DATE: 16/03/2018
VENUE: Yes 24 MUV Hall, Mapo-gu
TICKET PRICE: ₩46 000 (Pre-sold)

For myself and my core group of friends, Mount Kimbie – the name under which British musicians Kai Campos and Dominic Maker have been releasing genre-defining and defying electronic music for the last decade – holds a pretty significant place in our hearts. We were introduced to the band when the brother of a friend of a friend shared a flat with them in London somewhere around 2010 and returned home with a vinyl copy of their first album, Crooks and Lovers, complete with a circular coffee-stain on the sleeve. That record ended up getting played to death over the next couple of years, ripped copies circulating like electrons being exchanged between atoms, and it became the go-to soundtrack for everything from pre-drinks to post-seshes, days at the beach to road-trips across the country. It’s one of a handful of albums I think I’ve listened to a little bit too much; I basically can’t listen to it any more, because every time I put it on my brain starts anticipating the next bar and filling it in before it’s even had a chance to reach my ears.

mount-kimbie

Kai Campos and Dominic Maker, the two halves of Mount Kimbie

Which is a pity, because Crooks and Lovers really is a special record. Released on Scuba’s legendary bass music label Hot Flush Recordings in 2010, at a time when the UK dubstep sound had exploded into the mainstream and rapidly been incorporated into the global commercial dance music scene, Mount Kimbie’s demure, understated debut album came across as the perfect polar opposite of the garish bombast of producers like, say, Skrillex, whose influential (for better or worse) EP Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites was released that same year. On Crooks and Lovers, Maker and Campos grabbed hold of all of the traditional sonic signifiers of dubstep – cavernous sub-bass, whipcrack percussion, shuffling garage beats – and turned them inside out, crafting a tender, patient record that couldn’t be further removed from the whomps and roars of dancefloor dubstep, and yet at the same time still felt curiously reminiscent of it, like rave tracks filtered through a thick fog of half-forgotten dreams. Together with artists like James Blake (one of their frequent collaborators) and Burial, Mount Kimbie helped to carve out the hazy genre boundaries of what music critics would come to call “post-dubstep”, inspiring a legion of imitators in the process.


‘Before I Move Off’, from debut album 
Crooks and Lovers

To Mount Kimbie’s credit, though, they didn’t stay within the confines of the genre they’d help define for long. Their second record, released on Warp in 2013, saw the duo breaking new musical ground, incorporating vocal performances from both themselves and ginger chanteur du jour Archie Marshall (King Krule), jazzy percussion and guitar and keyboard sounds which leant a more natural, jam-band feel to their output, a trend that became even more apparent on their latest outing, 2017’s Love What Remains (also on Warp). Personally, I’m a little ambivalent about these changes; from my point of view Cold Spring Faultless Youth and Love What Remains are both fine records, but very far removed from the Mount Kimbie I fell in love with (I must have listened to Crooks and Lovers hundreds of times; I listened to Love What Remains twice when it came out and I haven’t gone back to it since). Nonetheless I have a great deal of respect for them for not resting on their laurels and instead actively trying to push their sound in new directions. I also had a suspicion that their post-Crooks and Lovers material, especially the tracks off of the new album, probably worked better live than they did on record, a hunch that the gig proved to be correct.

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I’m actually pretty happy with my terrible phone camera this time around, feel like it captured the feel of the show quite well. 

The venue was the Yes 24 MUV Hall, located roughly halfway in between Hongdae and Hapjeong stations (prime Korean hipster real estate, in other words). What it lacked in decent and affordable drinks (the bar carried exactly four alcoholic options, all priced at 7000 won or over) it more than made up for in space, atmosphere and sound. Red brick walls enclosed a space that felt at once intimate and roomy; I never once felt crushed or crowded in upon despite the hundreds of people around me, a feeling that’s sadly (but understandably) hard to come by sometimes in Seoul. And even before Mount Kimbie took to the stage it was clear from the sound quality of the warm-up indie muzak being piped over our heads that the system was either extravagantly expensive, lovingly maintained, or both – every note was crisp, clear and rich (note: there were apparently a couple of warm up acts that played before Mount Kimbie – local artists Mogwaa and Alter Ego – but their sets were already over by the time we arrived). The audience was comprised primarily of foreigners, most of whom seemed overjoyed to be there, and the people overall were far chattier and friendlier than I’m used to them being in this city; by the time Mount Kimbie took to the stage to whoops and whistles from the crowd I’d had more small-talk than I’d had in months.

