By Rory McInnes-Gibbons
Northumbria Students Union, 07/10/16
Wild Beasts have always traversed the space between indie and pop, producing some of the most honest and delicate songs of the twenty first century. While other singers have hidden their heart, shrouded beneath complexity and nuance, when lead men Hayden Thorpe or Tom Fleming state, “I want your flesh. I want your skin,” you believe them.
The band have never been about cannibalism. They are about passionate, sensual relationships explored to sensationalist, hyper-realisation, finding material in the moonlit romances of Britain’s often unhinged and sordid nights out.
It is noticeably Newcastle that as Tom cheekily tantalises the crowd with the introduction of a song about going home with the wrong girl, “Ponytail,” a man in the front row promptly spills his full pint over his happily swaying other half, temporarily blinding the poor sod. As the man apologises profusely and receives an unlikely telling off from security, Hayden utters: “ This is Newcastle, after all.”
From Cumbria, the band clearly enjoy the intimacy and homeliness of the northern setting tonight. After a summer on the festival circuit, this tiny though brilliantly resourced venue suits the band’s new onstage dynamism perfectly. The stage-set of a stadium meets the micro setting of a Students’ Union. While Wild Beasts have always focused attention upon Hayden, who is often found straddling the microphone in bizarre split-like positions and the bouncier, exuberance of guitarist, Tom. But they now make the most of their unashamedly retro, power-rock 1980s backdrop.
Leaving the crowd waiting for a long time, smoke filters across the stage as the lights go out. The intro music then throbs the red light beacons full at either side of the stage like egg-timers, counting down to their anti-climactic eventual entrance. Opening with “Big Cat,” the transformation in tone of their songs is immediately obvious. This is tangy, testosterone-tastic stuff that feels weird delivered by these often shy, retiring sorts, who are more likely found looking for love in the forest than casting themselves as untamed Beasts in the woods.
The new album offers a blatant machismo that betrays Wild Beasts’ earlier oeuvre. For a band who have entirely disowned their first album as a live proposition, they now feel like two distinct bands. While the exaggerated indie-boy nonsense of 2008’s Limbo, Panto has never been missed, fans can now only hope that the band do not lose sight of their intermediary years between their debut and this summer’s arrogant hedonism of Boy King.
There is no faulting a band who change the direction of their music. It is bold and brave and what you would expect from one of Britain’s more artistic and creative groups. But the current album feels completely excessive live and can leave the older songs feeling a little quiet and flat by comparison. Otherwise, they are amped up to such an extreme, like “We Still Got the Taste Dancin’ On Our Tongues,” that they disappoint when the texture of the song is lost amidst the noise.
That is not to say that the tenderness at the heart of the band does not override the aggro and manliness of the newer songs. Wild Beasts are far better when producing the heart-wrenching, brittle quality of a stripped-down song like “Lion’s Share,” than when they are raging on songs like “Alpha Female.” Coming towards the end of the hour long, main set, “Lion’s Share,” delivers the beauty of the Beasts before they move on to the propulsive arrogance of new single, “Tough Guy.”
The confessional quality of Hayden and Tom’s intertwined, elegant lyrics remains best witnessed on 2009’s Two Dancers and its follow-up, Smother. Finding their momentum in the first half of the set with the likes of Smother’s “Bed of Nails” and “Hooting & Howling” from the former, the hooky, four minute pop song still shines forth. “All The King’s Men” is an excellent end as the band return to the crowd-pleasing earlier music that reverberates around the hall and causes a chorus of eager fans to echo back Tom and Hayden’s glorious vocals.
They can sing, those Cumbrian boys. Let’s just hope they remember that’s what makes them special and such an important indie band today. Being loud might make all the noise, but beauty can be a quieter mistress. Tonight proves that these Beasts are not quelled yet. They look set to roam the Wild and continue their rise as the quiet success story of the noughties indie guitar band generation.
Photograph by Rory McInnes-Gibbons