There’s an interesting conundrum that a new band faces when one of its members is a well-known and deeply admired member of the music world, but theirs is not a front-and-center role in said new band. While it is pleasing and exciting to know that the group will gain attention and followers simply by this connection, it’s frustrating or sometimes embarrassing when the enjoyment and appreciation from their fans is entirely directed at the aforementioned member, with the other bandmates struggling to pull the limelight back to themselves. It helps, therefore, to bring a set of people with you who are delightfully talented and demonstrating show-stopping performances in and of themselves. Thus, it was a delightful treat when a small contingent of Radiohead fans, drawn to the Independent to see the new work of their long-time producer Nigel Godrich, were surprisingly dazzled and mesmerized by all three members of English outfit Ultraísta, which Godrich formed with fellow musicians Joey Waronker (drummer for Atoms For Peace, R.E.M. and Beck) and fresh new face Laura Bettinson earlier this year.
With the pulsing synths and clackety beats that were to accompany the English trio later in the evening, it seemed best to start the night with something softer and more subdued, which arrived in the form of the Berkeley-based Astronauts, etc., headed by songwriter Anthony Ferraro. Breathing life into the club with a gentle blend of Eno-like ambience, the cloudy indie electronics of Geographer and the atmospheric, dark minimalism of The xx, Ferraro and his accompanying trio of musicians drifted through their opening set with a graceful ease, each song resonating clearly like a stream called from the heavens. While beginning with an intense ambience, each song maintained an effortless pop structure, taking even the most ethereal tracks and making them accessible, even danceable. Ferraro had mentioned that this was their first show, but the quartet moved and played with a remarkable precision and concentration that made them seem far more veteran than such remarks would indicate.
Amusingly, when Ultraísta took the stage later in the evening, the awed voices in the crowd were quickly cowed in a moment of confusion as the onlookers attempted to discern which of the two men at the back of the stage was Godrich, who had, up until that point, been the magnet that pulled them inside. Godrich took up residence in a shadowy corner, trading duties beween a bass slung about his neck and a small stack of keyboards before him, while Waronker was barely visible behind his tall collection of skins. The voice of Ultraísta, however, was truly the star of the show: Bettinson, clad in a mesmerizing zebra-patterned dress with a shock of blonde-bombshell hair, marched to the front and center, clasping the microphone before her with all the determination of a world-class rockstar. Swaying delicately as a projector shimmered to life upon her and the rest of the stage, Bettinson lent her sirenlike calls, sultry alto notes, and bright, powerful shouts to the ever-shifting surf of sine waves, bass grooves, and multilayered drumbeats that Godrich and Waronker built beneath her.
The dense, complex sound that Ultraísta create together is built from a combination of pre-built sounds, live instruments, and loop pedals that keep Bettinson’s vocals and Godrich’s synths repeating steadily throughout each song. Waronker’s drums, while entirely played in real time, were part physical kit and part elaborate pad, allowing him to blend a combination of sounds that spanned from technical and truncated to loud and reverberant. All the while, a massive projector splashed sequences of TV test patterns, rainbow-hued mosaics, and highly-pixellated videos across the musicians, the proto-digital feel a marvelous partner to the trio’s future-tribal sound. Bettinson and Godrich spent most of their time onstage dancing, bobbing, or otherwise jerking fiercely to the beat of each piece, the wild energy of the musicians almost as dizzying as the visuals that danced across them.
Though it is doubtless that the majority, if not all, of the attending audience arrived with the hope of watching Nigel Godrich tower over them and eclipse the tiny club in his own light, it was pleasant to see that he fulfilled the role he has always played best — the crucial backbone of sound and production that keeps the band afloat — while stepping to the wayside to let Laura Bettinson emerge and shine with the brilliance she exhibited onstage. With all the draw and intrigue of early Massive Attack and cultishly-loved krautrock, twisted and molded to simultaneously sound far more modern and accessible than its influences, Ultraísta’s music is both danceable and thought-provoking. It never displays too much squeaky-clean production, nor is it harsh and dissonant like the experiments that undoubtedly shaped its core. With their set comprised of only eight pieces from their self-titled debut, it was an abrupt jolt when Bettinson announced that the band had comed to the last song of the night, and no encore was offered after their closer, “Easier”, either. It thus can be hoped that Bettinson, Godrich and Waronker will head back into the studio post-haste, with talk and excitement about their work spreading rapidly — a wildfire to kindle the flame of creativity, allowing them to bring forth even more exciting work in the future.
Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2012 Jonathan Pirro.