Harpa Kaldalón is not a venue I would normally associate with hot-and-heavy rock and roll action. True, the acoustics are great, bordering on excellent, but with its high slope and high density seating, the venue is more conducive to polite clapping and gentle head nodding than mental self-destruction.
But as I arrived to the second instalment of the Harpa/KEX/Kimi Records Stopover series, I found the venue full and I grabbed the only seat available right at the back as local rock survivors SINGAPORE SLING were sliding into their set. Despite the band now being fleshed out to a five-piece (ex-member Helgi Örn back on guitar duty, Hallberg “Dream Central Station” Hallbergsson on bass, with Elsa Maria Blöndal and Steinunn Harðardóttir on backing vocals and percussion), they seemed lean and sprightly. This was mainly due to the fact that they did away with a drummer and are now relying on a drum machine for their beats. The dry, monotone, reverb-heavy beats emanating from their beatbox meant that it gave the band a haunted, spectral, presence accentuated with the deep red lighting and soupy dry ice fog.
As they rattled through a set that contained many late-era Sling gems such as “The Nothing Inside,” “Take,” “Freaks,” and “Never Forever,” there was barely any interaction with the audience, let alone chat amongst the band, but that was okay because you still found yourself furiously head nodding and foot tapping to the music (as much as you could without hitting the person sitting next to you anyway). Also, after a while your interest was mostly taken with the stage backdrop, which consisted of a projection of a cow’s head (Or was it a ram? There’s still some debate going on there) that seemed implausibly to move every time you looked at it, until you realised it WAS moving towards you veeeeery slooooowly, thereby giving any bombed members of the audience a small case of the willies. The only downside to their set was the percussion performed by Elsa and Steinunn being out of time on numerous occasions. It wasn’t off putting as such, but you wondered why they just didn’t programme it into the drum machine instead.
As an act, DIRTY BEACHES is a chameleon that’s evolving at a rapid rate. So rapid that on this tour they’ve grown from Alex Zhang Hungtai playing solo, to a three-piece band (a rake thin, drainpipe trousered guitar player and a solid, brooding man on keyboard and effects. AGAIN, no drummer!). On top of this, his trademark rock and roll noise through a sludge pool sound has also mutated to the point that when they started off their set with a drone psychedelic jam over a minimal beat, some people in the audience had a look of “Um… I thought this guy was supposed to be doing rockabilly??”
It wasn’t until the third song when all the kinks were ironed out that Dirty Beaches began to relax, flex and strut their stuff with songs such as “Dune Walker” and “Sweet 17.” People have almost overused the reference to Suicide, but that’s probably because it’s so apt. Unlike Singapore Sling, which does rock ‘n’ roll songs, Dirty Beaches hacks into the primal energy from early rock drum rhythms and simple bass lines and builds them to the point where they become cacophonous and near industrial in their form. Such a case was with a new song (“About when I went with my dad to a casino”), that rolled and rumbled with squalling guitar noises and crashing percussion as Alex screamed, “I got the Midnight! I got a Royal Flush!”
The key to it all was singer/leader Alex. The man cut a lithe, lubricated figure as he swayed, crooned and screamed in equal measure. It was old school fire and venom, which was matched with some incredibly polite stage banter (“I’d like to apologise for any irresponsible behaviour”).
The band closed the set with another new song that was purely electronic in its structure. Alex wound down his synth’s frequencies to a low end throb, accompanied with skeletal percussive beats and oscillating noises. It was received with great applause as Alex shouted “Now let’s go to the bar and get some FUCKING DRINKS!” (it should be noted that the show occurred on the day of his 32nd birthday. He wanted to party right?), but not before he came back solo to do a gospel song with the crowd providing the clap/rhythm support.
Once over, the audience decided to help celebrate Alex’s birthday by going en masse to Bakkus and drinking to classic ‘50s and ‘60s tunes. All in all, a fitting end to a full blooded concert that managed to raise the temperature of Harpa’s rarefied atmosphere.
Dirty Beaches and Singapore Slim played at Harpa Kaldalón on September 4.
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