As the world goes crazy for Adele singing down the phone, sparking a million YouTube comedians to parody her video while she counts the money generated by selling 635billion copies of her new single, it’s heartening to know that there’s more than middle of the road pop out there for those who are looking for it.
Whether they are classed as grime, punk or whatever other pigeon hole people prefer, Isaac Holman and Laurie Vincent, aka Slaves, are a band at the very top of their game, picking up a Mercury Prize nomination for this year’s Are You Satisfied? along the way.
Kicking off a 17-date European tour in the Limelight, before heading far and wide to cities including Dublin, Paris, Amsterdam and London, the band take to the stage around 10pm, following sets by Spring King, who welcomed earlycomers, then Baby Strange, who played to a large crowd as the venue approached capacity for the headline act.
As the house music was turned off and the crowd sensed that the band were imminent, the room was flooded with the dulcet tones of 90s pop legends The Vengaboys, prompting a quick hands-in-the-air singalong that literally no-one saw coming.
As the band took to the stage, it was clear that the place was absolutely rammed with Slaves fans. Holman took up his customary position behind his relatively simple, standing drum kit, while Vincent strapped on his guitar and they launched into White Knuckle Ride from 2012’s Sugar Coated Bitter Truth. Pints flew in the crowd and a mosh pit was instantly formed as the band ripped through the opener and fans pushed forward to get as close to the band as possible.
It’s easy to see why Slaves are so highly thought of. They have a real ‘couldn’t’ give a fuck’ persona. They’re angry. They’re raw. They’re frenetic. They’re entertaining when addressing the crowd and, make no mistake about it, they are an absolutely fantastic live band.
Songs from the new album continued to ignite the crowd, as The Limelight quickly became a hot, sweaty mess of a place with limbs flying, booze everywhere and a light show that wouldn’t have been out of place at a rave. The strobe effects were as frenetic as they were effective, adding even more menace to the snarling vocals on Despair and Traffic, Sockets and Live Like an Animal.
After taking time out between songs to explain that it’s the first time the band have played in Belfast and chatting with the crowd, they introduced a new song, which suggests that a new album, which has “7 or 8” songs on it at the moment, won’t be a million miles away from what they already do. Three minutes of brash drums, explosive guitar and borderline screaming vocals reassuring fans that critical and commercial success won’t change the band going forward.
Where’s Your Car Debbie? – a live favourite that doesn’t actually feature on either of the band’s albums had the crowd screaming the chorus in unison, before a cheer filled the room as Holman whipped his t-shirt off and played out the rest of the gig, abs-and-all, in a half-naked, sweaty ball of fury.
Hit after hit followed, and as more beers flowed – at least the ones that weren’t flying around the room – the crowd continued to get more and more energetic, though attempts at sitting on shoulders and crowd surfing were quickly stamped out by the security staff. Do Something was an even more fierce version than the album provides, while Cheer Up London was barely audible over the crowd – with every single word sung by seemingly almost every person in the venue.
Before Ninety Nine – another snarling, whirlwind of a track – Holman asks everyone to put their phones away and to enjoy being part of the moment and to watch with their eyes. It was a great moment, addressing a bugbear of a huge amount of gig-goers who now often see more of gigs through iPhone screens than they do their own eyes. He’s like a man possessed throughout the song, throwing his whole body and head into every drum beat, almost smashing the cymbals straight off their stand. In this mood – completely engrossed in the moment, and the music – Slaves are an absolute force of nature. It’s almost impossible to not be dragged in – kicking and screaming – and even the most reserved of fans began to jump around, inspired by the passion the two performers put into their show.
By this stage Slaves had the crowd in the palm of their hand, and Sugar Coated Bitter Truth proved it as the song began reasonably conservatively, before crashing into action, the crowd reacting accordingly, before again dropping quiet, the crowd reacting accordingly, and crescendoing into absolute carnage, the crowd… well, you know.
It would be easy to forget, amongst the energy and ferocity of the gig, that Holman and Vincent are both fine musicians. Though some will argue that the drum parts aren’t hugely complicated due to the stripped back nature of the kit, and there are likely some lazy comparisons made to rock two-piece Royal Blood somewhere on the internet, Slaves are extremely skilled at what they do, and are extremely tight with it. In all honesty, the Royal Blood comparison is a non-starter, and they made their rock rivals look as polished and mellow as Will Young (Death From Above 1979, who played at The Limelight earlier in the year may be a better comparison) as they ripped through In Dog Years You’re Dead.
A cover of Skepta’s Shut Down, which the band covered for Radio 1’s Live Lounge, was an opportunity for Holman to show off his ability to semi-rap and cemented the band’s place in the grime scene, setting up final track Hey, which was backed by more impressive lights and left the crowd absolutely desperate for more as they left the stage.
Though it looked like they’d be coming back on – as it’s very rare for a band not to play an encore these days – that, surprisingly, was that, and no chants of “one more tune” or “Feed the Mantaray” (another crowd favourite from the new album) could change matters as engineers started to take the set apart, and members of the crowd looked at each other, half bemused that it wasn’t continuing, half in awe of what they’d just seen. It was a shame, admittedly, that there was no encore, but in a way it perfectly encapsulated the utter chaos of the performance.
This may have been Slaves’ first visit to Belfast, but, if they continue to go from strength to strength, and, in all honesty, they’d go some way to improve on this performance, it certainly won’t be the last time they play here. There will be cuts and bruises galore covering those lucky enough to be in The Limelight for the gig, but no amounts of small injuries could take the shine off what was a memorable night in the company of an absolutely superb band. Dan Williams, GiggingNI.com