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Karma Deva
You, ComaCautionaries
Insect Guide
Lillian Gish
Blindness
Alphastate
You, Coma

Water Rats, London
Friday October 15 2010

 

What is this, a festival? Tonight seven - count 'em, seven - bands cram into the Water Rats for a gig which if nothing else gives Johnny Punter a big value package. But what's it going to be, then? An embarassment of riches, or too much of a good thing? Quality or quantity? Let's get stuck in and find out.

I take one look at You, Coma as they array themselves on the stage, and even before they've played a note I'm thinking, "Uh-oh - musos!" There's something about this band - studious in their scruffy casualwear, bending over their instruments as if it's all a frightfully serious business, that makes me guess that this is a band for whom technical proficiency is the Big Thing.

Well, my first impressions aren't far off. You, Coma are a proggy bunch, essaying a selection of mostly instrumental, rhythmically heterogenerous workouts that allow the band to display top-notch muso chops without ever troubling the memory with such a thing as a memorable song. It all sounds like an extended jam to me - a very clever, technically polished jam, to be sure, but the stuff that attracts me to music is absent. Maverick creativity, the quixotic pursuit of an idea at the expense of all reason, a touch of insouciant showmanship, the sense that here is something other - and, not least, instinctively knowing when enough is enough. You, Coma don't deal in that stuff. They're far too clever. Musos. I knew it. Frankly, me and You, Coma were never going to get on.

Alphastate seem like a fairly sensible bunch - there's no sense of rock 'n' roll wildness bubbling under the surface, no notion that some seething intensity lurks in their songs. They play it all very matter-of-fact. But for all that, their drum machine-driven dreamwave (there you go, Alphastate, I've invented a genre for you) has a quiet appeal. The band is clearly built around the vocalist, who sings like a power-ballad version of Harriet Wheeler out of The Sundays, all precision-controlled swooning and crooning as the guitar and bass keep it just-so and the dum machine clatters.

'Precision controlled' is the operative expression with Alphastate, I think, because even when the guitarist steps on his distort-o-pedal and lets things rip a bit, the band's glacial command never slips. In a way I wish it would slip, but Alphastate's control never wavers.

Blindness / Alphastate

If we're talking control here, Blindness have plenty of that, too. But they push their music to the edge in a way that Alphastate don't. The beat is always implacable - a drum program keeps it exact, but a real drummer adds colour. Debbie Smith's guitar envelopes the band like shifting fog, all sweeps and sheets of noise. The bass tramps forward as inexorably as a guardsman on parade, while vocalist Beth Rettig fixes the audience with an unsettling stare and frog-marches an assorment of inner demons before us as if parading naughty school pupils before the headmaster.

Here's the thing about Blindness: nobody in the band goes anywhere near the usual rock 'n' roll histrionics. There is no rock-god grandstanding. Put it this way, they're not Hanoi Rocks. But the sheer noise of Blindness at full throttle is a thing of strange and frightening greatness. They're unequivocally a Rock Band, but with all the excess baggage ruthlessly stripped out until only the molten core remains. Beth Rettig certainly seems to push herself towards some sort of personal meltdown, as she collapses to the floor while the music surges around her like a hostile crowd. And even though I've seen Blindness before and I know she does the falling-on-the-floor thing, I'm still rather unsettled by the experience. Which is exactly the way bands should be, if you ask me. If you're just a bit scared of them, they're doing something right.

Lillian GishOur next band describe themselves in encouragingly pithy terms on their MySpace page: "We like silent film and loud guitars. We like concept albums and free association. We are Lillian Gish. And we hate rock and roll." Well, I always like to see a bit of attitude. But wait - concept albums? Free association? Don't say we've got more prog-heads on our hands here.

There are two of them: two guitars, keyboard, laptop. They make a fuzzy, drone-ish kind of sound, the vocals an indistinct wail in the sonic murk. It all sounds like the more outré moments of Sonic Youth laid end to end, and while that's not quite as un-rock 'n' roll as Lillian Gish might like to think, it certainly places the band on the outer limits.

