It seemed a curious billing: the lumbering (if seasonably named) Texan guitar-pounders supporting a man whose cheerful electronic music was once described as "avant-nice". Yet it turns out that Explosions in the Sky and Four Tet (alias Kieran Hebden), have more in common than you'd think.
Firstly, the Texans - actually a quartet - are exemplary in their niceness. Before starting, they say what a lovely time they are having in England, with the air of shy but well-adjusted sixth-formers. This hardly matches the doom-laden sonic onslaught that follows, and the total lack of mise-en-scène is a pity. For Explosions in the Sky play what is sometimes known as post-rock: instrumental guitar music that blends the elegiac and the cathartic, largely thanks to liberal (in this case, expert) deployment of the chorus pedal and the distortion pedal.
It makes for great film music, but it doesn't necessarily make great viewing. Yet tonight, the music is electrifying enough to carry the show, and the sight of the three front men raising their arms high to thrash them down on their guitars provides some drama.
Most important, the sound quality is tremendous: every brick in the wall of noise can be heard individually throughout. Liquid, languorous high-pitched melodies shine through guitar fuzz that is always warm rather than abrasive. It certainly is heavy, though: more like a storm than a firework display, perhaps, but the kind of storm you want to stay up and watch.
Perhaps Hebden chose Explosions in the Sky deliberately to prime the audience's eardrums for his own performance. It soon becomes clear that we're not in for anything light or breezy tonight. A cloud of fuzz quickly develops around Hebden's opening track, "Joy", and he maintains a higher level of intensity throughout the set than can be found on any Four Tet album - even this year's beat-busy Everything Ecstatic. Hebden has grown decidedly sick of the folky tag applied to his earlier records. Wary of anyone who might deem Four Tet to be suitable dinner-party background music, he is asserting himself as a purveyor of more imposing fare.
Older tracks are aired, but there are no blissed-out, extended versions. Instead, they are punctuated by eruptions of super-fast beats, or the sound of a cassette rewinding. The bucolic associations are still there, but as often as not, Hebden will throw something that sounds more like a sawmill into the forest canopy evoked by the various chimes and beeps.
By deliberately sowing chaos among his soundscapes, Hebden sustains a feeling of tense excitement throughout his set. It is as though he's struggling to conduct a rowdy orchestra of R2D2s, and only just keeping it all together.
The restlessness may be an attempt to subvert his own music, but it certainly doesn't ruin it: the way a track like "Parks" (from 2001's Pause) survives its reworking shows what a strong composition it is. And he's right to mess things up a bit: such brilliance doesn't deserve to be dismissed as chill-out music.
That said, all the interruptions and added sounds can come across as a rather simplistic response to the challenge of how to play electronic music live. Hebden is even less of a showman than Explosions in the Sky are. His performance mainly consists of him staring intently at two laptops while nodding his head in reptilian fashion. You can't see the computer screens, and if you could it probably wouldn't tell you much. At least when he's bringing all those extra sounds in with the sliding levers to his left, the layman can get some limited sense of how the music is being created live, right there.Reuse content