I could have gone to all four, but settled for two. In our circles, Agent Fresco‘s first UK tour was officially Very Big News Indeed. A small but committed clutch of superfans, led by Tech Fest head honcho Simon Garrod himself, took it upon themselves to follow the band through all four cities – Leeds, Glasgow, Milton Keynes and London. As attractive a proposition is this was, real world commitments meant I could only manage the second half of the run, but I have to admit that the drive from Glasgow to Milton Keynes did look substantially less than appealing. That’s tour life, I guess.
Having already delivered one of my – if not my single most – favourite albums of the year in Destrier, and a pair of entirely incredible electric and acoustic live performances at this year’s Tech Fest, my expectations were just about as high as they could be as I rushed across London after work and boarded a train to Milton Keynes. My social media feeds had been alive with enthusiasm from the first two dates, so I was well aware that I was likely to be in for a treat.
Now, writing up my thoughts about two consecutive shows does present a couple of logistical problems. So in an attempt to avoid repeating myself, I’m going to talk about the supports for both shows first, then combine my thoughts on both Fresco sets at the end. Deal? Actually, I don’t know why I’m asking permission. By the time you read this, it’ll already be done, so there’s not much you can do about it now. Manners are weird.
Anyway, one thing that became very clear to me is just how different two shows – or rather, two audiences – can be, even on consecutive nights. For reasons that will very quickly become apparent.
The Craufurd Arms
As fellow Tech Fest alumni Voices From The Fuselage open proceedings at The Craufurd Arms, one thing is quite uncomfortably clear: there really aren’t many people here at all. Although the numbers grow as the set progresses, there are maybe a dozen punters in the room as the band start off with “Inner Child“.
Continuing with the very choicest cuts from Odyssey: The Destroyer of Worlds, released earlier this year, Voices From The Fuselage slip effortlessly through their relatively short set. The sound is particularly crisp and clear, showcasing well both the band’s tight performance and the dynamic range of the songs. Atmospheric and melodic with some sparing and effective chunkier moments, the set is professional and engaging. Attention is naturally drawn to the significant vocal talents of Ashe O’Hara, and the material provides an excellent platform for him to soar over -possibly even more so than TesseracT, his former band.
There’s precious little to criticise, with my main issues being bassist Dale’s decision to use a pick rather than the warmer, smoother fingerstyle technique, and that both he and his guitarist comrades could do with spending a bit more time sorting out the levels of their various effects pedals. So nothing major, making it a particular shame that so few are here to witness it. But no doubt there will be plenty more opportunities in the coming year.
Up next is an almost-solo set from Jonah Matranga. I’m old and fusty enough to remember Jonah’s old band Far coming to prominence alongside their buddies Deftones in the mid-nineties, but for whatever reason had never quite made it to see one of his own shows, with which he tours almost continuously, until now.
It doesn’t take long to realise this has been a near catastrophic mistake on my part. Accompanied, for the most part, only by a tiny R2D2 model sitting on a barstool beside his mic stand; a cute little touch to mask the gizmo providing his backing track.
Jonah’s years of experience shine through in his relaxed and amiable delivery of a collection of quietly quirky acoustic rock songs with a uniformly positive message of making the most of your life and appreciating what you have. He drops in a couple of covers, including his thoroughly outstanding version of the Deftones classic “Be Quiet and Drive“, with its gentle re-interpretation complimented by a big, loping drumbeat.
Jonah takes requests from the floor and shows off a considerable vocal talent in the process. He is joined towards the end of the set by a drummer, armed only with a snare, hi-hats and a pair of brushes, giving the set that little extra boost at the point where attention can start to flag with just one guy onstage. One song, potentially called “Smile“, features what can only be described as an R2D2 solo, which is hugely endearing and quietly hilarious.
Jonah runs out of stage time before playing a song requested by a fan in the room, so agrees there and then to take them off to find a quiet corner for a personal rendition, which is a lovely touch to finish up on. In all honesty, I didn’t really know what to expect from Jonah’s set as it began, but as it ends I am struck by the warmth, passion and humility of his set, as well as the strength of his songwriting and performance talents. It may well have taken me a long time to get around to listening to what Jonah has been up to since Far, but I’m resolved to go and see him again when he’s next in town. A most pleasant surprise.
We will leave Milton Keynes there, as well as my ultimately doomed attempts to catch the last tube home from Euston, and fast forward to the following day.
Having impatiently left a fairly sizeable gathering of our Tech Fest family in The Monarch, just up the road from Dingwalls, I am pleased to find a queue of equally eager punters snaking out from the door of the venue.
It is perhaps unsurprising that attendance here in the capital dwarfs the forty people at The Craufurd the previous night. Originally booked into the 150 capacity Black Heart, tickets for tonight’s show sold out in just a couple of hours. This prompted a swift upgrade to the substantially larger Dingwalls, and ticket sales clearly continued apace.
Despite the faintly bizarre decision to subject every punter to a fairly rigorous search despite only having a single male and female bouncer on the door slowing entry to a crawl, I manage to get inside just in time to see Sumer taking the stage.
I’ve rarely missed an opportunity to sing Sumer’s praises since the release of their debut album, The Animal You Are, almost exactly a year ago. I’m having difficulty remembering the last time I became so thoroughly besotted with a band so quickly, so you can probably guess already the direction this little segment is heading.
