We are very much in the time of new bands, new styles, and a distinct dearth of live venues in London. This has resulted in a few things: gigs that sell out quickly as there aren’t the available venues to upgrade to, venues we’ve not been to in a while as promoters appear to be using whatever they can get, and some fascinating bills that are finally meaning we’re able to see artists who may not have made it over.
/Into the Pit/208/Drab Majesty + SRSQ
/Into The Pit/Bands
/Into The Pit/Venue/Date
This show was one of those. The headliner has made quite a splash on a label, Dais Records, that has become a master of promoting its artists and getting many of them to cross the pond to tour in the UK and mainland Europe (with more to come across the autumn), and thus sold out a venue I’ve only been to once in the past decade. But it wasn’t just the headliner I was here to see.
Kennedy Ashlyn came to my, and many others, attention through her first group Them Are Us Too, where her extraordinary vocal range gave a dreamy, Cocteau Twins edge to glorious, downtempo electronics. Sadly that group ended too soon, as Kennedy’s bandmate Cash Askew was one of the victims of the Oakland Ghost Ship fire (the trial around the fire recently concluded with an acquittal and a mistrial verdict, by the way).
Thus, writing about the Them Are Us Too remnants album Amends, and then the SRSQ album Unreality last year was difficult. How do you realistically assess releases so wrapped up in tangible grief? I’ve lost friends before, but (thankfully) none in circumstances like this, and trying to critique them at the time felt basically impossible.
I went back to both albums (and indeed Remain, too) before this show, and with a bit of distance they begin to make sense. But even so, I still wasn’t expecting what I got from the SRSQ live show. Frankly, it felt like a euphoric exorcism of their traumatic recent past at points, as Kennedy punched the air, swayed to the music and committed every sinew to every moment. Cherish was frankly fucking sublime and Permission was the thundering highlight, the pitch-shifted vocals and pulsating rhythms turned up to the max. Her vocals, though, are the most astonishing thing live – a friend of a friend suggested a likeness to Zola Jesus, and certainly there’s a similar kind of drama there, but really, her voice can be compared with that of Elizabeth Fraser, with a similarly jaw-dropping range and power.
It’s certainly not often that you need a few minutes to get your breath and mind back, after watching a support act.
I first stumbled across Drab Majesty back in early 2016, which I covered on /Into the Pit/191, as support to The Black Queen. I believe both bands were playing debut UK shows at the time, and certainly, Drab Majesty left an impression at the time, but I wasn’t sure that it was the right one.
A combination of psuedo-mime, and Cure-worshipping goth at the time, it felt like it needed more (and less mime). So colour me surprised when A Demonstration turned out to be a word-of-mouth hit – and an album stuffed with brilliant songs – and then Modern Mirror this year taking things even further, and frankly being even better. Which left an awful lot of anticipation for this UK tour, and the London show sold out a while in advance of the date – which of course meant that the curiously laid-out 500-capacity Dingwalls venue felt awfully cramped. That said, with the various levels, barriers and sections, at least it wasn’t too hard to get a reasonable view – and for the most part the sound was good (and very loud), too, although I suspect in some of the corners the detail may well have been lost.
The Other Side
Dot in the Sky
Everything Is Sentimental
Noise of the Void
39 by Design
Out of Sequence
Something is clearly critical to Drab Majesty’s entire “thing” is their image. Gone is the Pierrot-esque make-up of before, and now, the duo appear as some kind of curious, alien presence onstage, hidden behind striking suits, oversize blonde wigs and huge shades (and the new album is apparently based around a modern interpretation of Ovid’s Narcissus) – so maybe this image-heavy view makes a lot of sense. Think Warhol, high-fashion, perhaps, but there wass something of classic performance art in what they do, movements exaggerated and most traces of humanity removed it – but curiously the emotion remains in the songs, but sometimes you have to work for it.
Soundwise, too, there is work needed, as you try and unpick the hooks from the sixties psych-meets-post-punk-meets-goth-meets-classic-shoegaze-meets-the extravagance of seventies prog-meets-the alien, outsider pop of Bowie. This is a group uninterested in being pinned down, and uninterested in mining a particular style, which is fine when songs as fucking good as the heartfelt The Other Side, or the soaring glory of Dot In The Sky, or the charge of recent single Ellipsis are all aired.
Perhaps the problem came when most of the standout songs were all stacked in the first half of the set, but I found myself struggling to…engage with them? I rather get the feeling this is the intention, keeping a distinct distance between performer and audience, which is fine, but it left me feeling a bit hollow, like I wanted to love it, I really did, but I just couldn’t make my brain click onto the same wavelength. In some respects, this ended up being the inverse of what I might have expected.
But what was really clear from this show was that, very much in keeping with the times, that Drab Majesty have got a reach far beyond what might be expected as their audience. They’ve succeeded in reaching beyond a nominally “Goth” audience for a curious crowd of all types, and the distinct feeling is that their upward trajectory is far from over, particularly if they continue writing songs as good as they’ve done so far.
I’m just left in two minds around their live show, and ten days on from that show as I write, I’m still conflicted on what to think. But maybe, in the end, that’s a good thing. It was a show that I can’t get out of my mind.