On the excellent Song Exploder podcast, Slowdive singer and guitarist Neil Halstead spends a solid 10 minutes detailing the genesis of Sugar For The Pill. It’s a story of seagulls, effects pedals, layered drums, Wuthering Heights, multiple vocal takes, ProTools experiments, and bubble-wrap that gives a fascinating insight into the group’s meticulous creative process.
That attention to detail is equally apparent during a transcendent Roundhouse performance that hinges on the quintet’s ability to create beautiful noise. There’s no long-winded between-song banter, no encouragement of audience participation, just an almost two-hour dreamscape carefully woven from gossamer vocals, ethereal harmonies, inexplicable guitar textures, haunting melodies, and those rolling tidal waves of intensity that Mogwai and Sigur Ros have built their entire careers on.
Sure, visuals accompany each song (3D wireframes of geometric shapes, concentric circles, a floating pill, fractals and other swirly stuff) but their intention is clearly to complement, not distract from why everybody’s here: to experience highlights of three landmark shoegaze albums and this year’s comeback LP that’s rightly every bit as revered as its classic predecessors.
The opening track of that self-titled release, Slomo, also opens tonight’s show, with Simon Scott’s metronomic drums complemented by Halstead and Christian Savill’s jangling guitars, Rachel Goswell’s warm synths, Nick Chaplin’s loping bassline, and the interplay between Halstead and Goswell’s voices.
Like Low, this evening’s incandescent support act, those hypnotic vocal harmonies are at the heart of everything Slowdive do on record and stage. Even as Goswell slips from guitar to tambourine to keyboards, as Chaplin plays his bass like a lead guitarist on Alison, When The Sun Hits, and sweeping soundtrack to post-apocalyptic wasteland Avalyn, as Savill’s six string shimmers spectacularly on Don’t Know Why and somehow floats around the sold-out venue on Golden Hair, or as Scott transforms into a swinging rock drummer on encore opener No Longer Making Time, the one constant of the carefully paced set is the voices.
They’re so intricately intertwined that the singers must either be related (they’re not) or have known each other since the age of six (they have). And never is this intimacy more apparent than on the pared-down ballad Dagger (the first of two standouts from 1993’s genre-defining Souvlaki that end the show).
The effervescent 40 Days is the second, but even this iconic song is no match for the evening’s standout, Sugar For The Pill. The highlight of their first LP since 1995’s Pygmalion, tonight it dazzles as brightly as the fluorescent-pink flamingo adorning Goswell’s keyboard.
In talking about the track on Song Exploder, Halstead mentions in passing that the band like enabling “something quite simple to sound somewhat more interesting”. On the evidence of their London performance (and all their recorded work), the singer and guitarist is most certainly selling the band short.
Live Review by Nils van der Linden with Photography by Paul Lyme at Roundhouse for Slowdive, October 2017