Two years ago, in the cool shelter of a boxed-in room, caged off from unrepelled mosquitoes and gigantic, mutant crows, overlooking a grassy, sun-soaked Australian quad, a friend introduced me to a voice so emotionally raw that it cut into me in the most peculiar manner. The voice, removed from any familiar image or visage, was so unique that I felt uncomfortable and unwilling to allow its words to draw me in. I was perturbed by how a voice so disembodied and new could be so filled with personality and honesty, admitting all of its longing, and worry, and sorrow. Over the course of a few months, I kept being lured back to it. It lunged and ducked in tone and pitch; at times it was the voice of the everyman, and at others it was the voice of a mythical creature. Sometime later, I found myself standing in a darkened warehouse, the voice having grown eyes, a nose, a mouth, ears, becoming the banshee it once evoked in my mind, but now solid and growling and hypnotising the transfixed glare of a few hundred Glaswegians, chanting every word back in unrelenting chorus.
Make no mistake, Future Islands deserve the laudatory treatment bestowed upon them at SWG3 in Glasgow – the most sparse and unpretentious performance space I have thus far attended in this city. They have grown from underground treasures to critical darlings, enchanting TV hosts to TV viewers with their new found charm and the unabashed feelingwithin their music. Their dizzying rise will be the fastest in music this year. From the early 2014 release of their first dive into sumptuous pop, Singles, to the conquering of European festivals, Future Islands have gathered a notable following. Standing in the middle of the room watching them gallop into ‘Back in the Tall Grass’, it is difficult to imagine that this group of seemingly innocuous Baltimore natives rummaged about in relative obscurity for nearly eight years.
While their talent was undeniable, the seemingly unpredictable rise, that catapulted them into the consciousness of people straddling the space between alternative musical reality and the mainstream, came out of nowhere. In the years previous, Future Islands had revealed their hand – emotionally indulgent, down tempo and layered music with a hint of a pop sensibility that only seemed to be utilised as sparingly as possible. It seemed that Future Islands had found their place in the world. This made the appearance of Singles, and their crossover hit ‘Seasons (Waiting on You)’, no less of a delight. For most listeners familiar with their work, it was simply a realisation of their so far only glimpsed at abilities.
And so, on record, Future Islands had redefined themselves. The music gained greater punch and further urgency without losing the emotional weight – a balance not many bands are able to navigate smoothly. After missing a much raved about performance at Primavera Sound in Barcelona, their arrival in SWG3 acted as a chance to see how this all translated.
The results, while overwhelmingly positive, showed a certain dynamic within the band that is hard not to notice on stage. The show itself rollicked along from pop hit to pop hit. It is true that Singles really has no filler – it is a set of gleaming pop tunes that while not being actual hits, sound like them anyway. When reproduced live, the energy that was injected into the album carries the band and the crowd along from one exhilarating rendition to the next. Even the pre-Singles tracks, that sound like dirge-filled funeral marches in comparison to the new stuff on record, were injected with a pace and sprightliness that ensured little room for breath.
The negative, if indeed it can be painted as such (and ultimately even I have difficulty doing so), is that the band members themselves are basically support players in the show that is Samuel T. Herring. There isn’t anything egotistical or megalomaniacal about Herring or his performance – in fact, he is one of the most humble looking and grateful frontmen to grace the stage of indie rock music, but it is simply undeniable that Future Islands live, for the moment, is Samuel T. Herring. Future Islands’ whole performance was channelled through Herring while the others did their job and played the music. Obviously, they did this impeccably. But, you know those transfixed eyes I mentioned earlier? All were firmly placed on Herring. Hanging on his every word, all of which were humorous banter or expressions of gratitude at the welcome they had received. A lot has been made of his dance moves. A lot of people who have heard Future Islands now, but have only actually seen them on television, think of him as that “weird guy who dances funny”. In a sense, even I found this oddball quirk to be endearingly bizarre. In truth, his dance moves seem simply to be an outpouring of his personality in the same way that his words are an outpouring of his inner most thoughts. While Herring probably has no purposeful reason for swivelling about like an idiot onstage other than the fact he loves this music and wants to dance, it doesn’t make those actions any less of an extremely simple but ingenious barrier breaking device – if the insanely cool frontman of this band I adore prances about embarrassingly in front of hundreds of people, then I should probably be able to do so. In a moment, everyone else can have doubly more fun.
The bass ran like a train all evening and Herring hit every note. Towards the end, Herring and his bandmates seemed to keep on prolonging the show. To everyone’s delight, every last song wasn’t really their last. It was as if Future Islands themselves were having the best of times. It was hard not to believe them.
Through all the pop wonder and jumping around and having a good time, the most touching moment, for me, came in the form of the first song of the encore. The band drifted into the slower, more contemplative start of ‘Fall From Grace’, my favourite track from Singles. The spiritually animalistic exclamation of the song’s chorus is chill inducing. Here in this pitch black basement, the depths of the soul explored in that moment by Herring, in front of all those people, reached the bottom. That roar – evil, pained, grief stricken and desperate all at once – emitting from Herring’s vocal chords represented the sort of unwitting moments that live music exists for. When the band arrive in your city, I urge you to witness it for yourself.