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Patrick Smith , May 30th, 2014 15:25

Patrick Smith has a saucy encounter with Xiu Xiu in a darkened London basement

"You taught me a lesson / People are stupid in the dark"
– Xiu Xiu

As Matthew Foster wrote back in February, Angel Guts: Red Classroom, presented in full last Thursday at Birthdays, "operates a scorched-earth policy, reliant on little more than analogue synths, outmoded drum machines and Stewart's voice at its most discomforting, his lyrics at their least sympathetic." Scorched-earth policy indeed; Angel Guts is synth-pop deconstructionism and its most disserved. Listening over the record before the show, I could only think of three albums that take genre dismantling to such logical extremes: No Balls – Come Clean (monotonously tearing apart psyched-up garage rock), Caspar Brötzmann Massaker – The Tribe (parsing open the krautrock corpse) and Coil's ...And the Ambulance Died In His Arms (post-industrial musical/vocal disassociation at its best). What unites these albums and Angel Guts is a constant wavering between accessibility and complete impenetrability.

This is evident from the moment Jamie Stewart and Angela Seo kick into 'Archie's Fade', track two from Angel Guts. The crowd try in vain to nod their heads in gentle appreciation as Stewart twists and croons "Alone on your desk / at the end of the city / you were squashed into / there is no one you love," all undercut by a throbbing sub-heavy synth pulse. Next comes 'Stupid In The Dark', a track with a central section ostensibly masquerading as a danceable Numan-esque number, whilst being bookended by some of Xiu Xiu's most bleak and depressive musical longuers. All that in fewer than three minutes. That's the real power of Angel Guts and tonight's showcase: brevity. Almost every track clocks in at under 3 minutes, each being presented as a separate self-enclosed entity by Stewart/Seo as they take a stop-start-staccato approach to their set.

The middle stage of the set sees the duo crashing through a variety of genres. There are the calypso beats of Black Dick and Bitter Melon, distinctly more drum-heavy tonight than on record – thanks to Seo's percussive accompaniment. Stewart joins Seo on the drums for a lilting Swans-esque rendition of 'Knife In The Sun'. If it sticks out as distinctly flavoured by the early industrial Swans sound (albeit in a more mellow capacity), final track proper from the album 'Botanica De Los Angeles' seems to pay a debt to late-80's The Burning World-era of Gira and friends; it's a majestic and atmospheric ode to L.A.

Xiu Xiu remain a band that are constantly striving to reinvent themselves; however, as much as Stewart and Seo push at the permeable boundaries of their genre, there remains a constant through line to their sound. That famous Peel quote, describing The Fall, comes to mind as they crash through a guitar-less, percussion-heavy version of 'I Luv The Valley OH!' (the only non-Angel Guts track tonight, coming from 2004's Fabulous Muscles); "always different, always the same." Angel Guts definitely does some earth scorching tonight, but as it flourishes in this live context it embeds itself in a corpus of albums that are united by their unwavering uniqueness.