Ladytron Metro Chicago
By Tegh Singh Matharu
I remember 2005 as a transformative year in my life. I turned fifteen, was a freshman in high school, and more importantly, my family got cable and that old-school cable internet that destroy our phone line. It was a brilliant time for me and my two younger brothers, especially now that we had MTV and could be as cool as the rest of our friends. That year in particular was a heyday for a lot of great music. There was an explosion of indie rock with Franz Ferdinand, Modest Mouse, and The Killers that was accompanied by another conflagration as crunk and the dirty south sound took over with Li’l Jon and Mike Jones storming the rap charts.
As I watched all this play out each morning on MTV, I remember seeing a music video from a strange group. In it, there was a group of raggedy-looking people struggling their way through a blizzard across a snowy landscape. Embedded within the rocks and mountains were the faces of the band members, with the singer calmly singing over hectic, klaxon-tempo, electroclash Depeche Mode-like music while the faces would jerk erratically in different directions. It was an unnerving video, totally at odds with the grills on Mike Jones, the glam of the Black-Eyed Peas, and the roar of Franz Ferdinand. But for all of the unease, the music was undeniably brilliant. It was relentless, epic, harsh, sweeping, and dangerous to my social status in high school if my friends found out that I was listening to this moody “emo” band called Ladytron and their song on the video, “Destroy Everything You Touch”. So, I acted like any guy my age would: I forgot about Ladytron until 2019, when all of a sudden, gothic synthpop is in vogue. With artists like Drab Majesty, Cold Cave, and old goth icons like Clan of Xymox and Pink Turns Blue selling out shows across the world, I thought it was no surprise to see Ladytron resurface and also no surprise for me to wait outside in the cold to see them play at the Metro last night.
Walking inside, I performed my usual ritual which included a stop at the bar for a drink and then a beeline straight to the front of the crowd. I sipped on my beer while I waited for the opening band, New Canyons to start the show. As the house music blared, I struck up a conversation with a lady next to me who turned out to be a huge Ladytron fan and had been waiting for them to re-emerge after an almost eight-year absence since their 2011 release, Gravity the Seducer. I then told her about how I was here to see New Canyons who were my “Day One” band after seeing their great set at my first-ever show in Chicago at the Empty Bottle in 2016. I spoke at length about the dreampop, electro-shoegaze sound off their album Everyone is Dark and how it still sweeps me off my feet each time I listen to the eponymous song. Their plaintive vocals and soaring, yearning, dreamy music convinced me, the first time I heard them at the Bottle, that New Canyons were one of the best bands in Chicago. But my feelings about them were complicated when I saw them a second time during which they dispensed with their dreamy shoegaze and shifted towards a harder, gothic synth temperament. I felt betrayed when I heard their new material since it sounded no different from the usual techno-gothic sound from bands llike Iceage, Vowws and Cold Cave. The dreaminess in their sound was lost, making me walk out of the Empty Bottle shaking my head.
Regardless of the change in their sound, I still consider New Canyons to be one of the best bands in the city. I hoped that hearing them a third time at the Metro, would give me the chance to hear the magic of their sound again that is, if they played material off of Everyone is Dark or at least their new song “Drain You” which continued that old sound albeit with heavy gothic overtones. However when the duo walked onstage and began to play, my hopes were dashed. Like the second time, they played their derivative material. I listened in horror as the dreampop and somber sweep of their sound was ignored in favor of the derivative gothic synthpop. In fact, as they churned through their set with both musicians flanked by keyboards, I was ready to yell, “Come on guys, play ‘Everyone is Dark’!” But while objectively their set was good, their reliance on playback music to shore up their sound put off a number of people in the crowd who I think, wanted to see a live band. Furthermore, they did not play “Everyone is Dark” or any songs off of their phenomenal album. In fact, I don’t even know what songs from their repertoire they played for it was nothing I was used to or expected. When they finished, I turned to the lady and apologized for their set. I assured her that the band she saw onstage was in fact a better band on their albums. She scrunched up her face and just said, “Hey now, it must’ve been the sound. Their set sounded a bit off”.
