The band have successfully advanced the minimalist electro-soul-noir formula of The xx into popular clubland R&B territory, making for a very different, very immersive big gig experience
After 18 months of confinement, London Grammar are here to draw us further inside. Arriving onstage to swelling strings and a taped speech about writing a new song that “really expresses this feeling of loneliness”, the London-via-Nottingham trio – perhaps better named Bristol Sonics – drift into the title track from their third album, 2021’s Californian Soil. They transform the vast expanse of Alexandra Palace into a gigantic womb; all muted beats and throbs and blood-red visual shadow play. And through this amniotic bubble floats singer Hannah Reid’s voice, as gentle yet arresting as whale song to an unborn.
We’re not at Rammstein now, Toto. With Californian Soil marking the band’s second No 1 album, London Grammar have successfully advanced the minimalist electro-soul-noir formula of The xx into popular clubland R&B territory, making for a very different, very immersive big gig experience.
Indeed, the first half hour of the set seems designed as a dancefloor anthem elongated over seven or eight songs. For “Missing”, “Hey Now” and “Talking”, the background tones of Dan Rothman and Dominic Major remain unobtrusive, staying out of the way of Reid’s unique voice, a cumulonimbus with tonsils. She’s been compared to Florence Welch, but Reid doesn’t rely on over-egged vocal acrobatics to impress; unassumingly filling the room, her voice naturally rides the emotional undulations of her songs. It may sometimes blunt the sharper social comments and more desperate passions at play – “I saw the way you laughed behind her back when you f***ed someone else,” Reid sings, like honey in your ears, during “Lord it’s a Feeling” – but it certainly makes for a gong bath of a gig. “How does it feel now you’re alone?” she asks in “How Does it Feel”, and it feels, if we’re honest, like a ketamine rave in a Radox factory.
Gradually, the beats rise until “I Need the Night” kicks into a tribal electroclash of noise, backed by silver shard visuals. By which time, London Grammar have placed Ally Pally into a kind of intimate altered state, all the better to share their sumptuous traumas. As her bandmates make like a waterlogged U2, Reid sits on the front of the stage to sing of emotional scars on “Big Picture”, while “America”, in which she watches a lover run off to chase their own American dream, is delivered stark and acoustic, and all the more moving for it.
You shake your head and it’s the encore, where the stalking beats of “Bones of Ribbon” climb to a bombastic peak. The audience takes over the singing on the band’s biggest hit, “Strong” (essentially Portishead gone R&B), before Lose Your Head” transforms into a full-on gothic rave, akin to a Halloween party at Pacha. You leave the show feeling haunted by a troubling dream, all the while hoping it recurs.