“Due to engineering works, there will be no service on the Victoria Line on Saturday 4th October.” Regular users of the London Underground are wearily familiar with announcements of this type, and it’s a large part of the reason why it’s taken an hour and a half to get from Walthamstow to the Camden Underworld for tonight’s show. And don’t even get me started on the guy who got his leg stuck in the train door at King’s Cross, thus causing further delays whilst he’s extricated and then told off by the guard. Anyway, this is why I only get to hear the final song played by opening band Bleeding Heart Narrative – which is a bit of a bleeding heart narrative in its own right, I guess. Too bad, because I've been hearing good things about Oliver Barrett’s post-rock solo project, whose debut album All That Was Missing We Never Had In The World was released earlier this year. The sound coming off stage is a dense skein of drones, with rising and falling waves of harmony and artful dissonance, involving acoustic and electric cello, drums, bowed and struck guitars, laptop electronics and vocals (Oliver Barrett has several guest musicians. It’s a little bit Velvet Underground, a little bit Efterklang, and I'm sorry I didn’t get to hear more of it. Enthusiastic applause at the end fully vindicates the judgment of Cold Spring Records, the promoters of tonight’s show, who described BHN’s album as “THE find of 2008”.
Next up are the Swedish band Arcana, playing in the UK for the first time ever. The project’s founder and frontman Peter Bjärgö takes centre stage, flanked by two female vocalists, his wife Ia and Ann-Mari Thim, and backed by percussionist Matthias Borgh and keyboard player Stefan Eriksson. The band seem genuinely pleased to be here, and their confident performance combines material from their current album, the widely-acclaimed Raspail, with old favourites such as ‘Hymn Of Absolute Deceit’ from 2000’s album …The Last Embrace. Arcana are always being compared to Dead Can Dance, an crucial influence the band themselves are happy to acknowledge, but there are also elements of mid-period Swans in their grandiose gothic ambient, most particularly in the interplay between the deep, sombre voice of Peter Bjärgö and the ethereal harmony vocals of the two women. Most of the music, other than drums and vocals, seems to be coming from the keyboards or pre-recorded, and Bjärgö joins Matthias Borgh to duet on darabuka drums for the second song. The crowd love them, but time is tight, with an early curfew on the club, and so one quick encore is all they’re allowed.
The line-up of Tony Wakeford’s seminal neo-folk band Sol Invictus is similar to that at their last London performance at the Water Rats Theatre in 2006 – Wakeford on guitar and vocals, Andrew King on vocals and percussion, Renée Rosen on violin, Caroline Jago on bass and Lesley Malone on laptop and bodhran – but they are joined tonight by flautist Guy Harries, a member of Orchestra Noir who also contributed to Tony Wakeford’s and Andrew King’s recent Triple Tree album, Ghosts. Tony Wakeford has never been one for a lot of chitchat with the audience, but the band are tight and they’re sounding good as they pick their way through the extensive Sol Invictus back catalogue, playing songs including ‘Sawney Bean’, ‘In The Rain’ and ‘Black Easter’. No ‘Death Of The West’, ‘Looking for Europe’ or ‘Against The Modern World’, alas – Tony doesn’t like singing his more polemical songs anymore – though there’s a rousing rendition of ‘Rex Talionis’, with Andrew King doing the lead vocals. Andrew King is a real asset to Sol Invictus – his recruitment has had a vast effect on the band’s sound. Tony Wakeford’s singing voice has always been distinctive, but not especially powerful, whereas Andrew King’s voice has tremendous power and gravity, displayed to good effect on newer songs like ‘Eve’ and ‘Cruel Lincoln’ (which has a completely different arrangement from the version which King sings in his solo performances). The band encore once with ‘Blackleg Miner’, and then it’s all over – the venue wants us out. It’s nice to be reminded of how good Sol Invictus can sound live, but I wish they’d get the Aprilis album released – that’s been promised for a couple of years now. In the meantime though, the Triple Tree album is a more than adequate substitute.