Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Black Ships set sail in London

Nick McCabe playing live with The Black Ships. Photo by Bartolomy.

Kicking off the summer with a debut show (June 2), The Black Ships, founded by guitarist Nick McCabe and bassist Si Jones (The Verve), string arranger and violinist Davide Rossi (Goldfrapp) and drummer Mig Schillace (Portishead), stormed the King’s College London SU – triumphantly arriving on a dark wave of pop experimentation, following a two year long hiatus after the unexpectedly sudden split-up of The Verve.

The combined forces of four heavyweight rock and pop instrumentalists make them a difficult to act to pinpoint and it will take time to work out where exactly on the map they are and which direction they are sailing towards. Sometimes going close to the borders of bleakness and exploring the colder polar territories of music, or occasionally verging near to the plains of the M.O.R. It’s music obsessed by the murky sound of Bristolian trip hop acts such as Tricky and Massive Attack, the mastery of the pop ballad and heavy, cinematic neo-classical film scores. There are dirty synthesizers, hushed vocals, planetary waves of guitar, gravitational bass lines, magnetic drum loops and minimalist shrills on the violin.

With the composure of veterans, the band strolled out onto the stage, which was flagged with square white sheets for visuals, and laid into a brooding instrumental piece. The presence of four untouched microphones at the front of stage suggested that the band were not there as an out and out instrumental outfit and as expected they were later joined on stage by four unknown guest vocalists. Amelia Tucker was the first to come out but her vocals were nearly submerged by the enormously loud soundscapes around her so it was hard to distinguish her voice in.Tucker was soon accompanied by Charley Bickers (who McCabe had previously collaborated with in acoustic outfit War Makes Heroes).

Both singers faced the tough job trying of to impress a room full of fans, many of which had been accustomed to the stage presence of Richard Ashcroft and Alison Goldfrapp over the years. Bickers, in particular, seemed to capitulate to the audience’s glare, appearing like a rabbit in the headlights – beset with nerves and not knowing what to do with himself on stage. With Bickers fumbling on lead vocals, the first track from the band’s newly released Kurofune EP, ‘Rain Down on Me’, came across as whiny and uninspired until it was later reprised in the set as an apocalyptic jam with only Tucker and Rossi singing. The composer’s occasional vocal duties, in a warm baritone, semi-spoken manner, between keeping the electric violin close to the limits of its endurance, seemed to work well, especially when backed by Tucker on their more melodic tracks.

The introduction of McCabe’s eighteen-year-old daughter, singer Elly McCabe, later in the show sent the audience into near delirium. Her voice had something of a young Charlotte Gainsbourg about it, and her cool, captivating presence was something that the other vocalists could do with learning from her in the future.

Another new face and another solo artist guesting with the band – David McKellar, had the movement, stature and voice that seemed to be exactly what the audience had been thirsting for. If some of their more nostalgic fans were after a singer to fit the mould of Ashcroft then they may have found it. His uncanny resemblance to The Verve frontman meant that during some parts of the set it was like watching the band that had brought them together.

Although the comparisons are unavoidable, whether it being an intentional ploy to replicate some of the formula of McCabe and Jones’ former group with an outfit packed with current vocal talent, the line-up stood out in its own right and the dynamic of having five vocalists on stage undoubtedly makes the band’s live presence incredibly powerful. With it being their first show together as a band, The Black Ships will undoubtedly use it to test the waters ahead of the release of their upcoming album (which according to Jones is 87% complete) and the group look poised to make a big leap onto the touring circuit in the coming years.