Five bands for free has to be a good night out, especially when four are hotly tipped and the fifth is intriguingly fronted by Chilli Jesson, formerly lead singer of Palma Violets. But there is a real treat among the groups selected to play this opener for DIY’s ‘Hello 2018’ series of gigs at the Old Blue Last — Drahla, from Leeds/Wakefield. More than the other four bands on offer, they produce a unique sound, meshing together a gamut of irreproachable influences to create a singularly dark and coiled experience.
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They’re the penultimate act of the night, which tapers off with a laddishly boisterous set by Yowl, whosesinger Gabriel Byrde doesn’t let two broken elbows stop him jumping onto the crowd’s shoulders as the beer-swilling show peaks with a singalong and stage invasion. Openers are Sistertalk, sharp suits matched by angular music, followed by the snappy psychobeat and spoken word anger of the witty Hotel Lux, who end on a dark psychedelic note. Next up, Jesson enthusiastically fronts Crewel Intentions, who dredge up some good old unreconstructed rock music. Think The Doors and other Americana mixed with INXS and Celtic rock.
But it’s Drahla that stand out. They start with Luciel Brown on tambourine and bass and Rob Riggs on guitar, and are backed throughout by exceptionally hard hitting drummer Mike Ainsley. Four songs into the set, Brown and Riggs swap places on stage and exchange instruments. They take turns at singing — sometimes he’ll start, more often she will — and occasionally end by singing together, complementing each other’s understated vocal styles.
A reluctance to engage much with the audience gives them an air of distance; a cool detachment. From Ainsley’s first beats in ‘Defective Groove’ it’s clear he’s going to make a huge noise on the drums. He makes time to help Riggs with a guitar amp hitch before they power through an instrumental that switches between throaty thrash ‘verses’ and precise ‘choruses’, with time for a breakdown into drums and spaced out guitar — all in the space of two intense minutes.
“Does anybody else feel trapped,” Riggs says to introduce ‘Dog Collar Guillotine’, offering an insight to the claustrophobic nature of Drahla’s tightly twined sound. His vocals and guitar give the track a feel of early American underground punk, while Brown’s bass on ‘Blind Taste’ somehow fuses the Velvet Underground with Joy Division. The thrashing at the end of ‘Treeboy’ is more like Warsaw, but Brown’s spiky guitar recalls Wire. They churn to a sudden stop like Breeders or Pixies on ‘Silk Spirit’ from the latest EP, the emotional detachment and riff repetition again in the best art-punk tradition of Wire.
Riggs’ huge bass intro to second single ‘FauxText’ and Brown’s mournful guitar, combined with mesmeric drumming from Ainsley, again bring to mind the late ’70s Manchester vibe that grew into New Order. But Brown’s almost spoken, alienated vocals add a fresh new dynamic, updating that post-punk spirit. It’s atmospheric, muscular and delicate by turns. By now, the front of the crowd at the sold-out Old Blue Last are bouncing happily, especially as first single ‘Fictional Decision’ has a great bass melody from Riggs and a recognisable hook that emerges form the reiterative rage of Brown’s spoken-sung lyrics.
A quick “thanks very much” from Brown and we’re into the heart of the new EP. ‘Circuit’ quickly accelerates from bleak and doomy into breakneck shredding, and speeds up yet again before retreating to the gloom before a final burst of clanging guitar and twanging bass — all in about a minute and a half. Ainsley has been hitting the bass drum so hard that he needs to fix the pedal before the sinewy ‘Form Of Luxury’. Beer from the bouncing punters sprinkles through the air as the song cranks up.
With Ainsley’s cymbals crashing everywhere (to quote Siouxsie and the Banshees, perhaps appropriately), he joins Brown and Riggs to sing the chorus of the wrought track, a storming and discordant monster that veers delightfully off kilter and dissolves into a disconsolate phase — like Sonic Youth collapsing or disintegrating into The Cure. At almost four minutes, it’s as close to an epic as Drahla get, winding down subtly and darkly, like a melancholy expiration. A lot of the Old Blue Last crowd are totally won over. Drahla have smashed it.
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