Ben Howard @ Brixton Academy
It’s not often an artist can give you the sensation of an ever-increasing descent into the depths of the ocean, or being released from an airlock into the abyss of space.
One could argue that Ben Howard feels a duty to produce this effect, with multi-layered ambience and dense textural instrumentation coupled with seamless transitioning and thoughtful sequencing to create his desired sound.
His withdrawn and introverted stage presence is a small price to pay, the sonic vocabulary he produces becoming a coherent language as he attempts to break down the walls of his audience and share the music he is proud of.
When he finally decided to communicate with the auditorium, his apparent timidity was explained; legions of adoring fans raised the ceiling with incomprehensible roars of praise and joy, drowning the soft Devonshire tones of their hero with well-placed idolatry.
Despite this, Mr Howard managed to find pockets of time in which he could reveal his unexpectedly dry sense of humour and the shyness you’d expect from the sensitivity of his songs.
Howard and his extremely talented entourage opened perfectly with the introductory track from the latest album: “Nica Libres At Dusk”, which was indicative of what was to come.
With two drummers, the percussion was well-rounded and complemented the songs without invading the musical space, thanks to the refined skill of both of the men behind the kits.
A subtle string section added an orchestral atmosphere to the more ambient pieces, mingling with the three delay-drenched guitars and the incredible industrial synth work by the multi-instrumentalist on Howard’s right: Mickey Smith.
Smith was an integral part of the performance and deserves an honourable mention for his obvious dedication and passion.
From thumping basslines to intense but relevantly restrained backing vocals, this bare-footed polymath gave it everything he had, and was a pleasure to watch and listen to, communicating infectious energy with ease.
Not to detract from the inspirational cohesiveness of the other band members, who created a darkly magical evening behind the effortless ability of Ben Howard.
Deeply layered textures swirled and penetrated throughout, although a sense of dissatisfaction amongst the audience created a barrier against the sonic bliss aiming to be achieved.
Some members seemed restless, as others chattered and gossiped in ignorance bordering on irreverence.
These are the people I assume came hoping to get jolly on a couple of pints of export lager and sit on each other’s shoulders chanting to “Only Love” or “Old Pine”.
Some would argue that such contempt for a paying audience is unfair, but a bit of artist research wouldn’t go amiss…
Sonically, Ben Howard has progressed into ever more fertile musical soil; whilst you can still hear the roots of the romantic singer-songwriter, you can also hear an effort to escape the preconceptions surrounding his art.
Some would do well to remember how much time has passed since the release of some of his more popular tracks; artists change and can often look back on their older works with a disdainful eye.
But despite these contemptuous musings, I was also eager to hear some of the classics, although with such a broad repertoire, there’s only so much he can fit in.
During the encore, he satisfied some ears with a stripped down version of “I Forget Where We Were” and old favourite “Black Flies”. But the more upbeat numbers craved by some members of the crowd were nowhere to be found.
The highlight of the show was the performance of the interlude “All Down the Mines” and what followed. Whilst this sparse bluesy piece echoed through the hall, a projection of urgent Black Friday shoppers dominated the screen, providing ample food for thought.
Just as the more attentive members of the audience had descended into a thoughtful haze, a distorted take on Cat Steven’s “Wild World” injected a jolt of nostalgic energy.
That, coupled with the representation of “All Down the Mines”, suggested a confused protest against modern society.
This energy transitioned into “The Defeat”, another abstract statement of disillusion with a stream-of-consciousness quality that stood well alongside the dark motorik beat and lashings of distorted guitar by an impassioned Howard.
The show was a great insight into the evolutionary nature of Howard’s work, and an unforgettable experience overall.
The crowd was also treated to special guests Ex:Re, the solo project of Elena Tonra of Daughter fame.
Tonra’s set was atmospheric and sparse, her line-up consisting of a bassist and an extremely animated drummer, alongside the warm tones of her electric guitar.
Her distinctive voice rose above the tracks and set the tone perfectly for Ben Howard, who was an enthusiastic fan of her work.