Dealing in sparse, atmospheric art-rock, LA indie-rock outfit Warpaint gained critical acclaim through their intricate, yet expansive guitar-driven sound, which takes in both alluring psych-rock grooves and minimalistic dream-pop to mesmerising effect. Hot on the heels of releasing their more pop-centric third album, 2016’s ‘Heads Up’ , inspired by no less than Kendrick Lamar, Aphex Twin and Björk to name but a few, Jenny Lee and co. opened their week-long UK tour with an entrancing ninety minute set at Digbeth’s O2 Institute, playing fan-favourites and deep cuts from 2013’s self-titled effort and beyond.
Having previously been joined on tour by the likes of Orange County experimental-punk duo, The Garden, as well as LIH stars, Blaenavon, tonight’s opening act would be no less surprising, as South-London aggro punk five-piece (and Rough Trade contemporaries) Shame brought their politicised, braces and all approach to The Institute. Finding themselves amongst a burgeoning DIY scene in the capital Shame (Not long off of tour with Kent duo Slaves) command an imposing, and wildly energetic stage presence. Decked out in dusty vintage-era clobber and elastic braces, they rattle through a brash set of thumping leftfield post-punk, debuting new single ‘Tasteless’ alongside the scathing slacker-rock groove of ‘The Lick’, and accompanying A-side, ‘Gold Hole’
Frontman Charlie Steen prowls the stage restlessly, eyeballing the audience with a cold, deadpan stare, barely three songs in and he’s stripped to the waist, attempting his best Lias Saoudi impression as he douses himself in water (swilling the front row as he does). Meanwhile the band hack at their instruments viciously, slashing out dissonant garage-punk riffs as they career across the stage. It’s during the performances closing moments that Shame give crowd interaction a new sense of purpose, as Steen scales the barrier and prowls through the slightly uneasy crowd, growling his caustic lyrics in the faces of the unsuspecting audience. It’s gritty, it’s tangible, could we be looking at the revival of real, meaty punk-rock? Shame certainly believe it, and maybe we should too.
Nestled amongst twee garden trees adorned with twinkling lights, Warpaint emerge from a dense, eerie fog to rapturous applause, washes of droning, instrumental guitar and Stella Mozgawa’s restless drum beats lead the band fittingly into ‘Intro’. Sliding effortlessly into ‘Keep It Healthy’, delicate guitar lines tug tentatively at the audience as Emily Kokal’s ghostly vocals enter the fray, enough to send gentle shivers down anyone’s spine.
It’s not until several songs in that Kokal, and co-vocalist/guitarist Theresa Wayman address the crowd almost shyly, both reassuringly chic in stripes, sequins, and, erm, a tartan skirt. Cutting a wide selection of songs from their eight year repertoire, live staples taken from 2009’s ‘Exquisite Corpse’ EP, including ‘Krimson’ and ‘Stars’ flit by in a drug-like haze. ‘Undertow’ prompts a spontaneous singalong from the die-hard Warpaint collective, before the band move onto newer material, playing ‘Above Control’, and ‘The Stall’.
Warpaint’s third full-length, ‘Heads Up’ is notably more dance-orientated, moving away from their typical guitar-driven sound to incorporate rolling drum machines, and bouncy alt-pop synth lines. ‘Whiteout’, the album’s second single release powers along beneath roiling electronic rhythms, Wayman’s usually siren-like vocals sounding rich, clean, more confident. Following up with ‘So Good’, it’s addictive dance-pop beat and Lindberg’s elastic bassline lead the near sell-out crowd in rhythmic toe-tapping, heads nodding like ripples in a pond.
‘Warpaint’s delirious lead single, ‘Love Is to Die’ ebbs and swells into a wall of driving percussion and sharp flashes of guitar, as the mantra-like chorus worms to the surface -“Love is to die, love is to not die, love is to dance”. It could be tonight’s highlight, as haunting as it is brilliant. There is no encore tonight, as Kokal announces the next song “is a dance-y one”, propelling us into ‘New Song’, its playful and punchy synth pulses decidedly more upbeat than anything Warpaint have penned before, it’s glossy production tiptoeing on mainstream success. If ‘New Song’ is Warpaint’s chart-friendly exterior, closing track ‘Disco//Very’ is their seductively dark heart; it’s pulsating Cure-like bass notes and warped vocal harmonies stir the youthful crowd into life, prompting some questionable shapes across the main room. It’s with this that the four women reluctantly retreat beneath the cover of the thick smog that has descended over the stage, somehow evaporating like a ghostly collective.
Warpaint gleefully indulge in their own mystery; often oblivious to the ever-growing audiences before them they obsess playfully amongst knife-edged guitars and spacious, seductive melodies. ‘Heads Up’ sees them lay down startlingly danceable synth pop grooves, enough to get even the biggest venues on their feet. Tonight was an understandably spellbinding performance, and was conceivably one of the best live performances i’ve ever seen from a band who unassumingly lend themselves to a live environment. Next stop, arena tours? We can imagine.
- Keep It Healthy
- Heads Up
- Above Control
- No Way Out
- The Stall
- So Good
- Love Is to Die
- New Song
Words by Joe Bulger
Featured image courtesy of Academy Music Group