Michael Hann

I’m not sure they ever reached a fourth chord: Spiritualized, at the Roundhouse, reviewed

Plus: the big, melodic songs of the Pillow Queens is indie as it used to be

I’m not sure they ever reached a fourth chord: Spiritualized, at the Roundhouse, reviewed
Before a note had been played here, there was the unmistakable mating cry of the middle-aged, male rock fanatic: Spiritualized performing at Brighton Dome
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Roundhouse, and touring until 4 September

Pillow Queens


Every so often, Jason Pierce drifts into focus. It happened at the end of the 1980s, when his then group Spacemen 3 (motto: ‘Taking drugs to make music to take drugs to’) suddenly and briefly went from being those weirdos from Rugby to one of the defining groups of English alternative rock thanks to their album Sound of Confusion (there’s a whole strain of American psychedelia that is explicitly indebted to their two-chord drone). It happened again a decade or so later, when Spiritualized’s album Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space became a big hit, and a staple of Greatest Albums lists.

He’s in one of his partial-focus phases at the moment: he’s not going to be popping up on The One Show, but people are taking notice. The ninth Spiritualized album, Everything Was Beautiful, was greeted with more than usually enthusiastic notices. Early live reviews reported cries of love from the crowds, and before a note had been played here, there was the unmistakable mating cry of the middle-aged, male rock fanatic: ‘Oi! Jason, I love you!’ I’ll never quite understand the urge to shout love at people you have never met, and who don’t care, but it all adds to the gaiety of nations.

The main reason Pierce drifts in and out of focus is that he is a fixed point in a moving world: his musical palette – the Velvet Underground, girl groups, Krautrock, country rock, psychedelia – is so classicist that it almost comes with Doric columns and an endorsement from Prince Charles, and it never varies: the only thing that changes is how many bells and whistles he can afford to add (at this show, it was a six-piece gospel choir to augment him and the five members of his band).

So why does it work, when other groups with the same set of influences, such as Primal Scream, end up becoming end-of-the-pier shows? Partly because Pierce doesn’t insist on defining himself as the true guardian of the rock spirit, the heir to Che Guevara (with privately educated kids), in the way Gillespie does. And partly because there was an insistence to Spiritualized’s live shows that became overwhelming: Pierce achieved force not through drama, but through repetition. Songs would end not by repeating the refrain for four bars, or eight bars, or 16 bars. I swear we must have been getting up to 64 bars. But with the gospel choir on top of the swirls of guitars and keyboards, it was mesmerising. There were quibbles: when you’ve heard one song end in a cacophonous wig-out, you’ve heard them all, and there were a lot of cacophonous wig-out endings.

After what I thought was about 45 minutes of the show, I checked the time on my phone. Spiritualized had already been playing for nearly two hours. And I’m not sure they ever reached a fourth chord.

That thing about drifting into focus applies to whole genres of music, not just individual acts. There’s a sense at the moment that indie rock – for a while now regarded as the most conservative, least interesting, lowest common denominator of music (a struggle for those who grew up when it was a progressive outlier) – is coming to the fore, with scores of bands picking up real buzz. A bunch of those bands – including Fontaines DC and the Murder Capital, both previously featured in this column – come from Ireland, as do Pillow Queens.

Where Fontaines and the Murder Capital are astringent and very masculine, Pillow Queens write big, melodic songs – both their albums are strongly recommended – often filled with tenderness: anyone who loved alternative music in the early 1990s will feel a nostalgic rush of pleasure, for this is indie as it used to be. I think they’re great. That said, I cannot go overboard about their show at the Scala, but my apologies to them: it’s not their fault.

The Scala was rammed. And the only spot I could find was underneath the overhang, which filtered out all the guitar and drums and most of the vocals. But for a six-foot-three middle-aged man to push himself into the middle of a crowd of young women a foot shorter than him who had come to watch a band singing about lesbian relationships would be, frankly, psychotic. So all I could hear was bass. Lots and lots of bass. Very loud bass. The bass was indeed fine. But if I wanted to hear people playing basslines all day I’d just go to a music shop. And then my back went into spasm and I had to file out, bent double, before the end.

So, please, do go to see Pillow Queens. Just go to an osteopath first, and don’t stand under an overhang.