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The Hordern Pavilion feels like a futuristic cathedral tonight. Its scaffolded high ceilings are bathed in yellow and purple lights. The piano is bright and celestial, sometimes detuned and waning. James Blakes’ voice alternates between angelic choirboy and something else, distorted and dark.
There are so many intricacies of sound that become magnified when you see him play live. Electronic rhythms click and pop like the turning cogs of a wooden toy. Delicate melodies flutter like the sound of baby birds chirping.
Vocal loops start to layer and harmonies build. Earth shattering sub bass makes every body in the building shake. Every layer of sound is palpable and pure. On stage, Blake and his band dismantle the songs as we know them, creating little pockets of time-defying space and silence. Fans scream in those moments, and you can’t blame them. They are exciting to be a part of in real time.
And then, almost always, destruction ensues.
Blakes’ voice is eclipsed by the drums, and the drums are eclipsed by the synths. They become so heavy with distortion that we are submerged in a tsunami of sound, and it feels like time slows down. The sub bass is thunderous and the music turns to noise, sometimes so abrasive it hurts. Strobe lights flash icy blue, smoke floods the stage and sirens blare.
James notices the energy in the room. It’s excited but attentive, a dedicated bunch: “We haven’t seen this before in Australia yet… so thank you.”
He performs the title track from the latest album by himself: “I haven’t played this song in a little bit. We’ll see if it goes to plan”. The contrast from the last song is immense, which ended in an epic house breakdown. But now, acoustic piano and voice are laden with emotion. It is sparse and beautiful, his musicianship in the spotlight. The vocals begin to loop and harmonise, slightly out of synch.
This creates an element of magic, like these other voices are singing of their own accord. A piano interlude follows, drawing on elements of classical and contemporary, and this leads us into Retrograde. The impressive vocal hook materialises, flawless in its delivery, and loops. He takes the underlying piano parts and skews them a little, so the song is subtly reshaped.
James Blake makes you wait for him while he plays. He confidently hesitates, and uses repetition in a way that doesn’t seem to make logical sense. With every album he continues to genre-morph, finding a new sense of rule-defying freedom in his music. On stage he pushes this further still.
Image: James Blake in Sydney, July 2016 / Photo by Olivia Hadisaputra