If 2009 has been the year that mainstream British pop music forgot about guitars, then on the evidence of this inaugural Drowned In Sound sponsored DiScover tour then the same can be at least partly said for the underground. Four very different bands play, but the common thread is the use of keyboards and electronica throughout.
Nullifier make a big noise, and its hardly surprising with a stage rammed full of two keyboard / electro men, two drummers, two guitarists, a bassist and a bare footed bespectacled vocalist. Their sound is often shouty and full on with quarrelsome keyboards and gruff guitars slapping each other hard round the face until they bleed in a battle for supremacy. Neither one gives in, but underneath the brutality we can hear a pop sensibility and some catchy hooks with neat tunes. It says something about a band whose vocalist loses his glasses to the floor halfway through the set, then just tosses them back to the ground again when an audience member hands them back.
Esben And The Witch (pictured) create a very different type of atmosphere. With skulls, lanterns and flower lights on stage the band evoke a ghostly hushed midnight chill. The band have improved technically since we first caught them at the end of last year, their sound now poised, dramatic and meshed with dark sonic innovation. With a drum at stage-front, similar to Florence And The Machine, the band maximise its use adding throbbing electronic beats, taught guitars, sinister synths and strong female vocals to create a haunting experimental sound that darkly enchants, particularly on the bass heavy Marching Song which sounds better live than on their EP. The trio end their set crowded round the drum, as if trying to cast some sort of spell from it, but their magic has already been evoked.
Rave hoodied up like a boxer about to enter the ring to dual with his laptop, Gold Panda seems strangely misplaced in the venues dark dingy space. His knob twiddling, sample firing, stuttering laptop trickery is surely better suited to an urban club vibe or an art school studio than the stinking drudgery of the Freebutt. Lit only by a single red light his crackly beats are both as geeky and as hip as where your thigh meets your stomach. Gold Panda is like a malfunctioning modern Aphex Twin, warped, wired up and skilfully good.
Three Trapped Tigers are the last band on and don’t quite make it to the end of their set due to the strict curfew. They have instrumental tracks that are named only by numbers. One of their trio bounces on the spot between tracks and head bangs during them. They deliver all over the place electronic jazz rock synth that refuses to stay in one place. There are acid rave basslines, prog keyboards, space invader arcade sounds and manic drumming that refuses to do anything as simple as a standard repetitive beat. Depending on your perspective its all either a little bit to clever and up its own backside or incredibly playful and challenging music that deserves to be given your full attention. We can salute the creative and intelligent musicianship, which manages to be both structured and chaotic, organic and mechanical all at the same time, but for us Three Trapped Tigers don’t grab our emotional core.
What this evening has proved is that the underground is in good health, with strong diversity and fresh sounds, all using electronica in exciting and often engrossing ways. Now, who fancies a listen to The Kooks then ? Er... thought not.