Birthdays: another sapphire on the Dalston strip

Nestled into Dalston’s main strip on Stoke Newington Road, the building used to be something of an aesthetic eyesore. An old retail unit, abandoned and disused. During the day, it sits quietly, unremarkable. But by night, the thumping sound systems and basement music lovers transform Birthdays into Roar!’s favourite new music venue. Roar! reviewers Jessica and Rosie are here to tell you why.

The History of Apple Pie @ Birthdays, Dalston, by Jessica Andrews

An unusually diverse crowd gathers in the dark and sweaty basement of Birthdays in Dalston, creating an atmosphere of uncertain expectancy. This is explained by the nervous appearance of support band ‘F.U.R.S’, who murmur from behind thick curtains of hair that tonight is their debut performance.

As their nerves begin to evaporate the crowd becomes raucous. A black-clad vixen moans Karen O-esque vocals into the microphone as heavy and infectious guitar riffs conjure a simultaneously gritty and sultry sound, comparable to The Kills. For a first airing their show is very impressive, complete with projections of Bardot style faces morphing and shifting on the wall behind the band.

An onslaught of heavy fringes and girlish, sugary tones signals the arrival of tonight’s main act: The History of Apple Pie. Not to be confused with the archetypal twee indie pop their name suggests, THOAP open with ‘Tug’, a heady mix of grunge inspired guitars and dark base lines accompanied by the somewhat apathetic voice of singer and guitarist Stephanie Min. Comparatively fresh within the London circuit, the band produce a set list composed of a fair amount of new songs which do not disappoint, such as ‘The Warrior’ and ‘Before You Reach the End’.

The familiar refrain of ‘Mallory’ sends the audience into a mild frenzy, as the band break into a sweat and begin to prove their worth as potential veterans of the Dinosaur Jr. inspired lo-fi scene. ‘Do it Wrong’, the single the band are here to launch opens with a deliciously dirty rhythm, giving way to a dreamy demand to ‘keep your eyes on the prize…have no regrets’. ”Long Way to Go’, B-side to the new single is a little more syrupy, resonating with a celebration of hazy youth and misspent days.

The seemingly deliberate omission of previous, poppier single ‘You’re So Cool’ (incidentally written about a schoolfriend who knew every word to the film ‘True Romance’) seems to point to the fact that THOAP are leaning towards a fizzier, fuzzier future, demonstrated in their closing track ‘Before You Reach The End’, leaving the crowd with faces sweating, ears ringing and a definite craving for more Apple Pie.

 

Balam Acab @ Birthdays, Dalston (10 October), by Rosie Mitton

Balam Acab (the former rhymes with palm, not Balham, as I had been mistakenly saying for the past year and a half), aka 22-year-old Pennsylvanian Alec Koone, is a purveyor of the type of music imbued with such unearthly, supernatural power and ethereal grace that it has been labelled “witch house”, grouping him with acts such as Salem, Burial and oOoOO. Yet while he shares their traces of distorted hip-hop and nods to drone, and despite the spectral voices that take the lead on every Balam Acab track, Koone’s music has no hint of nightmares or the sinister, but rather is soaked in an underlying nostalgia and beauty with a lingering redolence of the natural world. Thus it was with no little excitement that I travelled to deepest darkest Dalston to see how Koone would bring his ‘supernatural beat music’ to a live setting.

As he leapt onto the stage and signalled for the obligatory visuals of water droplets and ripples, Koone (who doesn’t look much like a witch) reduced the predominantly bespectacled and loafer-with-no-socks-wearing, sold out Dalston crowd to an expectant hush. Cue the sound of running water (and a few comments from the audience about Balam Acab songs always ‘making me need to pee’). As the screen filled with glistening shapes viewed from underneath water, ripples altered their form as intangible hymn-like vocals, synths and strings refracted through its surface. Then Koone hit the enraptured, swaying audience with the sound swell of his carefully orchestrated, multi-sensual, deafening audiodream, one that violently shakes you with a reverberating subsonic bass.

Barely separated from the audience, on stage Koone writhes and contorts with delight as he presses his two samplers. Blue and orange. Yellow and green. On his records (2010’s See Birds EP and 2011’s LP Wander/Wonder, both critically acclaimed) he doesn’t play instruments or sing on tracks, but instead builds them with samples collected from the Internet. The results are remarkably seamless, and live, just as on record, songs melt

into one another. Wispy crackles float on sounds of moving liquid, while a genuinely freakish undercurrent of deep-toned basslines is interspersed with the occasional drum machine clapping like thunder in the distance. Floating above it all is an unearthly, sun-warped voice, pitch- shifted way up and set loose in a cloud of echo.

Koone shares an obsession with the sound of water with label mate (on the superb Tri Angle Records) Clams Casino; laced throughout the set are samples of lapping currents, slow drips, and light splashes. These accents make for an immersive experience. The appreciative crowd sway intensely, only breaking the silence with great whoops of delight at fan-favourite See Birds (Moon) and See Birds (Sun) (the former used to soundtrack a L’Oreal advert with Beyonce). Next to me a bespectacled red-head is earnestly rubbing his beard with appreciation, his eyes closed, evidently ‘feeling’ the vibrantly textured soundscapes.

Yet Balam Acab also traverses a shadowy terrain that seems at once sensual and unnerving. His songs inhabit a cybernetic limbo haunted by distant machine moans, with traces of R&B slowed down to a funereal 60bpm, and those ghostly chipmunk vocals lost in another world all together. They are imbued with a darker quality, even when they are soft and serene, even at their most ecstatic.

Such evocative music fills up the stuffy Dalston basement and results in a perception-shifting 55 minutes that lingers hauntingly like a pseudo reality haze, long after Koone has finished. No wonder they call it witch house.

What’s on @ Birthdays this month? Saint Lou Lou, Tuesday 3rd November. Go for Joni Mitchell inspired dreamy pop. PVT, Wednesday 28th November. Hit up PVT for chilled electro vibes.

 

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