Emancipator should not be good live. Or so I thought.
With a discography filled with mellow, nuanced soundscapes, I was apprehensive about what the live incarnation would sound like. Would the set basically be a 75-minute lullaby, the music eventually drowned out by a collective crowd yawn-fest?
But within five seconds of their set beginning at the Paradise Rock Club last Wednesday, all my fears were erased. Emancipator’s live outfit — Emancipator Ensemble — features a fantastic band performing alongside Doug Appling, the main producer and writer. The band performs to a skeleton track of samples, which enables them to retain the essence of the tracks from the record while adding a spontaneous and energetic spin.
The tour comes on the back of Emancipator’s latest release, “Baralku.” A good measure of the quality of a release is how well the songs are received live when stacked up side-by-side against the rest of the catalogue.
It’s safe to say that “Baralku” holds its own against the well-known and loved tracks in Emancipator’s repertoire, with a highlight of the evening being the set and album opener, title track “Baralku,” a beautiful layered song which manages to incorporate lush electronics, powerful drumming and delicate strings in the same space.
For an artist so well-loved for his relaxed, atmospheric electronic music, it was a welcome surprise to see such an animated crowd. The moment the house lights were turned on, the crowd’s size and enthusiasm were a testament to the quality of the show. All five performers seemed genuinely taken aback by the applause they received.
The band was phenomenal, deserving every bit of the applause they got. Keyboards, string bass, electric bass, violin and acoustic drums supported Appling on guitar. Despite some more intense moments, each performer looked like they barely broke a sweat. For a band to be so in sync while showing total relaxation was remarkable.
Most notable of all the performers was the drummer. All I can say is that I hope the band’s management is funding some pretty serious chiropractic treatment for him, due to the amount of the show he carried on his back.
Whether it was delicate, textural playing or a thumping backbeat, he was flawless. It’s telling of his performance that some of the most memorable moments were led by an unexpected change in intensity from the drums in particular.
Crucially, the accompanying light show was extremely well-executed. With six vertical LED strips at the back of the stage, all expertly programmed to mirror the energy level of each song, you’d be forgiven for feeling that this was a band that could be performing on a much bigger stage than they were.
The lighting made the musical changes in dynamics and intensity feel even more significant. A song could end with a string bass and violin duet, and the next quickly transitions into a hectic blur, with the entire band playing at full tilt, the lighting keeping pace with the music, prompting the changes.
It would be fair to say that up to this point, this review has been entirely one-sided. If I were to fault anything, it would be that the setlist order was somewhat anticlimactic, particularly the encore. Returning to rapturous applause, the band played a rather downbeat set to close, which were by no means poor songs, but did leave the room with less energy than there could have been.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the show is that there were absolutely no vocals for the entire hour-plus set. The crowd was utterly rapt throughout, transfixed by instrumental after instrumental.
Musically, a lot of the credit must go to the live arrangement of the songs. As a DJ, producer and performer, Appling is a master of knowing when to give instruments space and when to layer in electronic elements more heavily to give a denser sound.
There was very much a sense that Emancipator’s music sent everyone into an ephemeral, communal trance. Once it stopped, snapping out of it and leaving the warmth to reappear on icy Commonwealth Avenue felt like crashing back to Earth from some far-away planet.