It's mascara madness in here tonight.
The Underworld is rammed with the eyeliner indie crowd - that sector of the alternative music audience which digs a bit of glammed-up melodrama, and naturally gravitates towards any band that can supply it.
From Placebo to The Dresden Dolls, from The Birthday Massacre to the Manic Street Preachers (at least in their early days - the Manics did rather blow it when they started wearing beige slacks and sensible shoes), the bands that provide the eyeliner indie soundtrack don't necessarily have much in common musically, but they all know how to ride the emotional rollercoaster while dressed to distress.
All this is an intriguing collision of music and style, although so far it's been utterly overlooked by the mainstream media. That's possibly because, as we've noted, there is no consistent musical style to latch on to. It's all about angst and attitude and (of course) eyeliner, spiced with gallows humour and good old showbiz glam - concepts too amorphous for the lumbering behemoth of the music biz to grab. But there's a substantial audience out there which instinctively knows which bands are plucking the right stuff from the ether, and it's therefore possible to gain a fair amount of success even in the more underground levels of this sub-sub-culture.
Emilie Autumn knows all about that. The NME has never heard of her, but she's got a sell-out show on her hands tonight.
The sell-out crowd also means this is not a bad gig at which to be a support band, of course. Dyonisis (an un-advertised replacement for the original opening band) probably find themselves playing to a significantly larger audience tonight than at most, if not all, of their regular shows.
They're a folkie-rocky kind of thing, guitar, bass, and backing track, over which two female voices croon winsomely. It's smooth stuff, never abrasive and seldom uptempo, the backing vocals keening like wind in winter trees. All perfectly nice, although as I always say in these situations, nice isn't enough. I find myself wishing the band would floor it, and get a little crazy on my rock 'n' roll ass.
Alas, they never do, and I end up amusing myself by watching the lead singer bobbing up and down like a jack in the box. She has a habit of crouching down on stage, presumably to impart a certain intensity to particular lyrics, and then standing up again to declaim the next line. I'm sure this works well if you happen to be in the front row, but from further back in the crowd she simply vanishes from view, and then pops up again as if someone's released her spring. In this, Dionosyus perhaps reveal their inexperience. Quite possibly they've never played to such a big crowd before, so the issue of vocalist-visibility has never previously come up. A little work on the stagecraft side of things wouldn't go amiss, I think.
Lahannya (nope, I don't know how to pronounce it, either) is an up and coming rock star with an all-star band. She's got Lutz Demmler out of Umbra et Imago on bass, and Belle out of Killing Miranda, New Skin, and umpteen other bands on drums. Sounds good so far? Well, maybe.
Surveying the ensemble with a jaundiced eye (which I keep in my pocket for just these occasions) I get a certain sense that the Lahannya Project has been purpose-built for maximum market penetration. The music is essentially conventional not-too-hard rock: contemporary enough to convince the alternocrowd that this is the rad new thing, without containing any rough edges or genuinely radical tangents which might frighten off the radio playlist compilers.
Lahannya herself, blue hair extensions to the fore, is just alternative enough to seem kewl to the kidz, but not so weird that she'll alienate the mums and dads. It's a finely judged balance, but the rewards for getting it right are huge. I bet there are marketing executives in an office somewhere at this very moment, eyeing up the niche between Avril Lavigne and Garbage, and hatching plans to slot Lahannya neatly in there.
I suppose much depends on how Lahannya herself projects her personality, but that, alas, is something I can't judge tonight. Owing to a bout of laryngitis, she's keeping things low-key, singing in a restrained croon (although something tells me she's not exactly a belter at the best of times), and addressing the minimum of words to the audience between songs. Under better circumstances, maybe the live show is a real barricade-stormer - the guitarist, who spends much of tonight's set throwing shapes and headbangin' like a good 'un, certainly seems to be chanelling Ted Nugent. But in the end I come away with the distinct impression that while Lahannya might want to rock your world, she's certainly not in the business of rocking any boats.
If you described Emilie Autumn to our hypothetical music biz marketing executives, they'd probably run a mile. Listen up, guys, here's the pitch. Emilie Autumn is a classical violinist equally at home with the works of Bach and Corelli as she is with her own excursions into effects 'n' beat box driven post-rock oddness. She performs this heterodox repertoire while attired in extravagant costumes which make her look like she's been pulled through a production of Les Miserables backwards. She's assisted on stage by a posse of handmaidens and henchwomen in similarly flamboyant array.
Just to put the icing on the fairy cake, it's all held together by a concept: that Emilie and her fabulously-attired friends (whom she addresses affectionately as her 'Bloody Crumpets') are inmates of the Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls.
