Friday, February 10, 2012

Active Child - Live @ East Brunswick Club (Laneway Sideshow), Feb 8

The following live review was syndicated with, and for, Everguide - it is recreated here in it entirety.
Opening the evening was one of Sydney’s most promising solo acts, Oliver Tank (previously introduced by AMR). Fresh from his own tour launching his debut EP, Dreams. Tank is probably a lot more acclimatised to playing to larger crowds, and he deserves more than the odd thirty that have show up early for his support slot. Delivering a short but typically warm set, he shreds on a Strat along to his refined beats, loops and backing tracks. A little rough and visibly nervy, particularly during I Can’t Sleep where he has to mask a wonky guitar tuning with beats and volume, but by the end of his blissed out reworking of Snoop Dogg’s Beautiful, his toothy, Cheshire cat grin begins to emerge.

He doesn’t need to incite the crowd but instead lull them with his nocturnal beat-making and his plaintive vocals, saying naught but ‘thanks’ and his usual little send-off in the cathartic climax of breakout tune, Last Night I Heard Everything In Slow Motion. Even brisk sets like this prove why he’s one of Sydney’s ones to watch.

Also hailing from Sydney, Caitlin Park – bespectacled in thick rims framed by a lop-sided burst of hair - looks like she could have strolled in from any nearby Brunswick bar; her rich voice however belies that fact. Flanked by drummer/sequencer Eliza Fawcett and multi-instrumentalist-come-vocal-contortionist Holly Austin, who ably mimics a trumpet as well as beat-boxing through a morose reworking of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme.

Aside from that knowingly ironic cover, Park and co. deliver a set of folktronica, soundscapes and found sound DIY. Ticking clocks and obscure recordings are used as rhythmic tracks in extremely bare arrangements of lightly strummed acoustic guitars and the delicate pattering of percussion. Cuts like I Am A Night Bird, where Park sings the same words back over the top of a spoken word sample – remind of recently disbanded NY duo, The Books, though lacking in their flashy array of hooks.

The sampling occasionally gets away from them, as their set flicks spuriously between the collaged electronics and Park solo, playing Laura Marling-mode folk gilded by her velvety pipes and pleasant ‘ooh’-ing. For their final song, Warriors With Wild Hearts, they generate more energy and use the found sound element as a flourish and not a focus. It’s the kind of music you’d have to sit down and engage with, in the live setting, many aren’t willing to commit their attention as the chatter among the crowd rises, rather than recedes, during her half-hour set.

The true noise of that same full-house crowd however, isn’t revealed until
Active Child grace the stage. Riding the wave of summer success usually bestowed on bands playing the Laneway Festival circuit, tonight they play to a sold-out crowd, and on their first headline shows to our shores to boot.

The first time Pat Grossi’s soprano cuts like glass through the air, clear and bright, more than a few heads turn to each other to remark upon its awe. His plain appearance, clean white shirt and closely-cropped amber hair, belies his extraordinary voice. Shaped by years spent in the Philadelphia Boys Choir, it’s a thing of remarkable beauty, control and range. Along with the plucking of his reverb-drenched harp, it’s the defining characteristic of his sound.

His debut album, You Are All I See, is laden with a mix of faded synth washes, dramatic processed drums and a cinematic application to his combination of dream pop sounds. The stylistic risk that his music runs is a symptom of chillwave in general, it’s consistency can come off sounding ‘samey.’ As a live performance, the question was whether the intentionally lucid sonics would translate to an engaging show. For the most part, the answer is resolutely yes.

Chiefly due to Grossi being joined by two additional musicians to flesh out his aural dreaming in action, his stunning choral flights matched by the pitch-perfect harmonies of Stratton Easter as he shifts between guitar tremolos, processed bass and keys between songs. Drummer Brennan Rhodes is excellent too, moving fluidly upon a combination of live kit and processed pads. Electronic drums typically suffer from sounding thin in a live mix, but here sound rich and full. Playing with mallets, he provides the lush sweep of rolling toms key to Diamond Heart and See Thru Eyes with precision.

Like three sides of a triangle, together they make a tight unit with a big sound. It’s a shame the stark lighting does nothing to enhance the mood, it might seem pedantic, but even dimming spots would have added atmosphere, but visually the venue was nothing-doing.

It’s a good thing then that musically, Active Child conjures up so much. Both High Priestess’ brooding menace and Way Too Fast‘s atmospheric minimalism contrast deliciously with Grossi’s mesmerising falsetto . The equally bubbling melancholy of Playing House finds him moving to a bank of keys, and divining a subtle R&B swagger in his vocal and throbbing synth. The joyous uplift of Diamond Heart is another highlight, its popping bass and gently sawing waves ebb like slowly passing cars towards a big two part harmony chorus splashed with watery snare. Having previously played support act on their European tour, It’s not dissimilar to M83’s pre-stadium baiting electro-indie; all tinkling keyboards and soaring vocals. Meanwhile, older cut Take Shelter rides the darker angles of eighties synth-pop, complete with stuttered funk stabs and mechanical drums squeezed between OMD and New Order (in short, it would fit snugly on the Drive soundtrack).

Their most recognisable tune, Hanging On, gets an early showing, triggering a sea of visually distracting amateur camera-men. The sea of iPhones are something you have to accept at a modern gig, but also a sure sign of a song’s popularity. In all fairness too, the slow-motion arpeggios of Hanging On evoke restrained anger and pain all at once, against a bed of delicate harp and a shuffling, half-time groove; it’s lilting back-end is especially beautiful.

Performing nearly all of You Are All I See, the Active Child live show disproves his ‘choir boy with harp’ components as a mere shtick, but also that in performance his ambient swells of angelic singing and electronic lustre have more than enough muscle to entertain and enthral.

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