It’s fair to say that Perhaps Contraption have never been the sort to make things easy for themselves. The nine-piece progressive brass ensemble started life as an art-punk marching band, frequently eschewing standard live music set-ups for promenades and shows on boats, beaches and trains, through forests and deep within underground caverns. So perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised to find that their new show Nearly Human is less a gig than a live action concept album, complete with narration, choreography and contact juggling.
Tonight is the first of a run of shows at VAULT Festival, deep within the bowels of a subterranean tunnel system beneath Waterloo. We’re shepherded into our seats and handed a hand-drawn ‘map’ of the show, which flautist & artistic director Christo Squier described in our recent interview as being about “the life cycle of an atom, and how this atom is part of various different beings who all have their own individual stories to tell.” That atom is represented as a glass sphere through some gravity-defying contact juggling and via the grid of circular lights that provide the show’s backdrop. Sections are linked by a disembodied Carl Sagan quoting narrator, whose spectral voice ages as the show progresses, and by sousaphone player Iain McDonald, who sprinkles the high-brow subject matter with moments of humour.
But the bulk of the storytelling comes from the music and movement of the players, which comes from all angles as they march, leap and intertwine on and off the stage, buzzing with the same energy that propels our minute protagonist as it combines to form molecules, materials and organisms throughout the piece. Looking back, the quality of songwriting and musicianship is exceptional, but at the time I was so wrapped up in the sound, the story and the spectacle that such thoughts didn’t even occur to me.
This is a high-energy show, packed to the brim with pulsating brass and crashing drums, and when the volume and tempo drops for a moment of calm the next crescendo is never far away. This energy is reflected in the choreography with the nine band members constantly on the move, buzzing around the compact stage in a whirl of perfectly orchestrated near misses that mirror the movements of their atomic subject matter – seemingly random but governed by the laws of physics. Highlights come in many forms, from the delicate beauty of an acapella interlude to the full on slapstick of a trombone jousting battle, and there’s not a moment throughout the hour-long show that your attention is allowed to wander.
The show ends to a rapturous and well-deserved standing ovation. We have been given a glimpse of the marvels of our unlikely existence and the beautiful complexities and moments of pure chance that have led us all to be here today. This show could easily have fallen either to dumbed down pseudo-science or impenetrable intellectualism but perfectly treads an atom-thin tightrope of genuine wonder and then proceeds to pogo up and down its length with a beatific smile on its face.
Nearly Human continues at VAULT Festival until 23rd February. Full listings for the festival, which runs until 22nd March can be found at vaultfestival.com
Review by Paul Maps
Cover photograph by Dave Todd