Masks hide things. Some women spend hours before mirrors every week with blush and concealer, masking their every imperfection. Rebels take citizens hostage, using balaclavas to mask their identities. Kids (and college kids) dress up on halloween to mask their various ulterior motivations: getting candy, getting laid. When it comes to SBTRKT – only the latest in a slew of pop culture figures (and electro producers/DJs in particular: Daft Punk, Deadmau5 et al) to hide behind a facade in press photos – and his live performance, there is nothing hidden, nothing concealed. Instead, with the tribal masks that have so contributed to the mystery around SBTRKT and his potent blend of ‘post’-dubstep half sawn-off (ostensibly for seeing purposes), we got as much of the man – Aaron Jerome – as the myth, as Jerome and his vocal partner on many of his eponymous debut’s spectacular cuts, Sampha, showed that on Halloween eve, live performance is as much about tricks (masks, vocal looping and syncopated beats) as it is about treats (sensational live drumming, ad-hoc remixes and some of the most underplayed brilliance in the electro scene).
Having played host to the serious skills of RJD2 and Friendly Fires over the last two weeks, Philadelphia’s Union Transfer is no stranger to live acts shattering the boundaries of genre and accepted performance conventions. Busy P, Pretty Lights and those of their stadium-status ilk have, in recent history, disappointed for their show pony attitude to in-the-flesh shows, more apparently concerned with the representation of that flesh than the tracks that made us give a damn in the first place. Preceded by a lost-for-words support slot from producer AraabMusik (more on him to come, imminently) SBTRKT brough the sort of studied humility, punctuated by flashes of controlled exuberance, that would put most of these big name acts to shame. Occasionally bordering on the hyper-professional (threatening the exclusion of a group of Donnie Darko bunnies, Tron girls and skeletons who were dangerously excited to get their costumed groove on), Jerome and Sampha appeared to have the thing tightly rehearsed and yet still deeply invested their fullest attention in making sure that every chilling call on ‘Never Never’, every cymbal smash on ‘Something Goes Right’ and every guest Drake verse (on the superb ‘Wildfire’ medley remix the lads put together) went off without a hitch.
Jerome is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with. Manning the decks, fiddling with pitch controllers and vocal delays, drumming his heart out (to fantastic effect) and chopping and screwing even his most recognisable hits in order to captivate, the top half of his mask must have covered a forehead fraught with concentration. Sampha, playing an unlikely second fiddle, pulled off his vocal duties with exceptional poise and proved his worth with capable stints on keys and floor toms. The biggest dilemma the well-drilled duo faced was in what to do with singles fronted by other, absent guest vocalists. The answer on ‘Wildfire’ (bolstered by Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano) was to remix the vocals, build on the instrumentals and let an already stellar bass line do the talking. The Roses Gabor-assisted ‘Pharoahs’, substantially more mellow to start with, felt flatter until Jerome came over the top with some much-needed snare work. That filling the blanks for missing singers was the most of their problems speaks volumes about the work ethic and accomplishment of this relatively young act. With only one studio album out to date and plenty more gems sure to follow, SBTRKT is a massive talent unmasked.
SBTRKT – Pharoahs