seconds of youtube clips and what I’ve read about them…and that’s not properly journalistic. There’s some similarity in the complexity of Wild Beast’s music, but that’s about it I think…I don’t really like Muse anyway.

Late in the set they launched into “Brave Bulging”, off 2008’s Limbo, Panto. The uptempo song broke the spell brought on by a handful of slow, charmingly melodramatic numbers in succession. The crowd jumped back into attention dancing along with the toned heaps that the track is woven from. The final end of the song exploded into a lofty and satisfying release of notes and high falsetto. There’s definitely something Eno-y about the whole affair from the weird masses of guitar tones that call up memories of Music for Airports to their oddball pop collisions recall the album this site is named after.

After a lengthy set, they returned for a three song encore, leaving with almost an hour and a half on stage. From front to back, Wild Beasts were a satisfying surprise. While not every element of their music fits together perfectly, as the songs are sometimes crafted from layer after layer of conflicting tones what they play is rewarding if you persist. By the end all the confusion I had about the band had melted away. Given some time to adjust, you’ll find a fantastic live show well worth catching.

Because I plucked a song at random when I posted about them last time, here’s my favorite off Two Dancers, “All The King’s Men” which is both a fantastic summation of their sound and a brilliant song:

WILD BEASTS – ALL THE KING’S MEN

Two Dancers is out now on Domino Records. Buy it at insound.com.

The wonderful photos for this post were graciously provided by Taylor Long. Take a look at her full set from the show here. You can see more live concert photography on her flickr stream.

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