‘Tis the season to be merry (read: sherry-sozzled); for loving, even (read: doing something thoroughly regrettable atop the photocopier). Though the Bella Union Christmas Service at Islington’s Union Chapel, whilst still an inherently festive bash, served as the glorious antithesis to the strangely rakish anecdotes of shagging on office machinery and slipping down one too many of the open bar singles, only to sick it back up in the back of a black cab at some ungodly hour. Ho ho ho, and a Happy New Year etc.
The first of the night’s two orthographically nightmarish aural extravagances, G R E A T W A V E S, may not be deeply into songs to boost the serotonin levels though you’d be unwise to bet against them having a pretty propitious 2013. Set against an altar that is, well, rather more edgy than most stockroom surfaces a series of Craft Spells-esque nosegays bloom in slow motion, puffed out from a lofty projector. It’s about the brightest thing on show as, drenched in darkness, the duo’s aromatic, if inscrutably ambiguous mélange of soft, nuanced samples and moody guitar proves alluring as midnight. A Christmas tree gleams in the periphery of view, though every eye sticks to the enigmatic pairing glue-like; every ear tuned in. Their sparse compositions that are lush, and lavish, and suitably great by nature momentarily do indeed mimic the unending ebb of a tidal swell, Into The Blue an opaque and wintry anthem in waiting. They are perhaps a slightly odd fit with the rest of the Bella Union catalogue to have gone before them, even if their odd, and almost Glossolalia-like nebulous vocal drones sporadically recall some of the Cocteau Twins’ more recent pieces. Which, given that the label itself is headed up by the band’s driving musical force in Simon Raymonde, I guess brings the somewhat sombre eventide right back into focus again.
It drifts out a touch once it flows into the ochre tones of Pale Seas, who ditch the CAPS and fill the g a p between tonight’s openers and Manc outfit M O N E Y with an insouciant, if by and large merely inoffensive acoustica. Though our headliners aren’t quite so acutely bang on the proverbial as their fellow grammatically sound moniker-eschewing upstarts to have opened it all up either, as they dip down vividly eye-opening rabbit holes one moment and clunk quite ungainly over troublesome potholes the following. When they’re good, they’re G R E A T – like an angered AnCo circa Feels on the remarkable surge of Who’s Going To Love You Now – though when they’re less so, they’re evocative of a pallid, and indeed overwrought rework of Ashcroft’s dimmed Verve.
When Jamie Lee initially emerges, alone, to tinker away on a porcelain reconstruction of Goodnight London, it’s an inverted introduction that fills the place with subversion and grace. It’s beguiling, and vindicates their inclusion in every sodding self-congratulatory tip list they’ve ever been jotted down within. His voice could here splinter the face of a doll, though in lacking diversity its impact diminishes over half an hour to the point at which you’re left feeling bewildered and indifferent to it. It couldn’t be better suited to these more exposed moments though when they up the ante – as they do on an ultimately exhaustive Letter To Yesterday – it’s all too spindly. Lee pains: “I curse myself for such a fragile frame” and it sounds kind of like Taylor Rice without the Tex-Mex mustachios, and indeed the cojones.
They’ve a penchant for these consecrated spaces and although they may sound unblemished by vice, it’s often a case of the blessed peppered with the pedestrian. They’re pedalling the right track, if what they’re peddling is momentarily a little too, dare I say it, indie ’07. May go some way to explaining Joe Lean’s otherwise inexplicable presence…
Nonetheless all in all, it has been a momentarily sublime order of service, filled with murky hymns to better the chirpy bellows of Good King Wenceslas and so on emanating from a nearby Highbury Corner, and with that a divine conclusion to one of Bella Union’s best years in recent memory, really. Good old Raymonde.