Buried in the bowels of Edinburgh’s Old Town, Sneaky Pete’s is the sort of place that’s easily passed by. Wedged between the Grassmarket’s aggressive watering holes and the gruesome, tangerine-tinted meat market that is the Cowgate, this granite-wrapped venue keeps a low profile amongst such inhospitable company. But with the city’s music halls dropping quicker than the flies of a sailor in Leith docks, perhaps a little reserve is for the best. After all, Lord knows where the reaper’s scythe will land next.
Despite its menacing surroundings, Sneaky’s rafters are rammed tonight. A disparate bunch of hipsters, chin-strokers, hippies, students and cherub-cheeked teens line the floor of this sardine-packed sweatpit. The reason, most likely, is to pitch a spot for the headline draw in a venue with as much breathing space as a vacuum-packed Renault Clio, but it’s reasonable enough to suggest the allure of an intriguing undercard is equally irresistible.
With nerve-ends clearly jangling, local noise-mongers Lady North are first to the fore. The trio’s tectonic throbs of guitar, drum and bass have been making in-roads into the Scottish music scene over the last six months, providing a contrasting blast (and I do mean blast) of refreshing air to alt-folk’s gentile snoozing. And, despite a few jittery opening moments, their five song assault merely feeds their reputation as intriguing and unpredictable purveyors of pulsing math rock.
Led by Scott Bullen’s android guitar, each sonically-perplexing number is serrated by percussion so shuddering it could rectify any clogging bowel obstructions. But Lady North are no avant-garde thrash merchants; tonight they show a tuition that captures wider strains of funk, reggae and prog, and an eagerness that tears apart at convention with gnarling effects pedals and toxic, gyrating basslines. In short, it’s an exhilarating opening set and one that’s met with a barrage of clapped palms from Sneaky’s expanding masses.
Given what’s gone before them, much lauded Welsh instrumentalists Gallops are already on the back foot as they amble on stage. Their intricate electro-fare may be riddled with rich percussive layers and angular guitars, but there’s little pull in this inconsistent and, at times, anodyne showing. At their glitchiest, the quartet drive through intriguing limb-flinging ideas with a barrage of incessant anti-disco grinds. But, too often, it degenerates into furious slabs of guitar that writhe out like early Nineties bandana-rock over a bed of tumbling drums and bleeps.
Struggling with this kind of musical bi-polarity is not something that’ll ever trouble tonight’s headliners Maps & Atlases. Over the past five years the Chicago four-piece have escaped math rock’s claws and advanced as a band lacking any obvious hole for a pigeon to reside. Intelligent pop may be as close as it gets to nailing their luscious, yet perplexing, arrangements, but, given the band’s evolutionary nature, it’s probably wiser to accept that theirs is a sound without need for inscription.
From the opening flutter of ‘Pigeon’s Graceland-aping veneer, it’s clear Maps & Atlases are having no trouble getting to grips with the hefty mosaics of debut LP Perch Patchwork. Every note tonight is seamless, every gruesome time signature executed with militant precision. For a band so readily portrayed as laid-back dudes, the urgency and accomplishment that burns through the rhythmically bewildering ‘Artichokes’ and ‘Living Decoration’s cascading guitar is astonishing.
What’s more surprising is just how far they’ve extended their reach. Not so long ago, this was a band that floated on the periphery, seemingly too obsessed with Don Caballero and guitar tapping for the dainty lug holes of many a listener. But tonight they’re pushing out flummoxing numbers like ‘Every Place Is A House’ and ‘Witch’ as if they’re modern pop chalices. Not that this is Britney-like in nature, of course - Dave Davison’s nasal tones are too impregnable for such ignominy – but the sugarcane melodies of ‘Solid Ground’ and ‘If This Is’ are so thick and lugubrious they’d easily sweep the feet off a wider, less knowledgeable audience.
In what’s a near immaculate set, ‘The Charm’s heavenly crescendo is tonight’s defining moment (even more so than the band’s foray into the crowd for an end of night sing-a-long) – it’s ear-consuming splash of tribal rhythm mixed up with Davison’s penetrating shrill hypnotises both crowd and band alike. In every sense, this is the kind of majestic, all-encompassing performance befitting a band at its peak; one that knows there’s little out there to touch it right now. And sure, no-one likes a show-off, but with tricks this good it’s almost impossible to complain.
Photos by Su Anderson