Live Review: caroline + friends at Purcell Room, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

caroline are an 8 piece band who seem to enjoy pushing the boundaries. Tonight’s  5-hour long improvisational performance is an example of just that. We have been promised “a new sound touching on post-rock, emo, folk and minimalist classical.” In tonight’s programme caroline have given us the heads up that “we want to give time and space to all the aspects of our creative process…will be making something new… it will consist of completely new music generated through improvising together…and possibly interspersed with fragments of preexisting ideas.” 

Joining them on stage for this gig, caroline have also invited some friends to play with them including Sullow (improvising trio), Aga Ujma (a Polish experimental folk multi-instrumentalist), Nathan Pigott (saxophonist/composer) and members of label mates black midi.

caroline play horseshoe shaped, so the audience is both literally and physically invited into completing the other half of the circle, with the music all encompassing, swirling and whirling. These aren’t songs with a definite beginning, middle or end. Boundaries and edges continue to blur. The music is at times stripped down to repetition of/droning on a single note with squeaky/scratchy strings. At other times it’s louder and as frayed as their cello bows. 

caroline’s range of instruments include drums, strings and winds (2 drummers on full kits, acoustic guitars, cello, violin, banjo, flute, clarinet, brass including saxophone, vocals) plus some items we can’t identify being held up to mics to make noises. As part of the percussion, a triangle makes an appearance, adding to the musical shapes and patterns, which throughout the evening are angular, curvy and downright squiggly.

The on-stage cameraman is very much part of the performance and is live-filming caroline and various parts of the stage throughout. He is filming through what seems to be a plastic film, further blurring the edges. It’s all pretty arty as the live film is simultaneously projected onto a screen for us to watch. We particularly enjoy the part where a member of caroline sits on the floor to write lyrics on notepads, and we are able to spy on the lyrics through the camera lens.  It feels quite voyeuristic but is engaging viewing nonetheless. You could liken tonight’s performance to a band rehearsal but without any of the band banter – instead their communication is all musical/sung. Or possibly call it a 4-in-1 event: rehearsal/writing session/video recording/gig. A good use of time doing it all at once and being present in the moment.

Aga Ujma’s sweet guest vocals add a welcome lift to caroline’s sound. Alongside the two cellos it gives part of tonight’s performance a most welcome Sigur Ros/Bjork touch.

As well as watching and listening to caroline play, we watch them listen. They listen intently to each other and play when they feel the time and space is right.

Just as the audience have been invited to come and go as they please throughout the performance, so do the band members, with handy sofas positioned on the side of the stage for their lounging ease. As such, the format is as still as the sea and the music flows. We admit to not lasting the full 5 hours however we witness different iterations of caroline throughout the evening. A pleasurable soundscape experience indeed.

caroline’s debut album is out on 25 February on Rough Trade Recordspreorder it here.

Find out more about caroline on their official website.

Review and photograph by Caroline Low

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