Phoenix have always been a pleasingly hard band to pin down. Arriving at the tail end of the waning ‘90s scene with a love of soft-rock and cheesy electro-pop, the band spent the next 10 years searching for a place in indie’s upper echelon. 2009’s ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’ and its hit singles ‘1901’ and ‘Lisztomania’ did the job, and they now flit between cult status and a genuinely popular prospect.
Their latest album ‘Alpha Zulu’ didn’t make much of a dent in the charts, but no bother: their return to O2 Academy Brixton, their first show in the UK for over five years, is a sell-out, and is fittingly infused with a rowdy party spirit.
Recorded in the Louvre Palace in the heart of Paris, ‘Alpha Zulu’ saw the French band register a late-career high: two decades in, they’re still finding ways to push their sound forward and add new colours to the palette. But it’s long been their live shows where they truly thrive. The ‘Ti Amo’ tour of 2017 saw the use of mirrored trickery for a dazzling experience, and tonight’s new set-up, which frontman Thomas Mars told NME was modelled on the idea of a “digital opera”, goes one better: it’s a complete assault on the senses.
Using staggered screens that frame the stage and band, Phoenix utilise the full depth of their performance space smartly. During their second song ‘Entertainment’, they recreate the Palace of Versailles and its Hall of Mirrors, its chandeliers twinkling amid pounding keyboard riffs. It’s one of many moments that garners “oohs” and “ahhs” from the crowd when the full potential of the screens are deployed: even the simplest tricks, like bold colours gliding across the stage (‘J Boy’) or an image of a firework beautifully exploding (‘Winter Solstice’), work wonders.
There are decidedly human moments, too. Mars recalls their first London gig at the now-defunct club Tokyo Joe’s, which was so bad, he says, they felt unwelcome in the capital for years afterwards. During the song that follows (‘Lovelife’), Mars sings the wrong verse and asks to restart the track – the nerves are still there, clearly. During ‘Telefono’ and ‘Fior di Latte’, two of their most lavish, luscious ballads, Mars straddles bassist Deck D’arcy’s harpsichord for a stripped-back and seriously sweet moment. A tribute to their late friend and collaborator Philippe Zdar during ‘Identical’, meanwhile, is understated, but powerful.
The response to ‘Alpha Zulu’ tracks, like its titular, ravey track and ‘Tonight’ (where its bouncy bassline gets beery chants), suggest that a dedicated audience for Phoenix doesn’t just remain: it’s thriving. Tonight’s on-stage tricks and whizzes prove to be a fascinating, unmissable bonus.
‘Long Distance Call’
‘If I Ever Feel Better’ / ‘Funky Squaredance’
‘Telefono’ / ‘Fior di latte’
‘Trying to Be Cool’ / ‘Drakkar Noir’