With his black book containing names such as Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak and Andre 3000 these days, it is not easy to know what to expect from James Blake’s homecoming album tour in the grandiose surrounds of the Hammersmith Apollo tonight.
The LP in question, ‘Assume Form’, is a mixed bag. On the whole it lacks the cohesion of his previous outings, offering sublime offbeat pop moments alongside more mainstream-leaning attire – but, then again, a James Blake album is not (and never was) going to be a one-size-fits-all solution.
The aforementioned roll call is just the latest (L.A-facing) phase in a career that saw him start out as a poster-boy for post-dubstep on R&S in 2010 (‘CMYK’), before dipping his toe into grime (with his 1-800 Dinosaur label featuring Trim) and the shoegaze electronica of Mount Kimbie, all awhile making his name as a sort of mild-mannered indie-folktronika pin-up. For all the shape-shifting and genre-hopping, though, it is live that his sound truly starts to make sense to all and sundry.
Most surprising from the outset here is that at the core of James Blake’s musical modus operandi is sub-bass (and then some!) even still today. On tonight’s monolithic speaker stacks, it’s hallucinogenic. Opening with the self-titled album track, the “wub” under the pitched-up vocal sample is unmistakable alongside his grand piano minor chords and the metallic crack of beats.
James Blake’s operatic vocal range – which elegantly traverses from soprano to falsetto with unbelievable ease – typically takes centre stage on his records, but his dexterity on the production boards is the primary character of this evening’s show. Crowd favourite ‘Timeless’ at one point even sounds like engorged, rugged techno built languidly around a huge screw-face drop, beset by incessant, schizophrenic fire alarms, while on the woozy bug-eyed trap of ‘Mile High feat. Travis Scott & Metro Boomin’ he balances icy purple drank vocals with a bleak, futuristic backdrop – as if California, itself, has frozen over, post apocalypse, into a Cristal-flavoured nuclear winter.
The saccharine Latino neo-soul of ‘Barefoot in the Park’ is one of a number of set highlights, winding up into a white noise crescendo. ‘Limit To Your Love’, ridden with guttural bass ripples, creates a surreal singalong over caustic synth washes and analogue wooshes, epic biblical organs and choir-like flourishes. Awash with melancholic blue light and ghostly dry-ice smog, this is baroque 2.0: dubstep fit for a cathedral. And, tonight, as he addresses the crowd donning a black trench-coat, all earnest and self-effacing (“this feels different”), it becomes clear that James Blake is conjuring a religious experience of his own tonight.
With the rap-laden house beats of ‘Where’s The Catch?’, crossing into the visceral 4X4 of ‘Voyeur’, Clash is left awe-stricken by the disjointed, occasionally jarring, range on display. From muscular maximal fit for an East London warehouse, to delicate Carl Craig keys and intense, throbbing Joy Division-inspired electro-punk, the sensory effect is like being churned up and spat out by a Waltzer while on 2C-B.
The anthemic ‘Retrograde’then drops us down into sunken rail-road blues. For the encore, ode to mental ill-health ‘Don’t Miss It’ offers a stand-out example of his existential genius, before he somehow pulls off a rounded vocal harmony using a loop peddle – “designed to put someone to sleep” – on ‘Lullaby For My Insomniac’.
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Words: Adam Saville
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