Bloc Party‘s Electric Proms ‘new music moment’, complete with backing choir, was set up to run on the same stage trod by Paul McCartney the night before. Yet it was far from being their biggest gig – they’ve filled the arena stages of festivals across Europe this year already. Their support act has yet to enjoy such occasions.
James Chapman’s live incarnation of Maps, opening tonight’s bill, has become a tighter prospect since these ears last heard them, at Brighton’s Great Escape Festival in May. Since then, Maps’ debut album We Can Create has been nominated for a Mercury gong. Album highlights Lost My Soul and the excellent It Will Find You are wheeled out by the six-piece band early. Both are very loud. The Bloc Party faithful, gradually assembling, are appreciative.
It’s safe to say that none of the Mercury attention has yet gone to Chapman’s head. Yes, he’s the front man, but throughout he looks embarrassed to be so, apologetic even for daring to exist and bother us. His jeans and t-shirt give no indication of a man dressing up to play his biggest gig to date.
Employing that old technique of extra drums, the band bash out the final phrases of each song, hoping the extra effort will lift them above the dreamy nu-gaze that they are. They just about succeed, but this is not music to rouse the dead with.
Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke is also wearing jeans, but his look custom made as he beams his toothpaste smile at the packed-in audience. Behind him and his three bandmates are ranged the Exmoor Singers, a 22-piece choir. Each chorister is dressed head to toe in unobtrusive black. From the start they are used to the full, but guitar squalls contrive to shout them down throughout a set that highlights the Roundhouse’s curiously echoey sound issues and what sounds suspiciously like a slapped-together mix of Bloc Party playing just as they usually do… but with a choir.
Kele sings the intro to Where Is Home a cappella to whoops and singalongs, and the set is split evenly between decent debut Silent Alarm and soporific follow-up A Weekend In The City, the best track of which – I Still Remember – is, amazingly, excluded. Surely this can’t be due to the band fearing a good shoeing, despite at least one trainer heading towards Kele’s head during the set?
Brandishing a doctor’s sick note for his pharyngitis, Kele explains his voice is not up to the job tonight. It’s a blatant though effective call for a sympathy vote and, of course, as a ruse it works, rousing extra levels of applause. But it can’t help offset a collection of songs too many of which sound almost identical, composer Avshalom Caspi’s choral arrangements for them notwithstanding. At times they contrive towards epic, but too often the songs are lost in a dramatic soup of howls and yelps. It’s all very well spending money on novel arrangements, but if the core material to be arranged isn’t up to the job, a hiding to nothing is the inevitable outcome. Tonight there’s not enough variety.
Some live rarities please the hardcore fans sat in the circle, while the moshpit revellers at the front go at it like it’s the Download Festival – beats are the set’s saviours. There’s a stripped-down moment as an acoustic, up-close-and-personal Sunday is aired. The gig ends with The Pioneers, but leaves little impression.