Amongst this country’s many admirable independent labels, Erased Tapes Records have always stood out as something special. Tonight, the Hackney Empire is full to the rafters in celebration of the London-via-Berlin collective’s 5th birthday, and while we’re all aware of the intimate, very human relationship many listeners have with its artists, it takes a theatre full to bursting to remind everyone just how appreciated they are.
A Winged Victory For The Sullen are the first of the label's roster to take to the stage; American-born Berliner Dustin O'Halloran and wry Stars of the Lid mastermind Adam Wiltzie flanking a formidable eleven piece string orchestra. Tonight, the ensemble’s intent was undeniably one of immersion, and it’s near impossible not to be entirely saturated the band’s simultaneously intimate and expansive orchestral post-rock – not least during the group’s “obligatory” cover of Gavin Bryars’ classic, ‘Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet’. At times, those sweeping drones resonate with some of the fixings around the beautiful old theatre, causing them to rattle; shivering in exactly the same way the majority of the audience might be at the sheer elegance of it all. The morphology of the set is interrupted only briefly for Wiltzie to quip about technical problems, or to thank a violinist who stepped in after the regular player had “slept through his fucking alarm clock” and missed his flight.
Ólafur Arnalds arrives in good spirits. Asking the audience to sing so that he could sample them live seems a manoeuvre that could have gone the way of pantomime, but his dry humour (augmented somewhat by his hefty Icelandic accent) has the audience won over before he even plays a note. Of course when he does, it's spellbinding. Despite several highlights – not least a mammoth display of solo virtuosity from Arnalds’ violinist – it’s the final piece of the night, ‘Lag Fyrir Ömmu’ (‘Song for Grandma’) that turns out to be the apex. Arnalds' two cohorts (who'd been assumed to have clocked off for the evening) play from offstage; the ethereal and impalpable effect conjuring ideas of memory and a distance between life and afterlife to simply disastrous effect.
If, over the course of his set, Arnalds’ playfulness transformed into something more solemn, Nils Frahm is here to pick up the wisecracking baton. Tiptoeing on stage to interrupt a speech by Erased Tapes founder Robert Raths (presumably embarrassing for a justly proud label owner, but he's dawdling, and this three-hour concert is already running over), he jokes about how his set has already been cut short (“there's a lot of you people, and you take so long at the bar”), and wastes no time introducing us to the ingenuity of the approach to his instrument. Whether performing a ritualistically pulsing percussion piece by attacking the body of his piano with a pair of drumsticks, or an elegantly poised duet with Arnalds’ cellist, Frahm is utterly engrossing. It’s his final performance of the night, an extended, seemingly part improvised take on ‘More’, from 2011 album ‘Felt', that earns him the most rapturous reaction of the entire evening. Straddled between Rhodes and grand piano (often playing both simultaneously), Frahm plays with such precision and technique – but even more crucially so much vitality and dynamism – that our transfixion is inevitable.
Words by Sam Cleeve