Review by McGough- Photographs by willfahy.co.uk
Composer and musician Johann Sebastian Bach once mused that virtuosity in music was actually really quite an unremarkable thing: “all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself.”
This is a fine sentiment but one that many of us will find galling. We mere mortals who have attempted to emulate our musical idols in bedrooms, garages or more salubrious surroundings can attest to the fact that for every flash of succinct melodic clarity there are far more frequently moments of clumsy unsatisfying fumbling’s in the dirt. For some however, such as the five school friends who comprise Irish band O Emperor, this statement could not ring more true.
Here is a band that really does know when to strike each chord and emotive note, and do so in an effortless, haunting and enthralling way that you cannot help but get lost in their interplaying and harmonious melodies like the beguiling ambiance of some ethereal Wordsworth poem.Fusing complex artistic ideas with expert timing they craft tunes with a nonchalant shrug that only true brilliance can successfully realise.
Formed in 2007, having met at secondary school in Waterford and then all attending college in Cork city together, the group it seems are an inseparable band of brothers who have self recorded/produced two albums already – ‘Hither Thither’, released through Universal Records Ireland in October 2010 and their current album ‘Vitreous’, recorded and produced in their very own self made studio (Big Skin HQ) in Cork which was released on June 14th 2013.
Bands are often formed to infuriate and confuse parents but I can only imagine relatives completely endorse the sound that the Waterford five-piece have settled upon. To be sure, if Dave Gilmour & John Lennon were to have an Irish lovechild it may be O Emperor, seamlessly blending as they do the mercury sound of Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes’ with the piano driven coolness of Lennon’s “Imagine” or early Elton John.
Opener ‘Don Quixote’ sets the tone for the evening with its rustic, country feel perforated with the signature slide guitar solos of lead guitarist Alan Comerford, Radiohead esque vocals and rhythm guitar provided by Paul Savage and all driven along by the fine piano play of Philip Christie, bass of Richard Walsh, and perfectly balanced percussion/drums of Brendan Fennessy. Endearingly from the start they come across as unaffected by the spotlight (unburdened as they are from the pressures and promptings of an intrusive international label/music executives) and tonight are uncoordinatedly dressed in what might be described as hand-me downs and things their mothers may have bought them. They certainly resemble Crazy Horse more than Libertines. This purity of spirit is reflected in their music which is perfectly formed yet charmingly rough around the edges. Moving onto tracks from the new album, Paul Savage acknowledges, “these may be new for you.” Although in actuality even for the previously uninitiated they feel like old friends by the time they reach our ears. “Grandmother Mountain” starts the run and exemplifies the core strengths of O Emperor. With its clean, clear vocals, layered melodies (sometimes five voices deep), uncluttered musicianship and a grimy regret filled lyric that tells of a desire to get away from “all this fresh air” to once again be able to “smell the shit in the city air”. It has a self made feel that is incredibly wholesome with the stamp of a Gomez or Beta Band do it yourself approach. The song also highlights the caramel cool of pianist Philip Christie who quickly begins to emerge as the star of the show as he takes over lead vocals. On “Holy Fool’ & ‘Whitener (part 1),” Christie again steals the show. Charisma dripping from his keystrokes he casually tosses lyrics around on his caramel tongue before delivering them on a cool bed of crisp notes, all the time ably supported by his equally talented companions – this is a peerless group. “You were the brains of the operation” croons Christie on following track “Sedalia” which draws the strongest crowd reaction of the night and boasts a fine solo reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s ‘Us and Them’ but mixes this all up with modern rhythms and effects. It is here that you become acutely aware of O Emperor’s uncanny ability to create instantly familiar hooks and lyrics that pierce your consciousness and resonate with you for days. This is a skill few can manage on one song let alone do so consistently through a whole performance “Brainchild” once again highlights the interchangeable nature of the bands roles as guitarist Alan Comerford takes over on lead vocals. This is a lineup of fine all rounder’s that play music’s equivalent of total football better than even The Band or Beatles did before them.
Twisting through “Minuet”, “Urban Goo” (which boasts a descending rhythm that feels like sliding down a Helter-Skelter on LSD), “Don’t mind me”, “Land of the living” and “Po”before finishing on “Contact” and the powerful “This is it” – which finally sees some banter on stage as Savage and Christie have a short back and forth over the last song being an AC/DC cover – the band depart as they arrived in an enigmatic cloud. The only small blight on this evening’s entertainment has to have been that not more were fortunate to have witnessed this natural phenomenon at their finest. Sadly for those of you wishing to catch them in Bristol or its surrounds anytime soon the band were forced to cancel the final two shows in the region (Cardiff – Clwb Ifor Bach and Bath – Moles Club) but I implore you to check back on their website to see when these dates are rearranged as it truly is a privilege to see them in such an intimate setting. O Emperor – ‘Vitreous’ is available through their own label Big Skin Records on the usual formats and standard channels. http://www.oemperor.com/