Synthpop on the Rocks: Ladytron @ The 9:30 Club - 10/11/11

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Words: Ethan   Photos: Kevin

My first exposure to Ladytron was around 2003, when I was firmly in the clutches of the electro-house surge that accompanied the electroclash boom of the same time.  In that moment, Ladytron's Light and Magic seemed to me to be so tight, so timely, and just so right.  Unfortunately I lost track of Ladytron after that.  So, years later, having rediscovered the band, imagine my surprise that not only had they survived The Great Electroclash Wave of Aught-3, but that in 2003 their best work was actually yet to come.  Catching myself up since then, I've developed a deep appreciation for their tight production, strong sense of groove, and icy aesthetic.

This is all by way of saying that I was excited to see Ladytron perform live for the first time on Tuesday, October 22, 2011 at the 9:30 Club.  Ultimately, while I wasn't disappointed, I certainly wasn't blown away either.

Ladytron's fifteen song (including encore) set touched on each of its LPs, with the heaviest focus being placed on Gravity the Seducer (4 songs) and Witching Hour (5 songs!).   Unlike in some previous Ladytron tours, there were no guitars in this stage setup.  Instead, all four band members (Daniel Hunt, Reuben Wu, and singers Helen Marnie and Mira Aroyo) parked themselves in front of an arrangement of synthesizers, while being admirably supported only by a live drummer.  The technical execution by the band was essentially flawless, and the live drumming added  a tremendous amount to the sound, supplying a much needed element of excitement in contrast with Ladytron's carefully cultivated aloofness.

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As mentioned in our review of Gravity the Seducer, my biggest question going in was how the material off the new album - which is more cerebral and ethereal than their previous work - would translate to the live show.  Maybe Ladytron also recognized this challenge, or maybe they just know that more than 10 years and 5 full-length albums into their career, they have compiled a lot of "must-plays."  Regardless, out of the fifteen song set, Ladytron played only four songs off the new album (the one they are supposedly promoting with this tour), spending more time focusing on crowd-pleasers from their earlier releases .  While I certainly wasn't bothered by this, there were moments that made it seem as if the band might have preferred to leave some of the back catalog behind.

For example, it's hard to say how much of it was due to their trademark icy cool exterior, due to it being a Tuesday night and the 16th show in a U.S. tour that has them playing 19 shows in 24 days, or due to the band just not being as in love with their pre-Witching Hour material as some of us still are, but whatever the reason, the delivery on a track like "Seventeen" from Light and Magic didn't have the pop that you might have hoped for.   Granted, the song is a jaded, cynical indictment of celebrity and pop culture, and I'd love to give Ladytron the benefit of the doubt that the delivery was just part of the super-cool, emotionless demeanor that has been part of their image from the start, but the problem with that level of aloofness is that it's awfully hard to distinguish from boredom.  And when even the fist pumps and gestures coming from the performers seem choreographed and just a bit half-hearted, that sort of tips the scale.

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By contrast, some of the new material was brought to life on stage with more impact that I may have previously thought possible.  A particular standout was "White Gold," which was transformed from the atmospheric, dark groove on the album to a big, hypnotic, rhythm-driven wall of sound that found Helen Marnie's vocals almost overpowered by the combination of the synths, drums, and blinding light features.  The big change from the album was in the drums.  Instead of the minimal, highly filtered drum line of the album cut, the live rendition of "White Gold" had strong snares, effective fills, and enough complexity to change the character of the song.   I certainly didn't walk into the show expecting that a cut off Gravity would be my most memorable track, however, this performance was the most surprising for me, and it made me connect with the new material in a way that the record had not previously accomplished.

Giving the people what they wanted, Ladytron closed the evening with a two song encore beginning with the lead single off Gravity, "White Elephant," and the biggest crowd pleaser of the night, "Destroy Everything You Touch," the latter of which clearly got the biggest reaction of the night from the crowd.

All in all, it was a strong set by an extremely talented group.  Judging by the positive response of the dancefloor, I may have been the only one slightly off-put by the group's stage presence; but as a band that has constantly been moving forward and reinventing itself with each album, it seemed like they might have preferred to focus more on where they are going rather than where they have already been.

Ladytron performing at the 9:30 Club. Photos by Kevin Hill