After spending what seemed like much longer than it probably was bumbling around the stage in headtorches fiddling with arcane-looking synthesizers, the band (that is, Campos and Maker plus a live drummer and someone else helping out on various synthesizers – I did some perfunctory digging but I couldn’t find their names) finally began, kicking off the show with “Four Years and One Day”, the opening track from Love What Survives. From the start, it became clear that Mount Kimbie on stage was a very, very different beast to Mount Kimbie on record. Songs unfurled and elongated, stretching into what at times seemed like entirely new productions, at once more muscular and more ethereal. Maker and Campos were in a state of constant motion around the stage, moving effortlessly between guitars and synths as the screen behind them flashed with the same beautiful, cryptic imagery familiar from Mount Kimbie’s music videos: flowers, beaches, street scenes, airplanes, all with the same grainy, washed-out look, as if they’d been cut from a dusty roll of film found by chance in some long-forgotten attic.

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The rose seemed to be a recurring motif in a lot of Mount Kimbie’s visuals that night. 

An early surprise came when Dominic Maker took to the microphone and began singing the vocal part from “We Go Home Together”, one of Kimbie’s collaboration’s with fellow “post-dubstep” luminary James Blake. It was a bold move; Blake’s tender croon is fairly idiosyncratic, and not easily replaced. Maker made it work, however, bringing a similar degree of raw, emotional sincerity to the piece, though it’s obvious that neither him nor Campos (who also provided vocal accompaniment at several points during the show) are all that comfortable when it comes to singing. That’s maybe a little unfair; the two of them have fine voices – it’s just that their vocal capabilities don’t stand out as spectacular in the same way as their instrumental abilities do. That being said, I’ll confess to breathing a sigh of relief when, a few songs later, they chose to play recorded audio of King Krule singing “Blue Train Lines” rather than attempting to sing the part themselves. Archie Marshall has what is probably one of the most unique and recognizable voices in contemporary music and hearing anyone else sing his verses on tracks like “Blue Train Lines” or “You Took Your Time” would just have felt… wrong.

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Kai Campos switches out cables on a modular synthesizer as Dominic Maker hypnotizes with the bass. 

The show leaned far more heavily on material from the new album (though they did at one point play “Before I Move Off” from Crooks and Lovers, to rapturous applause and cheers). I’d expected this to be the case, and it made sense; for one thing, it’s pretty normal for bands to play newer music on stage so relatively soon after dropping a new release, and for another the driving, noisy motorik compositions of Love What Survives made for much better live show fodder than the woozy, intimate bedroom beats that characterized Crooks and Lovers and, to a slightly lesser extent, Cold Spring Faultless Youth. I was struck by how much more like a band, and less like a pair of producers, Mount Kimbie seemed on stage. Whereas on their albums, especially their earlier work, traditional instrumentation was just one element in a broader sonic palette, sharing the soundscape equally with synthesized noises and found-sound samples, here the guitar and bass seemed to take centre-stage, the rest of the sonic elements at their disposal falling into place in support around them. Mount Kimbie have definitely changed a lot since the Crooks and Lovers days, and in all honesty feel more like a particularly inventive post-rock band than they do a pair of post-dubstep pioneers. This change in musical direction really didn’t appeal to me, initially; as I mentioned earlier, Love What Remains is my least favourite Kimbie record by quite a wide margin, and I really do miss the days when they wore their dancefloor influences and aspirations a little more openly. But seeing how well the new Kimbie sound worked in a live setting I definitely felt more open to it; I could grok what they were trying to do, and their live show was so damn good because of it that it felt really churlish to hold their musical evolution against them.

