As those of you who speak to me on a regular basis know, I went to see Ratatat live in Brixton the other day. I couldn’t help pouring gloat after gloat out my face-hole. Eat it, Josh! I was on the guest list!
Ratatat is serious business. Their sense of groove is among the best in the industry. Since I base my writing on tired aphorisms, I’ll save the best for last, for I have a few words about the DJ who opened that night.
The lack of stage presence left me floored. I initially thought to myself, “Oh, they’ve turned up the house music a bit”, before looking up and realizing there was actually someone on stage, spinning a feeble attempt at dream-step-night-core-whatever-the-hell-the-kids-are-into-these-days. I spent the next hour and a half cursing my punctuality, bland noise killing my eardrums.
Laser light carved through the smoke in undulating sheets, and it was super neat-o
Okay, it wasn’t all bad – up on the mezzanine, I could watch the crowd. White people approximating the act of dancing is always sort of entertaining, in the same schadenfreude way that watching Russian dash-cam videos on YouTube is oddly satisfying.
I should mention that I have no idea who this DJ is; he managed not to say an entire word during his 90-minute set. What a champ. At least he eventually got off the stage. I refuse to print his name here because he’s not worthy of even that.
A £4.80 Kronenbourg and many campy electro-trance-steps later, Ratatat finally took the stage. And they were jaw-dropping. Mike Stroud (guitars, drums, and synths) and Evan Mast (bass, drums, more synth, and production) form a two-piece that manages to pump out some of the most righteous grooves that my well-worn-out ears have heard. Ratatat sounds like an instrumental cross between Alabama Shakes and an edgier MGMT, with an impressive presence – their sound has been described as “89 guitars on stage together”, a valid descriptor for the wall-of-sound approach they favour.
A paradox seemed to emerge. Two people, but a busy soundscape. Ratatat relies heavily on pre-recorded beats and synth rips; usually, this would feel like cheating to me, but Mast and Stroud have their hands full on stage in a constant frenzy of gnarly jams, so I let it slide. In fact, this is possibly the most notable feature of Ratatat– something is always happening. Even when they’re droning, there’s something funny with the rhythm, or a background synth is creeping up the scale in a way that makes the song sound constantly in motion.
When either runs out of things to do on an instrument, they switch instruments. A couple of times during the set, Stroud would put down his guitar and start playing a keyboard mid-verse! During the encore, both played a thunderous drum duet, occasionally breaking out for bass fills or a riff here and there.
Stroud’s apparent love of guitar effects added to the heaviness of the sound, taking a sweet, syrupy Stratocaster and running it through reverbs, flangers, and OD pedals – a masterclass on how to properly use an effects board. Mix in his technical guitar skills and you have a very capable lead. Mast’s playing was also noteworthy: the multi-instrumentalist managed to rip out some pretty slick bass runs, though Stroud really stole the show in terms of sonic awesomeness.
The visual side of the presentation is reminiscent of the prog rock days of yore – laser light carved through the smoke in undulating sheets, and it was super neat-o. Plus, Mast edits videos together to show on a projector, which are… abstract. Abstract and sometimes uncomfortable. Watch the music video for their song ‘Drugs’ to get an idea of the unnerving side; the rest, however, was impressive. A looping video of shattering marble statues! How much more awesome does it get?
Overall, the show was a blast – Stroud and Mast are intense live in a way that can’t really be communicated, even by listening to the studio versions of the songs. Next time they’re in town, dear reader, I recommend that you check them out for yourself.