They've got a bunch of mates down the front who clearly dig the billowing clouds-o-noise, but I'd like to hear some more structure, to see a bit more of a show. I suppose in Lillian Gish's eyes that makes me a silly old rock 'n' roller, then, doesn't it.

Ah, structure. And a show! Insect Guide take a step or two towards conventions of rock music, in that they're an actual band. They have a front-person (a cool but engaging female singer), a drummer (who manages to wear an anxious expression throughout) and a guitarist (who remains impressively impassive). Lilian Gish would doubtless consider them frightfiul reactionaries, but in fact Insect Guide manage to blend an air of effortless otherness with a sure grasp of the pop nettle.

They brew up a shifting, shuddering resonance, like a Stereolab on a high-protein diet, a Spiritualized without the druggy haze. Insect Guide sound direct and dynamic, and they're certainly at home with the notion that pop music should shoulder its way into your psyche and demand that you listen. But they also know how to generate atmosphere, and they know how to work the visuals: at intervals the singer lays into a floor tom, creating a sudden burst of on-stage action and an almost militaristic flurry of percussion, underlining the fact that underneath all their shoegazey fuzz, Insect Guide are tougher cookies than you might assume. Rather splendid, that. I'll be adding Insect Guide to my personal List Of Good Bands, that's for sure.

Insect Guide / The Cautionaries

Sometimes, you get a wild-card band at a gig. A band that doesn't fit in with anything else, a band that seems randomly chosen to bulk up the bill. So far tonight all the bands have hung together pretty well - even though I didn't go a bundle on You, Coma, they nevertheless earn their place by being a bit atmospheric. That gets 'em in the door.

But  I have no idea what strange collision of planets brought The Cautionaries here tonight. They're a good-time bunch of pub-rock boys, cheery and beery and merrily rollicking, having some good old laddish fun as if they've set up in a corner of the saloon bar on a Saturday afternoon after the football's finished, and everybody's necking the booze and having a larf. Well, in that kind of situation, The Cautionaries might fit right in. Here, they're a bit like finding a cheeseburger on the menu at a vegetarian restaurant. It might even be a good cheeseburger, as cheeseburgers go. But who thought it was a good idea to put it there?

KarmaDevaIt's getting late, now. Last-train time has come and gone. That, of course, means that a significant chunk of the crowd has also gone. Sure, it's Friday night, which you'd think might be a suitable night for after-hours partying, but even the Friday factor can't fight the last-train factor.

Thus it is that when KarmaDeva finally get on the stage, they're playing to a handful of bleary-eyed punters and a large expanse of empty floor. They give it the full show anyway, but it must be galling to have travelled up from Devon - where the band is based - for a London headliner, only to find that the audience has drained away like bath water.

Nevertheless, KarmaDeva rattle out some nimble alternorock, all chiming guitars and boldly-struck drums. The singer is tricked out in what I suppose you'd call Glastonbury Glam, all silver and flouncy as if she's off to a space-rock picnic, but the boys in the band are dressed doewn in authentic rock 'n' roll black. It's a strange mix of visual cues, but the music is straightforward enough.

I'd hazard a guess that I'd find some Fleetwood Mac albums lurking in the murky recesses of the band's record collections, for it seems to me that KarmaDeva exist in that area where indie-rock is polished up to an almost  AOR sheen. Frankly, it's the AOR sheen that bothers me, and that's the reason why, in the end, I decide that it's time for me to fade gently into the night myself.

KarmaDeva: MySpace | Facebook

The Cautionaries: MySpace | Facebook

Insect Guide: Website | MySpace | Facebook

Lillian Gish: MySpace

Blindness: Website | MySpace | Facebook

Alphastate: MySpace

You, Coma: MySpace | Facebook

For more photos from this gig, find the bands by name here.

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Page credits: Review, photos and construction by Michael Johnson. Nemesis logo by Antony Johnston. Red N version by Mark Rimmell.
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