Tonight marks Canadians BRAIDS’ first return to XOYO in a little over two years, although they’ve since shed a member, now numbering three. The dynamic has thus been irrevocably tinkered with, yet Raphaelle Standell-Preston, Taylor Smith and Austin Tufts are themselves currently among the most dynamic live acts you could hope to catch. And if Standell-Preston therefore reckons they’ve each returned to a similar level they were at in November of 2011, then musically, and so too collectively, they’ve already surpassed their never less than impressively proficient standards. Smith for instance, once an upright bass player, now has Ableton’s tech support doyen on speed dial, such is his ambidextrous manipulation of the malletKAT – a kind of MIDI marimba. Tufts, meanwhile, if not self-deprecating then detrimentally modest when it comes to his rhythmic ability, has similarly come on infinitely, and flits between both electric and traditional drum kits with whimsical guile. And then there’s Standell-Preston – a self-professed “sensual being”-cum-siren of the piece, whose flighty vocal weaves the whole show together with its nimble fragility at times, and a raw power to make Iggy quiver at others.
But far greater than the sum of their singular talents, it’s been inspiriting to see a band contort and so continually evolve, becoming that bit more captivating all the while. However, in what is arguably their less readily accessible latest, Flourish // Perish, they would appear to have attracted a quite disparate, if not incompatible audience. “I love you!” squeaks some beardy geezer down the front, Standell-Preston proceeding to soundcheck unperturbed. We’re not at All Tomorrow’s Parties any more, Dorothy. Sorry, Raphaelle, and there’s certainly few, if any of the “ATP crowd” extolled glowingly just last Sunday. Intermingled in the human mêlée are X Factor parodists and antsy others that natter throughout. Mercifully therefore, BRAIDS perform with in-ear monitors, as you can’t help but feel Raphaelle may not have suggested us being “really, really, really wonderful to play for” otherwise.
Nonetheless, BRAIDS now revel in a creative synergy that’s totally of their own idiosyncratic design, and in beginning with Together, they seem to exhibit their oneness and unity absolutely explicitly. “One has a mouth, a mouth filled with doubt/ I’m upset she’s not here” Standell-Preston sighs, implicitly referencing Katie Lee’s departure perhaps, and certainly in several respects she can look quite isolated onstage: both bespectacled, Smith and Tufts’ responsibilities are becoming increasingly rhythmic with their every appearance, while Raph is encumbered with the night’s nigh on every vocal, albeit gracefully covering a vast spectrum of timbres and tones as she does so. And this sense of dislocation extends out into their audience, for in spite of those techno undertones that bubble away beneath Together, the band insularly keep themselves to themselves. Heads down, it’s a withdrawn, if not altogether unwelcoming stance they adopt, and although a perfectly calculated, quite geometric build, it can be a bit of a struggle for some of a Tuesday evening.
Yet as was at ATP a mere two evenings previous, with Standell-Preston’s guitar again largely subjugated in favour of pure electronic control, some numbers from Flourish // Perish are recomposed while others are previously unheard. Perhaps even untitled as yet. But technically impeccable regardless of whichever category each song belongs to, never do they even so much as touch upon Native Speaker. It’s almost as though said record were pieced together in what is now a completely incomprehensible language, although what translates with transparent lucidity this evening is that BRAIDS trend in a tonal lingo that’s all of their own. A second, one of several unreleased pieces, may be comparatively explosive, Tufts on the rather more organic kit a minute whilst Smith emits a series of aqueous plinks. The response? Incontrovertibly rapturous. But throughout, the song itself fails to inspire the reaction it’s indubitably due. It’s perhaps a reflection of the trio’s work becoming increasingly complex – in the same way you wouldn’t so much as consider sniffing nor licking one of Klint’s intricate canvases, it could be said to have been structured in such a way so as to inspirit reflection, its absorption passive as opposed to being in any way active. That said, Flourish // Perish is the result of two years’ worth of intense techno adoration on Standell-Preston’s part, thus you’d be forgiven for thinking they may anticipate a little more involvement on our behalf…
Of course, when not featuring as one third of BRAIDS, Raph masquerades as one half of Blue Hawaii, whose trajectory seemed to take a similarly electronic turn as she and Alex “Agor” Cowan’s sophomore recording, Untogether, emerged earlier on in the year. And in being so unremittingly productive, an element of inevitable bleed interlinks the two albums, as does Standell-Preston’s wondrously inimitable, unearthly coo. In every piece of previously unreleased material aired this evening, the lines are irrefutably fortified as these aural structures, although unmistakably jittery, retain a sense of natural expansion. And in Taylor and Agor, she’s found two perfect foils: while the latter favours those more stark electro pulses of, say, Daisy, the former further catalyses the slow, if steady calibration of the once incongruous aural worlds of digital and analog.
