Slowdive – Live @ Huxleys Neue Welt
aaamusic | On 05, Oct 2017
Tuesday 3rd October, Berlin
It’s difficult to overstate Slowdive’s influence on modern indie music: The Horrors, Tame Impala, DIIV, Grizzly Bear and even The xx have all borrowed elements from the newly reformed English five-piece. Although Slowdive weren’t the first shoegazing band, they are the band that best encapsulates the genre, from the archetypal sound and the introspective aesthetic to their untimely demise in the wake of the genre’s mid-90s backlash. Despite the universal acclaim for their first two records – 1991’s Just For A Day and 1993’s Souvlaki – the media and the indie community suddenly and viciously turned on the band (and the whole shoegazing genre), damning their pretty and otherworldly experimentations as effeminate and pretentious, especially in the wake of Brit-pop and its early angst. Following lower ticket sales and increasingly negative press, the release of their next album – 1995’s underrated Pygmalion – led to them being dropped by their label, Creation, and ultimately their breakup.
Sad times indeed. However, were it not for those sad times, Slowdive would never have been afforded the time (nearly 20 years) necessary to become bona fide legends, adored by indie fans young and old. And, of greater consequence, we would never have been given their fourth album, Slowdive, which is not only the best indie album of 2017 (so far), nor the best comeback album by any of the reunited 80s/90s indie bands (even surpassing My Bloody Valentine’s m b v), but perhaps the greatest record in Slowdive’s impeccable back catalogue. Yes, it’s really that good.
Last but not least, their turbulent history has them here to this sold out show in Berlin… and to me. I’ve attempted and failed to see Slowdive live multiple times in multiple countries since they reformed, but the stars finally aligned tonight at Huxleys Neue Welt. What follows is a pitch-perfect set of both new and old. After arriving on stage to booming cheers from the sizeable audience, they launch into the opener of their latest record, ‘Slomo’. Even from the first note, the sound is perfect. Whereas other shoegazing bands tend to ramp up the guitar distortion and bury the vocals in the mix when performing live, Slowdive provide an equal balance to their various elements. The setlist is as good as I could have ever hoped, with old fan favourites such as ‘Catch The Breeze’, ‘Souvlaki Space Station’ and ‘Blue Skied an’ Clear’ appearing alongside the “hits”: ‘Crazy For You’, ‘When The Sun Hits’, which receives the greatest reception, and, of course, ‘Alison’.
Their second album, Souvlaki, may always be their definitive record, and that makes sense given that it was a landmark release in the shoegazing era, but their new album feels a lot more complete. It’s not just a continuation of their early 90s sound, but an evolution. It has cleaner melodies and a faster pace, and both of these elements thrive in the live environment. Simon Scott’s light but rapid drumming in ‘Don’t Know Why’ gives the band an unusual urgency, while Nick Chaplin’s bass in the synth-washed ‘Sugar For The Pill’ is simple but commanding, not unlike The xx. ‘Star Roving’ is a highlight: with the its fuzzy guitars and rumbling drums, plus the layered vocals of Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell, it sounds massive live and is arguably the perfect Slowdive song.
Much has been said about the band’s use of guitars and pedals, but the way in which they present the vocals is what sets them apart from their peers. The way Halstead and Goswell switch lead vocals during the verses makes the moments when they join forces in the choruses all the more powerful, with their delicate voices complimenting each other to create an almost celestial soundscape. For me, it’s the light, high and airy vocal melodies that are the dominant ingredient in the ‘dreamy’ atmosphere they’re famed for.
With that said, the most thrilling moments of tonight’s show come during the heavier segments. Several songs are given extended outros with revved up layers of guitar noise and increasingly turbulent drums, such as on ‘Catch A Breeze’ and their cover of Syd Barrett’s ‘Golden Hair’, which both move away from shoegazing/dream-pop and reach something closer to post-rock by their climax. These moments are amplified by the hypnotic visuals projected onto a backdrop and impressive lighting rig, which creates hazy mood lightning for most of their set, but fires up with intense strobing whenever the band rock out.
The band end with a double whammy of old favourites from Souvlaki – a brooding ‘Dagger’ and a psychedelic ’40 Days’ – before departing the stage with some feeble but endearing ‘thank yous’. Tonight’s show surpassed all of my expectations, which were already pretty high. I had an inkling that they wouldn’t be able to recreate the haunting atmospheres they so naturally conjure up on record, and that even if they did, their singular sound might struggle to hold my attention for an hour and a half. How wrong I was on both counts. A total triumph.