Music journalism

SAULT live, 14 December 2023, London


The trip

There was, I am sure, a ‘spaceship’ in the middle of the arena. Descend the sculptured concrete ramps and steps and there it was; a circular, enclosed perspex box. And during the show, the box glowed. It was like something from outer space. My friend saw black figures walk into the box and disappear. It was a trip.

Who are the mysterious SAULT who exist, with no information on their albums, no photographs and hide behind Instagram posts consisting of black squares? No notice releases preceded this five day notice show. A time of joy for many, who can finally see their heroes/heroines and criticism from a few, at the £99 ticket price.

The first part of the evening – pre-spaceship, art installation, catwalk, dancers, choir, orchestra and some of the most mesmerising musical performances I have ever seen – was also a trip. Outside the venue, a black clad security guard smiled: “Enjoy the show.” Black uniform would be a consistent this evening. I walked into a warehouse, a remnant of the venue’s previous incarnation as IKEA, with yellowing filing boxes with names hand-scrawled on cardboard and covered with cobwebs. Cobwebs, paper files? It dawned on me; the performance had begun. I then entered into a seventies-era living room, a cathode ray haze into beige, woollen armchairs and VHS tapes. A well-dressed Japanese actor muttered: “I can never settle”, as he shuffled in his chair. His wife, also immaculately presented, smiled. I was seemingly on the set of Coronation Street.

“Enjoy the show”.

I am a child of the sixties born the day before The Beatles recorded ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’, and down the road from where they rehearsed. My Dad fed me a diet of Hindi music and George Harrison; I used to sit in the garden and draw, as the song goes, “daisies in the backyard”. So a drug free, psychedelic-induced introduction to an event was perfect for me.

After the seventies style living room, I stepped into a walk-in fridge, then slowly into a cacti garden, with mirrored walls and a glass floor. Individual SAULT records were held proudly on heavy stone plinths, my brain slow spinning through the visual assault. Finally into the main arena, over a perspex walkway and was greeted by two impossibly, tall concrete walls with inscriptions listing SAULT albums. I had feelings of confusion, anticipation and above all, excitement. It was the best ever introduction to a show.

The performance

I was outside by the sinks, there were no toilets inside the venue, and I assume keeping to the band’s religious sentiment, no alcohol on sale at the event. A huddle of people around me, shouted “it’s started”. We run over damp concrete and industrial metal stairs. The sound inside was loud with repetitive hypnotic percussion from a sole drummer clad in Native American wear. For twenty minutes, we were entranced, eyes fixed to the middle of the floor, where the drummer stands on a raised stage. I took in the surroundings. The raised stage had a walkway to what will be the main stage. To the right, an elevated stage where the choir will be and to my left, a stage for the orchestra. There were two raised platforms on either side of the arena offering a view of all the stages – “open to everyone”, said the security guard. I noticed she was dressed all in black with a balaclava. There was a gap of a few minutes and without any notice a group of dancers ran up the walkway, and beginning a theme of mystery in the show, wearing helmets to conceal their identity. On the back of their white boiler suits, in black all caps, SAULT. The crowd roared.

The first of many fashion shows began with tall models, mainly of colour, walking confidently in extravagant outfits – stories of mystery, love, isolation. Shakespeare meets the late designer Virgil Abloh. I realised I was obscuring the view of the person behind me, as we both leaned against the railings for a three stage vantage point. She smiled, all was fine. This was the friendliest, best behaved and best dressed crowd, I have experienced in a while. We both turned in unison, as without warning the conductor raised her baton, the 20 piece orchestra glide into ‘4am’, a gentle, Autumnal-type piece full of sweeping cinematic strings and enchanting harmonies from the 100 strong choir. My stomach had butterflies, and the butterflies were seemingly dancing. ‘Air’, the title track of probably my favourite SAULT album (released last year on my birthday, see my earlier comment on The Beatles) is even better. The choir moved through alto, tenor, bass and soprano, the orchestra playing some beautiful, sweeping strings. It was a vintage 1940s Hollywood soundtrack, all monotone 35mm film and MGM rolling credits. ‘Time is Precious’ finishes this sequence, again it was wonderful.

Next was a troupe of African dancers, who threw shapes and gymnastics, turning and twisting to entrancing rhythm. It was brilliant and the three thousand crowd, nodded their heads in time to the music. An African theme runs through the night, some of the band are of Nigerian parentage – we have Ghanian High Life and Nigerian Afro Beat. West Africa soundtracking, cold industrial North London.

Without notice, Mercury Award winner, Little Simz ran along the walkway. She was the first of many Mercury Award winners – Michael Kiwanuka (2020) and producer Inflo (2022) will follow. It was fantastic. A massive burst of energy, lights, raw emotion and Simz, dressed in silver suit and head covered, won the crowd over in a few seconds. ‘Fear No Man’ had a killer Afro sound and massive drums, Simz lyrics – “Put my mum on the cover of GQ, You can’t relate ’cause that’s something that G’s do” – flows across the music and the crowd go mad.

