First time at XOYO for Sonic Masala, as we line in the cold we wonder what we have in store...
Former Ghosts - New Orleans
Herding into the downstairs area that seems amply set up for club nights, first on the stage is Former Ghosts. Main man Freddy Ruppert comes across as nervous as he and Xiu Xiu frontman Jamie Stewart set up, necking frantically a couple of beers before launching into some material from new album New Love. Stewart's manic guitar here heightens the ominous nature of these cold electronic driven tracks, whilst Ruppert's vocals echo the Ian Curtis comparisons that have been thrown at him in the past. The lyrics are plaintive and emotional - none moreso on standout track 'New Orleans', where he gyrates on the spot whilst lamenting that "it's all my fault/that I fell in love in the first place" - a great, great pop song, albeit for a forlorn, smashed up heart. Exit Stewart, enter Jesus - Zola Jesus, who sings two tracks here. The first is 'Chin Up' from the new album, and to highlight how much this sounds like a ZJ-lite track, the second song where Ruppert duets with her is much more affecting. The crowd ebbs and flows here, and when she leaves the stage you can feel an edgy anticipation in the room - how will Ruppert fare solo? Fairly well as it turns out, although he does have some major technical difficulties that he does his best to overcome. Ruppert really feels these songs - he is in danger of hyperventilating after most tracks - and even with the slight disruptions and the bigger 'cameos', Former Ghosts is very much his beast.
Zola Jesus - Tower
Zola Jesus is next up, and she starts her set with a shroud over her head, her back to the crowd, crouched in front of a speaker. The diminutive youngster doesnt take long to get rid of the veil though and launches into what must be one of the strongest vocal-driven sets Ive ever seen. Her voice is not just unique, but iconic - her trancey goth pop would be nothing if not for the power that emanates from within. She has charisma that showers the front rows, and her frantic movements - at one stage prowling back and forth across the stage like a cage tiger, furtively looking for a lapse in concentration so that she can leap out and maul a hapless onlooker; at another she climbs a speaker, her hand in her peroxided hair, her gaze set out in the ether. Taking tracks from Stridulum and Valusia, she, like Ruppert before her, knows and feels these songs. She opened the set with a cryptic statement about how she wrote these songs herself, and thats how she would perform them - yet the fact that she is backed by loops and a tape machine actually does her an injustice, as her voice overpowers the icy tones outlaid. She would benefit from a live element to the sound, which I feel would push her songs - and that amazing voice - even further into the stratosphere. As it stands though, once she leaves the stage, it feels like a vacuum out in the crowd - she has stolen our energy and life force and we are left wanting.
Xiu Xiu - Razor Scooter
Which could be part of the reason why Xiu Xiu were such a letdown to me. Dont get me wrong - Stewart and partner Angela Seo are accomplished and incredibly engaging performers - but I really felt left out in the cold on this one. My verdict after much thought is that you need to be aware of their back catalogue to fully immerse yourself in the Xiu Xiu experience. Because it is exactly that - an experience. Every song has some frenetic to and froing - singing, crooning, yelling, percussive blasts and dings, and the use of a wide array of peripheral 'instruments'. Yes, there are a lot of toys here - they fill a large plastic container - but for every effective sound effect, whistle blow and cymbal smash, there seemed to me to be two or three quirky use of sound that came across as redundant. Imagine if Cursive's Tim Kasher fronted a streamlined Nine Inch Nails format, with 'comedian' Carrot Top as executive producer, and that is Xiu Xiu. Not that I hated it - Stewart and Seo were manic performers, and impressed with the emotive lyrics and disjointed melodies - I just felt that there were some tracks here that could have done more with much, much less. In the end, I left the show more bewildered and bemused than elated. As I said before - maybe I just didnt get it.