Anyone with a penchant for the ethereal dank of dark Indie rock will know about Warpaint. The four piece has spent the last decade making sure we know about them, and this week their brief period in the UK culminated with a sold out show at Camden’s Roundhouse. The stage foretold the presence of a spectacle, lit with a stormy blue and filled with trees draped in lights; it was a fairy tale forest patiently waiting for its fairies to arrive.
Despite the four having had a busy year hot footing it between studios and countries on account of the release of their new album Head’s Up the set is a mixture of old and new with a good few classic Warpaint staples. ‘Undertow,’ ‘Beetles’ and ‘Elephants’ all arrive in their ethereal beauty, as crisp and refined as ever.
In true Warpaint style the melody is never a cushion for the vocals to fall on to, rather the two blur into one another and transform into indistinguishable soundscapes that leave you with a growing anaesthesia and an urge to close your eyes and walk into the music. Their voices, which seem to deliberately shift in and out of tune, sit somewhere between a heady church choir and hungry cats, which makes listening at times uncomfortable. However, it’s not out of embarrassment or disdain but, with the unexpected key changes, lifts you out of your musical intoxication and forces you to dance. Their voices are ghostly, particularly in such a large venue, and have an otherworldly strangeness about them. The vocals are equally as creepingly ominous as their lyrics and bizarrely soothing. Every mismatched key change and odd note is harmonised spectacularly with the low and minor instrumentals, leaving you dangling over the edge in anticipation of the next turn. It almost feels accidental but is of course utterly contrived, the quartet know exactly what they’re doing and they’re doing it with a finesse that is unmatched by their peers.
The set haunts you, rather like a dark gothic poem; quietly unsettling but impossible to remove yourself from and the venue itself certainly adds to that experience. The Roundhouse is a Colosseum; grandiose in appearance, with high metal pillars that stretch up to a wooden ceiling. The blue stage lighting cast around the pillars and the enchanting sound of Wayman and Kokal’s obscure voices ricochet around the circular walls, the echo is unnerving and chimerical, perhaps reminiscent of the choir boy harmonies of Fleet Foxes or the Cocteau Twins. Everything about the place suits Warpaint down to the ground from its crypt like arches to its dark walls; building and band seemingly mirroring each other in their inky oddity to create something atypical to your standard gig setting.
Amidst those inky atmospheric vibrations, the group are playful on their stage intermittently pausing to smile and joke with one another, sometimes completely ignoring the audience all together to pull faces in the gloom. In a way it shouldn’t really work in a live show, but it does. It’s endearing to watch a group of artists so perfectly attuned to one another’s musical abilities and personalities interacting in such a way. The audience at times find themselves laughing along without any clue as to what their joke might be. Every now and then Emily does check in to say hello or make helpful suggestions. “If you want to do stage dive or whatever at any point we’ll fully support you!” she hollers out in her hazy Oregon accent. Disappointingly no one goes in for the offer, likely on account of the heavy set security staff that guard the stage, like Smaug and his treasure, but nonetheless it was nice to know that Warpaint wouldn’t turn down a bit of audience participation if it came their way. They are, however, a very inclusive band, on and off the stage; they swap instruments between themselves, all share in the writing, vocals and, at times, dueting on drums which takes an monumental level of skill to get right and not sound like a cacophony of noise.
Off the stage Warpaint began on MySpace with a small but die-hard fan base who were really the driving force behind their label and their progression. With the arrival of the newest album there has been divided opinion on the band’s evolutionary process, and this controversy was certainly felt when Kokal declared “Let’s do some of this new shit then.”
The set continued with ’New Song’ which sharply shifted the dreamy lullaby rock into a poppy electro rhythm. When the track made its first appearance earlier this year it caused a flurry of split indignation amongst the more hard-core of Warpaint’s fan base, and when you take a look at their back catalogue it’s easy to see why it caused such a stir. ‘New song’ was a bit of a bizarre turn in Warpaint’s evolutionary process. They have spent a good twelve years playing with their sound but the bulk of it has stuck to a recognisable formula that is quintessentially ‘Warpainty.’ ‘New Song’, however, bends that prism giving us something that moves away from the dark fairy tale whimsy that we know so well. There is something distinctly saccharine about it which clearly leaves the Roundhouse crowd split. A portion of the turn out bursting into dance and the other solemnly folding their arms and looking crossly up at Kokal. Rarely do you see such artistic licence so spectacularly revoked by the few.
In reality though ‘New Song’ is a great listen. It’s different and lends itself to something lighter than we’ve seen before, with a catchy ear worm of a hook that hangs about your brain all day and a far less brooding melody. It’s almost sickly sweet in comparison but still has that air of hazy whimsy that marks it with that classic Warpaint sound.
“New shit” aside, no one else does the grungy, murky arty-rock-gothic thing like the Warpaint gang. The overarching celestial vocals of Emily and Theresa prove once again to be remarkably seductive. Coupled with Lindberg’s artful, head thrashing bass and Mozgawa’s ferocious percussion the band leave their residual mark on the Roundhouse. The set is ultimately a perfect concoction of old and new, ‘Love is to Die’ and ‘Disco//Very’ standing out as the end of set highlights of their back catalogue. ‘Love is to Die’ in particular left a resonance with the crowd; foggy and sobering it has a depth to it that it is difficult to place; when trying to categorise it you find yourself saying “grim” and staring off into the distance. As somber as it is, ‘Love is to Die’ is Warpaint heroin; velvety and injectable in its deliciousness. The beauty of the track is something that you want to hold on to.
Warpaint sit in the space between stirring yet soothing, yet they instinctively know a frequency shift will make a residual impact on an audience long after the show. A shattering three song encore, including the springy synth led ‘Biggy’, gave us all ‘a little room to sway’, while an extended spur of the moment ‘Krimson’ crescendo saw Kokal and Mozgawa rolling cymbal fills over one another, teasing the end of the song but never letting it happen. It did have to end somewhere though, and as Kokal looked for the O.K. nod from Mozgawa, she lifted her drumstick into the air and launched it out into a sea of a thousand flailing hands before exiting, leaving behind a buzz that will bounce around those Roundhouse walls for days to come.
All photos by Thistle Prince.