By: Gaz Cloud
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Oval Space, London | November 24, 2015
Mercury Rev arrive in town with a difficult task ahead of them. The problem they face is largely one of their own making. Exciting their large and dedicated fan-base with news of a comeback album, then giving a series of candid interviews in which key band members opened up about their dark and destructive past, the record in question then turned out to be something of a disappointment. The pre-record allusions to Disney proved a little too close to comfort for many and whilst The Light In You is not devoid of charm, it lacks the towering twin peaks of innovation and melody that made Deserter’s Songs and All Is Dream so compelling. It’s dream pop, but with the emphasis on the pop, rather than the dream.
Leaving aside the discussion about the merits of artists performing large swathes of new album material, the current vogue is to veer away from such indulgences and instead give the audience what they want. Mercury Rev’s set list tonight thankfully makes no attempt to buck this trend. Amidst an awful lot of carbon dioxide and bathed in purple light, the band take to the stage and open their set with ‘The Queen Of Swans’. The contrast between this and ‘The Funny Bird’ is marked, and the latter provides the first high point of the evening, with Jonathan Donahue waving his magician’s hands as though mid-way through a grand conjuration.
‘Carwash Hair’ is one of several songs taken from the band’s wilder era and is performed by a manically grinning Donahue. The whole band are on form this evening, although much of the flute is close to inaudible, with guitars and synth power chords dominating in the mix. The music is loud, genuinely psychedelic and rocks hard.
‘Endlessly’ sees Grasshopper indulge in some delightful picked wah wah guitar as Jason Miranda’s kick and toms pummel the crowd into submission, but not before a small mishap during ‘Autumn’s In The Air’: as Grasshopper waves his guitar around defiantly, Donahue drops the mic to the floor. It’s a transformative moment, as prior to launching into ‘Frittering’ Donahue dispels the mystique the quintet have so far generated with a long and tender yarn about former singer David Baker. That ‘Frittering’ spasms into life after this with all the verve displayed prior to our storytelling interlude illustrates that the band are masters of illusion – capable of creating powerful, mesmeric soundscapes without ever losing the human touch that made them so appealing in the first place. We’re “sold” ‘Are You Ready?’ off the back of ‘Frittering’, but the song’s not actually very good, and lyrically marks a low-point for the band.
‘You’re My Queen’ restores the song quality, if not the sound quality. ‘Diamonds’ follows, the only song this evening taken from The Secret Migration, whilst material from late career highlight Snowflake Midnight is absent entirely. Frankly, more from these album and less from The Light In You would have been an improvement. Carlos Molina’s fingers move deftly around the fretboard, Donahue contributes mouth organ and for once the flute is audible and adds significantly to the (very loud) sound. Of the new material ‘Central Park East’ fares best this evening – it’s hard to be cynical as bubbles fill the air, melotron and shimmering guitar encourage the crowd to throw shapes and a mass singalong breaks out. The singing then doesn’t stop until the close of the set as good song follows good song like the coda you’d expect from a band of this calibre. ‘Holes’ is epic and showcases Miranda’s drum fills alongside Grasshopper’s most extravagant solo of the set. How does that old song go?! ‘Tides Of The Moon’ is tight, heavy and excellent, ending with vocal ad libs and squalling guitar feedback. ‘Opus 40’’s rocking sections give way to meditative refrains before powerful drums and keyboard arpeggios blast the listener through to the end of the main set. By this point, the new album travails are completely forgotten.
The fully waist coated ensemble return to the stage for an encore that comprises ‘Goddess On A Highway’ and ‘The Dark Is Rising’: the former showing off Donahue’s fragile voice as a fine instrument in its own right; the latter rivalling The Enid as a masterpiece of symphonic prog. It’s telling that the last five pieces are all taken from Mercury Rev’s golden period. The show is a triumph overall, and comfortably re-establishes Donahue, Grasshopper and company as kings of neo-psychedelia, albeit a band in need of some decent new material to ensure their live show remains invigorated for years to come.