One of the many great things about Edinburgh trio Young Fathers is the way that they seem to defy the predictable trajectory of the pop career. Some of the greatest bands in musical history like The Smiths or Stone Roses have become a little flabby around the edges after a while, either adding superfluous musicians where they're not needed or lengthening their tracks to so called 'epic' proportions. Young Fathers seem to be going the other way.
New album 'Cocoa Sugar', which is ether their fourth, fifth or sixth LP depending on whether or how you include their 'Tape 1' and 'Tape 2' demo collections in the list, is unarguably their most vicious and intense yet, not to mention shorter and sharper than ever. Anyone who feels the need to nip out for a fag or toilet break during their rampage of a gig at the Roundhouse tonight might well find that they've missed not one but two or three of their favourites.
As a result, you're tempted to hang on to every bewildering and disorientating second of every track in the set, because you know it'll be gone in a moment. Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and Graham 'G' Hastings emerge and quickly rip their way through the African drumming, wonky pianos and paranoid whispers of 'Wire' in well under two minutes as if to say 'you have been warned.'
All three are dressed head to toe in black and backdropped by the glare of a large white screen, and there are times during the gig when you have to remind yourself that you're actually watching in colour rather than via some 1930s movie. It's an apt setting tough, because much of the trio's strength is gleaned from contrasts. The friction between, for instance, the uplifting gospel tinges and monumental chorus of 'In My View' or the superfically playful goading of 'Toy' and the dark and often desolate lyrics that lie beneath. Even the way all three seem to be locked in their own worlds on stage, often facing completely different directions and away from the crowd as well as each other, and yet are able to execute each song with a dazzling co-ordination that is almost unparalled in pop music right now. This not so much organised chaos as musical confrontation choreographed with a military-like precision.
It's perhaps no surprise then that there are times tonight when the audience seems to be left stunned, not quite into silence but certainly not the usual sheep-like crowd responses of your average live music experience. Similarly, the three seem completely disinterested in the traditional cliches of pandering to their public, barely uttering a word between songs and letting the music do all the talking.
They leave us with a jumpy, frenetic rendering of older single 'Shame', which feels almost like light relief after some of the fierce heat of the 'Cocoa Sugar' tracks. We're left, suitably enough, with a mixture of emotions, shaken up but euphoric and heading out into the dark night certain that we've witnessed something special even if it's hard pinpoint exactly what has just happened to us. Beyond mere entertainment, seeing Young Fathers live is a short, sharp shock to the system, and getting sharper all the time.
Words: Ben Willmott
Photo: Niall Green