Once again, I found myself at the grand finale performance of an epic tour, after a smashingly successful album. Jon Hopkins’s 2013, Mercury Prize-shortlisted LP Immunity has formed the basis for over a year of shows of immersive audio-visual work, characterised by a big screen video display suspended above the half-lit, lone manipulator of sound working beneath.
The album is an engrossing labyrinth – emotional ambivalence reigns; pure and piercing piano tones cut through in moments of clarity, only to degenerate again into wabi-sabi dissonance, twisted into darker forms on the surface of the Kaoss Pad, ominously forewarning the crushing, driving beats to come. With the energy of a four-on-the-floor house kick, it’s usually, in fact, the fuzzy bass throb which dominates and controls the rhythm section. Kicks tend to take a back seat in the bass spectrum, opting to cut through with the essential higher-end metronomic duties, and eschewing the low frequencies to let the gentle distortion and crazy filter envelopes squelch forth from low-end synths.
Gentle pads and light, almost uplifting piano figures sometimes introduce a track, or play in a mid-tune eye of the storm, only to be thrust against the more aggressive, off-kilter themes as the storm keeps passing through.
The peace feels ever so slightly fragile; the catharsis manages to inspire a little unsettling introspection
Halfway through the album, the pedal is lifted to a gentle cruising speed with Abandon Window. After some rough turbulence during a stormy take-off, our plane has sighed, levelled, and emerged in tranquillity above the clouds. The seatbelt sign is off, the captain is speaking, and the adrenaline has begun to subside. And still, a building rumble suggests that it’s not quite over yet. Entering the second half, the tone is undoubtedly rather more relaxing, but the buzzy saws and ever-present glitchiness, cutting in without warning, contribute to an underlying sense of lesser, but ongoing unease. You come out of the listening experience with a sense of tranquillity and a little catharsis. And yet neither really feels complete. The peace feels ever so slightly fragile, and the catharsis, triggered by the builds of dancefloor-worthy bursts of energy, also manages to inspire a little unsettling introspection.
The live show began with growing bass and mid growls, at first without a discernible pattern, developing to a cycle of more predictable roars. Accompanying the initial sonic assault was a progression of simple, primary coloured geometric shapes carving out their territory in ephemeral boasts, before transforming or fading. Calming the atmosphere, we found ourselves face-to-face with a voyager, perhaps of space, supersonic flight, or transport methods unknown. Her facial expression, in a close-up cabin shot, was all we had to go on as the beat slid through the gears. Apprehension, but not fear, until finally tipping over the edge into tearfulness. A visual representation of the unsure reaction of the Hopkins listener.
The piano introduction to Breathe This Air drew the crowd’s approval almost immediately, before we were given the great video for Open Eye Signal on the big screen. At times, by this point, I found myself almost forgetting the man in the gloom upon the stage, the architect of the whole performance. Each time, though, remembering to observe the artist himself, there was a passionate hive of activity, whether plunging fingertips into the Kaoss Pads or primally hammering MPC pads to set up the next loop to underpin another sonic transfiguration.
The imperfection aesthetic contributes to my love of the music; I am drawn strongly to the analogue glitch which is a constant theme
As the show went on, we were treated to black-clad dancers with bright white illuminated hula hoops, gyrating hypnotically at the front of the stage. Their co-ordination and choreography left a little to be desired in my mind, although perhaps I should interpret this as a part of the imperfection aesthetic which contributes to my love of the music. I am drawn strongly to the analogue glitch which is a constant theme. The percussion which clunks, scratches, and lumbers around so many Hopkins arrangements is a wonderful reintroduction of the bitcrushed, stuttered and circuit-bent sound which pervades a good deal of electronic music, especially in genres whose names I would be derided for uttering in any sincerity, except with a lo-fi, tape hiss, and found sound vibe. I’m a sucker for it. I recently produced a remix for a friend, strictly using only kitchen items for my drums and percussion; my artistic ego is suitably excited to have heard that salt-shakers and other household objects have their place in Hopkins’s sample banks too.
Before I gush praise about the close of the show, my one other personal disappointment was the inclusion of Light Through The Veins, from the album Insides, with insufficient separation and opportunity to lead the audience through a transcendental build. Admittedly, its feel is not in quite the same ballpark as the obvious Immunity focus. It’s a ten minute masterpiece, with optimism gliding over the slightest hint of melancholy, and may well be recognised as the co-opted backing for the Coldplay Viva La Vida hidden track, The Escapist, a deal struck when Hopkins spent a studio day with Brian Eno and the band. Gathering momentum, it almost reaches a climax, only to drop back into a fading arpeggio echo which seems to contemplate what could have been. Like the several well-executed ambient drones and washes providing brief interludes through the concert, it could have been the launchpad for the dynamic concluding portion of the show. I shan’t hold it against him.
The sound system cranked up fully to deliver a ground-shaking, viscerally aggressive aural whirlpool
In such contrast to the uneasy but under control character in the video projection at the start of the show, Collider brought with it the disjointed music video on the big screen. Our female protagonist is thrust through jagged tears in reality, finding herself carried along by a tide of unpredictable times and places. Surrounding the visuals, the sound system cranked up fully to deliver a ground-shaking, viscerally aggressive aural whirlpool, sucking you into its confusing, irresistible world.
A return of the illuminated hula hoopers, and the deployment of vast, multi-coloured laser sweeps brought the show to its climax, but, of course, on the final date of a mammoth tour, with thousands baying for a little more, Jon Hopkins retook the stage, reignited the lightshow, and indulged us in a brief thrill-ride from his cockpit behind the colours. A smooth ascent, followed by a fighter-pilot-esque yank on the yoke, sending the scene stratospheric, pulling off a few aerobatic manoeuvres, and landing once more in relative tranquillity. Giving no more than a brief wave, he was gone, and the house lights were up. Crowd interaction is the right modus operandi for many acts, but glancing down to see the concentrating scientist tweaking controls and conjuring the colours I’d soon be enveloped in again was what I wanted. Hopkins needn’t be anything but self-effacing as a human standing on a stage. Like the shipwrecked of The Tempest, the audience had little need to engage directly with the sorcerer to be fully immersed in his creation. And true to that comparison, the result was fantastical, occasionally uncontrollable, but always exciting