Tropic Of Cancer
The Garage, London
Monday October 24 2011
It's difficult to know where the moody grooves of the Pandora's Jukebox DJ set end, and the live stuff begins. But that's good. Boundaries are there to be blurred, that's what I say.
So let's blur it all a bit more. A man, a laptop, and some applied electronics. That's Helm. He sits at a desk, squinting at his hardware, tweaking and adjusting as if assembling an Airfix kit, while an ever-escalating wall of sound builds up around him. There are no songs: just this one, long, swelling sonic edifice.
Highly conceptual, Captain. And not bad as an experience for the ears. But there's nothing to look at (unless you find the sight of a bloke at a desk especially rivetting). I'm not sure why Mr Helm puts himself on stage in the first place, since he's evidently not a live act. Nice noise, but the show needs some exotic dancers, or something.
It seems there are several different bands out there called Tropic Of Cancer. I know this because I've had to sort through them to give you the links at the bottom of this page. I don't think the outfit we're about to experience is 'The Southeast's Premier New World Lounge band' from Florida, but let's check 'em out just to be sure.
This Tropic Of Cancer come from California, and they're essentially the electronic weirdgaze project of Juan Mendez and Camella Lobo. At least, I think that's the band we've got in front of us, because there's nobody on stage who looks like a Juan Mendez to me. Not unless there's been some gender-reassignment going on.
Two girls lurk behind technology. Sometimes, they pick up a bass or a guitar. Other times, they don't. They generate a lo-fi dancefloor hum and whirr, while drum programming clicks and splatters behind the sonic fog. There's a nice contrast between the primitive precision of the beats, and the blurry shading of the sounds on top. The vocals are haunted phosphorescence, gleaming through clouds of reverb. Nobody smiles.
Tropic Of Cancer are like an impressionist painting done on graph paper. On a cloudy day, with rain in the distance. It's not party time in Tropic Of Cancer's house, that's for sure, but the band's diffused sounds over stripped-back beats, delivered with that implacable downbeat demeanour, exerts a strange hypnotic pull. Strange but rather lovely. They don't know what they're missing, down there at the New World Lounge in Florida.
Last time HTRK took a swing through London - a few months back, at the outset of their tour - they played a bizarre basement club in Dalston that looked like it hadn't been touched since the 1980s (Sony Trinitron monitor screens on the walls, I ask you). But they rammed the place with an eager audience of art-wave electro heads in skinny jeans, nu-gaze enthusiasts in dishevelled indie-wear, and fashionista Gucci goths, knocking 'em cold in black and gold.
Somehow, HTRK have picked up a large and diverse crowd that seems to include representatives of every under-the-radar sub-culture in town. Someone obviously noticed, because now the band are back for another London gig - and this time they're not in no bizarre basement. Nope, tonight HTRK play The Garage. Which is not the enormodome by any means, but it's one of London's principal rock circuit venues. Once you've played The Garage, you're officially over the parapet.
HTRK's steady assimilation of success hasn't changed them. They haven't gone all stadium rock on us, just because they're playing a bigger venue. Not that I expected them to, of course: HTRK have a firm grasp of their art, and they're not about to be knocked off course by mere spatial logistics.
There are only two people on stage these days. Since the death of HTRK's bassist Sean Stewart, the band comprises Jonnine Standish on vocals, technology, and drum, and Nigel Yang on more technology and guitar. Neither of them set foot on the left-hand side of the stage, where Sean Steward would have stood.
Through a haze of smoke and blue light, HTRK pull their slo-mo disco out of the ether. The sound is all diesel-loco rumble and thrum, pierced by the occasional high-pitched punctuation of electronix. HTRK may not be playing a basement tonight, but there's something about their music that suggests subterranea.
It's all minimal downtempos, but with an organic feel that belies the technology that generates it. Jonnine Standish intones the lyrics like a 45rpm record playing at 33. At intervals she thwacks her electro-drium as if she's cracking a whip, bold stabs of sound amid the hazy sonics.
HTRK make Portishead sound like a good-time party band, but their funereal rumble has a mesmeric quality, a slide and sway which ensures that even when the rhythm drags its feet and the music gets bleary and opaque, you can still dance to it in your kitten heeled Gucci goth boots. After a fashion. And slowly.
For more photos from this gig, find HTRK and Tropic Of Cancer by name here.