Gig review: TesseracT, Contortionist, Nordic Giants

 O2 Academy Oxford – 10/02/2016

This post was written on the train the day after the gig, and believed to be lost due to iPad/Dropbox/Editorial nonsense. However, I have since found the file, so here it is…

It’s hard to explain what makes the Oxford O2 Academy such a dissatisfying venue. From a practical point of view it’s fine, with enough room to move, decent access to toilets and bar, a cloakroom, good view of the stage, reasonable acoustics… The bar is expensive at a touch under £5 a pint, but there is a good ale (St Austell Tribute) available at the same price so you don’t have to feel a complete chump. The best explanation I can give is that the stage is too high to feel “intimate”, while the capacity is too low to feel “epic”. Both of those things have their downsides, but would compensate for the utter lack of romance.

Double-act Nordic Giants are a band who take their live visuals seriously, and the music itself can be seen as a simple accompaniment to their video show, which cleverly places a portrait screen in the centre of the stage so those closest can see the main action, as well as adding some layered effects á la Nine Inch Nails. Most of the songs were set to short films and animations by filmmakers, but the highlight of this effect was the addition of a virtual singer, in appropriate costume, for one song. Their arrangements are excellent, sounding well-mixed in this case but also easy-to-mix in general, using the main instruments (piano and drums) well and layering synths, bowed guitar and other surprises over reasonably restrained backing tracks. The fatal flaw in their schtick is the approach to composition, with most songs having a single theme built in a predictable quiet-LOUD-quiet-LOUD-(awkward stop) structure. Their closing song “pencilled” was by far the best, having a reasonable payoff in the form of a section of new material at the end. Even then, there was little sense that they are truly in control of their chord progressions. Why are post-rock bands so bad at using cadences?

The Contortionist followed, with their brand of somewhat-accessible-but-still-occasionally-shouty progressive metal. The simplest description I have is “like Between the Buried and Me but slower”, which is really no bad thing. The main themes of their songs felt very musical although not especially technical, and occasionally gave way to chugging breakdowns with more screaming. These breakdowns will always be a matter of taste: for the record, I think the Contortionist use them well to create meaningful passages. Vocalist Mike Lessard also knew when to step back, with some percussion on stage to play with while the audience could enjoy a more extended instrumental passage. A good band.

TesseracT are a major band in the onomatopoeic “Djent” genre. One might point to their extensive use of clean vocals and ethereal chiming guitars as a signature sound, but this is also a feature of peers such as Periphery. (I am reliably informed that this guitar tone is known as “Milton Cleans”.) There is something more unique in the way they use these to frame their tracks and give them identities. Really, though, it is clear what Tesseract have that their rivals don’t. Dan Tompkins. Making his return to the band after a succession of (very talented and capable) replacements, Dan is far and away the best singer I have ever heard accompanied by a guitar with more than six strings on it. His clean tenor vocals are superb (and well-balanced against the backing track or harmoniser where appropriate), his screaming is musical and there was some credible falsetto, particularly in the songs from their new album Polaris. More importantly, he was able to leap between these without obvious deterioration over the night. As for the rest of the band… there isn’t a lot that needs to be said. They are seasoned, they are tight, attention to detail seemed good especially in the drums. Perhaps a little more running around on stage and audience interaction from guitarists would be nice, but… It doesn’t quite seem necessary or appropriate most of the time. They have “it”. A+.

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