by Elliot Davies
The math rocker who came in from the cold – ex of Oceansize, Mike Vennart plays a pair of sets to prepare his two bands for the weekend’s ArcTanGent Festival.
Oceansize. Now there was a band.
If you’re unfamiliar, their song of the same name can be your introduction:
Named after the most epic song on the second most epic Jane’s Addiction album, Oceansize combined a love of difficult time signatures with an appreciation for early Verve, and an obsession with The Cardiacs, to create a truly remarkable sound.
At their worst they were as dour as many a math rock band, but at their best they were peerless – soaring, sweeping, deafening, devastating – and they were frequently at their best. They occupied a tense and crunchy mid-point between Spirtitualized, Tool, Mogwai, and dEUS, perfecting a beguiling sound that many found irresistible.
Yes, they had their fans. Their shows attracted a strange mix of music nerds, gear nuts, rock geeks, and evangelical devotees. Often, before the band even took to the stage, some would take pictures of their guitar effects boards for future reference. At one show I saw two bearded young men hunched together, frantically counting along to a new song on their fingers as they tried to work out the time signature. At another I saw a row of men, bald, stood at the front of the crowd literally worshipping the band with the sort of genuflections usually referred for pharaohs.
When they played their 10 year anniversary shows, we put up a couple of guys from France, one of whom barely spoke a word of the queen’s. But we trusted them, because they were Oceansize fans. That’s the sort of band they were; they’re the sort of fans they had.
Were. Had. It wasn’t to last. Having released four albums and five EPs, the band broke up in 2011, quite without a clear explanation. In the past few years it’s gradually been revealed that drug issues and trust issues were to blame, all of which came to an ugly point at a disastrous 2010 gig in Warsaw.
Post Oceansize, all five members kept busy, but it’s probably not a stretch to say that no member kept busier than guitarist and vocalist Mike Vennart. He became the touring guitarist for Biffy Clyro, the only member onstage who could be trusted to go an entire gig without taking his shirt off. Former Oceansize guitarist Richard “Gambler” Ingram would eventually join Biffy Clyro as an additional auxiliary guitarist, and also collaborated with Vennart once again, on a project called British Theatre.
The mere existence of British Theatre, featuring 2/5 of Oceansize, sent many fans into a tizzy. But even this tizzy paled in comparison to the tizzy that greeted the news that 3/5 of Oceansize – nearly a full deck! – would be collaborating on a project called Vennart.
Though named after Mike, Vennart is not a solo project. According to a recent Drowned in Sound interview, the singer only decided to name the band as such to differentiate from his other project, and to dispel any singer/songwriter expectations that naturally surround any musical endeavours that are named after individuals. And apart from anything else, he admitted, “I’m blessed with quite a fucking cool surname.”
No, these might be Mike’s songs, but Vennart is very much a band. He’s joined by two former Oceansize guitarists – Gambler and Steve Durose – both of whom apparently had a lot of creative input. With the addition of an intense young drum virtuoso called Denzel, Vennart becomes a band with mad chops, beautiful songs, and a live show that’s about as close as it’s possible to get to seeing Oceansize in 2015.
For many fans, the state of excitement has long-since transcended anything that might once have been described as a mere tizzy. Add to that the rumours that the band might actually play some Oceansize songs, and suddenly this gig – ostensibly a warm-up gig for the weekend’s ArcTanGent Festival – starts to feel a little bit like a second coming.
For in addition to being one of the first ever Vennart shows – relatively speaking, it’s still early days for this project – tonight also marks the first EVER live outing for the British Theatre project, who are billed as the support act.
Yes, tonight Mike Vennart is supporting himself. There’s probably a joke about crowd-funding and independent labels somewhere in there, but we’ll leave such witticisms for the keyboard comedians of Twitter. You see, British Theatre have taken to the stage, and their music is no laughing matter. This is no time for jokes. This is serious stuff.
British Theatre released a delicate EP a few years ago, and seeing as the stage is decked out with keyboards, I can be forgiven for expecting a set of barely-there ambience. But no – what follows is a set of dark electropop that’s much more bombastic than anticipated.
These sounds are Gambler’s – it was apparently Mike’s job to transform them into songs. He introduces the set as a “hit free zone” – of the five or so people in the room who have heard these songs before, three are stood onstage. Yet the crowd seems immediately won-over. Maybe it’s because, hey, it’s Oceansize! Sort of! But more likely it’s because the music’s so damn tense and foreboding that a spell is cast from from the moment the opening drones groan into life.
Denzel’s on drums, and this is the first time we get to see him play. For British Theatre, he effortlessly powers his way through one clattering groove after another, like a human drum machine programmed to play clipped robotic jazz. These beats could so easily have been programmed in advance. Gambler could have triggered them at the push of a button. That they’re being replicated live, right before our eyes, gives this cold music an engaging human warmth.
But we ain’t seen nothing yet. Vennart is essentially British Theatre + 1 – the same tight and trusting core trio of brilliant musicians, but with added Steve. He brings to the table a solid grasp of melody, some touching vocal harmonies, a formidable array of effects pedals, and the nimble fingers necessary to lead the rest through some thrillingly choppy waters.
Vennart released their debut album, The Demon Joke, in June. It’s a joyful and triumphant listen that’s full of the sort of spectacular songs that sound even more spectacular on subsequent listens. It’s perhaps because they’re more familiar with the songs that the crowd seems more engaged with Vennart than they did with British Theatre. Or maybe because, once again, hey! It’s Oceansize! More so this time!
But most likely it’s because these songs are magnificent – full of touching melodies, searing riffs, and the sort of abrupt left-turns that take them into strange new directions without losing the core elements. They’re impressive enough on record. But to see them perfectly replicated live by a bunch of mercurial musicians who many haven’t witnessed play together for about five years? Yeah, that’s quite special.
Sitting modestly in the middle of a self-funded debut album, and again in the middle of the second set in this comparatively low-key warm-up gig, is a strong contender for song of the year:
While occupying the space on the setlist that would have been referred to as the encore had the band bothered to go through with the “leave the stage for a bit” ritual, is a song with one of those rare choruses that feels like it’s always been there for you:
And yes, they do play some Oceansize songs. Three of them! Early on we get a sublime Music For A Nurse, and The Frame closes the set in such a way that leaves half the room shaking their heads in wonder, and the other half going as nuts as it’s possible to go to such a graceful song. Stage left, towards the front – is that guy…genuflecting?
Oh, they’re back alright.
The best song of the night, though, is Build Us A Rocket Then, a downright brutal song from the final Oceansize album. For four ferocious minutes, the song does its best to tear itself apart. Even when it sounds like order has been restored, frantic drum-fills threaten to shatter the fragile harmony; and what initially sounds like a resolute guitar solo ends up wresting control of the whole song, forcing it down a dark path that’s full of grim uncertainties. Not even the violent thrashes that kicked the whole thing off are able to reclaim dominance, reminding us all that the only order in life is chaos.
But that these beloved classics are only as well received as the remainder of the set is a strong testament to the brilliance of the news songs, to the devotion of this fanbase, and to just how boss it is to have ready access to something that closely resembles Oceansize once more.
Vennart are touring the UK in November. Here’s a complete list of dates.