Gig review – Goldfrapp – Somerset House, London, 20/July/2013

The Summer series of gigs at London’s Somerset House on The Strand has become a major musical event each year. Two years back I saw the wonderful Noah and the Whale play here, and this year it was the turn of Goldfrapp.

I am a long time fan, ever since their debut many years ago. They are one of the few bands where I eagerly anticipate each new release and have (thus far) never been disappointed.

Somerset House is a rather lovely venue for an open air gig. A large, stone courtyard with the sunset beaming down on the audience, the light dropping behind the rear of the venue to time with the arrival of the Headline act. The sound is warm and reflections are unnoticeable; quite the feat for a square of concrete!

The band walk on stage to little fanfare and open their set with a harpsichord loop, reminding us from the start that this is no usual band set up. The moment she starts singing it is clear that Alison’s vocals are everything they are on record – warm, human, quirky, yet wonderfully on key and musical

“Clowns” retains its eeriness from the recorded version and soars in the coda. Alison’s stage presence is assured from the start. Never in any rush to jump from song to song, she retains control of her fans. It soon becomes clear that pre-recorded backing vocals are being used, however one can perhaps excuse such ‘cheating’, being as they are from an electronica background. Besides, her enigmatic vocal is perhaps too unique to be replaced by a session singer.

An early focus on the new, yet-to-be-released album is brave and at first a tad concerning. The third song enters on a rather predictable folk finger-picking start, but soon builds and layers to reference the gloriousness of their debut album “Felt Mountain”. Indeed, much of the new material suggests that the forthcoming LP may be a heady cross between their debut and the underrated album “Seventh Tree” – Folk meeting Electronic trippery.

The set has a row of lights sweeping diagonally across the back of the stage. At first these are unused and instead the screen behind shows an array of stark scenic photos, against which the lights gain an otherworldly quality in silhouette. Later, these beacons combine with lasers to coincide with quite the shift in tone…

The first half of the set is a Goldfrapp based on guitars, not synths. Songs that build and seep rather than slap us round the chops. But as the sun finally sets, the lights shine bright and the volume jumps. “Number One” is the catalyst here. Unleashed atop keytars and processed drums, Alison’s voice opens up even more. A heavy delay is turned on her vocal mic and her pitching prowess and tone are perfectly complimented by the audio trickery.

“Shiny and Warm” has us dancing to a squelchy bass riff soon after and the mood is set for the second half of the gig. By this point the crowd is ready to move.

The band leaves the limelight to Alison, but those of us in the know are left to admire their abilities on guitar, electric violin and a multitude of synths. Knowing smiles here and there shows us just how much they enjoy the stage work and not a note is missed.

A nod to Marc Bolan follows the ever-effervescent “Ooh La La”, so obvious a touchstone when you think of it yet it had never come to mind! Dual keytar soloing slams the retro chic home and the entire band are bouncing. Indeed, Alison herself seems to be more flowing and physical as the tracks pump more towards the end. The bassist alternates between upright and a clear plastic Fender Jazz style bass, beat perfect on both.

The encore sees “Little Bird” twitter, creep and then soar to an extended Acid Coda with floating Lasers and distorted synths galore. By the finale “Strict Machine” we are left in no doubt that Goldfrapp have many years of invention left ahead – looping, mashing and mangling the track while still delivering the hook lines the audience crave.

Achievement unlocked! Survived another Day

John Lennon is quoted as saying  “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans”.

Well, quite. The big curve balls life throws us are often out of our control, and we play the hands we are dealt. However, we still get to play these hands. And “play” seems to be more and more the correct verb in the modern world.

I am not talking here about the rise and rise of video gaming as a cultural “norm” – as notable as that is. I am referring to the ubiquity of electronics in our lives, and our ever increasing online connectivity and social networking. These are the tools of the modern world and the parallels with gaming –  video or otherwise – is becoming starkly clear of late.

Numbers are everywhere. Friend counts. Followers. “Like” counts. Reshares… so on and so forth. Recent anthropological studies have shown that many social network users feel a degree of elation when their posts are “liked”, shared or commented upon, and disappointment when such posts are ignored. This is not surprising. The clue is in the title – “Social”. We want to know that our posts are appreciated. But appreciation is something that is being numerated, gamified. We are “levelling-up” our existence, validating our life on our platforms of choice. This feeling of achievement, this elation, is what drives gamers to push on through their digital worlds; the drive to get to the next level, to power up their avatar.

I am a gamer. I grew up as a member of the Nintendo Generation and I have always enjoyed playing games as my chill out time. The last few years however I find myself playing less and less. Part of this is naturally my changing tastes as I age and the responsibilities of adult life. But I do wonder if part of my desire to game being sated by other facets of my life?