Somehow, this is the ninth time I’ve seen them play since that late 2014 release show, and I’m still not feeling even slightly fatigued by their set of atmospheric, melodic progressive metal, although it probably helps that they mix it up, not relying on the same thirty minutes of highlights from the album all the time, and monkey about with the running order, too.
Tonight’s set is quite possibly the best I’ve seen from them yet. The mix is possibly a little bass heavy, but as all three guitars are still clearly audible, that’s just the way I like it. The crowd reaction starts strong, and only gets stronger as the set progresses. The familiarity with the band of the strong Tech Fest contingent probably helps them out here, but it’s also clear from my vantage point that they are rapidly winning new fans too. Good.
If there is a single fixed item in the Sumer set, then it is the grand finale of “End of Sense“. In around eight minutes, it draws in all the elements that have made me such a big fan so quickly – the harmonies, the hooky riffs, the dynamics – and culminates in a truly masterful crescendo, which manages to leave you both perfectly satisfied and hungry for more simultaneously. The band then leave the stage to truly thunderous applause, making it clear that their days in the opening slots for shows like this must be severely numbered. Time to level up. Exciting.
But now, I must make a confession. I had encountered main support Delta Sleep at the inaugural ArcTanGent a couple of years ago, and I was keen to see what they had been up to in the interim, but as they launch into their arty math-rock (or mathy art-rock – one of the two), it quickly becomes apparent to me that I’m not really in the mood. Perhaps it’s the combination of a touch of fatigue, having just seen one of my favourite bands, being just about to see another and the presence in the room of so many people I don’t get to see as often as I like, but I’m just not as open to a less familiar artist tonight than I was last night with Jonah, so I’m afraid to say I spend the majority of Delta Sleep’s set at the back of the venue or outside smoking. Maybe next time.
And so to Fresco. The polite smattering of applause they receive in Milton Keynes is dwarfed by the pre-emptive roar of approval in London, but in both cases what is clearly obvious is that there is virtually no such thing as a casual Agent Fresco fan. Whilst there are a few curious onlookers drawn to the venues by the supports, it does seem that to know Fresco is to love them. The warmth of their reception, before even playing a note, is right up there with the levels of devotion seen in Devin Townsend‘s fanbase.
Arnór himself acknowledges this from the stage, referring to the intrepid group following them around as “stalkers…or maybe lovers”, and his thanks to the ‘UK Tech Family’ in London are met with a roar that suggests fully half the venue identify as family members. The net result is that both nights are characterised by an atmosphere sitting somewhere between warm and rapturous.
The setlists are drawn fairly equally from both albums, with a few changes between them – although I gather from the Stalkers that the London set matches the preceding nights in Leeds and Glasgow. Perhaps most notably, the Milton Keynes set includes what I understand to be a very rare outing for both Destrier’s title track and album opener “Let Them See Us“. Elsewhere, the set draws in all the tracks that the Fresco faithful are hungry to hear – from the angularities of “He is Listening” and “See Hell“, through the grooves of “Wait For Me” and “Silhouette Palette” to the anthemic “Howls” and “A Long Time Listening“, all working up to the bittersweet, mixed emotions of a finale in the truly remarkable “Eyes of a Cloud Catcher“, the quartet work hard to ensure that nobody leaves disappointed. Well, other than the disappointment that the set had to end at all, obviously.
Onstage, the different personalities of the four constituent members seems clearer. At the back, drummer Keli is a blur of limbs and hair as he smashes out his deft and dexterous rhythms with just the right balance of power and restraint. Toti stands largely motionless, eyes closed as he wrings the riffs from his guitar, also flitting between the guitar and keyboard. In turn, bassist Vignir acts as a kind of counterpoint to Toti, flinging himself around the stage, and throwing his instrument as far as its strap will allow. In the centre of them all, Arnór whirls around with his microphone, hitting every one of his high notes with a seemingly improbable ease.
There are other neat little touches throughout the set, like Arnór dropping in the occasional few notes on the piano, or Vignir’s sparing use of a synth instead of his bass. But perhaps the most surprising and effective is Vignir manually muting and releasing Hrafnkell’s crash cymbal to faithfully recreate the introduction to “Wait for Me“, which is an impressive display of teamwork. Of course, no set is entirely perfect, and it does seem that the band are having difficulty properly translating the short but caustic “Angst” from the album to the stage, but it is not for the want of trying.
Every song is met with huge amounts of enthusiasm from the audience, but it is fascinating to see how the extra energy in the room at Dingwalls translates into extra energy on stage, making that much talked-about feedback loop between the band and the fans a very visible reality, as visible as the slight incredulity on their faces as they take their bows to deafening approval at the end of the London set.
Of course, the Milton Keynes show was not without its charms, especially with the additional songs and the opportunity to really clearly watch what they were playing – for the proportion of the set that I didn’t have my eyes closed in quiet delight, anyway.
As I sit here now listening to Destrier, I can’t help but feel a minor pang of regret at not being able to join the road trip to all four dates. There are vanishingly few bands that I’d be happy to watch on two consecutive nights, let alone four, but Agent Fresco are something very special indeed. It’s taken them at least five years to properly make it over here, and I’m hoping with literally every fibre of my being that they will be back to play for us again very soon. And when they do, you should come and see them. Yes, you. No exceptions.