Mélanie De Biasio
Photo credit: Suzanne Schols/ Creative Commons
Mélanie De Biasio(Queen Elizabeth Hall, 28 May 2019. Review by Peter Jones)
With a completely new band since she last visited London a year and a half ago, Mélanie De Biasio also seemed somewhat changed. Then she looked as if she was playing Hamlet in a silent film; now she wore a loose red shirt and a small black hat, like a Parisian Communard. She still writes Brel-like songs of abandonment and hopelessness, of disappointment in loveless relationships. Yet although her music has, if anything, become even bleaker than before, on this evening in late Spring she was often smiley – even giggly – as if to suggest that the enveloping darkness of the songs is no more than a pose. And certainly the performance was as theatrical as ever, balletic but cramped, long stiff-legged strides interspersed with simian crouches and strange, eloquent gestures with her right hand. Theatrical, too, in her reluctance to acknowledge the audience: the fourth wall remained almost unbroken.
The two keyboard players of recent years have gone, to be replaced by one – Matthieu Vandenabeele – who commands no fewer than five instruments. And Mélanie has now been joined by Axel Gilain, who alternates between acoustic and electric bass and electric guitar.
Her distinctive sound is a result of self-imposed restrictions. The minimalism of the music arises from the use of very few chord changes and almost no solos, underpinned in a low-key way by Aarich Jespers on drums. When Mélanie plays flute, it’s often only a brief sequence of long, low notes. The idea is to maintain an intense, dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish vibe, as on Brother, a deeply gloomy, slow dead march that grows in intensity on its single chord, or And My Heart Goes On, a real subterranean chiller like something David Sylvian would write, albeit flattened out and elongated as if with a rolling pin.
There were surprises too. Amid the extended grooves, the gorgeous One Time was pretty much a conventional ballad, her voice accompanied here only by Vandenabeele on piano, as he and Gilain supplied subtle vocal harmony. This was followed by I Feel You, with just percussion for backing.
I’m glad I went, because Melanie de Biasio is one of a kind – always worth hearing. But for me this gig was less satisfying than before. With Gilain the band sounds harsher, whereas with two keyboardists it was harmonically more subtle, more liquid, and frankly more interesting, while rhythmically the groove was steadier.