Chromatics brought their dark synth-pop to the Rock & Roll Hotel Thursday night, and gave us a show that was basically a louder version of their albums Kill for Love and Night Drive.
Their music, equally piercing and captivating on the album and live, easily stands on its own two feet, and they didn’t need any theatrics to make for an interesting show. With barely any lights and even less movement on stage, three men in all black outfits and one stunning lady in a white stood before us with stoic faces and simply, unapologetically, played.
Their music is as visual and tangible as it is auditory. Each sound is masterfully chosen and woven together to quietly infiltrate the senses. Even where songs are driving or upbeat, the listener is rarely asked to focus on more than two or three layers at any given time, and the individual elements trade off the spotlight slowly, so as not to overwhelm. Credit to Johnny Jewel, the mastermind behind Chromatics, as well as several other projects and the label Italians Do it Better, and probably a lot of drugs for the genius in this realm.
A quick caveat about me/me and Chromatics. My own form of synesthesia make the layers and distinct sounds particularly pleasurable and intriguing. Synethesia means that my brain gets confused and mixes up senses, so I associate, among other things, sounds with shapes and colors. Songs like “Lady” start with increasingly larger black squares as the song transitions into crescendoing screeches that form bright orange triangles and lines. These Streets Will Never Look the Same alternates between thin angled lines and small dots rolling over steady blocks and hazy greens and blues. So maybe that bit about the show being visual and tangible is just me. But I still maintain, even without a visual association, that the Chromatics style of layering and texture is musical genius.
I digress. On Thursday Jewel took the stage first and the rest of the band filed on throughout their first song, “Tick of the Clock” from Night Drive, most famous for its use in the soundtrack of the 2011 drama Drive by Nicolas Winding Refn. Lead singer Ruth Radelet, with her endearing, shy presence barely uttered a word to us throughout the entire show, except to say in the beginning that it was their first time at Rock & Roll and to introduce a few songs in the later portions of the show. That was fine, of course, because what could she possibly say that we would want to hear more than her haunting, wispy singing voice?
Kill for Love, released this year, consists of 16 of swirling chillwave tracks, many of which could easily lull the unassuming into a sleepy trance, even at a live show. They pulled their more upbeat, show-friendly songs for the set Thursday, including the title track “Kill for Love” (a stand out if nothing else but for its recognizability), “Lady,” “These Streets Will Never Look the Same,” which features guitarist Adam Miller on vocals, and “Back from the Grave.” They alternated the songs from Kill for Love with several songs from Night Drive, including, “Healer,” “I Want Your Love,” and “Running Up That Hill,” a Kate Bush cover.
The Chromatics show was a stark contrast to the last two shows I saw at RNR, which were sweaty, moshtastic affairs courtesy of Japandroids and El-P. Even at this sold out Chromatics show, everyone basically maintained their personal space and stuck to quiet head bobbing as the primary form of movement and expression. Not to say that people weren’t enjoying themselves – the audience was eating it up, and they could have easily played longer than their hourish long set. Once someone behind me offered some obvious, but understated support, basically summing up the show and garnering a shy smile from Radelet: “You guys are really good.”
Chromatics ended the show with a four song encore that began with their cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)” and included “The River” from Kill for Love, “Hands in the Dark” (non-album), and the title track from Night Drive. They exited the stage in a slow decrescendo that mirrored the way they had entered, each member leaving quietly, lights slowly toned down to black, until just Jewel remained to thank the audience, and with a wave quietly followed his bandmates backstage.
Local duo Protect-U offered a slightly more upbeat contrast to Chromatics. They opened the show with a few words for the audience and then announced that what they had just said was going to be the extent of their vocals. They weren’t lying…aside from a constant string of whispers to each other throughout their set as they stood inches or less apart, seamlessly switching places to man different elements of their impressive panoply of equipment, they played one continuous electronic jam.