Ladytron appeared onstage and began their set. Reuben Wu and Daniel Hunt accompanied by a live drummer took their positions at the back of the stage while the last two members, Mira Aroyo and Helen Marnie stood at the front of the stage. Aroyo was dressed in a stark black priest shawl and hunched over her Korg synth in deep concentration while Marnie stood at the front of the stage in an alluring white dress dotted with profiles of women in black-and-white set within blue circles. They launched into the first song of the set with their banger, “Black Cat” from their fourth album, Velocifero. In it, Aroyo stepped away from her synth to whisper sultry lyrics in Bulgarian while a dazzling array of colorful visuals played out in the background. The drumming spurred the marching synth beat and kicked off Ladytron’s set. The band followed up with the “The Island” off of their new self-titled album. The volcanic song with its rising apocalyptic music, Marnie’s wispy vocals, and the rotating visuals of people drifting in suspended animation created an incredibly chilling experience. However as the set went on, it was clear that much of it was culled from their new album with only a smattering of their previous albums. While their new material was good, there were times when the vocals were drowned out completely by the music. In the song “Paper Highways” for instance, Aroyo’s quiet singing seemed to be a little bit off and then was completely drowned out by the music. I happened to film the moment, and when I watched the footage again later, the whole thing just looked awkward.
Despite these moments, Ladytron turned in a capable performance. Aroyo delivered sharp staccato synth chords while Marnie swayed and spun across the stage as if she was borne on the wind. Wu and Hunt’s support shored up their mighty sound and fired on all cylinders when they hit “International Dateline” from Witching Hour and their new banger, “You’ve Changed” from the new album. Of the two, “You’ve Changed”, was perhaps the best song of the set with a truly unrelenting tide of synth fury that was accompanied by Marnie’s waxing and waning vocals. With their set charging towards their encore, it seemed the stage would be set for a blistering finish with “Destroy Everything You Love”, their legendary song. Indeed, they began their encore with “White Gold” the only song in their set from their flawless album Gravity the Seducer which crackled like burning embers with its rollicking beat and baroque melody.
Unfortunately, the overall crescendo of this leg of the set fizzled at the end when the band played their legendary song “Destroy Everything You Touch”. Instead of the sweeping dirge of the song, the band played what amounted to the PG version of “Destroy”. The vocals were a muffled, the harsh, immediate synth overtones were gone, and altogether, the teeth were removed from what was one of the best songs of the early “aughts”. All that was left was just the drums, guitars, and a hollow synth melody. I looked around at the people in the crowd and many of them were staring incredulously at Ladytron and then at each other as if they themselves couldn’t believe what they were hearing. Once Ladytron finished I turned to the lady from before and asked if I was crazy for thinking the “Destroy” we just heard was a disappointment. She agreed and then said, “I think the sound guy messed up”. In short,”Destroy Everything You Touch” fell flat and proved to be a disappointing coda to an otherwise good set.
Overall, the night was a mixed bag. While turning in a decent set, New Canyons were a personal disappointment to me especially having seen them twice before with the first time being easily the best. Unfortunately, the second didn’t match the first and for the third time, it seemed that nothing changed. While I am harsh however, I still firmly believe that New Canyons is one of the best bands in the city and despite their lackluster live shows, their albums and other songs are great examples of dreampop done right. Ladytron played a complicated set that might have been hampered by tech issues, and in my opinion, by an over-reliance on their new material. Although it’s normal for old bands to almost exclusively play their new album, many of us in the audience, I think, yearned for songs like “Ace of Hz” or “Mirage”. More stuff from Gravity the Seducer would’ve been phenomenal to hear live, especially considering that Ladytron had not appeared in Chicago in over eight years. Regardless, they turned in a good performance that unfortunately fizzled on what should have been the best part of the set. Essentially, Ladytron is a band of restless innovation with the sound of each album evolving from harsh electropop, gothic synthwave, to a more baroque electropop sound all the while maintaining a rare consistency unlike any other band in their genre. I think ultimately, their set would have benefitted quite a bit by a broader selection from their repertoire.