Photos by Hannah Cole
Catching the opening band at Koko on a Friday is basically a race against time. The early and unbreakable curfew for any show is put in place so the venue can bring a second group of paying punters through the doors for a club night – but it creates a domino effect that puts the first band on stage just fifteen short minutes after the doors open. This is further compounded tonight by the peculiar decision to search every punter TWICE on their way in. I’m sure they have their reasons, but being patted down and having my bag rummaged through twice in the space of ten yards is not something I’ve experienced before, and I’m hoping it doesn’t become standard practice.
I am especially motivated this evening, as the opening band is Nordic Giants. I’ve repeatedly and fulsomely gushed over the mysterious duo in the past and, well, it’s going to happen again now. A fortunate encounter with more punctual friends than I and a quick spot of barrier hopping puts me far enough forwards in the queue to get inside, pop to the bar and take up a position in front of the stage just in time for the start of the set. Thanks, guys.
As this tour has worked it’s way around the UK over the last couple of weeks, I have found it hugely pleasing to watch the reactions to Nordic Giants’ set, mirroring my own joyful bewilderment at discovering them at ArcTanGent in 2013. Stepping out onto the stage, as always, without a word spoken to the crowd, its possible to catch little snippets of anticipation and confusion from those around me.
Effectively, the duo present a half-hour ‘Greatest Hits’ set, comprising around half a dozen of their most potent tracks and clearly designed to be a primer for unfamiliar audiences. The accompanying films are projected across the enormous back drop, and this is potentially the biggest sound system I’ve heard – and felt – their expansive and ethereal post-rock through. From the horrifically mesmerising “Through A Lens Darkly” to the anthemic finale of “Together“, Nordic Giants deliver a condensed version of their incredibly commanding show to a steadily growing audience. Despite not hushing the room to reverent silence as they do for their headline sets, the majority are clearly paying attention.
As always, their combination of sound and vision is relentlessly majestic, even at this early hour. They will definitely be walking away from this tour with a whole platoon of new recruits for the Nordic Army, and it is hugely exciting to watch so many people experience that same thrill of discovery I did at ArcTanGent. Mission accomplished.
For those disappointed by The Contortionist cancelling their UK Tech Fest appearance last year – and there were certainly a few in the room tonight – tonight seems like a great opportunity to make up for it. The band’s most recent venture to these shores was in support of Protest The Hero at the end of 2014, so not too long ago but certainly with less stage time with which to work, so tonight’s main support slot is a great chance to hear more from Language, which wasn’t as visited last time around.
Indeed, it’s the pair of sequential title tracks that take centre stage from the off, followed later by “Thrive” and closer “The Parable“. The album itself is a different beast to the band’s previous two albums, making great use of a beautiful organic sound, with delicately-layered textures on top of an underlying heavy groove provided by drummer Joey Baca and bassist Jordan Eberhardt. The tracks are recreated with high accuracy, and it’s incredibly graceful music, but it does lack a certain urgency live; it’s great to watch them play their instruments, but it doesn’t quite make you want to get involved – a spectacle rather than an experience. Perhaps it’s the nature of the music, but for the most part the band members are static, bar frontman Michael Lessard, who stalks the stage throwing shapes and alternating between his highly-controlled, complimentary croons and the more powerful bellows.
The second half of the set takes from older material however, allowing for a little more viscerality, but for newcomers they’re likely more just trying to follow what’s going on – to keep up with the ever-changing beat – than necessarily able to enjoy the experience completely, but it will if nothing else have been intriguing.
The production certainly helps; the lighting is very good, adding to the organic nature of the music. The sound is excellent too; despite being a large venue, Koko is blessed with great acoustics which really accentuate The Contortionist’s style of music.
So whilst they aren’t for everyone, as a performance of their absolutely gorgeous compositions – Language in particular – tonight is hard to beat, and doubles as a great primer for the headliner.
It would be fair to say that over the course of their extensive touring in support of Altered State, I slightly overdosed on TesseracT. With the number of virtual ticket stubs in my collection deep into double figures, I think I reached saturation point at Euroblast 2014, but after more than a year and, with Polaris, the release of (to these ears) their strongest collection of songs to date, I am eager to see them play again.
I am not alone. They arrive onstage to a heroes welcome from this substantial, sold out crowd and – with minimal fuss – launch into “Phoenix“, a euphoric highlight of Polaris. The sound is startlingly clear, and the band note perfect. Even with such a challenging opening song and it being the last date of this UK run, Dan’s voice is on exceptional form. As it does on Polaris, “Phoenix” segues into lead single “Messenger“, a trick that TesseracT repeat throughout the set.
The unmistakable intro to the second part of Concealing Fate, “Deception” – sure to remain the band’s calling card pretty much forever – sends a stream of long-standing fans forward to join the pit, ready for THAT riff. You know the one: a riff so good that the band felt compelled to add it to the end of Part III “The Impossible” as well, which inevitably follows. It is a wise choice.
After a disarmingly lengthy pause, the intro to the “Of Matter” trilogy from Altered State rings out, but as the band work their way through the songs, I find myself getting restless. Not wanting to join the crush closer to the stage, from my vantage point towards the back of the ground floor, I can only really see James (one benefit of him being nine feet tall) and Dan’s disembodied head. The sound of the performance is unrelentingly professional, but that doesn’t feel like quite enough to completely hold my attention.
Nipping up the back stairs, I relocate to the very top balcony, where I find a spot with a clear view of the whole stage. Under normal circumstances, the trade-off for this birds eye view would be a noticeable drop in sound quality, but perhaps due to some strange voodoo magic from the engineer, or maybe the fact TesseracT’s sound is so well suited to the room, this doesn’t really happen tonight. Hallelujah.
Acle Kahney / Amos Williams
The main reward for this change of scene is the clearer view of TesseracT’s rhythm section. I’m an enormous fan of Jay’s drumming, and Amos is by far the most active member onstage, sweeping his bass around in long arcs and claiming much of the depth of stage as his own, while Acle and Dan tend to stick close to the lip.
As an additional surprise, the band are joined by Martin Grech for a spot of guest vocals on “Hexes“, which sees him and Dan trading vocal acrobatics, and providing a timely of injection of variety. I’m still repeatedly struck by just how clear the sound is, with every ghost note and muted string tap from each of them being clearly audible. “Nocturne” sounds positively gargantuan as it kicks in, and Dan’s voice is just starting, after at least 45 minutes of punishment, to show the signs of some wear and tear. These signs are minimised by dropping some of the more challenging sections down an octave, which is a shrewd move.
The set runs well over an hour, and there is – as usual – no encore. As the crowd file out, checking the time and boggling slightly at how early it still is, I find myself coming to a slightly weird and conflicting conclusion. TesseracT have clearly taken another step up the ladder and there’s no doubt that their performance justifies selling out a room of this size, but the set as it stands still doesn’t fully hold my attention for its complete duration.
Perhaps part of this is circumstantial. Being forced to race straight from my day job desk to the queue means I didn’t have time to really eat anything, and I am flagging somewhat. I find myself wondering whether TesseracT are actually starting to be better suited to seated venues, allowing us to just plonk down and get totally lost in the truly gorgeous sounds they are creating. But I might just be getting old.
Until seated gigs come to pass, there’s no doubt that I’ll go and see TesseracT each and every time they roll into town, but just acknowledge that I may have to sneak out for a cheeky smoke to reset my attention span at some point during the set – and the simple fact remains that if they continue to deliver songs with as high a quality as Polaris, and performances as professional and exquisite as they have tonight, they’ll be selling out venues much larger than this in the future. And such success would be richly deserved. Magical.