Yes, there is a new word in modern English.  “Gamification” – ‘the use of game thinking and game mechanics in a non-game context in order to engage users and solve problems”, so sayeth Wikipedia. By chasing likes/follows and general digital validation, we have turned the act of sharing our photos, videos and general mini-yarns into a quest, a game.

There are different types of gamification. Some are rather transparently “gamey”. Networks such as FourSquare provide users with badges when logging in at venues, and allows users to “level up”, potentially becoming “mayor” of the venue if they outrank others for that particular place. This is all unashamedly Videogame-like. However, most all social networking setups throw numbers and charts at us, and it is these running tallies which are enough to get the user engaged, or even hooked.

Such a thing is particularly pertinent to myself as a Unsigned Musician. Social networks are more than a fun way to stay in touch with friends. They are a medium for spreading the word about my music, releases, gigs, etc. Hell, you are likely reading this blog having 2 minutes ago clicked on a link from your social network of choice – and for this you have earned a cyber hug, or a manly cyber handshake, your choice! I would offer you a +1 validation point, but I haven’t the framework for such things… yet.

Now, in my situation I am even more likely to gamify my online life. The quest for followers, or more precisely, engaged, active followers, may actual influence my future career as a songwriter on the scene. The question I ask myself is this: Is this a healthy way to look at the online world and my cyber existence?

Gaining plays on Soundcloud, accruing followers across my networks, building web traffic on my official site… These are all things I do to quantify building my audience. Numbers are the easiest way to do this. It may be heartening to know, however, that the content of tweets and comments I receive always mean more. To be messaged by a new fan complimenting my music means more that 100 song plays. Clearly, humanity and heart trumps the soullessness of tallying. Nevertheless, the numbers get addictive.

We can all play life as a game. At school we learn, we earn grades, we compete. At sport, we train, we improve, we compete. At work, we aim to climb the ladder, or build our own businesses. Life is one giant game. So perhaps the modern cyber life is no different, bar the ease of adding numbers left right and centre. And it is the digital age that has brought on the numbers.

I am an avid reader. I love my Kindle. I no longer have page numbers – I read percentages of my book. My progress is no longer signposted by a chunk of pages between two fingers. This particular physicality has given way to a cold mathematical denotation. But, Lo! I can now show my online friends each completed book with one click. With, naturally, a link to the online book store included by default. And here is part of the concern; with these electrical devices not only are the numbers in charge, the corporations are having a field day…

These numbers bring with them tracking, statistics… we have all become targets. Now, don’t get me wrong. The internet has opened markets. Unsigned musicians like me can sell music online. Authors can self-publish. We can all buy and sell on eBay. All wonderful, glorious things. And there are benefits to targeted selling. It can help us find things we like and introduce us to new art we may otherwise miss. But then again, it does seem like an Orwellian nightmare waiting to happen. The worry is that by gamifying matters, we are being tricked into doing the corporations’ work for them. But I will stop this particular line of thought here, partly to avoid sounding like a whining hippy, and partly because it is a whole other matter unto itself.

Our cars now show us an on-dash MPGs, our miles left in the tank, our average speed. At the Gym, the machines show our calories burnt and our pseudo-distance travelled . We were quite capable of driving from A to B and exercising before the numbers came along. Whether these numbers help or improve life is the question. Do we drive more economically, knowingly aiming for a meaty MPG? At the gym, do we aim for just 0.1km more than last time?

Gamification in education has been flagged to me while writing this blog (a shout out to @vintagehepburn on twitter for this!) There is a lot of reading on the subject online and many of my concerns ring especially true for the developing mind of a child. Driving kids to learn linguistic skills, mathematics, science and so forth with a reward system akin to an RPG (role playing game) is either genius or dangerous. Or perhaps both. The addictiveness is one thing – an addiction to learning is far better than most alternatives, surely? My concern here is whether the kids will value the credit system more than the content of the lessons? Will they miss the wonder of Pythagoras, or the joy of Shakespeare, beneath the false, heady reward system that sits beside it?

Perhaps it is more simple than this. Electronic life makes numerical readouts easier than ever before. Computers work on numbers, so it is natural to chart and graph. Combined with this, we have a propensity to want to numerate life. Life makes sense in numbers, as cold and harsh as they are. And, just maybe, we are a crossover generation. A generation for whom these numbers are available with ease for the first time in history, freed from their hiding place behind the scenes.

To finish on an apt quote from Scientist Roger Bacon:

“All science requires mathematics. The knowledge of mathematical things is almost innate in us. This is the easiest of sciences, a fact which is obvious in that no one’s brain rejects it; for laymen and people who are utterly illiterate know how to count and reckon.”