A two decade dance
Anyone who waited patiently for the release of Blonde Redhead’s September album Barragán, with a mixture of heady expectancy and churning anxiety, may understand my comparison of the initial experience to a detached, sombre waltz with flaccid art pop.
After experiencing the band’s performance huddled together with several hundred at a sold out show in Islington’s Assembly Hall, Kazu Makino, Amadeo and Simone Pace have managed to convince me – and those who shared the experience – that it was a dance worth committing to.
Though Blonde Redhead span 21 years, for me the dance began one Sonic Youth obsessed autumn whilst still at school. From the pool of associations Last.fm threw up, and through my skater friends, I discovered and was entranced by Blonde Redhead’s millennial album Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons. From that day on, I devoured their material with almost religious devotion through the various wrinkles of sound which made them so interesting – from post-punk, to shoegaze, dream pop and lounge jazz.
At university, I worked on essays beyond the witching hour, spiked with a mixture of coffee, Asda price vodka and their album 23, an oeuvre of magical melancholy, which, for me, was their zenith.
2010’s Penny Sparkle barely twinkled, and bought with it a wave of disappointment. Synth-heavy and wispy, yet lacking the plaintive mystique that Kazu Makino’s haunting voice generally evokes, their open wound – their essential vulnerability – seemed to be closing up. By Barragán, the lacklustre ambient noises peppered throughout the tracks only served to punctuate the emptiness of the music surrounding them.
The scene is set. Hundreds of eyes in the dark watched beneath the ornate, art-deco facades, waiting for magic with baited breath. I was holding mine.
Kazu’s beguiling stage presence, all from her woozy stumbling around on stage like a jilted, spectral bride, to her embarrassed and self-conscious admission about her dress, – “sorry if you can see my knickers” – opened up the hall to the band’s magnetism, and a fresh wave of vulnerability.
Although the snippets from 23 were still the stronger points, live renditions of Barragán made for a pleasant surprise: track Mine to be Had was a highlight, particularly when Kazu’s Mellotron keyboard and Amadeo’s squealing, squiggly guitar lines melded together in beautifully consummate harmony. Terse track No More Honey sounds fittingly gloopy on record, but took on a new grittiness in the flesh, which really stuck despite tonal discrepancies.
The One I Love, one of the stronger Barragan tracks, was not stubbornly restrained, but arrested the audience with its comparative silence, bolstered by Kazu Makino’s striking theatricality. Firm 23 favourite Spring and by Summer Fall shone, as expected. Distorted guitars and melodramatic swooshes whirlpooled themselves around Amedeo’s haunting yet insistent vocals, “when I look in your eyes/ I can only see my own complexion”, then chased with that ever-satisfying minor-chord riff: its languid, muffled tones almost made it feel like you were drowning in the violet light, and it was a strangely pleasant sensation.
The power Blonde Redhead held that I had imagined was once lost – that bewitching impression of vast and affecting, barely contained emotion, had returned. From mellow sweetness, to evocative electronic effluvium, Blonde Redhead seemed to capture the whole hall in the palm of their proverbial hand.
Although in the aftermath I still pine for the band as they were at their peak; the show a ghostly testament to their former resplendence, I remind myself that the pangs of nostalgia I feel are a figment in themselves. As a spectral trail of romantic notions, and a manipulation of memories both painful and beautiful, they will never be satisfied.
Nevertheless, I will be forever haunted by that crescendo, attacking into a cacophony of reverb, bursting out into full bloom and liberating itself.
Photos: Verity Ransom