Live Music + Gig Reviews

Death & Vanilla @ Shacklewell Arms, London

31 May 2019

Death & Vanilla

Appropriation and deviation are the cornerstone of any great work of Art. First you appropriate a chosen style, by researching, doing cover versions – or ‘translations’ – and by learning your instrument and its limitations, all the while finding your niche amongst like-minded peers. Then you start to deviate and the fun begins, as you find yourself breaking the standard template to produce a body of work that has its own singular voice within the diaspora. Billed as a free show to highlight their third album Are You A Dreamer for the Fire label, tonight was a welcome opportunity for Death & Vanilla to completely reinvent the wheel.

On the surface, the band share a minor similarity with groups like Portishead or contemporaries such US based soundtrack aficionados Unloved. They share the same appropriated reference points: classic Ennio Morricone spaghetti westerns, Giallo histrionics, cheeky mid-century Gallic pop, fizzing motorik and a sprinkling of spooky psychedelia, all wrapped up in some retro yet edgy graphic design. But whereas the California session musicians seem to struggle at their live shows, with trying to make it all seem suitably authentic, cool and sultry, these Swedes have embraced their naïve capabilities and their reliance on machines to allow them a chance to transcend the old clichéd notions of hipness. There is none of that arrogance or aloofness present, instead there is humility – and engaging clumsiness. They find the soul buried within automation. This is homemade ritualistic futurism, not tired macho nostalgia.

The group take to the stage early, a rare occurrence these days, and we’re given a searing version of A Flaw In The Iris, the album’s opener. As the first notes spring to life, we’re guessing what track it might be. It doesn’t sound exactly like the record; it takes a few moments to find its groove and that’s where the deviation unfolds. It feels unrehearsed, spontaneous. This is their moment to discover fire. Managing to be both mechanically clunky and dreamily wistful, it gets a big response, and sets the tone for the rest of the evening. What follows is a generous smattering of album tracks, each a revelation, as well as some older material, such as a sublime take on the California Owls single. 

Guitarist Anders Hansson may be dressed all in black and carrying an expensive guitar but there is no posturing involved. His simple chords and discordant riffs are a deceptive foil adding further layers of depth and nuance. As vocalist Marleen Nilsson and keyboardist Magnus Bodin fiddle with their Moogs and Mellotrons, it feels more like watching the Being Boiled era Human League, than say Serge Gainsbourg. They watch each other to make sure they hit the cues. They lean over one another to press buttons and smile at the alchemy they are generating. They, and we by extension, get lost in ecstasy when it all melds together into one swirling whirlwind of sound.

The only downside to the evening is that Nilsson’s vocals are somewhat muddied in the mix, but that is a minor disappointment when the rest of the show is so close to perfection. They manage to distill a century of sound into a couple of hours, finishing with an intense spinning version of Necessary Distortions from 2015’s To Where The Wild Things Are. Its lyrics repeat mantras about oscillation, isolation and fascination, making it the perfect distillation of the power they wielded tonight.

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Death & Vanilla @ Shacklewell Arms, London