A few weeks ago, I was surprised to find out that ex-Japan and Porcupine Tree keyboardist Richard Barbieri would be playing Exeter’s Phoenix. A few days ago, I was surprised to walk into Phoenix’s main auditorium to find it decked out in some kind of would-be dark cabaret décor. The floor was occupied by clusters of tables adorned with what turned out to be electric candles. Luminescent, but with a mechanical element that becomes apparent upon further inspection. Not too far from the first act of the evening, GRICE.
GRICE dives into his set without much of an introduction, but his performance makes up for his lack of crowd interaction. After the strain of his scant opening remarks, he rests his voice as the spacious, near-improvisatory tones of the seven-minute instrumental opening of Alexandrine snake their way through the room, setting an apt tone for the evening’s proceedings.
The set’s visual element is nearly as integral as the music. The darkened stage almost encourages the audience to use their ears rather than their eyes, but soon enough, rays of light begin to permeate through the room, nicely complementing some of GRICE’s more melodic offerings. The rendition of She’s My Garden gives the feeling of a dense cloud being dispelled and giving way to a lovely pastoral landscape, which is furthered by an on-stage projection displaying rolling, sun-drenched fields for the song’s duration. Elsewhere, the visuals become a little more avant-garde, comprising of surreal shapes and film clips, to which the music replies.
In a slight homage, GRICE throws a Richard Barbieri remix of his track Highly Strung into the back half of the set. It’s not only a highlight of the show, but a fantastic example of how GRICE can walk the line between organic and artificial with grace and creativity. The track’s paranoid opening soon gives way to more organic instrumentation before the electronics regain control. GRICE’s vague and somewhat sinister proclamations that ‘You never need to doubt it / I’ll make you sure about it’ and ‘At the hands of a friend / A beautiful end’ are sung deliberately enough to make you think. But perhaps the pinnacle of GRICE’s set is the epic song Propeller. Its heart-rending melodies spread throughout the room, until the sound is suffused with a vibrancy which belies the complexity of the song.
Later, Richard Barbieri walks on stage alone, to thunderous applause. He’s almost as taciturn as GRICE, but a little more waggish, joking about a modular synth from the ‘70s being his most enduring functioning relationship. Speaking of which, the operation of the gear alone is something to marvel at – you don’t need to hear the music to be impressed by Richard Barbieri. ‘Welcome to the Richard Barbieri show – you don’t have to use your ears here, but it helps’, I come up with after the show.
Soon enough, the room is filled with rich tapestries of sound, and ‘work-in-progress’ Ghosts is an early set highlight. Although it has previously been realised on stage with vocals, violin, trumpet and vibraphone, the industrial, space-age version presented to the crowd at Phoenix is all the more hypnotic, and totally captivates. Another welcome addition to the set is an old Porcupine Tree track, Idiot Prayer, the krautrock psychedelia of which sends me back to the prog renaissance that was brewing in my brain at 15 years old. Quality.
Being heckled by someone so drunk they barely manage to sit down doesn’t fluster Barbieri, either. He playfully enquires if there are ‘any yobs in’ tonight, before meeting further amused jeers with a warning that ‘You don’t wanna mess with a New Romantic’ – a line which didn’t get as much of a laugh as it deserves. I’ve never seen a performer respond to heckling with self-deprecation, but it’s a damned good approach. The near-continuous flow of music genuinely lulls me into a strange reverie for quite a while, but moments still stand out. Unholy is terrifying and beautiful at the same time, like the inexorable call of some beguiling siren (no, I don’t get commission for writing pretentious sentences).
I was genuinely pleased to hear that the evening’s initial allocation of tickets had sold out. Not only are GRICE and Richard Barbieri incredible artists who deserve far more attention than they currently enjoy, but their ability to sell out shows like this gives me hope that the inherent beauty of their compositions can transgress the boundaries of experimental music, and turn a few new heads every now and again. If they didn’t have my attention before, they certainly do now.
Photo credit: Wikimedia.