The 100 Club hasn’t seen anything like this, and it’s been around forever. HMLTD have caused chaos and carnage and it’s time to leave. People are grabbing inflatable candy sticks, deformed rubber chickens, posters and snake masks from every surface. Jars containing indescribable dissected animal parts cover the club’s piano and adorn the DJ’s table. The stage and floor of the venerable venue are strewn with cotton wool, Christmas trees, red and white tinsel, mannequins and feathers. Why feathers?
The feathers are partly from the phantasmagorical costume worn by HMLTD lead singer Henry Spychalski. Huge white feathered wings on his back, with tight matching top and trousers, all covered in down, are complemented by elaborate ghostly makeup and pink underpants. The rest of the group are sporting flamboyant clothing too, surpassing even their usual couture standards. They wear more makeup and fancier garb than Spandau Ballet at their most ostentatious, but they explore darker soundscapes than the new romantics, such as trap and goth, and push their arty glam-punk towards disco and funk.
A lot of the audience at the 100 Club are dressed up and made up too — theatrically bright in red and green. One avid AAA fan wears a red leotard and matching fishnets, just the outfit for crowd surfing. From within the crowd, at the back of the narrow venue, support act Gentle Stranger provide a musical prelude to HMLTD, honking their saxes and trombone minutes before the striking figure of HMLTD drummer Achilleas strides on to perform a spoken prelude. He reads the 12 days of Polycephmas — HMLTD’s version of Christmas — explaining the snake-like, double-headed entities that the group’s collaborators have installed in the venue as part of the elaborate set.
Earlier, on stage, Gentle Stranger create a performance-art blend of megaphone chanting, furious singing, folkiness, free jazz, no wave and funky noise. Before them, Sex Cells deliver a Dada-ist chunk of post-rock synth music in a set that stirs memories of early pre-pop Human League.
Preludes over, Spychalski flutters on to join his band. If the restrained opening electronic beats and angular guitars of ‘Is This What You Wanted?’ suggest the night is going to be reflective and sombre, think again. HMLTD are out to create uproar.The guitars get seriously funky, matched by fat bass from Nico anda kick on the drums by Achilleas. Spychalski’s atmosphericchanting builds up to declamatory lyrics until the crowd erupts to sing along with the phrase “I got a feeling”, pushing forwards. He dances across the front of the tiny stage and leans over the audience, in step with the song’s stop-start no-wave twists. Post-punk goth guitars scratch as Spychalski repeatsthe title over the tight funky bass beat, which temporarily lets loose as the guitarists shred — before the groove returns for the final bars. The crowd reach out to touch the charismatic Spychalski, screaming how much they love him. Politely, he says: “Ladies and gentleman, happy Polycephmas.”
Towards the end of the set, people at the front have inadvertently pulled cables out of keyboard man Zac’s synthesisers, stopping the show while crew push the audience away to fiddle with plugs and sockets. Even soon after the start, the front row is bent double onto the low stage by the pressure of fans spilling forward. The complexities of the transitions from graveyard rockabilly glam to deviant chanson and back again in ‘Apple’ threaten to get lost in the mayhem. Spychalski wants the audience to click their fingers stylishly, but they’d rather jump on top of each other. Some leap onstage during the euphoria of ‘Proxy Love’s organ-driven new-romantic-glam chorus. Either side of this melodramatic refrain of multiple crescendos, bolstered by fabulous guest singer Tallulah Kyle, the song plays transgressively with blasts of synth and space funk.
Smashing incongruous pop styles together within one song is part of HMLTD’s undeniable charm and singular talent. In ‘Kinkaku-Ji’, swampy cinematic David Lynch shards of guitar and jazz keyboards alternate with twisted and dark gothic build-ups that lead to a manic disco refrain, taking the crowd over the edge. Think The Birthday Party and Bauhaus going for a spangly boogie. There may be more Bauhaus in ‘Music!’ too, but it’s the driving beat and earworm synth hook that has the audience pumped up. A quick dose of psych rock guitar from James and Duke and a huge echo end the song.