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Towards the end of the show the lighting scheme switched from red to blue. 

Just when I thought I had them figured out, though, Kimbie threw the audience a curveball. A noisy crescendo suddenly dissipated into a long, sustained drone that just kept going – and going – and going, until several members of the audience began looking around uncomfortably and I began to wonder if one of their synths had blown a circuit or something. Just when I thought the drone would never end, Kimbie began to lay down a thick cut of gnarly, booming outsider techno, all crushing claps and splutters of static that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an Opal Tapes compilation. It was a whiplash-inducing change of pace, but the duo pulled it off well, and the crowd loved them for it. They quickly settled back into more guitar-driven and mellow territory, but the rapid shift in atmosphere seemed evidence to me that Mount Kimbie still had more than enough tricks up their sleeves, and that they weren’t afraid to experiment with their sound and their show. I’d say this was probably my second favorite part of the show. My number-one favorite was their final song (which came all too soon for my liking), “Made To Stray”, easily the standout track from Cold Spring Faultless Youth and arguably one of the best pieces of music Kimbie has released over their career. I’m not ashamed to admit that I (together with my friends) sang along with every word and absolutely lost ourselves to the track’s rolling percussion and otherworldly keyboard tones. Looking around, I could see that we weren’t alone; the entire crowd seemed similarly entranced.

This was apparently Mount Kimbie’s first-ever show in South Korea, and it was a wonderfully memorable one. Hopefully, having definitely made a new fans in Seoul and will be back again some day soon!

 

 

DATE: 02/13/2018

VENUE: SK Olympic Handball Gymnasium

TICKET PRICE: ₩120 000 (I only ended up paying 60 000 though)

 

The focus of this blog is primarily on the underground electronic music scene here in Seoul, and I don’t really intend to write about much else on here. However, I had the chance to see a live performance by The xx the other night and I figured I’d scribble down some of my thoughts on the gig, both to add a little variety to the content and to give myself the opportunity to practice writing about something a little different.

 

When one of my colleagues managed to track down a couple of half-price tickets to The xx’s show in Seoul and asked me if I wanted to go, I said yes pretty much instantly. The xx is one of those bands that holds a lot of emotional resonance for me, even though my tastes have mutated pretty dramatically since I first fell in love with their sound and they’re no longer a group I can claim to actively listen to. When I first discovered the group around 2009 I was 18 years old and just finishing high school, and The xx’s idiosyncratic r&b-influenced indie pop debut album, xx, served to soundtrack a large part of that difficult transitional period between childhood and something closer to, but still not quite yet, adulthood.

 

Nearly a decade after its release on Young Turks, xx sounds more iconic than ever. It’s a sparse, delicate record, overflowing with a downcast but heartbreakingly direct kind of sincerity. On its release I genuinely don’t think anyone had heard anything quite like it; the combination of breathy, sultry vocal duets, understated yet infectious guitar hooks, and forward-thinking drumming and beat programming that together created something that felt so nuanced, so personal, so intimate. “Intimate” is the word that comes to mind most often whenever I try and put The xx into words; music that sounds like it was made in and for south London bedrooms in the quietest hours of the night. One of the most curious things about the album to me that something so incredibly personal and inward-looking could have such a wide-ranging global impact, lauded by everyone from the nerds over at Pitchfork to Shakira . Then again, maybe that’s not surprising at all; the core themes at the heart of xx – love, loss, longing, desire, loneliness, sex – are common to all of us.

