fri 06/12/2019

The Chemical Brothers, O2 review - eye-boggling monster rave-up | reviews, news & interviews

The Chemical Brothers, O2 review - eye-boggling monster rave-up

The Chemical Brothers, O2 review - eye-boggling monster rave-up

Giants of electronic dance music play their largest UK gig to a rapturous response

Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands celebrate a moment© Luke Dyson

The O2 is usually a bright, sterile space before the bands come on. Its starkly lit US sports event ambience is accentuated by humanity milling around layered plastic seating clutching giant tubs of soft drink. Not so tonight. The venue has been open for three hours before the headline act is due. The lighting is purposefully dingy as 2ManyDJs and James Holroyd spin techno-flavoured sounds, warming up the crowd. The aim may be to reimagine this corporate space, with its horrid placards shouting Sky, Coca Cola, etc, into a warehouse party. The balconies are a black skyline with phone lights bobbing to the rhythms.

When The Chemical Brothers run onstage there’s an excited roar. This is their biggest ever UK gig (outside festivals), 20,000 gathered, and as soon as they arrive, anyone sitting down stands up, ready to dance. The pair do not disappoint. They may be two middle-aged men hiding behind walls of synths, knobs and buttons, in a little studio-like enclave they’ve built on the giant stage, but their show is eye-frazzling and, happily, the sound is urgent, bassy and loud.

The Chemical Brothers have become one of the emblematic bands of club culture, and like acts such as the Grateful Dead and Hawkwind were to previous generations, their shows are as much about the ritual, the rave, rather than about wanting to hear specific songs. That said, their set is peppered with tunes that are eagerly anticipated, samples becoming sing-along moments, especially the “Superstar DJs here we go” chant from the 1999 hit “Hey Boy Hey Girl”.

But what boosts everything is the immense visual experience. Film director Adam Smith’s work is stunning, fabulously surreal, humorous and brain-boggling, here displayed behind the band on vast screens that make an IMAX look like a flatscreen TV. From the sinister masked chalked figure, with a pig-like snout and crown who shouts that he “ain’t gonna take it no more” on “MAH” to the superbly exhilarating and demented section featuring bizarre superheroes fighting it out on one of the evening’s highlights, the enormously funky and tough “Eve of Destruction”, these images, real and human rather than CGI, memorably amp up the action. “It’s art,” a man behind me yells enthusiastically in my ear. And he’s right, it is. It’s also telling that both tracks mentioned are from the Chemical Brothers’ new album, No Geography, their ninth, and are greeted with a zest equal to that which meets acknowledged back catalogue gems such as “Galvanize”.

Smith’s work combines with that of lighting design and stage installation wizard Marcus Lyall, who throws everything at this audience, from spotlights playing on an epic ticker tape explosion from the roof, to disco balls, to ranks of raised LEDs, to a cone of green lasers that surrounds the duo. Sensory disorientation is the name of the game. The mind is joyously overwhelmed, the tribal beats ramping the euphoria. Even the venue plays into it. At one point I look high, high up to the top balcony and the only things visible are the lit stairways, apparently floating in the night sky. They remind me of the path to heaven in Powell & Pressburger’s Forties classic A Matter of Life and Death.

If there’s one quibble it’s that the set is oddly programmed at its end, with an encore of three less muscular tracks, culminating in a hypnotic Rolling-Stones-flavoured version of “The Private Pyschedelic Reel”. It’s not that these aren’t any good, it’s just that they’re somewhat anti-climactic after what came before.

Happily what came before was ballistic enough to make this a special night, as Ed Simons seems to acknowledge, running from behind their electronic corral and waving wildly at the crowd while his partner Tom Rowlands maintains the button-pressing. It’s impossible to argue with the gigantic pre-encore splurge of tracks including the visceral and recent “C.H.E.M.I.C.A.L.” alongside 22 year old siren-wielding monster “Block Rockin’ Beats” while giant Fifties-style robots with moving limbs and lazer eyes appear from on high. As a track earlier in the night suggested, “Free yourself - DANCE!” It’s sound advice and we take it.

Below: watch the full 95 minute set of The Chemical Brothers live at Glastonbury 2019

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