Review by Mike Emerson
So, it’s deadline week at University… all three years worth of (shit) work about to culminate into one massively self indulgent exhibition. Not being one to break with habit nor trend, I’m a fair bit far behind, and I’m going to have to use every waking hour of every day to pull it all together. Probably not a good idea to take a night off and head to a gig then?
It’s not just one of those bog standard, run of the mill type gigs though. It’s a collaboration between the cities two current promoter champions – ‘Now Wave‘ and ‘Hey! Manchester‘ – and if hosting two of the most exciting acts around right now wasn’t enough, they broke out the power move and used Whitworth Art Gallery as a venue. You know full well that when these unique nights come around, it’s going to be one to remember.
The rows of chairs filling this vast white room are already quite full when I arrive. An usherette does her ushering and tells me (as I’m completely alone) that there’s one free seat right up at the front, and they could do with me sitting there as the show is completely sold out. Wedged between two sets of overly tactile couples, with everyone now suitably aware that I have no friends or companions, G R E A T W A V E S begin the proceedings. Now, I’ve seen G R E A T W A V E S around eight times since October, having wrote a review on seven of those occasions. I really don’t want to rehash anything I’ve said before, and to be perfectly honest, I’m running out of superlatives. Having said that, I’m not one to leave out the support band – especially if they are as good as this.
The fact of the matter is that they are one of the greatest prospects in music right now, never mind in Manchester. They’re as far from Salford’s Fuhrerbunker as is imaginable and there is a notable omission of incense sticks, yet the intensity doesn’t wane one bit. Tonight, the visuals are taking their aura even further than usual, with two great big shadows towering over the splutterings of red hues behind them. They more or less play the same set as they normally do, yet never once lose my attention – that fact alone holding testament to their prowess. They extend their final track somewhat stupendously with breakdowns and builds galore, and once again, I’m left in a reflective trance wondering what the fuck just happened. If there is some hair follicle width chance that you do listen to anything I say, let it be to seek them out and watch them play – total satisfaction guaranteed or your money back.
If like most, you couldn’t give two shits about me, do listen to Tom Krell (lead vocalist and brainchild of How to Dress Well). As he saunters on stage to a rapturous applause, his first move is to not only thank Great Waves for opening, but to laud them as the best opening act they’ve had on the whole tour of 150 dates. He tells the crowd that they deserve a standing ovation, and I completely agree.
There’s a two mic set up infront of Krell, and a table full of instruments and computers for his partner in crime. I normally find the whole double mic thing a little annoying, but as they hurtle straight through ‘Cold Nites’ and into ‘Running Back’, I start to think otherwise. Krell has an extremely unique way of utilising his voice, with one mic seeming to hold the key to reverb and effects and the other being totally clean. He starts with one, then tailing each line & verse into the other, At times snapping one away to the side to taper the sound. He plays a lot with this distance from the microphones, creating soft whispers of words from further aback. It’s not brain surgery by any means, but his technique is second to none.
He addresses the crowd on the choice of venue, stating that it’s “like we’re all a bunch of adults now”. He explains that the next track; ‘Suicide Dream One’ is about a friend who passed away, and as the pure white backdrop lights up the room, things get a little more intense. The all round synth/keys/drumpad supremo starts glancing around a violin, and then again, that voice comes through. The vocal strength is shown here, as he creates almighty yearns, all the while bellowing into the total opposite direction of the mic. The track feels as beautifully sombre as its subject, and the angelic falsetto washing over the top just takes it somewhere else.
The live show works just as well when things pick up, too. ‘And It Was U’ has an almost 90’s garage vibe running through its core, the mixture of puritan vocals and dance driven beats calling up slight comparisons to the likes of James Blake & Deptford Goth. Before ‘Talking to You’, he interacts once more to give a brief synopsis on the track and it’s meaning; “It’s like choosing your career or the thing that you love, being with one person but wanting to fuck everything you see – very confusing”. He’s one of those people that sounds strangely profound with the most unlikely choice of words, and you can see that his speeches are going down a treat with the room full of idolising fans. After explaining his love for this city, he plays a new ‘stressful’ track, which sounds very different to the rest. There’s a lot less light in this, with stabbing 808’s repeating from beginning to end alongside screams of frustration. It’s a really memorable moment in the set, feeling a bit heavier and a little more angry.
He soon arrives at the penultimate ‘Suicide Dream Two’, and whilst it stands out with the first – being almost as hauntingly beautiful – it is completely overshadowed by the final song. Prominent album track ‘Set It Right’ is seen as the right choice to end on, and Krell asks for the sound engineer to make sure everyone feels this in their chest. We do. Those echoing synths burst in straight from the word go alongside some elongated strings, sounding like some sort of heavenly ethereal casting call. It’s set against fractured visuals of all things epic; supernova footage, launching rockets, ocean dives… and that just completes the explosive mood. It feels gargantuan, and as the pair walk offstage, you feel like you’re going to go home having actually experienced something. The encore soon cements this idea.
Krell reappears alone, and tells the crowd that we have the tour manager to thank for this soon-to-be preview of his new album. A mess around with the lighting makes everything feel a little warmer, as he goes on to explain that the song is called ‘Blue’, the name given to his brother at birth due to his parents being stoned. There are no visuals behind this time, no violin accompaniment, no microphone duel – he just starts to sing acapella at the front of the stage. You can hear every single word as clear as anything, the song seeming to touch upon the idea of being brought up alongside that sibling you will always believe to be your best friend and things not entirely working out that way. It’s absolutely mesmerising, deeply personal, and incredibly open. The girl next to me dives into her bag and starts scouring for tissues, presumably not wanting to smear her mascara just before the lights go on.
I’ve always enjoyed How to Dress Well’s records, but being someone who prefers dark/heavy or deep/experimental stuff live, I was never sure how much I’d like to go and see it live. From skeptical to all out believer, I’m completely converted. The atmosphere and the building just added to the thing that is that voice, and there was absolutely nothing light nor airy to be found. I’m now sat kicking myself for not going to that Soup Kitchen show last year that everybody raved about, but surely, it can’t have been much better than that.