 

 

After being showered with critical acclaim and commercial success, The xx (minus keyboardist and backup guitarist Baria Qureshi, who was asked to leave the band in late 2009 under circumstances that still remain mysterious, shrouded in rumour and salacious internet gossip) followed xx with sophomore album Coexist in 2012 and I See You in 2017. Coexist trod similar ground to their debut, though with perhaps a slightly heavier emphasis on groove and sensuality, while on I See You the band branched out a little, experimenting with a wider range of styles and approaches and producing something that was decidedly more upbeat than either of the two previous records. Both were strong albums loaded with memorable songs, for all that they languish a little in their predecessor’s shadow. In the meanwhile, the band’s drummer and beat-maker Jamie xx began to become recognized in his own right as a DJ and producer within the context of the post-dubstep boom period of British dance music, producing a handful of high-profile singles and remixes, a remix album of the late Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here entitled We’re New Here, and a debut solo album, In Colour, which was loved by some and loathed by others.

 

I should probably pause for a second here and let it be known that I fall firmly into the latter category. I love The xx, but I don’t really care for Jamie as a solo artist. To my ears his production oscillates between being twee, bombastic and flat-out boring, and while I enjoy one or two of his tracks and really liked We’re New Here I would never go out of my way to listen to his material or catch a Jamie xx set – an opinion that was to an extent confirmed by the performance, which I’ll talk about in a bit.

 

The gig took place on Valentine’s Day eve in the SK Olympic Handball Gymnasium, located in Olympic Park in Songpa-gu in the south-east of the city and originally built for the 1988 summer Olympics. It’s a squat, circular building that according to it’s Wikipedia entry can seat 5, 0003 people, though I would guess that a little over 2 000 turned up for the show. Our tickets were, unfortunately, for seats rather than standing tickets, so I saw the performance from a fair distance away and seated the entire time – not my ideal way of attending any kind of concert – but after all they were half-price so it seems a little churlish to complain. The performance was supposed to start at 8 pm, but the band kept us waiting for about half an hour before they finally walked onto the stage – which I had been expecting (what band worth their salt ever starts on time?), but which my colleague was very annoyed by; according to her Korean artists would never leave their fans waiting like that. While we waited for The xx to show face I amused myself by scoping out the crowd; majority Korean, but with a higher-than-average number of waygookin, almost all of which seemed to be women, scattered among the audience.

The xx poster

As it turned out, the show was the very last one on The xx’s I See You tour, which began on February 8th last year. There was something special about being able to join them at the end of the tour – the end of one particular chapter in the story of the band, so to speak – but it was a double-edged sword; all three members – Guitarist and vocalist Romy Madley-Croft, bassist and vocalist Oliver Sim and drummer and electronics guy Jamie xx – were visibly exhausted, understandably so after having been on the road for over a year. The beginning of the show was especially choppy, with the band running through songs at what felt like a very rapid pace, barrelling into the tunes with little to no sense of build-up or introduction. “Islands”, arguably one of the most well-known standout tracks from xx, was the second or third song they played and while the crowd responded with screams of delight at the first few bars of the familiar melody I couldn’t help but wonder if it shouldn’t have been saved for a little later on in the evening. I began feeling a familiar, horrible sensation in my stomach – what if, in fact, this band that I had appreciated for so long actually… sucked? What if it turned out to be a bad show? I’m pretty sure a lot of the people reading this (if anyone is actually reading this, that is) know the feeling I mean: it’s kind of traumatic to finally get to see an artist you love live and find out that their stage show is kind of bad. Not that the initial few songs were actually all that bad, necessarily, the performance just felt a little… phoned in.

 

