Photos by Josh Groom
Pardon the try-hard claim for musical cred, but I remember a few years ago being super excited to show off Hiatus Kaiyote’s debut album Tawk Tomahawk to all my friends. However, I quickly hit a brick-wall when trying to sell the band to others and my attempts to describe their sound and influences devolved into a series of shrugs and “erm”s. I’m happy to report that four years later, the band still remain delightfully indescribable, making them the perfect fit for Sydney’s Vivid Festival and its focus on creativity and innovation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make them the perfect fit for a written review, but I’ll try to keep the erm’s to a minimum.
— Vivid LIVE (@VividLIVE) May 31, 2016
The performance at the Sydney Opera House was kicked off with a set from the incredible African-born and Sydney-based female rapper Sampa the Great. It takes a lot of talent to earn a title like “the Great”, but Sampa’s earned it. The last year has seen her take Australia by storm, releasing incredible album The Great Mixtape, supporting giants like Kendrick Lamar and Thundercat and being added to festivals like Splendour in the Grass. I’d easily describe her as one of my favourite upcoming artists at the moment, but unfortunately her performance at the Opera House didn’t represent her best work. This isn’t a slight on her, but rather the venue. Dropping incredibly syncopated beats and rapid-fire, spoken word-esque verses works excellently for a standing crowd ready to bop along, but unfortunately makes for a bit of an awkward seating experience. Understandably, this zapped a lot of energy from the performance, as moments of crowd participation were met with a tepid response, and repeated pleads for us to stand up weren’t acknowledged. This said, Sampa is definitely an artist to keep an eye on, especially if you can catch her in her element and properly get your groove on.
By contrast, Hiatus Kaiyote were the perfect fit for the venue, and they made this comfortable presence felt right from their opening moments. The epic synth crescendo of ‘Choose Your Weapon’ (which sounds eerily like the old THX opening) partnered with rapid flashing lights showcased the feeling of sensory overload which would be present throughout the evening. Playing a set consisting primarily of material from 2015’s Choose Your Weapon, the band crafted a series of intricate musical soundscapes which shifted between a variety of different genres, styles, chord structures and time signatures. These intricacies were beautifully accentuated by a surprisingly minimalistic yet perfectly fitting light display from LA-based visual artist Timeboy. Although the performance lacked the grandeur and scale of his work with artists like Flying Lotus, the more restrained use of lights surrounding the stage supported the band’s complex sounds without overshadowing them.
As tracks like ‘Molasses’, ‘Breathing Underwater’ and ‘Laputa’ highlighted, Hiatus write complex songs, which become even more complex in a live setting when you try to follow along with what the musicians are doing. Seriously, you’d probably need a degree in music to accurately tap your foot along to their songs. Trust me when I say I tried my damn hardest. This complexity doesn’t come just from one source, and all members of the band had their chance to shine throughout the evening. Songs were constantly punctuated by impressive displays of technical skill like fast fretwork and funky slapping on the bass, syncopated and intentionally offbeat shuffles and fills on the drums, and mesmerising tinkling on the synth and keys.
And, of course, Nai Palm’s incredible vocal work. As anyone who’s been there knows, the Sydney Opera House is fucking massive, and possesses the alarming ability to dwarf a singer by comparison. No such thing happened last night and Nai Palm’s beautiful and powerful voice filled any and all empty spaces in the room. It’s hard to pick a particular highlight, but ‘Borderline With My Atoms’ truly showed off the singer’s impressive range. Add to this three backup singers and you’ve truly got an all-encompassing wall of vocal harmony.
Although lighting-wise, the gig may not have been as spectacular as the displays outside, the music onstage truly lived up to the Vivid name, and was another exciting example of Australia’s innovative and boundary-pushing arts culture.