I’ve been meaning to write about a few of the gigs I’ve attended this year, but various things – not least my working day and other commitments – have rather reduced the time I’ve had to do so. I’ve seen a defiant Nadine Shah show at the Roundhouse, which while also being an emotional “dream show” for her at the venue, was also a seething political statement at the shambles that resembles politics in the UK right now; The Soft Moon take an impressive step forward at The Dome with a hard-edged, industrial-shoegaze-goth show; and the up-and-coming synth-rock LOCK and the folky-murder-balladry of LOCKS share a stage once again, not to mention a few other gigs already this year, too.
Into The Pit: 204:
Covenant: 17-March 2018
But there was something about last night’s show that had me inspired to begin tapping out my thoughts even before the support acts had finished. Even amid the grotty weather, and the snow and ice returned for – hopefully – one last weekend before Spring finally takes hold fully, there was a good turnout and the feel of a crowd who, eventually, were ready to party longer than the time alloted.
The slow start at this venue, perhaps, can be put down to the usual Saturday night timings here. The slightly soulless hall of the O2 Academy Islington is now one of the few remaining venues of this size in north London, and so it is perhaps understandable that to ensure takings remain high, it must double as a gig venue and club venue – but this trade-off means that less-than-ideal 2200 curfews on a Saturday night are the norm, and with four bands on the bill, a 1730 start.
There was no hope in the world of me making the first band, as a result, and so all I caught of that opening band (My Hysteria, a new one on me) was the last song, an inoffensive synthpop track that I didn’t hate. Maybe I should dig them out on record.
The real reason I’d made it down as early as I could, though, was to catch Empathy Test for the first time since they released their dual-debut albums at the end of last year. These, of course, were albums made possible by an extraordinarily successful crowdfunding (as I recall over three times the original target), after a few years of a steady stream of excellent singles, and as is often the way in this internet age, we pretty much get to watch a band develop in real time.
Empathy Test setlist
Safe from Harm
Bare My Soul
Here Is The Place
Remarkably, in the four years or so that I’ve been following the band, they’ve barely put a foot wrong. Sometimes, after such strong early singles, bands can lose their focus and their way, but none of that has happened here and indeed I’m of the view that they’ve now easily bettered early highlight Losing Touch, as was proved by this set.
The other thing that is notable is just how confident they are onstage. There is a swagger and easy-going nature that wasn’t there in the early days, perhaps borne of the enormous goodwill that they’ve built up – almost entirely by word-of-mouth. Obviously touring with the likes of Mesh and this night’s headliners Covenant has helped hone their style, as this show and other recent shows proved.
This was, in the main, a demonstration of just how great Empathy Test are right now. From the opening notes of the usual, swooning opener Kirilee to the closing, devastating Here Is The Place (one of the best songs I’ve heard about dealing with death in a while), this was forty minutes of a young band at the peak of their powers, with song-after-song of exquisite songcraft that was impossible not to get swept up in.
Quite how they were on the bill below Massive Ego – one reasoning suggested by a friend at the show was to ensure early attendance by as many people as possible – frankly mystified me. Still, I got one stage further than my comments at Infest 2016 in Memory of a Festival: 026, I can remember a song this time, which happened to be the closer Haters Gonna Hate. Still not my bag, I’m afraid.
It was a little sobering to realise that I first saw Covenant live nearly two decades ago, at an early Infest, and I’ve seen them relatively regularly ever since (I don’t think I’ve missed an album tour cycle in that time). While they can be…variable…live on occasions, every single time there are always moments that remind me why I love this band so much, and this show proved that rule again.
Like Tears In Rain
I Close My Eyes
Edge of Dawn
Sound Mirrors (Remix)
Stalker (Club Version)
Call The Ships To Port
We Stand Alone
Amid dim blue lights and a whole ton of smoke, the band took to the stage amid analogue synth experimentation from Daniel Jonasson and, surprisingly, Daniel Myer (Haujobb/Architect), the latter returning to playing with Covenant after previously being a band member around the turn of the decade, and then again a few years ago. Sadly the noisy synths were louder in the mix than the beats, which meant that the thumping, iconic intro of Like Tears In Rain was only belatedly audible, and then even stranger, this usually roof-raising song barely got a murmur from half the crowd, but then it seemed Eskil was feeling his way in, too.
Not an ideal start, but that feeling was swiftly burned away by a blistering Bullet (it always surprises me just how popular, and how laser-guided, that song is live) and an absolutely towering, deep-house influenced Figurehead, that rather set the stage for the rest of the evening – less “The Blinding Dark” Tour, more “Greatest Hits”.
That said, there were a handful of songs played from that most recent album, and as it happened all three were great. Sound Mirrors, even in a subtly remixed form, still sounds like Covenant reaching back to their past with modern tools (and has a glorious chorus to match), I Close My Eyes is the most soulful Eskil has sounded in years, but the best of them was a glowering Morning Star, played in near-darkness to match the dark, seething heart of the song.
And yes, the “hits” were played, of course they were. No Dead Stars, thankfully – a far-too-vapid song for a band who’ve perhaps re-discovered their social conscience, as songs like Sound Mirrors prove. Re-discovered, though? Shelter, from their 1994 (!) debut Dreams of a Cryotank, was aired (as apparently it has across the recent tour) for the first time since the nineties, if ever, and was explained to be a song about the fear of nuclear war (something that has suddenly become a fear again, sadly), while that was followed by the deeply surprising appearance of old Europa favourite Leviathan, another soaring song that reminds us of our small physical size on this planet, one of many species competing for space as humanity tips the scales in it’s favour.
The initially sluggish crowd, though, were really only raised from their surprising torpor by the unleashing of Ritual Noise, another song that had to fight through synth noodling to be heard initially, but once it had it was like old times once again, while the club-remix version of the evergreen Stalker kept things held aloft in perhaps a shorter version than normal, and the band delivered possibly the best, most engaging version of Call The Ships To Port I’ve heard in ages.
The encore brought more surprises. Prometheus was admittedly played here last time they visited Islington, fine, but handing the mic over to Daniel Myer for Lightbringer certainly wasn’t, and finally it felt like it actually worked live – maybe it just needed that second vocalist going all-in. Less of a surprise, mind, was the ecstatic response, as ever, to the glorious power of We Stand Alone, that felt like most of the crowd were providing the refrain, drowning out Eskil in a joyous, group singalong.
While there were these skyscraping, wonderful moments, I couldn’t help feeling something wasn’t quite right at other points. Clearly there were a few technical problems, as Eskil was back-and-forth to the engineers at stage-side, and indeed for a fair proportion of the show he was enveloped entirely by the dimly-lit fog onstage, dropping back behind his bandmates, and it was only in later songs where he was leaning over the crowd.
But Covenant even only intermittently brilliant, as I’ve said before, are still worth seeing, and that was once again the case here. Here’s hoping to seeing them again next time.