Ironically, the vibe of the show began to take a turn for the better around about the same time that Romy momentarily forgot how to play her instrument. In what was definitely one of the most endearing moments of the evening, she struggled to pull off the opening bars of ‘A Violent Noise’, starting and stopping again and again as the right notes continued to elude her, even going so far as to swap out guitars at one point. My heart went out to her; I can’t imagine how stressful and embarrassing it must be to run into a hiccup like that in the middle of a performance, in front of thousands of people. But she handled it like an absolute champion, refusing Oliver Sim’s gentle suggestion that they move on to the next song and trying the riff again and again until she eventually got it right. When she finally managed it, the entire atmosphere of the gig changed; the crowd burst into a roar of congratulations, Madley-Croft’s face lit up in triumph, Sim strode over to plant a kiss on her head before throwing himself into the bassline. It took a while to get there, but the rendition of ‘A Violent Noise’ that they eventually pulled off catapulted the song right to the top of my personal ranking of xx tunes. And man, was it worth the wait… it seemed like after getting over the grinding awkwardness that plagued the start of the song the whole band seemed to loosen up and enjoy themselves more, and a strong sense of almost familial warmth and intimacy (there’s that word again!) began to show, between the members on stage as well as between The xx and their audience. Especially palpable was the sense of on-stage chemistry between Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim. The two complimented each other perfectly, gazing into each other’s eyes as they strummed their guitars, their voices alternating in smoky, poetic duets suffused with the sense of yearning and heartache familiar from The xx’s studio albums. But where their voices on the albums were mostly murmur, their vocals on stage were suffused with confidence and presence, lending the duo a kind of command largely absent from their recorded work. It’s easy to see why for a long time fans of the band were convinced the two were secretly dating – rumours that were finally put to rest with Romy Madley-Croft’s engagement and the revelation that she bats for the other team. When Madley-Croft took centre-stage for a powerful solo performance of “Performance”, however, she showed that she was more than capable of commanding the rapt attention of the crowd without Oliver or Jamie’s support; her vulnerable croon sent honest-to-god chills through my entire body.

The xx 1

If Romy Madley-Croft dominated the beginning of The xx’s set, then Oliver Sim was the star of the middle. After pausing to throw out a few polite concert clichés at the crowd – “we love you Seoul”, “so happy to be here”, etc. etc., the usual stuff, harmless but a little cheesy – he descended off stage and down into the crowd, hi-fiving people as he strode towards a smaller stage set up towards the end of the standing area. From down there he launched into ‘Fiction’ a brooding, bass-driven number from Coexist written by Sim himself, whose lyrics seem, like a lot of The xx’s tracks, to be about a painful breakup  (or were they ever together at all?). There was a certain irony to be had in playing the song the day before Valentine’s, as Sim wryly acknowledged.

So far I’ve spent a lot of words gushing about how much I enjoyed Romy and Oliver’s performances, but I haven’t said that much about Jamie xx, frankly because I don’t have that many nice things to say. To my mind, he’s the weak link of the group, and there were several times where I felt as if his booming electronic percussion felt overbearing and forced, working at odds with the gentle, soulful atmosphere being carefully put together by his bandmates. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy any of his contributions, though. One of his high points towards the end of the show was a stunning live remix version of Shelter, with Romy and Oliver singing over a sparkling swirl of synth notes and machine kicks that turned the angsty, wistful number into a total bop. This was followed by a live rendition of one of Jamie xx’s own solo pieces, “Loud Places”, which I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed overmuch in studio form but which was really powerful and impactful on stage, especially in conjunction with the excellent lighting work from The xx’s stage crew. What good will I’d begun to feel for him off the back of those two songs, however, was lost when he launched into a long, filter-heavy jacking house track, utterly jarring and completely out of step with the atmosphere built up throughout the show. Romy and Oliver managed to salvage the end of the show, however, closing with a beautiful rendition of “Intro” and then dusting off “Angel” as an encore number, prompting the entire audience to sing along to the final refrain of “love, love, love” – a fitting end given the date, and the key themes that have dominated The xx’s music for the last nine years.

Overall, I’d say I’m glad I took the chance to see The xx perform. Musically, the show fell a bit flat for me more than once, and I’m not sure if I would ever make much of an effort to see the a second time. Nevertheless, it was really something special seeing the band interact with each other on stage, and witnessing the warmth, familiarity, friendship and love that they clearly share for each other. The impression I was left with was that the band plays together because they really, really love playing together, and they really, really, love each other; and that’s the kind of artistic vision I can definitely get behind.