This can be heard in a porcelaneous Hossak, vortical jazz snares combining with oddly somnolent, if still warm malletKAT chimes. Its lyrics, playing with boys knocking on windows with wandering slices of pizza in hand, can at times resonate with kitsch superfluity, Standell-Preston playing up to the girl, or perhaps rather “friend next door” stereotype cited during a December they’re as yet unable to recreate in the live environ. “I don’t think I would ever write about going for pizza” she once suggested, although were it delivered with diligence straight to her window, boxed in a somewhat chintzy track? Irrespective of contradictions, it lacks both the technicality, and the conviction of an exhilarating Amends – a track that, getting better each and every time, clearly portrays the importance the band place upon both time (Tufts) and tone (Smith). “Sit on amends/ With the wrong that was said/ Sit on amends/ Tense the lip, nod the head/ Caring just to pretend/ Only offend” sings Raph, her voice choppy and changing pliably from one syllable to the next. Itself like a slice of pizza hurled toward a twilit window, “Yeah!” The cry arises from the centre of the room and falls less on deaf, than immersed ears, but it serves to suggest the connection has at last been effectuated. For positively transformed, Amends sinks into the exact same hypnagogic immersion as did Jon Hopkins’ sublime Immunity.
“We love it in London – it’s becoming a home away from home” says Raph, before conceding: “My cheeks hurt from smiling.” And if it may have taken some time for their audience to thaw, once warmed, the complexion of the evening changes completely. An AnCo-esque vocal segue akin to harmonised whale song ensues, bringing with it a meditative tranquility, before the trio follow on cleanly into an itself thoroughly cleansing, quasi-epiphanic In Kind. It’s greeted like the genre-bending hit it alas, has somehow yet to become, steadily intensifying plashes of cymbal enveloping tubular twangs of guitar that, like the night, become clearer as the track progresses. Dipped into rippling sounds and reflective, visual lyrics, Standell-Preston’s firmamental chirrup. And it’s this celestial vocal which inspires a series of crucial dichotomies: the title Flourish // Perish was inspired by the two moods the album evokes – one of regeneration; another of tireless anguish – and tonight we clearly hear splits between light // dark, or Heaven (Raph’s vocal; Taylor’s plushy tones; Austin’s inspired percussive ability, plus an impromptu encore comprising the Zen-like quietude excited by a rare outing from Girl) // Hell (the show’s staging in an inexplicably infernal XOYO).
But BRAIDS are a band currently flourishing, and not before time. An utterly exceptional proposition, not only do they run their own monitors, but they administer every last effect right there and then. Bits may be preset, but each is assiduously reproduced live and the consequence is an apparent exhaustion. For Smith and Tufts, it manifests itself in a more physical manner, whilst that of Standell-Preston is visibly emotive. She thus becomes the flustered siren at the centre of an irrepressible, if irresistible rhythmic maelstrom that is temperamental as it is tremendous. And though they play all they’re currently able to, to their conclusive virtuosity they’ve now added every exacting millimetre of vision to match.