Blank Realm, MONICA, Acting Strange at The Hug and Pint, 28/9/15

Opening act Acting Strange, who happen to share a name with headline act Blank Realm’s opening track to their third album, Go Easy, are the first of two excellent support acts, who both draw upon the subversive aesthetic of, but both in an entirely different manner from tonight’s headliners

The band’s set fully embraces out-of-tune guitars, a minimal drum kit, and (as Billy, one of the two Strange cousins apologises) non-virtuosic slide guitar playing, but there’s something defiant and commendable about this aversion to polish, and there’s a real reminder of such warbling, untrained voices as Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman or Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano to lead singer Ali Strange’s voice.

Second on the bill is MONICA, a six-piece centred on Glasgow singer-songwriter Andrea Marini.

The band follow in the vein of Destroyer’s turn, with 2011’s Kaputt, towards a style that appropriates the worst clichés of 70s and 80s late night radio, unclear whether it is with a knowing smirk, or is an unapologetic homage.

Marini’s voice is reminiscent of the powerful holler of Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis, and the melancholic reinterpretation of such pop genres as funk and free jazz recalls Talk Talk’s turn from commercial pop to post-rock on their later albums.

When Marini sings theres a foregone conclusion to how we spend our time/ baby with you, there’s a hint of wider politics incorporated into the politics of relationships, much in the manner of such literate popstars of the 80s as Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside.

It’s an impressive feat to practice such impressive deconstruction of pop as these masters of the art.

There appears to be some level of critical consensus with regards to Blank Realm that they consistently tread a line between, on the one hand, obscurity, improvisation, chaos, noise and disorder, and on the other fine song craft, melody, structure and impressive hooks.

At their best tonight, Blank Realm achieve all of this, with Dan Spencer and Sarah Spencer (two of three siblings in the band, along with other brother Luke Spencer, and Luke Walsh) practicing a glorious approximation of melody, always near enough to a tune, the two siblings’ voices only a pitch or so apart.

There’s some sense of having a frontman as drummer that brings a sense of democracy to Blank Realm, Dan Spencer’s face just visible above the toms, and when the band enter the stage, instead it’s bassist Luke Spencer’s striking features that are illuminated.

When Sarah Spencer takes the drums for Illegals in Heaven highlight ‘Dream Date’, Dan Spencer comes forward to take the mic, but he’s almost a false frontman, shrouded in darkness at the front of the stage.

While an early broken string and extended improvised section to opener ‘No Views’ suggest a slack approach, the night’s setlist draws on the more polished pop sensibilities of the band, drawing on the more danceable tracks from this year’s Illegals in Heaven, alongside such older fan favourites as ‘Back to the Flood’, ‘Falling Down the Stairs’ and ‘Reach You on the Phone’.

But a frustrating problem throughout the set (that should not reflect too badly on the band) is that the levels are set so that the drums tend to drown out some of the nuances of the band, and the vocals are obscured to a level that they’re hard to be made out with any clarity.

The nature of the standard Blank Realm song is that it develops from an intricate guitar riff into a sprawling and messy, often improvised outro, and the effect of this is diminished when all the sound is a little muddy and unclear, and it’s an unfortunate representation of an exciting and complex band, and for The Hug and Pint’s sound which has been otherwise excellent for the rest of the night.

Words: Tony Boardman

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