UNKLE are a tricky live proposition. Their albums are built upon collaborations as eclectic as they are numerous, with a revolving-door guestlist ranging from Thom Yorke to The Black Angels, and across five albums the only real constant has been James Lavelle himself. Yet like Massive Attack, Lavelle has moved on considerably from the trip-hop influences that characterised his early releases to embrace a slew of genres, from electronica to industrial, classical to psychedelica, UNKLE’s sound absorbing them all like The Blob.
Which is great in the studio. On the stage it’s rather more problematic, particularly when so much of the character of a song is tethered to artists whose contribution to UNKLE ended with the printing of the liner notes. And it’s an issue that UNKLE’s live iteration opt to address through sheer eviscerating volume, any audience skepticism quickly turning to tinnitus and trembling limbs.
It’s striking, actually, how much UNKLE can make their songs sound like Nine Inch Nails. An early Burn My Shadow doubles at points for March Of The Pigs, the stage a flurry of motion as half the band hit whatever they can whilst Ian Astbury‘s face looms down from a screen behind. It’s a little unnerving actually, this technique, absent vocalists rendered onto the wall like the 1984 Apple ad as their voices play through tape, but it does at least lend the show a degree of visual spectacle.
That’s the issue really. The UNKLE collective are extremely competent musicians, but just not always interesting as an onstage presence, and Lavelle’s own largely anonymous role denies us the connection to a frontman only intermittently provided by Gavin Clark. And whilst the set never flags, at points it blurs around the edges, riffs melding homogeneously as the dancing, though never ceasing, attains a steady clockwork in place of the prior vigour.
Partly that’s down to the Brixton Academy’s sound, which pretty much subsumes everything bar the beats into the same caustic tone, stripping away any subtlety like an industrial cleanser. But it’s also a setlist weighted heavily to the post-Never Never Land releases, UNKLE’s direction after Richard File moving away from electro and towards a more guitar-driven dirge.
There are moments of brilliance, however: Reign’s slow build and release is tremendous, whilst The Duke Spirit‘s Liela Moss invests new song The Dog Is Black with a sleazed and lawless swagger. A post-encore Heaven trades decibels for introspection, and a Gavin Clark-fronted Lonely Soul got the singalong pretty much mandated by a Friday night gig. The unquestionable high points, though, come whenever Elle J takes the stage, closer In A State lent a visceral tension through her wraithish presence.
That’s when UNKLE work best – when they attain a filmic, epic quality, the soundtrack to a future noir. But it’s a state that they reach only infrequently, held back by a set that opts to remain comfortable rather than striving for something more dramatic.