Arriving in a small, totally black room with minimal white lights made the whole experience feel as arty as the crowd looked. I hadn't accidentally stumbled into a Tate exhibition, although the eerie ambient music and excess of beanie hats and tote bags suggested I might have. Brian Eno popping up as I flicked through the guestlist did nothing to suppress these thoughts, and neither did the giant, naked picture of Vivienne Westwood. It was an apt location, and crowd, then for one of electronic music’s poster boys, the inimitable singer, songwriter and ‘post-dubstep’ (for lack of a better term) artist, James Blake.
Having just announced his latest album Overgrown, this small warm up show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts was a beautifully intimate gathering to introduce some of his new offerings to an excitable crowd. As the tiny venue filled out with some of London Fashion Week’s off cuts, the low lit stage showed the sparse, yet technologically demanding equipment on stage. As the lights dimmed, on walks Blake to the tune of his own recent Harmonimix of Trim, ‘Confidence Boost’, a move that I found very bold, but showed an artist that was ready to show himself off again after a few absent years.
He sat down at his keyboard, greeted the crowd, and launched into ‘Air and Lack Thereof’. Now, this was the first JB song I ever heard, for me coming straight off a classic Soul Jazz compilation Steppas Delight 2 from late 2009. It’s easy to think of James Blake through his FM offerings such as ‘Limit To Your Love’, but this is a man that cut his teeth on the jagged synths and warped vocals that have since flooded the underground dance realm. When the bass kicks in, the audience is under no illusion as to who has made a mighty return.
His stage set up was breathtaking, moving from waves upon waves of room-filling synths, to his vocal manipulations through loop pedals and vocoders (in ‘Unluck’ and ‘Lindisfarne’, respectively). He reached his fourth number, and in humble acknowledgment, thanked the crowd for willing to come and join him to experience his new music with such open arms. He then announced that this ‘isn’t one of those songs’ and launched into his breakthrough hit ‘Limit...’ to much rapture. And as the shuddering low end came driving in, I genuinely thought that this tiny venue would crumble. There’s a cinema in this building too; those poor cinephiles sitting down with the latest European arthouse offerings must have been (literally) quaking in their boots.
Leaping into 'CMYK', those familiar Kelis vocal cuts bouncing around the room were given new visceral life by an active drummer who almost went full Soca in the middle of the song. After this, he started to unleash some of his new material, teasing two new songs which sounded much more complex, musically and lyrically than his first album offerings. A similar palette of sounds was executed, but they sounded more refined, more layered, more expressive. It certainly bodes well for the forthcoming album, which he stated on stage, is ‘better than the first’.
The familiar tones of 'Wilhelm Scream' came twinkling in, before they gave way to a wall of noise that Phil Spector would have been proud of. As he played another new track, he then finished on 'Retrograde', his latest single. The loose hum of the melody was looped throughout, as James and his tight band built later after layer over the top of it, almost until breaking point, before easing off, until only that haunting vocal remained. A sharp ending, with no encore, a confused drummer and an even more confused crowd, the night felt almost cut short, but it didn’t matter; it was clear that a truly original artist had returned. This is a man that understands tension and release in his music, building tracks to unscalable heights before breaking them down to their bare bones. The night was an intimate and affirmative affair, placing him firmly at the forefront of his field and doing nothing to quell the inevitable hype around his forthcoming album. I for one, can’t wait.