The night after this Cambridge show, Wild Beasts will play the biggest headline gig of their career to date: the final date of a UK jaunt that’s seen them snaking their way down the country, towards a sold-out Brixton Academy. Tonight’s performance, then, feels like an intimate warm-up of sorts; a last opportunity to tweak the setlist and test out newer, less-familiar material.
This tour, in support the band’s edgier fourth LP ‘Present Tense’ (review), feels like a journey these four men were always destined to make. Back in 2008, their magically eccentric debut ‘Limbo, Panto’ set them aside as outsiders with lofty ambitions. Since then, while their pantomime of fiercely intelligent elegance has matured and expanded beyond all expectations, it’s remained art-pop for oddballs at heart.
So who on earth would have predicted that the band with the strange, high-pitched singer who wrote the screechingly florid ‘Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants’ would ever be packing out one of the capital’s most eminent venues?
But before Brixton there’s the (comparatively, at least) small matter of the Corn Exchange. On taking to the stage, Kendal’s finest are greeted by rapturous applause, which quickly gives way to hushed expectancy: this is the first time these fans will have had a chance to hear the more menacing nuances of Wild Beasts’ latest evolution.
Though they’ve started recent shows with the brash and bruised synths of ‘Present Tense’ opener ‘Wanderlust’, they begin here with ‘Mecca’, the most (previous LP) ‘Smother’-like cut from ‘Present Tense’ and a continuation of what we’ve come to expect from these four sophisticates.
As co-frontman Hayden Thorpe sways and coos dreamily through shimmering verses and an earworm chorus, his voice duelling perfectly with Tom Fleming’s butter-rich harmonies, he’s sighing typically Wild Beasts fare, opulent and well-articulated imagery of erotic liaisons: “We move in desire, just surrender your limbs to my every whim.” His bizarre falsetto is as alien as ever, but now it’s less a selling point for Wild Beasts’ peculiarity and more elastic, just part of the package.
Next comes ‘Sweet Spot’, the natural bridge between the band’s prettier and darker material, a fluttery chorus punctuated by squelchy strains of dark synth. ‘The Fun Powder Plot’ follows, swooping gracefully along ahead of the clattering joy of ‘The Devil’s Crayon’, both songs now classics in this band’s canon.
It’s not really until halfway through when the Beasts decide to flex any newfound muscles. The delicate flourishes of ‘Two Dancers’-period guitar make way for the brooding tension and rattling, slashing bass of ‘Nature Boy’, which Tom performs bathed in red lights while his bandmates are shrouded in darkness: “I’m the thing fenced in / I’m ten men.”
Later, on ‘Daughters’, Fleming delivers the line “Pretty children sharpening their blades” with devilish lust before letting a bassline take over that’s so heavy it wobbles both teeth and intestines. Of course, this is a band capable of conjuring high theatrics in the most nightmarish of situations, and the unexpected accompanying laser show draws gasps from the crowd.
Later, while Thorpe toasts the crowd with a cup of red wine, Fleming chuckles: “Thanks for putting up with the pantomime,” before conversationally introducing their best song ‘All The King’s Men’ as “a song about f*cking”. In their fledgling stages the band grabbed attentions by wearing these idiosyncrasies emblazoned on their flamboyant shirts, but really it’s tunes like this that have brought them within a stone’s throw of a career-defining moment at Brixton.
Now one of the most innovative and brilliant bands in the country, Wild Beasts’ triumph is one for the weirdoes everywhere.
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Words: Dannii Leivers
Related: Wild Beasts discuss 'Present Tense'