Like pretty much all of Wild Beasts’ shows now, tonight is sold out. It’s been sold out for months, this year’s Smother finally pushing the Cumbrian four-piece (five on tour – they’re joined by Sky Larkin’s Kate Harkin) from cult-favourite, sometime-Mercury-also-rans into – well, if not quite the mainstream then at least the pages of broadsheet newspapers. Certainly it’s a different crowd from their previous tours: there’s still the checked shirts, sure, but they’ve been joined by suits and sportswear, Christmas jumpers and Aubin & Wills, an array of subcultures crushed close and slightly sweaty in Brighton’s Concorde 2.
Or at least they will be, when they arrive. First up Manchester’s Dutch Uncles have to contend with a criminal 7.20pm stage time and a scattered crowd that seems a little unnerved, although whether that’s on account of the five-piece’s erratic time signatures or the frontman’s secure-unit stage moves is never quite clear. Yet whilst the audience may be thin there’s little that’s underwhelming about Dutch Uncles’ sound, a potent mesh of coiled riffs and unhinged melodies that suggest Foals getting a bit messy with Delphic, eyes crazed and movements jerky and spittle gathering at the side of the mouth. There’s no way that couldn’t be a good thing.
But back to Wild Beasts, and that newly-diverse crowd. There’s a consequence, of course – the same issue that accompanies every band’s shift into popular acclaim, namely that it’s suddenly impossible to see them live without their performance being augmented by a perpetual layer of conversation. Even right at the barrier, head inches from the sub-woofer, there’s what seems to be a hen party baying their way through most of the set, somehow achieving a perfect clarity despite the volume from the speakers. And that is some volume: at points, such as a disarmingly brutal Albatross, parts of the ceiling rattle their own percussion, which would have been cause for alarm were it not for the rather effective solution to the crowd-noise issue that falling masonry would have provided.
Sadly the roof remained intact, the hen-party and their ilk surviving to shriek through another day: fortunately, though, this is a show that not even a background hiss of inanity can mar. Opening with the synth peals and drum patter of Bed Of Nails Hayden Thorpe’s voice is immediately commanding, oscillating from a theatrical falsetto to something far softer, at once intimate and yearning and yet slightly threatening. Theirs is an incongruous sound, lush and sensuous but framed with menace, from the violence and raw sexuality that scaffolds Thorpe’s lyrics to the sudden shifts to throbbing bass and sharp riffs: this is siren song with a dark heart.
And by god it’s alluring, Loop The Loop and current EP lead Reach A Bit Further shimmering and hypnotic and a little bit sad, any hint of sentimentality neatly sidestepped in a shiver of reverb and arpeggios. Elsewhere Hooting and Howling and Two Dancers(i) raise the pace, beat-driven and danceable without ever seeming cheap, whilst a post-encore Lion’s Share offsets its striking piano with a punishing bass loop and a sinister playground rhyming.
Really though the setlist is irrelevant, the ebb and flow of an individual song or input of any single band member missing the point: theirs is a totally immersive sound, a fairy-tale unreality that veers at points to nightmare. At its close plays out End Come Too Soon, an epilogue sprawled across nearly ten minutes, tension building to a crescendo throughout. Finally – finally – it breaks, vocals and melodies and notes and keys colliding and commingling and then falling away, as though the spell was suddenly over.
(published version here)