Wild Beasts, Shepherds Bush Empire, London


Sold-out signs at the first of two dates here hint at the possible rewards for bands that refuse to play the percentages. Best known for Hayden Thorpe’s Marmite countertenor, Wild Beasts have been dividing opinion since they emerged in 2008, yet have carried on challenging their dedicated fanbase through continual evolution.

Tonight’s hardcore followers seem to be able to spot any tune from three albums within one or two opening notes, despite the group’s development. Rather than deliver more of the same, the Cumbrian foursome – now decamped to London – decided less is more and have gradually stripped back their sound since the exuberant art-pop of debut album Limbo, Panto. Their finely honed grooves on 2009’s Two Dancers earned them a Mercury nomination and wider recognition, while its follow-up Smother, released earlier this year, sees the Beasts explore texture as well as groove.

Slowing down the tempo suits their new subject matter, which sees Thorpe move on from odes to animal carnality and street violence to more romantic yearning on the likes of ‘Bed Of Nails’. At their best, Wild Beasts captivate by amassing various threads into a rich tapestry. Drummer Chris Talbot defines the space by weaving ever more complex webs, from his sparse pattern on the hushed ‘Deeper’ to the gentle shuffle of ‘Reach A Bit Further’. That is also a fine vehicle for another underappreciated talent, Thorpe’s fellow vocalist Tom Fleming, whose earthier, more classically northern, tone cuts through his bandmate’s sometimes treacly delivery.

Occasionally, the glistening ambience falls short, too delicate to carry the group’s lyrical weight, notably on ‘Albatross’ when Fleming and Thorpe face each other across opposing synths. Otherwise, the boys are unfailingly polite, perhaps too well mannered when earlier, more propulsive numbers lack bite. ‘Hooting And Howling’ needs more drive, even when Thorpe adds a startling growl. Better is the Blondie-style disco pulse of ‘We Still Got The Taste Dancin’ On Our Tongues’ and the afrobeat twitch of ‘Devil’s Crayon’, before  Fleming reprises his previous lustiness during the encore on ‘All The King’s Men’.

At the end, though, Wild Beasts do make their newfound minimalism stick on a delightful finale, the epic ‘End Comes Too Soon’ that collapses at one point into a shimmering haze underscored by a sinister, cavernous pulse that the band, almost lost in darkness, maintain for several minutes, before the song comes roaring back, revealing the beast within.