Tall Ships sailed into the Portland Arms to drop a heavy anchor of emotion and deliver a large cargo of talent. I don’t mean to reduce this show to a run of cheesy puns against their namesake, but nautical comparisons actually fit the bill well to describe the power of their music. It’s surely akin to nature’s mightiest elements. I’m convinced more oceanic references will naturally occur throughout the rest of this review and can only apologise in advance. I’ll do my best to stem that tide, but you may just have to weather the storm…
The beginning of the show certainly felt like a storm, with the calm before it and all. Opening as their new album ‘Impressions’ does with ‘Road Not Taken’, there was a nice slow synthy build as lead vocalist sang his ballad to set a calming atmosphere. But then crash! An almighty cymbal bash commenced a sheer onslaught of thunderous intensity. Incredibly moving.
Advancing onwards to showcase their new album they included most numbers from it, omitting only ‘Lost and Found’ (perhaps they lost it). Throughout the set, the dominance of the drums was particularly striking as they penetrated the rhythm with real tenacity. Every element of the music worked off them well and was therefore enhanced, especially the bass. Every commanding ‘duhm’ from the drum was met by an equally forceful ‘duhm’ from the bass.
The album played through impressively, especially remembering that it was fully self-produced and created with a reduced label infrastructure. Home was a particular standout with its dynamic introvert meets extrovert type structure. Sombre moments became huge and were wound up and down with perfect balance and movement. Meditations on Loss took it to another level with the formidable music almost running away with its musicians. You could see every member straining from the exercise and passion required to command their instruments. The keyboardist contorted against the volume of his keys, the drummer gasped for chances at oxygen and the frontman collapsed against the padded walls to steady himself.
The last track of the set (and cleverly also of the new album) ‘Day by Day’ provided a breather by going back to introspective and calming placidity. For some midset banter, recounting their disappointment for not getting to visit Cambridge’s own Bridge of Sighs, the band claimed ‘basically all our songs are one big sigh’. This song, and indeed most others, certainly rang true for that. They convey a wonderfully exhaling sensation.
After that breath though came the encore, to really make sure their impressions stuck. Well, as the band said, the next two songs were what would have been the encore if there was anywhere for them to go between that and the main set. ‘Thanks for having us back!’ they quipped affably after having gone nowhere. High praise to this as it can really add to positive feelings towards gigs when you feel a genuinely genial personality from acts. Anyway, these songs were the best bangers from their former catalogue, ‘T=O’ and ‘Plate Tectonics’. They really satisfied the fans in all of us.
Talking of their back catalogue, they also included ‘Ode to Ancestors’ midway through the show, as a sort of intermission for the almost play-through of their new album. This was a great technique. Introducing it as exactly what it is, a love song, they performed it just how it should be. It was the sweetest epitome of a serenade. The bassist crouched down to nurture his guitar and the frontman sung warmly, while shyly walking around the stage with his hands in his pockets. It was affectionate, soft and cute, gradually becoming more and more uplifting and rousing. It was adorably romantic. Hold on to your partners people, Tall Ships could steal them from you in seconds.
Everything the band played was intended live exactly as it was recorded, so this meant the show relied heavily on the technology of loops and samples. Unfortunately, this style can mean anything that might fall out of place sounds acutely noticeable. There were a few offbeat bell shakers and some abrasively screechy mic feedbacks, but on the whole it was intelligently crafted and immaculately honed.
So yep, there you have it, Tall Ships do in fact have so much more to offer than métaphores de la mer. I hope next time they come to Cambridge they’ll need a bigger boat.