Music is a distinctly powerful force. In the dark opulent reds of Manchester’s Ruby Lounge, a tangible poignancy hangs over the venue in light of the recent tragedy that shook the city: a pop concert which turned into cruelty. Its aching presence is undeniable, but the city, and the music it houses, continue in defiance. New Zealand singer Aldous Harding emulates this rebellion, paying tribute to the crowd and promising to help “put a bit of colour on the sickness tonight”. Harding’s resolution is not to fix, but to soothe, and her two support acts – Katie Von Schleicher and H. Hawkline – echo her sentiment.
The first of the pair features Von Schleicher on keys, synchronising her simple chords with the twang of the accompanying electric guitar in both descant and discord. She layers her own low, sultry vocals with the occasional close harmony of her accompanist, building the sound into a surging ambience. The songs edge towards shoegaze before being broken by spikes of wah-effected riffs and careful disharmony. The impact is entirely hypnotic – its audience nestled between the fuzz and the soft female vocal.
Harding’s second support act is H. Hawkline; inherently charismatic, the Welsh crooner’s gently self-deprecating humour off-sets his palpable confidence on-stage. His repetitive lyrics are playfully tongue-in-cheek and complement the organic instrumentation of his guitar, but the self-confessed “meaningless pop songs” he sings sound more like lullabies. Their soft, climbing melodies are enhanced by the natural lilt of his accent, and lull the audience into a subdued familiarity. It creates a drowsy atmosphere which enfolds the room until Harding herself takes the stage, shattering it completely.
Aldous Harding is instantly recognisable as a folk singer: her soaring voice is tender and her fingers pick steady rhythms from her guitar, but bursts of powerful vocals exhibit an emerging intensity. In a set composed exclusively from her latest record, Party, Harding defends the tension she manufactures in a self-aware protest, “I’m a moody singer, this isn’t a comedy show”. She manipulates her voice expertly, fluctuating between harsh and smooth tones and adjusting minute details of volume and intonation. This alters the expression of her voice as she rolls the bittersweet lyrics around her mouth, experimenting with phrases in an emphasised articulation as she sings. Her voice is captivating yet her mannerisms prevent any intimacy; instead, Harding is mesmerising to watch by her own design. Manic affectations and jerky movements add drama to already-emotive melodies and break the illusion of passivity, curating an almost confrontational performance. Striding across the compact stage, Harding seeks out individual faces and addresses them directly with her gaze, drawing each person in to conspire with her charade. As she looks, her face twists and contorts as it covers a spectrum of emotion within the space of a single line. She moves between imploring expressions of pain and ecstasy to unflinching resolution, seemingly overtaken by a force invisible to us. The possession exists constantly in motion as she occasionally appears to surface from the persona, only for her sincere smiles to morph into a disquieting distortion of a grimace. It’s a performative exorcism, her mouth eloquently emitting the emotion her body visibly struggles to restrain. Harding is both bewitched and bewitching as a performer; she envelops the audience in a dream-like stare and refuses to relinquish their gaze.By Beth Prior