Edit this event
If the Union Chapel isn’t one of your favourite venues in London, if not the UK, the world, then you have no soul. It’s a place of worship by day… and by night. Some years ago, hypnotized by whatever band were playing, I saw that the octagonal walls – stained with deep bloody reds and fiery ambers; the high ceiling where the spotlights played like constellations zipping about on a god’s timescale; the blue-lit arches behind the pulpit that seemed like gates to a mausoleum for terrible beings – might as well be on a planet at the other end of the universe. That’s to say, if we could go that far, and we did find an alien civilization, and we could understand creatures enough like ourselves that we knew we were witnessing an act of worship… it would be something like this. You don’t really have to go that far, though, to feel like you’re at the end of everything, you stepped outside yourself.
This much I hope for from the best of gigs, and thought that a band that I “quite rate” and “consider promising” – namely Final Fantasy – would be a good match for the venue. The first two albums were fragmented, sketchy. The venue would bring something out of the bands. What I didn’t expect was that Owen Pallett – string-arranger to Arcade Fire; quirky solo-artist in his own right – would play one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen at the venue; right up there with Sigur Ros and Godspeed You Black Emperor! at their respective peaks. More of that, shortly…
First up, Castle Magic is sweet and self-effacing – she strings together friendly chords with a soothing strum-pattern, to tell stories of travelling and finding; she thanks Owen for “carrying her around the world like a suitcase full of rocks”. Next, Cryptacize seem far better suited to the venue (and line-up) than Monday night’s bill with confrontation-artists Xiu Xiu, Prurient and Cold Cave. Californians in bowling-shirts, and a pretty little sprite fronting them, Cryptacize care for every note, and create charmingly impressionistic sketches, of the moon laughing behind your back, or the long walk home when you’re missing someone. The chapel feels like a good place to take this all in, and picture those scenes.
When Owen appears onstage to soundcheck, it’s unclear how many people recognize him – are they here for the Arcade Fire connection? I’m sure I spotted Simon Bookish, and someone who looks like Patrick Wolf’s even more flamboyant twin, but it’s a nondescript audience, otherwise. Only when Owen tunes up the violin, does a massive roar come from the pews – the first of many.
The lights go down. Owen saws out a drone, samples himself, lets the atmosphere build, and the soundscape take shape in our minds. Already, this feels like Antony's astonishing Hallowe'en show at the Barbican, with Nico Muhly arranging the LSO. It’s captivating - Yes, the elements are much the same for most songs – live-sampling of a drone or melody, layered up with further melodies plucked or sawed – but Owen has the gift (and training) to rise above 99% of music that relies on a fixed beat. As a singer, Owen’s delivery is something like a younger (higher) Stephin Merritt – dry, faintly camp, but never parodic. As a violinist, he’s got just enough of a “modern- classical” (or “classical-minimalist”) sensibility to use repetition to his advantage, but he doesn’t go as far towards rock as, say, Ed Alleyne-Johnson, who pretty much pioneered the solo electric violin with self-sampling and loops, back in the mid-90s (and had a couple of crossover hit albums, to everyone’s surprise).
In fact, this isn’t really a solo-set: tonight, Owen’s accompanied by a silhouette artist, manipulating transparencies and cut-out shapes on a screen beside the pulpit, using an Overhead Projector (remember them from school? They don’t use them anymore, in the 21st century classroom, which kinda makes them ripe for re-appropriation as a folk-art tool). In other words, when Owen’s songs aren’t narrating weird collisions of the mundane and fantastic, he’s soundtracking the adventures of… well, some kind of jellyfish monster, at first… folded aeroplanes, made out of acetates… a wig that’s matched and re-matched to various faces, before being snipped up and reassembled into a new face… skeletal hands that play multi-coloured piano-keys, put on lace-gloves, then take them off again.
Plus, everyone’s absolutely blown away by it – the applause and whooping is clamorous, rapturous, and so much so you’d think this was Arcade Fire. Having mostly played smaller venues, or support-slots until recently, Owen’s surprised, and introduces a few songs (with the fiddliest melodies to sample at the outset), by saying “if you had a bet on this working, you should bet against me…” You bet wrong. All in all, a triumph – a star is born.
- SAVAGE PIXELS #4: Gears of War 3, The Bumper Preview Special, Best. Game. Ever…
- Owen Pallett's track-by-track guide to Heartland
- Owen Pallett - Heartland
- RIP Final Fantasy: Long live Owen Pallett
- RIP Final Fantasy: Long live Owen Pallett
- Listen: Final Fantasy - 'Lewis Takes Action'
- 2010 Preview: the best of the rest
- Spotifriday #18 - This Week on DiS as a playlist