Monday, 20 April 2009

School Of Seven Bells and Bat For Lashes @ Shepherds Bush Empire 19/4/09

Fashion and music are fickle bedfellows – at the best of times mutually affirming; at others making fools of those whose musical substance fails to match their stylistic pretensions.

School Of Seven Bells are fairly recent navigators of the volatilities of musical whimsy. Williamsburg origins and quasi-supernatural themes, not to mention the visually striking nature of twins Alejandra and Claudia Deheza, have rendered them a genuinely intriguing trio and won them much critical and cultural praise with the recent release of debut LP Alpinisms.

Their recorded sound, self-professed “music to dance to”, enchants with left-field pop propulsions – but tonight this is somewhat lost in translation. The diminutive twins, surrounded by the stage-clutter of Bat For Lashes ephemera, are missing their usual radiating glow. And while the venue is packed, those in attendance observe passively, mustering appreciative nods and polite applause to the familiar looping refrains of ‘My Cabal’ and ‘iamundernodisguise’. It is an incredibly difficult gig to support due to the singular allurement of Khan’s iconic persona, and the inanimate ‘weird-folk’ advocates of her audience. While School Of Seven Bells demonstrate their usual aptitude for markedly inventive mystical pop, it seems lost, even wasted, on the crowd present.

The icon in question, Natasha Khan, aka Bat For Lashes, has long been the darling of the higher echelons of credible fashion magazines – as evidenced by recent shoots for Spin, Dazed & Confused and Fact magazine where she features as the paragon of smouldering musical vogue. Her music, however, has always sounded faintly derivative, conjouring mysterious etherealities from eighties synths, tribal percussion and neo-folk inflections, rendering Khan the hotpotch progeny of Kate Bush, Stevie Nicks and Bjork.

It is these preconceptions of nostalgia that make her performance tonight even more astounding – Khan is an artist who must be seen to be believed, her live shows hypnotically captivating. That same audience passivity that School Of Seven Bells struggled seems to annoy Khan equally: she tries to encourage dancing in more upbeat numbers, but everyone’s just staring, visually enthralled by her presence. Her tiny, leaping form is encased in a pink-silk jumpsuit and clown-ruff, her aura is as big as a stadium and her voice unexpectedly magnificent, reaching through octaves with furious power and soulful wispiness in equal measure.

Instrumentally, the diverse talents of Khan’s three-piece band transform esoteric pop-songs into panopticons of sound with a plethora of equipment, from keys and electronic drum kits to bells and an autoharp. In a set that spans an hour and a half and includes two encores, Bat For Lashes leave no doubt that Khan is one effigy of the fashion world wholly substantiated by her musical origins.

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