by Elliot Davies
Sombre Texans Stars of the Lid do their thing in a concrete box in Nottingham! CONTENT WARNING – This account WILL beat about the bush and irritate almost everyone that reads it.
I’ve no idea what Stars of the Lid are doing here.
That’s not to downplay Nottingham’s calibre as a city, nor The Nottingham Contemporary’s calibre as a venue.
Of course it isn’t. This is FCK LDN you’re reading. We love everywhere that isn’t London.
It’s just that, for every other date on this short UK jaunt, Stars of the Lid have played theatres, churches, and concert halls. They’ve played places with stages, seating, and upholstery.
But tonight they’re playing a concrete box underneath an art gallery. “It’s about the size of two squash courts,” he said, failing to convince anyone that he’s ever even seen a squash court, let alone stepped foot on one.
There’s no stage. Instead we have an improvised raised platform, less than a metre high. And there’s no seats. Instead, everyone’s sat on the floor. Because you don’t stand up to watch Stars of the Lid. Not unless you’re explicitly told to do so by the band. That exact thing happens later on. But for the first hour or so of this ~80 minute show, everyone’s sat cross-legged on the floor, gazing up like it’s a primary school assembly.
Looking at the crowd, it looks like The Quietus’s entire East Midlands readership is in attendance. There’s lots of beards, and most people are wearing black. I overhear one guy wish death on the members of Keane, and on anyone who’s ever enjoyed their music. I don’t think he’s joking. I don’t feel welcome here.
So about 10 minutes before the show starts, I head to the front. This isn’t difficult, given that everyone’s sat down. At the front, people are taking pictures of the band’s equipment. Of particular interest is one of those huge analogue synthesizers – the type that looks like a cross between a 1960s telephone exchange board and an aircraft control panel; the type that relies on a tangled network of colourful wires and unmarked knobs to operate; the type that’s slightly more complicated than a human brain.
I ask the man next to me how such a system works. He frowns at it for a few moments, before admitting that he has no idea. But his friend will be here soon, and he’ll be able to explain everything. So when his friend arrives he asks him how such a system works. His friend frowns at it for a few moments, before admitting that he has no idea. Bonding over bafflement is fun. I recommend it.
Now, I’ve spent nearly 500 words talking about everything except tonight’s performance. There’s a very good reason for that: If writing convincingly about music is hard, writing convincingly about the music of Stars of the Lid is almost impossible.
I once took issue with a Daniel Johnston live review in some early noughties rag. The review was fewer than 20 words. It said something like “A Daniel Johnston live show is proof that there’s a god.”
For years, I’ve thought of that review as a cop-out. I’ve seen Daniel Johnston live. He can be messy – painfully so. But also earnest – painfully so. He clearly longs to be taken seriously as an artist and a performer. So to describe his show in fewer than 20 words – no matter how glowing those words are – does him such a disservice that I’ve always thought that the reviewer in question either didn’t bother going to the show, or else they couldn’t be bothered to submit a proper write up.
But after tonight, I’m considering a third possibility. Perhaps they just felt overwhelmed. Perhaps they felt that what they saw was so pure – so real – that they couldn’t bring themselves to debase it with something as crass as a music review. They didn’t feel up to the task. There were no words worthy enough to describe how they felt. Words failed them.
And tonight, words fail me.
Oh sure, I could write about the perfect interplay between the string quartet and the electronic quartet – an interplay so flawless that it suggests the existence of psychic connections. I could talk about the immersive visuals, the rapt crowd, and the total awestruck reverent silence between every track. I could use words like “sweeping”, “devastating”, “life-affirming”, “soul-destroying”, and “loud”. But it just wouldn’t do. Nothing will do.
I’m not going to claim that this music proves that there’s a god, because that would be ridiculous. I’m not going to claim that I saw god when I closed my eyes, or that I felt like I was floating several feet above my body.
Instead, I’m just going to urge you to go out of your way to witness the Stars of the Lid live experience. It’s intense. Words will fail you.