If you listened to our podcast this week, you’ll have heard that Tom Doyle wasn’t too impressed by *shels‘ London performance. One show doesn’t necessarily represent the performance of an entire tour though, and that’s why we sent Ruth Booth to Manchester’s Northern Quarter in the hopes of finding the lesser spotted epic alternative…
Six things we learned when we saw *shels in Manchester:
1) In a change to the advertised billing, it’s arguably the most progressive choice up first. The Kites of San Quentin are two turntables and a bass guitar, plus beautiful vocals that bridge the gap between Zero 7 and Portishead. It’s proof that trip hop can be chilled without dragging you into dark places. After that, we feel sorry for the band they swapped with Tall For Jockeys. Still very much the pretenders, still breaking in their Biffy-Clyro-cum-Reuben-cum-Idlewild schtick onstage.
2) Steadier hands follow when Cyril Snear get up. Trading in accomplished alt-indie along the lines of a less boisterous Future of the Left, these Mancunian stalwarts have a quiet confidence about them. That sort of no begging for attention, no frills, no nonsense attitude that belies the mathy satisfaction in songs like ‘Loitering with Intent’. Combined with *shels, this has to be one of the best bills we’ve seen for variety this year, each band distinct, yet complimenting the last. Bonus points to Snear’s Michael McKnight for his Ralph Steadman shirt, though.
3) With the advent of real life as a sensible means of living, *shels may be adopted as our own, but the band are split by several thousand miles of rather chilly water these days (frontman and *shelsmusic label head Mehdi Safa is based in California). As a result, it’s been more than five years since they last played together on these shores. So it’s no surprise the metal crew, fans of the epic, and the hipster community of Manchester are out in force and tweeting along the front row. And we thank them. The Ruby Lounge tonight is lit, in an ironic twist, as blue as pornographer’s dark room, and we wouldn’t find our pints otherwise. One might get the impression *shels have something to hide, but on the contrary, tonight’s not about what you came to see – or not see.
4) As the band take to the stage, there’s a reverential hush, as if we’re at some secret cabal of experimental alt nerds. But as the set progressses, being at a *shels gig feels more like watching a movie playing only in your head. There’s the tremulous morning of a day-in-the-life, ‘Conference of the Birds’. There’s the epic final confrontation of ‘Crown of Eagle Feathers’. There’s exuberant, anthemic closing credits of ‘Water’ – and the sterling choice in following that up with ‘Vision Quest’s contemplative acoustics. Take Safa’s lead and close your eyes. You’ll be giving that cabal your credit card number in no time.
5) There are a few suprises tonight, not least Pete Benjamin from Akercocke holding up the lower end in the live line-up, or Arif Driessen’s smart trumpet accents. Since finishing Plains of the Purple Buffalo, Safa has picked up a form of throat singing, developed from the practice of meditative toning (see our upcoming interview with the *shels mainman for more on that….). Far from the gimmick it could have been, it adds a haunting siren song to the ambience of tonight’s mellower moments.
6) With the deft and delicate touches that make up a *shels record, this long gap could have worked against them. Not a bit of it. Five years apart doesn’t feel like five minutes. The *shels collective can still craft delicate spiritual melodies, then raise them up into towering tsunamis of sound pounding your body into submission. And this quick trip only makes it more special.