In the 21 years since Meltdown’s inception, the festival has played host to a conveyor belt of counterculture greats, including David Bowie, Patti Smith, Jarvis Cocker and the late John Peel. This year James Lavelle took the helm, bringing his genre-bending brand of subversion to the director’s chair. With a body of work spanning two decades – and an illustrious address book to match – the trip-hop pioneer and all-round creative powerhouse is known for pairing unlikely bedfellows and taking big risks. This was evident at the Southbank’s Purcell Room, where Olga Bell and Tom Vek united to perform collaborations from joint venture Nothankyou alongside their own solo material.
On paper, the two artists appear at opposite ends of the sonic spectrum – Vek is known for his snarky basement-grown slacker pop, while Bell, a touring member of Dirty Projectors, produces ambitious electronica cut with classical pedigree. In person too, the pair are incongruous – as Vek strums through the deadpan witticisms of new album ‘Luck’ with a disaffected slouch, Bell bounces from instrument to instrument and track to track with all the pent-up zeal of a child unwrapping toys at Christmas.
Songs from Bell’s Russian-language LP Krai (which translates loosely as the ‘frontier’ or ‘edge’) and debut Diamonite usher in other idiosyncratic delights. “This song is about immigrant disillusionment,” the singer quips before Junior, a jerky ode to identity lived on the peripheries. She even breaths new life into Weezer’s college anthem Buddy Holly, all wavy vocals and dreamlike keytar.
We glimpse Moscow, via Alaska and Brooklyn – where the former classical protégé moved to pursue electronic composition and ‘beat making’ in its truest form. Bell’s is pop for the thinking woman, off-kilter but gloriously on-message.“We’re going to play some rock music now, play close attention,” Vek jokes as his band take the stage following the show’s interval. The familiar greased-back, neurotic perfectionism of 2011’s Leisure Seizure comes as a welcome change from Bell’s enjoyable, but ultimately unpredictable, twists and turns.
Samples take a backseat as the crowd wriggle, tap and nod along to old 4/4 favourites Someone Loves You and Nothing But Green Lights in the typically awkward fashion of seated rock fans. Those who shuffle into the aisle for cult classic Aroused duly obey when politely asked to sit back down by security.
Though it is easy to pinpoint key influences from both artists’ solo ventures (Bjork, St. Vincent, Beck), this task is made considerably harder when the pair finally coalesce onstage as Nothankyou. Vek’s harmonies and breakbeat riffs are set alight by Bell’s down-pitched vocals and frantic percussion on the night’s standout moment Oyster.
Frothy, surging synths come to the fore in new track Dorian, later giving way to driving cowbells carried by waves of distortion. The union of Bell’s driving urgency and Vek’s knack for melody bring the night’s proceedings to a dark and thrilling close. Between the two, a monstrous equilibrium emerges, far greater than the sum of its parts. This is pounding, atmospheric dance-pop for the tumblr generation.
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1. Tom Vek and Olga Bell, Meltdown Festival, Southbank Centre