James Blake, The Forum, London (3/5)
Tonight’s set consists mostly of trance-like drum 'n' bass tracks, accompanied by over-zealous, fit-inducing strobe lighting and the kind of heavy, reverberating bass that makes you feel like someone’s blowing raspberries on your intestines. But James Blake’s attention to detail and extensive repertoire mean he appeals to more than just fans of heavy bass lines and break beats.
The young crowd (and one old hipster) lap up the dreamy sound of 'Limit to Your Love' (a cover of the original track by Feist) as it builds to a reverberating climax. After Blake released it as a single last year, he became known in the world of dubstep, but then there’s the undercurrent of something else in his music - a different genre entirely, hidden underneath the drums and mellow synths.
‘The Wilhelm Scream’, a track from Blake’s eponymous debut album, is named after a movie sound effect for when people die, often when falling to their death, although the scream isn’t sampled, the lyrics refer to “falling, falling, falling” and there is an impending sense of doom as the ambient noise joins together to form a pulse, then a jarring wave of sound.
Sometimes Blake’s music is so electronically smothered that sounds become disconnected from their origins. A guitar chord becomes a dolphin’s shriek, keyboard notes morph into a blip noise on a radar monitor and drum beats become the rapid whir of helicopter blades.
Wood percussion punctuates ‘Lindisfarne’, a two-suite melodic ballad. The words have been electronically warped so it’s hard to distinguish them. The murky result might once have been folk music before the distortions made it more stilted. Similarly, ‘A Case of You’, a Joni Mitchell cover, retains some of the whimsical blues of the original, but it sounds like you’re listening to it under water.
Blake came second, after Jessie J, in the BBC's Sound of 2011 poll, which is awarded to promising new musicians. There’s been a lot of talk about whether this threw a spotlight on him too early on. Interestingly, he hasn’t bowed to the pressure. With his brown-haired head bent and bobbing to the beat, he appears to be focused inward, almost unaware of the audience which spills into the aisles. You get the impression he could just as contentedly play to an empty room.
There’s a self-assurance about Blake, and in the diversity and experimental nature of tonight’s set. The sound is unsettling and hard to pin down, but the electronic modulation is deceptively artful.
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