Fontaines DC review – post-punk in 360-degree VR

Kitty Empire
·5-min read

Certain artists fall over themselves to embrace technological innovation. Some other bands have technological innovation thrust a little awkwardly upon them. So it is that Fontaines DC – an intense post-punk band whose oblique poetics and disdain for showbiz could easily be mistaken for passive aggression – find themselves livestreaming a show in which there is nowhere for them to hide.

The venue is London’s Brixton Academy, where this Dublin band played a rapturously received set back in February. The world was still young then. Fontaines DC’s second album, A Hero’s Death, would not be out until the summer. It had not yet been kept off the UK No 1 album spot by a rejigged Taylor Swift release, or chalked up 20m streams worldwide. It had not yet been nominated for a Grammy award. Back then, livestreaming was something mostly reserved for gamers and narcissists.

Tonight’s Brixton rematch is being filmed by a series of cameras that capture all 360 degrees of the space. If you’re watching on the app, this all-seeing-eye vision means you can tilt your phone to pan left and right, up and down, taking in guitarists Carlos O’Connell and Conor Curley, or hirsute drummer Tom Coll. You can even swivel all the way round to see the vast emptiness in the stalls where overexcited humans should be climbing on one another, bellowing singer Grian Chatten’s disaffected lines back at him. In the full VR-headset experience, you can probably play ping-pong with globules of Chatten’s spittle.

Many audience-free gigs this year have been stark approximations of the real thing, like a fireworks display no one remembered to publicise. But this one feels particularly bereft. Only three years old, but now firmly entrenched in the minds of music lovers as sophisticated reanimators of the post-punk flame, Fontaines DC are a racket to be glimpsed between the forearms and ears of strangers. This should be a raucous celebration of another astonishing year. Tonight, their set-opener A Lucid Dream is all chest-poking percussion and Joy Division basslines, the kind that would normally slosh propane under a moshpit and strike a match. But as riveting as this wiry, intelligent music is, you eventually find yourself urging your phone over to look at the set list taped to the floor, frustratingly just out of focus.

It’s a similar situation with Televised Mind, a great tune that harks back to a quaint time people believed the cathode ray tube was an existential threat to creativity and attention spans. The song is a mini-masterpiece of tensile musicianship, with Chatten yapping “that’s a televised mind” and “whatcha call it” again and again – lyrics that skewer the supine state of buffering that we all exist within to some degree. The sound seems to grow only more bleak and cavernous without the endorsement of squashed folk milling their approval.

So a band who should rightly have presided over some of the most myth-laden gigs of 2020 instead find themselves a little bit like lab rats in headlights, their natural diffidence not helped by the intrusive gaze of this relentless panopticon. A master of the thousand-yard-stare school of band-fronting, Chatten can’t take a break from overexposure while the guitars, bass and drums lock into instrumental passages. He’s frozen to the spot much of the time. The centre-stage camera wouldn’t let him go even if he did move.

Not much happens tonight, other than excellent song after excellent song ringing out, punctuated by some lights and the darkness as the band reset between them. A guitar tech runs on to sort out O’Connell’s leads. Chatten loses the baggy waistcoat he came on wearing.

By the time the 17-song set list rolls round to the title track of A Hero’s Death, guitarist O’Connell has climbed on top of his speaker stacks and sat down, the pointy toes of his footwear providing some eye-catching shadow-play behind him. You want to fling warm red wine at your own ceiling in hallelujah.

No one has ever mistaken Fontaines DC for extroverts, joshing between songs, but this surgical gig finds them at the peak of their powers – having just added dates to their 2021 tour due to demand – playing like the clappers into a void. And yet, as each song compounds the dissociation, a counter-thought prevails. Perhaps everything is exactly as it ought to be. Throwing songs into the lacuna between what is, and what should be, actually amplifies the vast internal spaces of Fontaines DC’s second album. You would never have called Dogrel, their 2019 debut, a cheery record, but compared to A Hero’s Death, it was a regular hootenanny, full of surf-guitar references, tributes to the Pogues and “Dublin city”. Tonight those songs miss the humans the most.

A Hero’s Death is all doomy, goth-adjacent churning, a work about internal tussles and entropy, the weird isolation of being in a van with your best friends, existing on no sleep and lakes of alcohol, allegedly living the dream. It is – yes – one of those prescient records whose themes predated, and then chimed with, the times.

It’s not just about struggle, though – this is a record that counted its blessings, perhaps only sardonically; avowed that love was “the main thing”. Ultimately, though, Chatten and the band come out the other side in A Hero’s Death intent on re-engaging with the world. We can only wait for the world to catch up.