Live Review: Drums, Shibuya Quattro, 18th May, 2011

It's par for the course now. You come to Japan for a gig, you make obeisance at the shrine of the Great Quake. You at least ask "How ya holding up?" or something similar. And who are The Drums to be any different?

But tonight, during the encores, the young five-piece from Brooklyn do something a cut above. They debut an entirely new and quite excellent song The New World for the musical benefit of us here at the venue and the financial benefit of the Red Cross in Japan.

"We've never played this song before," sweat-drenched frontman Jonathan Pierce tells the audience, who have already been won over by a strong set and an earnest performance. "It's the first time ever" – an emotional throb in his voice – "and it's for you."

The song has the bright chiming synthesizer feel that brings to mind 80s act Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, one of many musical references the band sparks off for me tonight. This provides an ideal backdrop for Pierce's rakish torch singing to play off.

At almost an hour this was a long set for what is essentially a pop band, more if you consider the jittery high tension and campy, exaggerated dancing with which Pierce works the crowd. But right from the tight, rhythmic starter What You Were, which takes bass and synth lines right out of 1990s might-have-beens Bang Bang Machine, this was an impressive outing.

After this opener, Me and the Moon, Best Friend, and the echoey and insistent It Will All End in Tears keep up the assault of angular bass, pulsing synth, and minimalist guitar that so powerfully evokes the 80s synthpop that is the band's main inspiration. Listening to The Drums, anyone of a certain age is showered with aural glimpses and flashes of bands like Depeche Mode, The Cure, A Flock of Seagulls, New Order, and a host of others from that glorious decade.

Having set out their musical stall with the first six songs, the band first tries to touch base with the locals by asking after their Japanese alter egos The Drams.

"The Drams are a Japanese cover band," Pierce explains when nobody seems to know them. "They just play Drums songs. We were hoping they were here. We could just say hi to them, maybe have them come up on stage."

Fortunately or unfortunately we are not to be treated to a comedy interlude. The Drams are clearly too timid to take the stage with their heroes. Instead we get Money, one of the new songs from their second album, completed just two weeks before. It sounds fast and slick but slightly cursory, with the high pitched guitar too close to the vocals to be effective. Maybe it needs more road time.

Luckily the next few songs are well worked mainstays: the breathless I Need Fun in My Life, the surf nonsense of Let's Go Surfing, Submarine with its gently bruising rhythms, and the anthemic and euphoric Forever and Ever Amen. The expansive feel and thuggish rhythms of the latter almost take the 80s synthpop template into U2 territory, only held back by Pierce's campish yelping, but delivering a potent emotional charge nonetheless.

When the band return for an encore, Myles Matheny lays down some echoey surf bass while Jacob Graham throws in some echoey Johnny Marr style licks for the puckish and playful Skippin Town. This is a band that clearly loves reverb! This is followed by The New World, the show's highlight, which seems to serve its cathartic purpose as Pierce hollers "Take my haaaaand!" to the bouncing audience.

Things are then brought to a lugubrious close by the gothic doo-wop of Down by the Water. This reminds me of yet another band – melodramatic Scottish shoegazers Glasvegas – but this is something that happens a lot with The Drums: they seem like a kaleidoscope of other bands, a measure not so much of their derivativeness as their musical richness.

1st June, 2011
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