Wolf Alice, supported by Bloody Knees & Swim Deep: 02 Academy, Oxford
Nights soaked in psychedelic satin are not for the faint hearted. Happily the fans that crammed into the Oxford O2 last night were pumped with passionate energy. Don’t hold Snapchat straight – you might seem too composed. All quivered in anticipation of their hosts, craving the heavy dose of 90s grunge they’d bring. The feedback saturated fervour of guitars soon coursed through the Academy, but unhappily with varying degrees of conviction.
Four-piece group Bloody Knees model the pallid, scrawny English rocker-boy look to perfection. The kid from Nirvana’s Nevermind cover has hit puberty. Drawing on the tortured melancholy of Alice in Chains and Morrissey, we get teen hormones and languid aggression. However judging from the sharp technical fixes and perfectly placed wails, it’s not all as untrained as they’d like you to believe. The trio of guitarists sport bespoke greasy hair mops perfect for head banging: an effect that's either really cool or really comical. Watch out guys, you’re gonna get whiplash…
Bloody Knees: Daydream (Official Video, 2014)
The bravado of Bloody Knees continued on with second support band Swim Deep. Lead singer Austin ‘Ozzy’ Williams first headed to his fans for a slap on the back before leaping onto the stage. The group’s live aesthetic is eclectic and fabulously nutty - far from pretentious, but also far from down to Earth. In performance, Williams’s guise relates little to the ‘let’s get high in the sun’ premise of their music. Instead he’s a picture of more skittish, sweating edginess. The Oxford stage has none of the tent scaffolding he’d usually swing from, but he acted high anyway. The unblinking dark set eyes addressed the crowd’s Grand Affection with piercing, possessed intensity. One hand madly shook his tambourine, whilst he nibbled the other behind the cuff of a creased, oversized shirt. “Nice one. See you next time” - all in a day’s work.
Swim Deep: King City (Official Video, 2012)
Usually the headline act ramps up their gig’s atmosphere with ease, but Wolf Alice never quite managed it. Whilst we expected lead vocalist Ellie Rowsell’s cool mood to burn off, she remained stony in comparison to her spirited band mates. She seemed to assume the hype would take off without her input. Whilst amazingly dexterous on records, live her vocal style’s languid ‘ah’s (Your Love’s a Whore) exposed shaky intonation, and the gritty psychedelic swearing (You’re A Germ) felt bizarrely uncomfortable. What might have been a stab at nonchalance came across as vacant self-consciousness. The façade was totally mismatched with the sophisticated but wild spirit of their sound.
Rowsell behaved like the queen bee at the back of the school bus – content to sulk but secure that everyone would still adore her. Perhaps she was having a bad day, but you can’t take that out on a paying audience. She can pour water on herself, fully submerged in strobe lights, but smoke and mirrors don’t fool anyone. The moshing crowd felt entirely out of place, like a rave displaced from a different party. Only during the reflections of Silk did we glimpse the fierce emotional strength the band are loved for. When the energy wasn’t needed, it wasn’t obvious it was missing.
Wolf Alice: You’re a Germ (Official Video, 2015)
And so the atmospheric management was left to the boys. Leading from the back, their roaring chants of ‘don’t leave me here’ (The WonderWhy) echoed the brotherly style of Paramore’s Jon Howard and Taylor York. Disco-dancing bassist Theo Ellis sang along with more vigour than Rowsell herself. He did his best to maintain the crowd’s ecstasy, but roaring “let’s go Oxford” felt awkward and obvious. Despite their efforts the group stood as separate entities, split down the centre by Rowsell.
Wolf Alice is an incredible group driven by deeply stirring, indie-rock emotion. They were awarded Best Live Band at this year’s NME Awards, but last night left us wondering why. The tormented track Blush digs deep into a channel of leaden angst, but the psychedelic passion faltered in Rowsell’s faint heart. Her lyrical questioning of ‘are you happy now?’ rang out with painful sarcasm. That she worked well.