Oh, and she hasn't actually got a band. Emilie Autum's stage show is basically an extended game of charades, in which the Bloody Crumpets act out scenes from Lewis Carroll's psychotropic nightmares, serenaded by Ms Autumn herself upon the electric fiddle. There you go, all you music biz executives, slot that lot neatly into the rock scene if you can.
Fortunately, the eyeliner indie massive cares not a jot for rock scene slots. All this audience knows is that Emilie Autumn's theatrically charged angst-anthems hit the spot. Performed with equal quantities of bile and buffoonery, the songs mix high art and low humour. Emilie's vocals range from operatic to acerbic, although she never fails to cock an amused, knowing, eyebrow at the crowd even as she sings up a vertiable storm.
Meanwhile, the visuals and the costumes - part punkette, part Marie Antionette - lift the entire experience out of the conventional parameters of the rock gig and boot it firmly into the surreal zone. The stage is a swirl of petticoats as the Bloody Crumpets act out little vingettes which may or may not have anything to do with the songs, and indeed may or may not have anything to do with reality.
It's an engaging spectacle, although it's noticeable that some of the Crumpets have more to do than others. Little Lucina spends much of her time mooning about stage right, wearing an all-purpose gloomy expression, while Lady Vecona (You see? I know their names. Now who says I don't do my research!) assumes a matriarchal role, presiding over the revels with a half-smile playing about her face as she pours cups of suspiciously weak-looking tea. It's a downright disappointment that a dormouse doesn't emerge from the teapot.
Now that we've twigged that Emilie Autumn isn't doing the conventional rock thing, we should perhaps also remark that aside from her amped-up violin, none of the music, booming and squawking out of the PA in a flurry of flustered beats and plangent chords, is live. The songs are constructed from fragments of ripped-up hip-hop, shards of splintered rock, and scourings of tortured classical, typically stapled to a nervy, staccato beat - but it's all on the backing track.
At times, sundry Crumpets (and occasionally Emilie herself, when she's not emoting furiously on lead vocals) move over to a blatantly unplugged keyboard and make frankly unconvincing attempts to mime the harpsichord parts - of which, it must be noted, there are many in Emilie Autumn's music. But this is really no more than a token gesture towards convention. Emilie may have eschewed the conventional rock show in favour of a carnival parade of theatrical weirdness, but it seems she hasn't quite broken free of the feeling that she should at least pretend to be making music.
Perhaps that's why the Bloody Crumpets discreetly step off stage in the latter part of the set so that Emilie, alone in a cloud of smoke, can treat us to a lengthy, intricate, and defiantly allegrissimo violin solo. She unleashes a four-string hurricane, a 100mph storm of tumbling notes, to great applause from the fans.
Trouble is, while her prowess is undeniable, l'm reminded more of Nigel Tufnel than Nigel Kennedy. In fact, I can't help thinking that this sudden burst of show-off shredding looks suspiciously like over-compensation. It's as if Emilie's saying, 'Hey, I know most of the sounds are pre-recorded tonight, but I am a real musician. No, really, I am! Look what I can do!' But the crowd dig it, and, astonishingly, at least from my punk rock point of view, she gets away with it. That's got to be the chyk factor at work, surely. I mean, if this was a grizzled old rock bloke gratuitously soloing on a guitar, rather than an elegantly waisted girl with a violin, he'd probably get bottled off. Plank wanking is plank wanking, from whichever quarter it comes.
But then it's all cranked up to the climax, a veritable slam into 'Thank God I'm Pretty', the stage rendition far more of a visceral experience than the neat pirouette of the album version. And appropriately so, too, since the song is a cynicism-soaked pean to the joys of forever being patronised for being a cute chyk. Given that Emilie just got away with a blatant interlude of muso-indulgence on the cute chyk ticket, that's a bit ironic. But a burst of sonic thunder sets off the acidic attitude of the song a treat. You can almost see the sarcasm running in rivulets from the corners of Emilie Autumn's mouth as she leans out into the crowd and flays 'em alive with the vocal.
The eyeliner indie kids are sated, surfieted, and stuffed with the thrills, the drama, and the sheer crazy theatre of the show. It wasn't quite rock 'n' roll, and if truth be told bits of it didn't quite work, but there's no doubt whatsoever that we've seen a show.
a way, I wish Emilie Autumn would make a decision as to which fork in
the road she wants to take. Either break completely with the format of
the rock gig, and go entirely into theatre - or, conversely, just get
a band together and rock it up. But whatever the future holds, I think
we'll remember our visit to the Asylum tonight.
more photos from this gig,