James’ twangy guitar intro starts ‘Satan’, which Spychalski steers through a mutation of Nick Cave’s narrative-style delivery and on to the vast pop chorus of “So, gentle stranger, Luella babe won’t you marry me now’’, complete with singer Tallulah again. Tinkering with Bertolt Brecht–Kurt Weil musical theatre tropes, Spychalski metaphorically flirts with Marc Almond and Scott Walker as he harmonises with the beautiful voice of the splendidly elegant, gold-clad Tallulah.
The fastest mosh is reserved for the amphetamine-paced spaghetti western sections of ‘To The Door’, in which Spychalski blends Peter Murphy, Tony Hadley and Adam Ant with drumming and “Hooh hah” backing vocals from Adam and The Ants’ new romantic pop manual. Cotton wool and feathers descend on the crowd as deviants pull the decorative art apart. After a detour into the sonic world of The Cramps, ‘To The Door’ breaks down into dark trap beats and it’s here that cables being pulled out of synths and risers cause problems.
Spychalski, Duke and James, with Nico on bass, improvise some filling-in music while Zac’s keyboards are out of action. Enough bits are working to make police siren noises for the staccato art-punk of ‘Death Drive’, James adding electronic dance percussion to Achilleas’ Ants drumming, but they really need to get everything functioning before show-stopper ‘Stained’.
The outrageously attired Spychalski — long since disposing of his wings and top but, surprisingly, keeping his feathery trousers on — is paradoxically quietly spoken and well mannered: “We would like to wish you a very happy Polycephmas and say thank you to ‘Brockenhurst and Sons’ [the set designers]; thank you to ‘Max Allen’ for the costumes; and thank you to all of you.” He then pours his heart into ‘Stained’: “They told me Assad was stained. I replied that the Pentagon’s stained.” This self-destructing dark groove ends the show with huge heavy synth chords. Keyboards briefly beam up to the interplanetary space occupied by The Moonlandingz. Deep electronic riffs continue while the musicians exit the stage, leaving Spychalski alone. Hecollapses as if from religious or artistic exhaustion (the dying swan) and is dragged off by artistic collaborator Tiger-Miles Nicholson of ‘Brockenhurst and Sons’.
In one of the “technical breaks”, Spychalski urges everyone to “take everything you can see”, recognising that among the joys of an HMLTD gig are the bizarre free souvenirs. At their show in Camden’s Electric Ballroom in October, they gave away ominous playing cards and HMLTD-branded sweets in tiny sealed bags, looking like class As or Bs. The main space and stage that night were covered wall to wall in hundreds of Greek drama masks, many blood red from spray paint or hidden glow sticks. Of course, people untied the masks to take home, along with posters ripped from the walls of the bar and staircases.
Tiger threw extra red glow sticks into the crowd to end the triumphant Electric Ballroom show, which had started with 10 masked and naked performers standing on stage, painted bottoms exposed. Throughout the evening at the Electric Ballroom, short expressionist horror movie clips played on a loop on one wall. Morphed anatomical shapes hung from the ceiling. The achievement of HMLTD and their collaborators in decorating London’s Scala in May was reviewed here.
As well as Tiger, internet research suggests that ’Brockenhurst and Sons’ includes Mimi Whiteway (a latex Polycephmas Santa at the 100 Club) and Bella Whiteway among others.When HMLTD next play in February, it will be worth going along merely to see the way they dress up the venues. The vibrancy of HMLTD’s live performance helps complete the visual treat. Add the sweat, the moshing, the singalongs, the adulation from the polychromatic fans, the group’s smart musical mash ups of heterogeneous genres, and Spychalski’s idiosyncraticvocals and lyrics, and the experience is like winning a sensory lottery.
HMLTD setlist at the 100 Club (12th December 2017) Is This What You Wanted? Apple Of My Eye Proxy Love Kinkaku-Ji Music! Satan, Luella and I To the Door Death Drive Stained
HMLTD setlist at the Electric Ballroom (24th October 2017) Proxy Love Apple Of My Eye Kinkaku-Ji Music! Is This What You Wanted? Death Drive Satan, Luella and I To the Door Choo Choo Where’s Joanna Stained