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Nordic Giants take over Shoreditch’s Cargo with support from Lucy Claire

Nordic Giants Lucy Claire poster

Confession time: having stumbled upon Nordic Giants and their singularly compelling set at last year’s ArcTanGent festival and the subsequent release of two frankly astounding EPs, Build Seas and Dismantle Suns, I was resolved to catch them live again at the earliest opportunity. Frustratingly, I was out of the country for the duration of their headline tour in October, so when tonight’s show was announced, I hastily rearranged a partially booked trip to make sure I was in town for it. That is a rare level of dedication, even for me.

Cargo, deep in Shoreditch hipster territory, is an unusual venue. Sprawling through a series of railway arches, there are a number of spaces, a bar in one, an art class happening in the other and the live room occupying the last , separated from the rest of the venue by only a flimsy curtain. They have a very large security presence for a relatively small venue, and all IDs are put through a scanner, so god knows how much trouble they’ve had in the past from fighty hipsters. Beard jealousy, presumably.

Before the main event, we are treated to half an hour of what can best be described as ambient classical music, courtesy of Lucy Claire. Seated behind a keyboard with a laptop to provide the electronica elements, she is supported by violinist Marie and cellist Sarah. The digital and the organic intertwine into gently soothing instrumentals.

The arrangements are delicate and sparse, and with elements of the crowd easily distracted, getting up close to the stage gives the best chance of really hearing what is going on. Even then, some of the subtleties are lost into the background noise.  The tracks carry slightly spooky undercurrents, helped along by minor keys and the mournful tones of the cello. The final track of the short set, “Paelistin“, is the most immediately gratifying. The trio then leave the stage to warm applause, wearing huge smiles.

If I’m honest, I don’t have much of a frame of reference for this type of music, which feels a lot like post-rock without the rock. The only other artist that springs to my mind in comparison is Mike Patton collaborator Eyvind Kang, which probably isn’t helpful to many. But, if the idea of some gentle, chilled out melodies do appeal, then the best thing to do is check out Lucy’s Bandcamp page.

After a relatively short changeover, the house lights dim abruptly, and Nordic Giants’ ominous intro tape starts to roll. The set I caught at ArcTanGent was necessarily more basic, given the constraints of a festival, but given a stage of their own, the full production is complex and extravagant. The pair of mute, anonymous musicians that comprise the core band emerge, identities obscured by elaborate, feathered headdresses and body paint and take their places on opposite sides of the stage, behind a drum kit and bank of keyboards respectively. Behind them looms an enormous screen that will host the short films to which the music is scored.

These shorts are made by other filmmakers and have been edited in some cases to fit with the tracks, so it is hard to tell precisely whether the music is accompanying the films, or vice versa. Either way, the combination of the two is extraordinarily powerful.

Nordic Giants open with, I believe, the first of four new songs aired tonight, which I would assume, given their recorded history, will appear on an EP at some point in the not too distant future. Second song “Shine” features guest vocalist Cate Ferris who is absent this evening – so instead, she appears in silhouette on a second screen, placed in the centre of the stage. It is a neat touch, albeit one that may have been lost on people a bit further back in the crowd; our party, anxious not to miss anything, were right up in the second row. Being this close, we could also see the array of cameras the band had trained on the stage – indeed, the only person standing in front of me was a stoic cameraman training an SLR on the drummer for the entire duration of the set and I spotted another doing likewise on the keyboard player. A further roaming cameraman was visible, as well as a number of strategically placed Go-Pro cameras. Will we see a DVD of the show at some point? That would be nice.

As well as the considerable time that the band must have spent on the video aspect of the performance, it is also clear that as much thought and effort had been put into the lighting of the show, and an array of lights and strobes, both up in the rig and dotted around the stage itself and yet another layer to the audio-visual feast. It is possible that they are being triggered automatically by the master computer – I know The Ocean have a similar set-up – but if any of the lights were being managed manually, then they were absolutely on point.

The films are a mixture of live action and animation – some more abstract than others – but all seem to have a level of poignancy that is only augmented by their relationship with the music. It is utterly captivating. Occasionally, the drummer picks up a guitar that he plays with both a violin bow and a drum stick on different occasions, and the keyboard player picks up a trumpet.

A quick flurry of lasers heralds the arrival on stage of the first of two live guest vocalists, Nadine Wild-Palmer, for another new song. Under normal circumstances, I would jot down notes as I watch to jog my memory as I write, but the simple fact is that the performance as whole was so engrossing, it was all I could do to keep track of the setlist, so as I write these words a few days later, it’s hard to recall much precise detail on these new tracks.

However, that may not be such a bad thing. As should be perfectly clear by now, a Nordic Giants show is far from your average gig – but a significant part of that enjoyment comes from the surprise factor. I find myself thinking that too much detail falls almost into the same realms as spoilers for a TV series. I also find myself not wanting to take away too much of the thrill of discovery from those who are yet to experience a show for themselves.

I will, however, say that they did play my three most favourite tracks from their collection of EPs, “Together”, “Mechanical Minds” and “Through A Lens Darkly”, the latter combines with the film it is set to in the most devastatingly emotive fashion. As that film reaches its powerful climax, the pair temporarily leave the stage and everyone – EVERYONE – in the venue is hushed to an awed silence. This song/film combination is worth the admission price on its own.

The band then return to play two new songs to end the set, the second features an acrobatic guest vocal from Beth Cannon and – perhaps highlighting the newness of the track – no accompanying film. Without a word, the trio take a bow and leave the stage as a credits list scrolls up the screen, which is a very nice touch.  A final, fairly gruesome, outro film sends us stumbling dazed from the venue to think about what we have just witnessed.

Throughout the performance, the near sell-out crowd is respectful and warmly appreciative; a couple of hecklers towards the end of the set are met with audible disdain from those around them. Given the complexity of the performance, I honestly don’t know why anyone would believe they would take requests.

If there is any criticism at all, it is that in building all the songs around a keys and drums skeleton, Nordic Giants might be painting themselves into a corner sonically, even with the variation that the procession of guest vocalists bring to the party. Perhaps, as they progress their sound, we will start to see other guest musicians joining the pair to broaden their palette.

However, this most certainly does not detract from the sheer spectacle of the Nordic Giants show as it stands right now, which is almost defiantly in a peer group of one. Moving and thought provoking, over the course of seventy five minutes the duo take the audience on a powerful emotional rollercoaster that takes in near-euphoric highs and achingly melancholic lows in equal measure. It is a completely immersive, other-worldly and practically transcendental experience. I, for one, can’t wait for the next opportunity to witness it.