Photos by Andrew Bibby
They delivered an electrifying Melbourne show.
The Chemical Brothers are a time capsule to Y2K dance culture. Their bombastic brand of dance music once mirrored the chest-thumping of late ’90s Cool Britannia; so there’s a drop of cognitive dissonance in seeing them tap into the nascent dystopia of Brexit Britain. Yet strangely, 2019 finds the Chemical Brothers in vintage form and this is no nostalgia tour.
No Geography was the surprise critical darling of the year and I’m not sure even they would have expected their music to still be this good 15 years into the game. And on the evening of the Melbourne Cup, safe in the sterile environs of Melbourne Arena with big bad Boris a world away, an army of thin grey-haired ravers descended on the tennis court formerly known as Hisense Arena for a night of block rockin’ beats.
Securing The Avalanches to DJ as an opening slot is a coup only a group of the Chemical Brothers’ magnitude could pull off; but there was a pervading sense that it was an idea that looked better on paper than in performance. Though rightly regarded as one of Australia’s most important international electronic exports of the last 20 years, the brilliance of The Avalanches lies in their meticulous decoupage production of thousands of samples.
And there’s a reason it takes so fucking long for them to finish an album, their shit doesn’t work on the fly; which is why their DJ sets since Dexter’s departure have been middling at best. So unfortunately booking them in this format is like booking The Jackson 5, the name may look good in lights, but you’re not likely to hear Michael.
But if the over-hyped support was underwhelming, the Big Beat pioneers were in a mood to lift spirits, launching their audio-visual assault with the Q-Tip-led party starter ‘Go’. Surrounded by machines as if mixing in Frankenstein’s lab, Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons might have been dwarfed by their gear, if not for the towering visuals that made the two maestros look like ants scurrying around a child’s ant farm.
It would have been a bad idea to take hallucinogens as the typical lasers, confetti and inflatable balls were but a warm-up for the giant killer robots, leviathan-inspired catwalk models, nightmarish sock and buskin masks and some kind of Golem-esque lizard king that is still haunting me now as I write this. The pure theatre of it all made a great backdrop for what was an astonishing run through their career. It took only three songs for the two to drop ‘Chemical Beats’ off their debut album Exit Planet Dust before a heavenly mashup of New Order’s ‘Temptation’ and their masterful balearic banger ‘Star Guitar’.
For musicians who always aimed their music towards the sandswept dancefloors of Ibiza and not the pop charts, this set excelled in its fluidity, it was basically one long Chemical Brothers medley, with transitions that would make most DJs weep. Their ability to consistently jump between their own eras and blend their own styles, from their most psychedelic moments to their most abrasive made it an experience that placated everyone from the most casual of fan to those who remember them pissing off legendary producers The Dust Brothers.
‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’ elicited the exact response you would expect it to and an unexpected performance of ‘The Golden Path’, their underrated collaboration with The Flaming Lips was a welcome surprise. But it was their 2005 single ‘Galvanise’ that brought the crowd into a frenzy, with Najat Aatabou’s string sample sounding especially spectacular at ~120 decibels.
So whilst the majority of the city were at home tucked up in bed after a few too many white wine spritzers, a lucky few were being treated to a gig that refused to step off the accelerator. The Chemical Brothers had nothing left to prove in 2019 and did it all anyway. And still why they’re so fucking good at what they do.
Highlight: Dropping the Stones’ ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ into ‘The Private Psychedelic Reel’.
Lowlight: None of their ballads. ‘Where Do I Begin’ or ‘Asleep From Day’ would have been a treat.
Crowd favourite: ‘Galvanise’ and ‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’ in a photo finish.