By Grace Manning
The Bullingdon – 04/03/2015
The pulsating rhythm of the drums drive a hypnotic, magnetic force around the room. Vocal harmonies rise and soar in a quietly refined way. It’s the kind of music to bliss out to, close your eyes and lose yourself in. But the crowd are apprehensive. I want to dance, grind, sway, but I don’t. We’re all afraid to make the first move.
Support on the night comes from Esther Lane, a local multi-instrumentalist. Her short set ends with a track in tribute to Robin Williams, involving looping of drum pads, synths, guitar, and husky vocals. Her carefully layered tracks and manipulation of harmonies somewhat anticipate what is to follow. As I wait for Aquilo’s set to begin, the title track of their newest EP ‘Human’ hums through my mind. For a band with only two EPs available online, Aquilo have already made a considerable impact: they’ve been featured in a Hollywood trailer, gained Radio 1 playlist status, and had their 2014 Glastonbury set included in the ‘Best of BBC Introducing Stage’ choices. At only 23 and 19, Tom Higham and Ben Fletcher have seen their fair share of success. But after endless comparisons to bands such as The xx, alt-J, and London Grammar, I begin to wonder whether there’s room on the ‘main stage’ for yet another similarly dreamy electronica band. Perhaps not. The duo’s two EPs, ‘Aquilo’ and ‘Human’, contain songs of this dolorous, ethereal style, and while this makes for languorously pleasurable listening, I’m not convinced there’s enough in it to wake anyone up.
Performing as a full band rather than a duo on this tour, however, changes everything. The set opens with ‘All Comes Down to This’: on record, the track employs soft vocals and synths in a shimmering, subdued soundscape, tightly linear and compressed in its form. Tonight, the space between the sonic layers is exposed. The music can breathe, almost visibly undulating, contracting into moments of minimalism before swelling effortlessly into waves of pervasive depth. Stand out tracks include ‘Losing You’, with its addition of almost tribal pounding drums. The iridescent cymbals of ‘You There’ shine behind a melancholic vocal line, while a pared back cover of Usher’s ‘Climax’, as performed for Huw Stephens’s piano sessions, provides a streamlined break in the set. The addition of a full live band undeniably allows these songs to take on a new level of intensity and complexity: this is no longer a glittery dreamscape. This has gravity.
But still I am frustrated. Despite it all, an air of stasis permeates the night. The crowd sip at their beers, shuffling from foot to foot. No one moves all night. Granted, the venue is by no means full, but something greater is missing. The music ebbs and flows, rises and falls, but sometimes lacks climax; equally, the crowd lacks the energy to participate. The mood is anticipatory, but never fulfilled. Regardless of lyrical melancholy, these songs have a driving force to make an audience move, spin, feel. But the crowd interaction from the band is kept to a minimum – they nervously state that they’ve never been to Oxford, and that they can hardly see us for the smoke, before quickly continuing to the next track.
I was wrong when I thought there was no space for another band like Aquilo – tonight they made that clear to me. Their song-writing finesse and instrumental gravity prove they are more than worthy of everyone’s attention. And while their live set tonight was enchantingly refined, perhaps in bringing more energy and personality to the stage they would have reaped the full audience reception and participation that their music deserves.
You can find Aquilo’s music on Spotify or Soundcloud, with a new EP planned for release later this year. The band’s UK mini-tour closes 05/03/2014 with a sold-out show at Wilton’s Music Hall, London.