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Noblesse Oblige

Isolated Atoms
Koko, London
Sunday April 19 2009


Let's begin with a not entirely rhetorical question. Are IAMX fated to be one of those bands that maintains a healthy cult following, but never quite makes the big breakthrough? On the face of it, IAMX appear to be doing well. A gig at Koko, one of London's more salubrious theatre venues, suggests that things are on the up and up. That's until you clock the closed-off upper levels, and realise the venue is perhaps two-thirds full. What we've got here is a club size gig in a theatre size venue. Instant verdict: IAMX haven't converted their cult following into true stardom just yet.

But there's already a crowd of eager fans at the front, waiting for their heroes. No, make that hero, for IAMX is really one man, Chris Corner. His heady combination of romance and angst, the theatrical stylings of glam rock with pumping dance beats, obviously strikes a chord with this predominantly younger crowd, who are probably in search of a soundtrack to their own romance and angst.

But before the stars, the support bands...

Isolated Atoms

Isolated Atoms are quick to inform us they come from Dudley. I wonder if this is a touch of local pride, or a bid to win our sympathy. They proceed to play a variety of high emotional content pop-rock that manages to make all the right noises without ever really winning me over. Maybe it's the guitarist's self-consciously 'rock' posturing - his favourite move is to swing his guitar up, holding it vertically like an auctioneer displaying the latest sale item. You could probably get away with this kind of stunt if you happen to be Slash out of Guns 'n' Roses, but not if you're the guitarist in a pop-rock band from Dudley. Or maybe it's that the singer is wearing a suit jacket with the sleeves pushed up, a sartorial ploy that was briefly cool when the first series of Miami Vice hit our TV screens, but has seemed utterly naff ever since. Either way, the band's visual presentation is frankly annoying, while the music goes though my head without so much as leaving a calling card.

Noblesse Oblige

It's rather a relief when Noblesse Oblige arrive, and the evening is abruptly wrenched in the direction of their distinctly un-rock 'n' roll weird cabaret. Sebastian Lee Phillip, on guitar and ever-longer hair, and Valerie Renay, on electronics, drums, and stern stage presence, bring a touch of Berlin nightlife to Camden, and whether their art really represents Berlin nightlife or not (I have experienced Berlin at night, and it seems as well supplied with sports bars and laddish theme pubs as any other city) the Noblesse Oblige version is surely the way it should be. 'Seaside Suicide' is a deadpan romp, its humour so dark we could be five fathoms down. 'Daddy Don't Touch Me There' gets the crowd squirming with a combination of embaressment and delight - is it OK to enjoy a song about such a taboo subject? - while 'Bitch', Noblesse Oblige's curt nod to the dancefloor, slays 'em as it always does.

I suspect many of the IAMX fans down the front have never seen Noblesse Oblige before, and I further suspect that they're instantly converted to the cause. After all, if it's a certain surrealist-noir glamour you want, plus perhaps a hint of undefined danger, and a heady sense of being somehow other, then Noblesse Oblige deliver quite effortlessly.

IAMX, on the other hand, while not being a million miles away from that same area of otherness, always give the impression of working really, really hard. Indeed, the entire band seem to be under standing orders to give it loads. The guitarist bobs and weaves and throws every shape in the Alternative Guitar Hero Handbook. The keyboard player strikes dramatic attitudes behind her pile of gear, reaching for the keys from afar as if feeding a wild beast, while the drummer flails extravagantly, swinging the drumsticks up above his head after every beat. I can only assume he's been given drum tuition by a golf pro, who told him it's all in the follow-through.

Chris Corner himself, wearing a frankly rather unwise combination of facial hair and lipstick (we will tactfully refrain from mentioning the gold oven gloves) is a strangely reluctant frontman. He appears as an enigmatic figure in the flickering stage lighting, never quite taking a decisive stride out of the darkness, never quite establishing the leadership of his band from a front-centre position on stage. He's always slipping between the shifting beams of colour as the stage lights frenziedly flash; frequently hanging back, ensuring that the fans seldom get a clear view of him. At times, he turns away from the audience entirely, and busies himself at a table loaded with electronics, upstage, near the drum riser - geekery as a substitute for performance.

It's a paradox: IAMX is essentially a vehicle for one man, and yet, at these moments, the frontman's position on stage is empty. Even when Chris Corner does venture up to the front, there's never a steady light upon him. He's always a vague shape in the strobing lightstorm, the cautious leader who instinctively retreats into the ranks any time he can find a reason to do so.


Meanwhile, the music pounds like disco hammers. On record, IAMX often strike a wistfully romantic note, and the music contains nuance and detail. Live, it's all one big pumping dance beat, a huge, walloping wall of stomp-and-thud that never lets up, and sometimes leaves Chris Corner's vocal rather lost in the thunder. The anthems are duly supplied - 'Spit It Out', 'Nightlife' - and greeted with huge cheers. There are also a few new songs from the forthcoming album, although, pummelled into submission as they are by that all-pervasive beat, the most I can say about IAMX's new stuff is that on this showing it sounds very much like the old stuff.

In the end, I think perhaps we can identify the reason why IAMX haven't quite made the move from cult following to stardom. The implacable wall of disco beats is as much of a barrier as it is an enticement - c'mon, we don't want to be bludgeoned onto the dancefloor all the time. And, in Chris Corner himself, we have a curiously reticent star. Forever hiding amid the disco flicker, he's the glamourous prince who can't quite bring himself to step into the spotlight.


Essential links:

IAMX: Website | MySpace
Noblesse Oblige:
Website | MySpace
Isolated Atoms: Website | MySpace


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  Page credits: Review, photos and construction by Michael Johnson.
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