For those in the audience more intimately acquainted with Wild Beasts’ unique synthesis of infectiously lyrical guitar tunes and the raw, enclosed intensity so mesmerically developed on last LP Smother, one could understand mild bemusement at the sight at Bristol’s O2 Academy of impressively orchestrated lasers, beaming across the audience seven songs into their set. Held back to the shuddering electronic breakdown of ‘Daughters’, they gleam and criss-cross the crowd with a deliberative precision fans are perhaps more accustomed to hearing on record rather than in outward stagecraft.
Maybe they’re there to help fixate the crowd after a double-false start, after they come on to rapturous applause – only for the band’s newly prominent synth-heavy setup to stutter on their first song. “Maybe we should just stick to guitars,” Hayden Thorpe jokes, but the music thereafter is anything but coy about its electronic leanings, which works with a confidence matching the glimmering histrionics.
Whilst on their last tour, the extended smouldering of ‘Burning’ and its moaning, flickering keys were the lengthened preface as the band entered the stage, this time there’s no need to settle amongst the aural scenery. ‘Mecca’ is an apposite introduction, the glacial beauty of Thorpe’s falsetto soon re-emerging amidst electronic flourishes that pulse and oscillate to dynamic drumming with bold colour.
Settling into their new material superbly, the pleasing aspect of their set is that in spite of electronic instrumentation coloured by producers who’ve worked with such stadium-rock luminaries such as Arcade Fire and The Killers, new album Present Tense is anything but an overreach. ‘Sweet Spot’s synths grab attention as they puncture the verse mid-song, but the drama they lend is as usual given depth by the dualised vocal twists of Thorpe and Tom Fleming. Nonetheless, there is a directness and assurance to this and many other tracks’ construction, with ‘A Simple Beautiful Truth’ in particular standing out – it’s simplistic synth-pop a permeable 2 minute frame the singers give graceful vocal contours around.
At moments, some album tracks are stripped of their context, ‘Pregnant Pause’ feeling too stripped down and its plaintive strengths struggle to hold up live and when not following the harsh, elementary ‘Daughters’. This can hardly be said for many though, as most tracks are greeted and treated with aplomb, ‘Wanderlust’ careering into the start of the four-song encore with poise and impudence.
Whilst most seem to engage positively with the enjoyably direct tone syncopated classics such as ‘Hooting & Howling’ and ‘Fun Powder Plot’ are given in the presence of their new material, personally there were some songs which didn’t feel of the piece. Put it down to nostalgia if you like, but either way, it’s a credit to Wild Beasts insistent, subtle honing and recrafting of their sound that each of their albums feel so compellingly singular. Equally, it’s a testament to the quality of Present Tense that this gig feels like a brighteningly new show in every sense.
Whilst the content has developed steadily since their brash early sound, their lyrics now are full of the emotional drama that lay at the edge of their carnal tales previously. Lines such as, “Between the hurt and the tender song/Between the flash and the thunder’s drum/There is a godly state, where the real and the dream may consummate,” may have been previously sideswiped by non-converts as affected but taut and direct, they strike beautifully, with no need for melodrama.
All of which tells you why their continued distilling of their sound, with added electronic help, feels such a daring step forward; and puts into context their lasered theatrics – a bold framing of Present Tense live, a setting out of their stall Thorpe confidently spoke of whilst referring to usual British Indie diffidence- “No, f**k it, stand up. Be prepared to be judged.” On this evidence, they have no need to worry.