“It’s our first time in Glasgow in 15 years of being a band”.
Ex-Easter Island Head may have gained a reputation for rousing live shows while touring their prepared guitar and percussion all across the globe, but until tonight they have somehow skipped the Dear Green Place. Ditching Halloween weekend festivities, a steady stream of concert-goers fills The Glad Cafe on the southside of Glasgow in anticipation of goosebumps of a different sort.
Hush descends as support act Diljeer Kaur Bhachu steps unassumingly onto the stage via a well-placed crate. The flautist works with a loop pedal and sparing synthesiser to weave ethereal, almost extraterrestrial lullabies. Even the static from an errant cable sounds more like interference from a neighbouring planet. Bhachu layers sparse melodies until they become symphonies, building in directions no-one could predict, before stepping offstage as modestly as she entered.
In the moment of calm before the headliners appear, I scan the stage which is laid with horizontal guitars, drums, cowbells, cymbals; all kinds of percussive, stringed and keyed instruments deconstructed and rearranged so as to be barely recognisable. My curiosity is piqued by the small vibrating cables suspended above the guitars. The question of their role is answered promptly as Ex-Easter Island Head takes the stage, gently lowering the wires so that they begin to bounce and dance around on the necks of their instruments, filling the room with a rich and textured hum.
The four members of the group stand solemnly behind their instruments lifting and dropping their heads in unison, their monochromatic stage clothes blending into the backdrop. This theatrical but unpretentious presentation is emblematic of the various dualities of Ex-Easter Island Head – professional but not cynical, studied but still joyful. The group’s 15 years of writing, improvising and performing together breed a sense of shared trust and mutual admiration palpable from the floor. Their frowns of concentration relax briefly as the opening song comes together just so.
Their compositions play in the grey area between the organic and digital, as the musicians strike and bow and rub and pull and twist at their instruments, pushing the boundaries of what can be captured by a pickup or a microphone. As the set progresses, we see a bell bowed to create high pitched feedback tones, iPhone voice notes held against guitar pickups to create a modulating guttural choir, a guitar killswitch flicked off and on to create a danceable beat.
In terms of genre, classifying them seems nigh-on impossible. At times, melodies swell into bona fide pop hits like a Hans Zimmer score performed by Metronomy. Then, in the very next moment, we are drawn into a deranged cowbell duet (‘Ten Bells’) or a monastic bell-ringing epic. ‘Six Sticks’, from their 2016 LP Twenty-Two Strings is a rhythmic delight of battered strings, but I am most excited by the larger part of the set consisting of new material.
These compositions of primal rhythm, punctuated with stillness and pathos, are genuinely momentous – building to breathless climaxes which more than once evoke a joyful laugh at some unforeseen twist. While there are natural analogues from the neoclassical, minimal, generative, ambient and beyond – with reviewers frequently citing Steve Reich and John Cage – at times, I am struck by their pop and even dance sensibilities, more than once channelling the squirminess of Radiohead.
Near the end of the set, I steal a furtive glance around the room and find the audience rapt with beatific grins, in the grip of some Ex-Easter Island Head delirium. It feels like the correct response to what we’ve just witnessed.
Photo credit: Alice Smoth