Words and photo by Kristofer Thomas
After a decade of relative obscurity, ‘future soul’ has made something of a comeback during these last few years. Be this the Robert Glasper productions that made up much of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, the long-awaited resurrection of D’Angelo, or the mainstream’s acclimatising to acts such as The Internet and Frank Ocean, future soul has seen its profile rise inexplicably as the word ‘mellow’ becomes synonymous with its sound.
Australian band and self-confessed future soul-ists Hiatus Kaiyote came to wider attention with the release of their memorable, if scattered, debut album, Tawk Tomahawk, in 2012, but have since gone some way to shed their mellow labelling. A Grammy nomination, a second album, and a period of maturation followed, so now, as the genre arguably draws closer to its commercial peak, Kaiyote are beginning to branch out into other territories, striving for a longevity that avoids all but genius in the niche of future soul.
Much of what distinguishes Hiatus Kaiyote can be boiled down to vocalist Nai Palm’s incredible voice. An impressive mix of soul, blues, jazz and hazy pop undertones, it’s undoubtedly the star of the show, and she tears through a set list of mostly newer songs with consistent quality. This isn’t to say that the rest of the band aren’t on form, but the problem with future soul is that without a near-miraculous vocalist, the beats and instrumentation can often run flat and lose momentum halfway through a show.
In tonight’s case, most of the audience were so transfixed by these vocal gymnastics that the backing tracks became largely interchangeable. Future soul isn’t instilled with the same elegance as vintage soul, the seductiveness of R&B, or the energy of funk and hip hop, and as a result bands like Hiatus Kaiyote must keep their audience engaged throughout concerts with a perfect balance of atmosphere and progression, something incredibly hard to achieve without decades of experience.
Their show at the Ritz tonight was certainly impressive, showcasing a strong catalogue of songs and an ability to make a sold out room seem intimate, but were it not for Palm’s vocal performance the night would have settled into a rut at nine o’clock and remained in there until curfew. Overall, it was Palm’s voice that saves me from describing the gig as mellow – and, by extension, boring.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with playing to your strengths, and Haitus Kaiyote is definitely a band with great strength in their arsenal. However, if they are to make a mark beyond the future soul genre, one infamous for randomly fluctuating between intense relevance and complete obscurity, then their sound must evolve to not so heavily rely on one solitary element, regardless of how good that one element may be.
The gig was promoted by Band on the Wall and took place at The Ritz on Wednesday 27 April, 2016.