Al Spx’s description of her music as "doom soul" doesn’t quite cover the full spectrum of what she creates under the name Cold Specks. Thursday’s performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, part of the Women of the World festival, provides plenty of evidence of this.
There’s soul. No doubt about it. And doom is in no short supply either. But from this darkness emerges the occasional glimmer of hope. There are moments when it’s downright uplifting.
There’s already a tension by the time Spx takes the stage, thanks to a pair of very capable supporting performances by Prince Innocence and Phildel. The former is characterised by the fine balance between Talvi Faustmann’s restrained vocals and Josh McIntyre’s sometimes-optimistic synthesiser melodies. Faustmann wavers between sorrow and ennui, always tightly in control.
The territory that Phildel explores is more melancholy, not to mention more dramatic - sometimes to a fault. She’s at her finest at the piano, succeeding in creating an atmosphere of danger and loss, but in a way that ultimately shares Faustmann’s restraint. And so when Spx kicks things off, all alone for the first track, there’s an abandon, a release, that becomes a common thread throughout her performance. This is further heightened as she abandons her microphone for the second half of the track.
The evening’s absolute highlight is a similarly spine-tingling moment during ‘Blank Maps’. Spx hits the line “I am, I am a goddamn believer” with complete conviction, tearing loose after building up steadily to that moment. Her voice is immense – a force of nature – alternating effortlessly between silk and something much more raw and primal. Soulful. It’s unique, and just the right instrument for exploring this territory.
When she picks up a guitar - almost every other track – her accompaniment is simple and unadorned. And it can afford to be, with six other musicians on stage taking care of whatever heavy lifting is required, but leaving her alone when necessary too.
As on the album, this music is all about pace – contemplative at times, but surging ahead when the time is right. These latter moments can border on the cacophonous. Later in the set, ‘Steady’ provides an opportunity for this, with all hands on deck for a massive crescendo.
Before tackling ‘Elephant Head’, Spx talks of being nervous. You'd never have known, except perhaps for a fleeting moment at the start of the set as she drew breath for her first note. As soon as she’s using that voice, there’s nothing but confidence, and never is this more vivid than when she’s repeating that line: “I predict a graceful expulsion.”
Another highlight, where doom and soul and hope all come together beautifully, comes towards the conclusion of ‘Holland’: "We are many, we are dust. And to dust, we’ll all return.”
‘Lay Me Down’, the closing track on the album, is a fitting close to the set, with Spx alone on stage again, guitar in hand this time, and occasionally ditching the microphone again. The full band returns for an encore consisting of one new track, followed by non-album track 'On The Move'.
It’s a satisfying, moving performance, covering vast emotional territory, and held together by Spx’s truly exceptional voice. Something requiring far more than two words to describe it.
Words by Clinton Cawood
Photos by Richie Soans