Nigel Godrich’s new project delivers
Ultraista - Live At Birthdays, London

Anyone affiliated with Radiohead is going to be watched intently when they wander into territory new. And sure as you’d expect, Ultraista, the latest project from Radiohead producer and oft credited “sixth member” Nigel Godrich, are attracting a level of hype befitting their originator’s lofty musical credentials.

Tonight marks the London debut of this heavyweight three piece. Comprised of Godrich himself, one man musical explosion Joey Waronker (Beck, R.E.M., Smashing Pumpkins) and the captivating Laura Bettinson (Femme, Dimbleby & Capper) there is a strange mix of the new and the familiar permeating the air in this small corner of Dalston.

Opening with the impressive ‘Bad Insect’ it is difficult not to be drawn into the inevitable comparisons. The band will have to get used to this, as it is both inescapable and on the basis of this opening, justified. However much you try to be objective you just can’t avoid noticing the same click clack rhythms and chamber like synthesizers that have become a mainstay of Radiohead’s sound. But these are not identified as a stick to beat with. If anything their recognition serves only to provide proof that Godrich is as much an architect of this sound as has long been assumed and has every right to be experimenting with it as he chooses.

It is fair to say, therefore, that Ultraista have a legitimate ownership of the music they are making. Far from being derivative it is more a logical evolution and, dare we say, exciting progression to see it expanded into such fresh and unapologetically pop-filled horizons. Admittedly most of the “pop” comes from Bettinson, infectious visually as she moves amongst the spectrum light-filled projections, it is largely her delicate feminine vocal that pulls the songs out from their kraut-electro routes and into the glitter-filled light of the mainstream.

The performance is an assured and confident one and the pre-released mini singles ‘Smalltalk’ and ‘Static Light’ live up to every expectation. In fact the only real disappointment is that the mini singles do seem to be the high watermarks and there is a noticeable disparity between them and the album tracks played here.

This should be taken in context though, and neatly brings us full circle to those same unavoidable problems of association identified earlier. It is a strange conundrum for the band that they will inevitably garner greater interest and exposure as a result of the elevated affiliations of their members.  In that respect Ultraista has a definitive head start on the competition. But it may equally prove to be a limiting factor in what the band can realistically achieve with the heavy weight of expectation blinkering the sizable microscope they will be under.

It is therefore pleasing to see that Ultraista do not seem to carry this weight with them. Preparing for their final track, the aptly titled ‘Easier’, Bettinson and Godrich take the opportunity to say some thank-yous.  Stumbling through them like embarrassed Oscar winners you can sense a genuine innocence and joy around the stage. This is a band with no agenda and nothing to prove. They are formed purely through the love for their work and it is with this backdrop their music should be read.

On one level Ultraista find themselves under a glass ceiling of their respective pasts. But on another level what they are doing is very special indeed.  They are taking a music, which, let’s face it, has for so long been synonymous with a dry and critical seriousness, and they are expressing it with a warm affection and carefree sensibility.  If you join them in this mindset, as a hundred or so faithful did tonight, Ultraista deliver on every level.


Words by Chris Wash


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