For someone with such assuredly apocalyptic song titles like ‘Mess’, ‘Nuclear Season’ and, naturally, ‘End of the World’, Charlotte Aitchison, aka Charli XCX, cuts a surprisingly anxious figure between songs at Electric Ballroom in Camden.
“Everyone looking forward to Sleigh Bells?” the tiny 19-year-old Londoner asks, cautiously. “I’m really … excited.” Then the drums kick in and the lighting returns to a sinister red-and-yellow and Charlotte disappears for four-odd minutes to be replaced by brooding pop hellcat Charli XCX.
Involved in music in some way or another since seven, Charli became a fixture in London’s warehouse party circuit by the time she was 14. Whether the damaged, lovesick themes piped over gothic ‘80s synths she describes simply as ‘dark pop’ is a direct result of her curious formative years we don’t know, but there’s definitely an air of authenticity.
Despite what the poseur-friendly background may suggest, Charli XCX isn't all style over substance. Firstly, she’s got the chops to match that imposing production, ranging a heartfelt croon on the stripped-down ballad ‘Stay Away’, which draws from a well Shakespeares Sister must've fallen into, to pitched yelps punching through the industrial drone of ‘You’re the One’. All the while moving frenetically with pumps and kicks studied from decades-old music videos.
There’s versatility there as well. ‘End of the World’, with its reverbed rave keyboards and double-time percussion is a world away from the ‘80s synth-pop homage ‘Nuclear Seasons’, but both are immediate and unmistakably radio-ready.
Charli closes with the brilliant ‘Mess’, a stomping Suicide-alike which finds our protagonist stuck in another conflicted relationship, sneering ‘So sick of the stranger within me, so sick of the stranger in you/ We’re making a mess’ over kinetic, tumbling drums and a chugging synth.
Ms. XCX obviously knows something we don't about impending Armageddon, emotional or otherwise – let's just hope we get a debut album out of her before it arrives.
Charli will be in good company with fellow fierce-girl Alexis Krauss, the Sleigh Bells lead singer who’ll she be joining on the first six dates of the Brooklyn band’s European tour schedule. The noise-rockers were notoriously uncertain during their own early shows, but return to London after an exhaustive year touring their 2010 breakout hit Treats in the US.
During that time they’ve honed their show into a spectacle of overdriven sound. In front of a 2x6 stack of Marshall amps, guitarist Derek E. Miller emerges from a shroud of smoke silhouetted by blinding pure white beams and opens proceedings with a genuinely overpowering 10-second feedback squall.
Sleigh Bells' teeth-rattling tracks burn twice as bright and half as long, meaning we get to hear Treats, a record that only reaches its full potential in a live setting, almost in its entirety. And it's spectacularly fun.
A/B Machines is a tantrum of blended sirens, stadium claps and huge drums, the playground-chant Tell 'Em literally goes *rat-a-tat, pew-pew* and empathise with Alexis' climatic squeals in the infamous last 30 seconds of Infinity Guitars.
The new album Reign of Terror, is a much more melodic, personal record, as Krauss wrests some control from the hands of former hardcore purist Miller, but the those track slot in perfectly between the blunt force trauma of Treats, with the ugly/beautiful lead single Comeback Kid acting as a bridge between the two.
End of the Line is a desperately pretty ballad, Krauss sifting through the embers of a broken relationship via impressively strong vocals usually hidden under layers of crunched chords or mangled into yelps and chants. Minutes later, though, she’s having another hissy-fit, writhing on the floor, mimicking the sound of falling bombs, and crowd-surfing. It's compelling stuff. Compelling, and really, really loud.