The Low Anthem – Empire Music Hall, Belfast

The Empire Music Hall is bustling with people all here to see The Low Anthem, and a welcome haven of heat from the chill outside. First onstage are the wonderful And The Kids, an all female quartet who are a little bit indie rock, a little bit new wave and a little bit folk.

I can hear the influence of Rilo Kiley and Modest Mouse and, in this reviewer’s book, that’s a pretty good thing. Certainly alternative and with songs like ‘Glory, Glory’, ‘Friends Share Lovers’ and the brilliant ‘All Day All Night’ (with glockenspiel) fans of Pretty Girls Make Graves, Belly and Denali should give them a listen. You just might love them.

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The Low Anthem are up next. For those who aren’t familiar with their music, I would have said that the four piece were an American indie/folk/Americana band. Would have. Very important those two words. Having seen them play live at the Open House Festival a few years back and also at the Summer Sundae festival in Leicester, where the power cut out and they continued acapella, I was looking forward to listening to some easy on the ear songs of a cold Monday night.

Without fanfare or announcement, the band members filter onstage while Florence Wallis speaks a verse over a cacophony of noise, broken glass and sound effects. It instantly makes me feel uneasy but some bands like to set a scene, so hey, we bear with it. I swear I can hear Wallis play ‘Pure Imagination’ from ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ on ‘In the Pepsi Moon’ and Ben Knox Millers subtle voice is somewhat overshadowed by the violin but it makes for a dreamy environment with the large discoball casting glittery shadows over the stage.

Knox Miller thanks the support, And The Kids, and states very modestly that he has ‘nothing to say but is very happy to be here’. On ‘Ghostwoman Blues’, the harmonies are beautiful and the melody soars over the stripped back guitar, it’s songs like this that show the talent in The Low Anthem.

‘Boeing 737’ is next and it wakes us up with pounding drum and electric guitar. I’m not sure if its the placement of the kit on stage, which is front left, but all I can hear is Jeff Prystowsky furiously hammering the drums so much so it drowns out any hope of hearing the vocals. It’s not great to listen to and it’s a small taster of what is ahead.

Prystowsky takes the lead vocal on ‘Ozzie‘, all the while slamming the drumkit as if his life depends on it. The power with which he drums is commendable but when it overshadows the vocals and melody I don’t think it’s a great idea. Thankfully things mellow out on ‘Apothecary Love‘ from 2011s ‘Smart Flesh’ album with the only percussion tapping on the microphone to create a beat. Then comes a weird song, not entirely sure of its name but after some frantic googling I presume it to be ‘Wzgddrmtnwrdz‘ from the new album ‘Eyeland‘ (and no, it is not a typo). Sadly, it sounds how the title is spelled. It is sonically challenging and a bit of a mess frankly. A buzz of noises, sound effects, Bryan Minto rubbing a gong, unintelligible speaking. It is self indulgent at best.

This is followed by ‘This God Damn House’ which features the lead singer playing a saw with a bow. It’s bizarre but not a bad sound. ‘In the Air Hockey Fire’ is preceded by a story about kids who accidentally burned their house down while making a film and cheery stuff, it is not. At this stage two separate couples near me leave, clearly having had enough. I would have loved to leave also but being the intrepid reviewer I am, I stick it out.

Things get progressively worse though with ‘Am I The Dream Or Am I The Dreamer’ which again sadly is just noise; an endless whine of violin; what sounds like (and appears to be, from my vantage point) a typewriter, and a trumpet. It’s like a cross between bad jazz and orca whales. Although jazz wouldn’t take itself so seriously as this foursome seem to on-stage, with Florence Wallis putting the final nail in the coffin by wailing and howling over the clashing sounds. I actually feel like I could have a panic attack at this point and I am so very thankful when it ends.

‘Charlie Darwin’ is a welcome relief and Knox Millers falsetto is soothing to my jangled nerves. Leaving the stage, the crowd whoops and claps which leaves me bemused and wondering if I have been hearing the same songs as everyone else as I found the whole thing trying, bar a handful of songs.

The quartet return and launch into a cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird On A Wire’ which is largely unaccompanied and it is beautiful. The audience join in and its a special moment and I think ‘Yes! This is what you are good at, simplicity and songs done well’. With that they leave the stage and the gig is over. And for me, not before time. I found the whole experience difficult and while I appreciate experimentation in music and novelty, I do think that if taken too far or done badly, there is a danger of a band disappearing up its own collective arse, and alienating fans. Unfortunately for me, ‘Eyeland‘, and its subsequent performance at this show, has done that and I find myself longing for The Low Anthem that I know and miss.

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