In a 2021 interview with Vulture magazine, Simz explains the meaning behind ‘Fear No Man’: “I’m here and I don’t fear no one. I’ve got myself to this point, and I’m proud of how far I’ve come.” It was an apt description of tonight’s show, a band willing to take risks and not fear anyone.

The show was relentless, again with little time to catch my breath. New York singer and bassist, Ganavya, was next. Steeped in the rich musical tradition of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadhu, Ganavya’s hypnotic vocals sway the crowd, with a cover of Monsoon’s 1982 classic ‘Ever So Lonely”. Again it was a purposeful cover, Monsoon were the first Indian fusion band to break into the UK pop charts at a time when the National Front (far right party in the UK) won a sizeable minority of the electorate’s vote. Ganavya was spell-binding, her long black hair hung loose over a long flowing white robe.

Behind a screen, behind the main stage, SAULT appeared in silhouettes, soundtracking the cat walk, the dancers (the acrobatic capoeira dancers, again, draw breath) and the support acts. There were four elements to tonight’s show – a choral/gospel intro, an African percussion section, SAULT’s as yet released ‘Acts of Faith’ album and a greatest hits. ‘Acts of Faith’, was gospel infused, with Cleo Sol on vocals. Sol, with chain mail and eye mask, emerged from behind the screen, her soothing vocals, filling the arena. Individual members of the band appear throughout the show, often in black and always with balaclavas. It added to the sense of intrigue and a feeling of closeness as we stand no more than 50m away from the most enigmatic band on the planet.

The sound engineering throughout the show was spot on, no mean feat considering the environment. The new album had the crowd moving, punctuated with more cat walks and dancers. At times it was a tad over whelming. I remembered a friend’s advice before my wedding – “take a deep breath, take it all in and enjoy.” I did this at the show and all was well. After two hours, the show could have stopped and I would have been more than pleased. My £99 ticket well worth the money. But there was much more to come.

The band

SAULT are surrounded by mystery, an anonymous band produced by the equally mysterious Inflo, with an impressive eleven albums released in four years. Most people will start at their debut album, ‘5’, released in May 2019 but the SAULT sound started in my mind in July 2016. The aforementioned Michael Kiwunaka’s ‘Cold Little Heart’ album has its roots in the SAULT sound produced by uber producer Dangermouse and Inflo, who plays piano on the title track. The stems of the SAULT sound go back even further. ‘Around Town’ by The Kooks from June 2014, showcases SAULT rock type drums. The rocky element of SAULT, and Inflo’s love of the genre is also apparent in The Snut’s ‘Coffee and Cigarettes’ (which is an unlisted track tonight), THE S.L.P’s ‘Meanwhile In Genoa’ and for what me is for all intents and purposes a SAULT track, Kid Sister’s ‘Long Way Back’, February 2019. All are produced by Inflo.

SAULT released a second album in 2019, ‘7’ in September 2019. Again the blueprint goes back further, the 2018 recording between Dangermouse (who I have always thought was a member of SAULT) and Karen O and the album ‘Lux Prima’. Hidden away in the credits is Inflo, on vocal production and engineering. If all this spells of secrets, clandestine sessions and hidden music credits, then last year’s Adele album was a jump into the mainstream for SAULT. Inflo picked up a Brit award for ‘producer of the year’, and the album tracks – ‘Woman Like Me’, ‘Hold On’ and ‘Love Is A Game’ – sound very much like SAULT tracks.

And then there were none

This event, and it was an event, encompassing art installation, dance, theatre and music, produces more than high art. Because make no mistake, behind the theatrics and the cloak and dagger antics, SAULT can absolutely play. The last section of the evening focused on the big hits and the band’s strong musical competence. Every crowd loves the ‘bangers’ and the band duly respond with hit after hit – ‘Glory/Bitter Streets’ with Cleo Sol, ‘I Just Want to Dance’, ‘Masterpiece’, ‘Don’t Waste My Time’ (with Kid Sister), ‘Angel’ (with Chronixx), ‘Why Why Why Why Why’, ‘Colour Blind’ (with Michael Kiwanuka, have you worked out who is in the band?), ‘Wildfires’ and ‘Masterpiece’. The latter had three thousand people jumping up and down, lost in pure joy. It was one of many magical moments in the show. And magic is in essence, what SAULT are about. A modern vaudeville complete with the magician Inflo, casting his spell and creating a celebratory fete of British culture.

And the ‘spaceship’? The same black clad musicians as earlier walked along the catwalk and disappeared into the ‘spaceship’. I couldn’t see through the crowd. Was that Inflo? And the lights burned brightly inside the ‘craft’. I tried to crane my neck but the orchestra two feet to my left, again played the most beautiful string piece which held my attention. And along the cat walk dancers, ascend great heights. On the far side, the choir burst into song. I caught my breath. It was a trip. “Enjoy the show”.

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