The Brude is quiet tonight; a handful of punters floating around the door, one guy is on his laptop, a tall, posh-looking man in tweed peruses the offerings at the bar.
Jen Armstrong sits at her keyboard and begins with ‘Billie Jean’. Unfortunately, people aren’t ready to pay attention yet and she is competing with a phone conversation in the crowd whilst relating Jacko’s tale of that ever so insistent young mum. She soldiers on, displaying a strong voice and throwing herself into her work. A guitarist and a drummer playing a tea chest join her on stage and manage to navigate their way through the songs (some of which they have only just learnt). An occasionally uncooperative MacBook serves up backing tracks to pad things out. The set starts to grab the attention more as it goes but never really seems to get going.
Heart Ships are a stark contrast to the opening act. I am the embodiment of surprise when the posh guy from the bar with the (now removed) tweed jacket turns out to be singer, Ryan Cooke. He hammers vocals down the mic, out into our faces that can only be the product of him actually being some sort of repressed Nordic king who is well into his Rammstein. There is not a room in the world that this sort of pseudo-operatic wailing wouldn’t split and, at times, it is slightly difficult to listen to. However, it is also inescapably watchable.
Cooke’s vocals clamber out over the top of a sound that is a cocktail of ‘Hot Fuss’ and ‘Neon Bible’ lashed with cathedral-sized reverb. Almost every song builds and builds; swathes of guitar, keyboards, bass and pounding drums create a wall of music that is probably just about as epic as you could fit into a place the size of the Brude. There is a lot that is good here – not least the fact that they’re not your run of the mill indie band. But, the most notable thing is how much they put into each song. James Nuttall’s lead guitar weaves around the thick, almost chanting, harmonies and Josh Hannaby alternates softer, cymbal-washed drumming with thunder crack tom-abuse. All this is wrapped in the guitar, bass and keyboard floods of sound churned out by Dave Hill, Alex Papaioannou and Matt Stephenson.
It isn’t often that a band gives you the chance to decide whether you like or dislike them based entirely on their music and not just because you like ‘that kind of thing’. Heart Ships do this entirely.
The room remains divided.
As far as mood is concerned, the antithesis of Heart Ships now takes the spotlight. Francois & The Atlas Mountains don’t give us any time to get used to the change before Francois has leapt from the stage and is playing his guitar in amongst the crowd, writhing around with some crazy moves. Instantly, the wall between the musicians and the audience is broken down and it is never rebuilt. Along with Francois’ guitar, there are keyboards, synths, drums (a kit being tended to by a man in a sparkly jacket, some electronic percussion and a couple of West African tubs getting thumped) and a whole wealth of vocals contributing to this reggae/calypso/pop/funk mix. Every single member of the band looks like there is nowhere they would rather be and that in their own cheerful, nonchalant way, they will forcibly drag us along with them to wherever they’re going.
It is obvious that these guys have gigged together a lot. They are comfortable performing as a unit and that allows them the freedom to really put on a show. Almost every song begins in one place then moves off in another direction, building as it goes. The vigour of the drumming increases and the grounded sounds of a simple electric guitar and drums are blended perfectly with electronic dive bombs and distortion. Songs that start off like little Franco-Jamaican ditties end up barging past you like something The Whip would open with.
At one point they all switch instruments ready to stride on to towards the end of the set. Francois is now firing out epic synth sounds and, as the penultimate track lurches towards a climax, it feels like we’ve stumbled into a slightly lighter version of the middle four minutes of Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’. We are in the presence of a band, dressed like kids TV presenters, raining down dirty beats all over us and, quite unbelievably, that doesn’t feel wrong in the slightest.
In the event of these guys playing somewhere near you; be there.