Stars of the Lid: Live at the Barbican Centre

Closing the Transcender festival and playing as part of their EU tour (London was the second stop after Amsterdam), the legendary Stars of the Lid returned to London on 2 October, playing at the Brutalist Barbican Centre for the second night of their tour. Composer and visual artist Claire M Singer supported them for this leg of the tour. Her dense, intense organ and electronic set opened the evening with a lone, quiet and flowering drone. The single piece was patient, restrained; it opened up gradually as the red-blooded frequencies overlapped and entwined around one another. The shuddering vibrations clung to the edge of a chasm from which there was no escape. A lurking menace gave way to a more defined sense of peril. At times, the music was cold and bleak in its appearance, recalling the startling imagery of something like Nosferatu (Singer is the artistic director of the upcoming Organ Reframed festival at Union Chapel, Islington, where Nosferatu will be screened on 7 October, along with a brand new score by Irene Buckley).

Rushing around the theatre like a cold draught, the drone built in intensity until it was close to either destroying or collapsing; the swirling, cold wind ran down the edge of that crimson void. Warmer tones occasionally came to the surface, but it was a dense, incredibly pure sound. The electronics had something inherently alien in them, the camouflaged tones incubating, waiting for a chance to strike. A constant tug of war was taking place, a battle for everlasting supremacy, and a battle which would decide the fate of the soul. The music felt like it could tip into the void at any time, but Singer managed to stay in control of the tonal beast.

Four notes were added, occasionally clashing and producing a deep, resonating tension, morphing and growing like an ominous shadow hanging against a wall. As it grew louder, the music became an impenetrable and unstoppable entity capable of standing on its own two feet. It was a black soul, with unforgiving eyes that’d never understand the meaning of mercy. It slowly lowered the sword into the open wound. The tones had a laser-like precision, but there was always some tension there, some dull ache from a phantom limb, coming as much from note choice as by the long sustains. The tones ghosted into reality, emerging out of a séance with open, hungry eyes. It was a decaying beauty dripping with venom. Claire M Singer’s performance was a conjuring, a piece where the development of mood was as important as the flowering of the drone.

Stars of the Lid extended their line-up to an eight-piece, with Robert Donne of Labradford and Francesco Donadello (Moog 55 and modulator), and the Echo Collective string quartet of Leonor Palazzo (cello), Margaret Hermant (violin), Sophie Bayet (viola) and Neil Leiter (viola). Beams of white light slowly moved across the theatre, bathing the audience in a pure, young light. Inside the light, smoke sat and swirled, resembling dopamine clouds from another, higher plane. Those white lights were a sign of the beautiful, but there was another stunning revelation as brightly-lit images sparked to life, radiantly glowing as they kissed the surrounding walls of the Barbican. The drones led to a deeper consciousness, one that remembers a first kiss, a dying breath, the cool air and an unfailing youth, of something more than this. The music was not only protected by but surrounded by love.

The first cells and organisms appeared, and a bird flapped its wings in slow motion as it flew past the jagged, bare branches of trees; the faces of those we once knew and had loved appeared and then dissolved, and sleeping children were submerged in the waters of life; it was the story of a life cycle and of a returning. It was lush and life-changing music from the soul, but the expressions were not always peaceful – instead, they appeared pained or troubled in some way. A glowing, serene and volcanic set of visuals from Luke Savisky perfectly captured the sound and the experience, because this was an experience, vastly different to their recorded albums. The strings pushed the music into another dimension, the quartet adding a real mature, humane side to the electronics.

At one point, the music reached an unbelievable intensity as she rushed towards some kind of ending disguised as another beginning. Occasionally silhouetted against the wall as they played, both Wiltzie and McBride were obscured by white lights and smoky fields. It felt more like a shared experience, of the musicians gifting this to their audience. White rays enveloped the audience, staying true to the promise of their Avec Laudenum days when they said ‘I will surround you’. The opening drones of ‘December Hunting for Vegetarian Fuckface’ were deep and cooler, the moog positioned a little behind the strings, the quartet sitting in the middle of the stage, and with Wiltzie and McBride flanking them on both sides.

Smoke caught in the beams, producing whirlpools of white light. The lights then stretched across the theatre in a slow turn before rising up and then sinking back down. At some points the lights hovered just above head level and the smoke trailed across the beams, forming endless clouds up above. The embalmed music became one with the body’s fabric, absorbing itself into the openings of the soul. The breathing drones were sedate and relaxing, but it was a journey, and in its climax the viola would shriek with energy and intensity. The organic imagery of cells slowly coming into being, of dividing and becoming something more than that, of turning into blinking, all-seeing eyes, of intelligent, burning coronas that’re imbued with nature herself and chained in some mysterious way to the wider gulfs of the universe, contrasted and yet complemented the more electronic side of the music. This was a transcendent performance.

Almost ten years have passed since their last album, ‘And Their Refinement Of The Decline’, and the opening piece hinted at new material, but it slowly morphed into something more recognisable. The bass shuddered as the hypnotic ‘Requiem for Dying Mothers, Part 2’ emerged. Eventually, it gave way to a sublime release and some cool, electronic tails as the glorious piece progressed. The strings entered, enveloping the audience with every swell and fade. There was a sense of evolution, of progression, within the music as well as within the balletic, hypnotic visuals. It took you to the beyond.

The slower, Arctic-paced shifts of ‘Mulholland’ had lovely and deep movements, and they closed with the heaven-sent ‘Music For Twin Peaks Episode #30, Part 1’ from The Ballasted Orchestra (1997). These were drones from above.

Check out the rest of their tour dates below:

4 Oct – Nottingham, UK
5 Oct – Manchester, UK
6 Oct – Glasgow, UK
7 Oct – Newcastle, UK
8 Oct – Cork, IE
9 Oct – Dublin, IE
10 Oct – Brighton, UK
11 Oct – Brussels, BE

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