Bonobo – Live Review – Leeds O2 Academy
By Molly McGee, March 2017
Bonobo’s (Simon Green) music is fiendishly tricky to describe. He’s an artist whose work seems to be primarily experienced through headphones – to accompany reading or studying. It’s rhythmic enough to keep you alert but not so demanding that it distracts you. As a result of this it becomes easy to lump it alongside the increasingly popular down-tempo, ambient genre, but to dismiss it as easy listening background music is a mistake.
Green has been releasing music as Bonobo for over fifteen years now and the maturity and complexity of his music cannot be denied. His latest album, Migration, is more delicate than his last two releases (The North Borders and Black Sands). The rumbling bass, synths and textures are still present but there’s an intimacy that was missing on his previous albums. Lilting chimes and harp samples create an ethereal sound and add a disarmingly vulnerable element to the album.
It’s not as immediately arresting as his previous work though, something seemed to be missing upon my first listen, and I was concerned how this sound would translate in a live setting, not convinced it would necessarily be able to hold the audience’s attention throughout.
“Hypnotic images plays a crucial role in the show”
Any concerns I have dispel within seconds of Green stepping on stage. Joined by a band (including a brass section) and vocalist Szjerdene, the music becomes something else entirely in this new setting. Soaring orchestral arrangements are accompanied by percussive loops creating heavy, primal beats which seem to rise up from the earth. Even the more subdued moments from Migration become urgent and ecstatic.
This lush, expansive sound has a remarkable effect on the venue, despite its size. The O2 Academy in Leeds can often feel restrictive and claustrophobic, but Bonobo seems to breathe fresh air into the room, creating space in an otherwise tightly packed crowd.
This is also in part due to the three imposing screens that tower over Green and band from the back of the stage, displaying scenes of scorched desert landscapes, erupting volcanoes and molten lava. The hypnotic semi narrative created by these images plays a crucial role in the show, somehow becoming part of the music rather than merely accompanying it.
“An unparalleled, visceral experience”
At one point the screens show dated-looking computer-generated seascapes and large floating orbs that look as if they belong in a ‘Mindfulness for beginners’ video from the nineties. An odd choice which seemed to be devoid of irony. In hindsight there’s something endearing about this lack of cynicism. The ludicrous CGI orb speaks to an earnestness that’s at the heart of Bonobo’s appeal. Unlike some of the other artists on the Ninja Tune label, Bonobo’s music maintains an accessible emotional core, infusing soul and heartfelt sincerity throughout his albums, inviting you in rather than distancing you.
A surprising low point came during ‘First Fires’. Szjerdene’s vocals become somewhat lost and overpowered, causing the track to lose some of the emotional heft it carries on the album. However, things immediately pick up as Green launches into invigorating renditions of ‘Cirrus’, ‘Kong’ and ‘We Could Forever’, not denying us older favourites.
For an artist who constantly weaves between genres and escapes classification Bonobo has created an unparalleled, visceral experience that is staggeringly accomplished and well-realised.
images: Neil Krug