A word of warning: in the future, if you see that I’m attending a show in June next year, just know that for the past three or four years now, I’ve been unlucky enough to be gig-bound on the hottest day of that month. Gigging indoors in the heat is never fun, of course – although few will top PIG in the sauna of the Black Heart last year for sheer unpleasantness – but at least the O2 Academy had functioning air-con.
/Into the Pit/207/New Blood Tour
O2 Academy 2 Islington/N1
Certainly I’d not noticed in the pre-gig events and information that the show was actually upstairs in the smaller Academy 2, but as it happened it was no great issue (aside from there being no separated photo pit, so I just had to get pics where and when I could). It’s been some time since I was up in that part of the venue, and it very much felt much improved from the box room of old – or maybe my memory is playing tricks on me. Either way, with the early start for this show (four bands, curfew of 2200), there was absolutely no chance of me making My Hysteria, and indeed as it happened I only arrived after the second support act had started.
According to my notes, I’d apparently seen Dicepeople before, and if so, they certainly didn’t make the kind of impact on me that they did this time around. Now stripped down to a two-piece, they were a shadowy, intriguing presence, and sounded rather different to many of their peers. Their sound was one of slower-paced, bass-heavy rhythms, that reminded me of both Massive Attack’s darker moments, and more particularly the sound of the fantastic Creatures album Anima Animus – a brooding darkness that was only exacerbated by Matt Brock hiding behind a mask, a hoodie and Orbital-esque head-mounted torches, and vocalist Zmora spending a surprising amount of time with her back to the crowd. The songs, though, were great, and I loved particularly the final track, driven by some malevolent synth hooks. I’ll be looking their recorded output up post haste.
It’s now four years since I first stumbled across Empathy Test. That first appearance was at the S.O.S #2 festival at Electrowerkz, and they looked rather like fish out of water offstage, although their songs made them many friends. Four years hence, and they’ve toured and toured, released a steady stream of singles as well as twin debut albums, and gained a number of famous fans, and this tour – a double headliner with ACTORS – is to my knowledge their first headline tour in the UK (although they’ve done the odd headline show elsewhere).
Judging on this show (my seventh time seeing them), too, they’ve gained quite a following, and the kind of fanatical following that knows all the words and will attend multiple shows on a tour. This is important to a band on the up, as they are the people that will help spread the word further. For a group like Empathy Test, spreading the word like that is useful due to their insistence on self-releasing their material, which removes the label backing that they might have otherwise enjoyed.
All that touring really has left them in a great-sounding place, especially now that they have more than enough songs to mix things up, and this set saw them playing a whole host of songs I’ve either not heard in a while, or not heard them play at all. This included all four new songs released since the album releases – the pick of which is the stark, soulful hit of Incubation Song, a track that seems to me to offer new possibilities for the band in terms of their sound.
There were other surprises. Everything Will Work Out was an unexpected highlight, much better with the crowd singing along than on record, where for me it’s one of the group’s rare weaker songs, while Vampire Town leapt out as an immediate stand-out (even if looked at critically, it’s another song that can be added to the long list of songs bitter about London), the burning emotion at the heart of it making it shine all the greater in a set full of emotion.
Bare My Soul
Everything Will Work Out
A River Loves A Stone
Safe From Harm
This Is The Place
As really, that’s what dominates Empathy Test’s songs. Emotion is the key word, and why they have struck a chord so quickly and so strongly. Their songs are often mid-paced, which perhaps means that they aren’t dancefloor bound – but does that matter anymore, anyway, with the dearth of clubs nowadays – so the feelings that they get across become all the more important. The three closing songs made that so clear. Demons is a glorious song, where love and indecision and insecurity all intertwine in three heartstopping minutes, Losing Touch is the song of loss that got many hooked on the group in the first place, and This Is The Place is a tender-but-defiant take on death.
Away from the adulation, though, there appears to be the odd bump in the road – regular keyboardist Sam appears to have left the group mid-tour, and regular drummer Cristina was unavailable for this date at least, leaving Isaac holding the fort with two stand-ins at present. Bands go through this kind of thing, though, and the key will be seeing how the band move forward. That said, they were still slick and nerveless live here, and were able to push any issues to the side at least for the duration of the performance.
A new album apparently is coming in the autumn, and I’ll be intrigued to see what direction they take. You can have your own opinions on how and whether a band can and should evolve, but the new songs so far suggest that they are ahead of us on that front.
The nature of this dual-headlining tour was that until near the event, you didn’t know who’d be playing last, and as it turned out ACTORS headlined the London show. I must admit that I was a little later to the party than I should have been with this band, as having checked my records I somehow didn’t feature a song from the band in my /Tuesday Ten/Tracks of the Month series when the album came out – although I made amends in /Countdown/2018 where they placed highly on each post.
I’m a little confused as to why this was. Perhaps it was my own cynicism getting in the way to start with – there hasn’t exactly been a shortage of nominally post-punk influenced bands in recent years, wherever you are in the world. But what has become apparent over the past couple of years is that it is possible to do more interesting things within a basic sound (as is often the case), and ACTORS are one of those bands.
Sure, you can point the finger towards a number of obvious influences (you know the names), but their approach means that the songs are anything but drab and shrouded in shadow. Almost all of them are sprightly songs that are stuffed with melody and hooks, particularly the later songs as the band have found their way forward.
It Goes Away
L’Appel Du Vide*
Face Meets Glass
We Don’t Have To Dance
Let It Grow
Like U Want 2
* abandoned due to sound issues
** I think this was dropped from the set
That doesn’t mean that the old songs don’t work well, too. It Goes Away is an impressive charge to get things going, and the sultry beauty of debut single Post-Traumatic Love still shines brightly, reminding too that they don’t always have to put their foot down on the accelerator.
Frustratingly sound issues nearly scuppered the entire show, with my own favourite song L’Appel Du Vide abandoned twice as the band apparently lost all sound in the monitors (and the bass disappeared entirely). Ten minutes or so of work to fix things, and there was relief all-round as a triumphant pairing of Slaves and Face Meets Glass passed without incident. The band deserve a lot of credit for staying relatively calm and taking the issues they faced in good humour – these things happen, right? Certainly I’ve seen less patient bands stomp off, never to return, having faced lesser problems than this in the past.
After all this, they seemed to pick up the pace a bit to make sure they didn’t have to drop anything else before the curfew, and as far I can remember they managed it with just dropping one song. There were more highlights, too, especially the fabulous We Don’t Have To Dance – whose lyrics I can certainly relate to within my own relationships – whose chorus is a skyscraping, love-filled thing of wonder, and the ethereal Bury Me, where Jason seems to push his voice beyond his usual range to make those high notes impressively.
Initially, I was a little surprised to see these two bands on the same bill together. Did they really have that much in common? Actually, they do. While they don’t sound alike whatsoever, they both have growing fanbases and a clear ability to connect with their audiences, something that is vital to make live performances worth attending. They also both have a fistful of fantastic songs, too – and with the rather different fanbases that were attending this show (and presumably the rest of the tour, too), I’ve no doubt that there were a number of people discovering one band for the first time. On the evidence shown at this night, I’d be surprised if both bands didn’t leave here with a host new fans. Needless to say, this was worth battling through the humid evening for.