Julia Holter review – galloping imagination leads to walk-outs and wonderment

Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London
The singer-songwriter cast a spell over the crowd with her cherished characters and carnival of sounds – but an industro-rock climax proved too much for some

“I’ve just got to do something …” are Julia Holter’s distracted first words tonight, accompanied by a shuffling of papers across the top of her keyboard. Reinforcing the idea that she’s on a more abstruse plane than other singer-songwriters, she spends the first five minutes of her set arranging these sheets on a music stand, bending so far forward that her hair almost touches them. Task completed to her satisfaction, she plunges seamlessly into Lucette Stranded on the Island, from the album she’s currently touring, Have You in My Wilderness. While Lucette clatters and creaks, one thing is proved beyond contest: reports of Holter’s move towards pop have been greatly exaggerated. For the next hour or so, jazzy atonality and avant-rock abstraction, laced with what sounds like synthesised harpsichord, attest to Holter’s singularity: the breadth of imagination that landed her fourth album in many end-of-2015 polls also ripples through her live offering.

The 31-year-old Californian is backed by drums, double bass, viola and saxophone – a selection of instruments that covers all eventualities, from the lullaby tones of Silhouette to the 20-minute drone-jam that spreads like melted chocolate when they revisit her 2011 track The Falling Age. Holter probably didn’t write the latter with the intention of sticking two fingers up at the instant-gratification mindset, but as the song slowly swings from tense electronic pulses to a carnival of tiny sounds – whirrs, clanks, judders – it’s too much for some people, who leave before it crashes into a brow-mopping industro-rock climax. The last time I saw a walk-out at this venue was when a song suite by fellow travellers Godspeed You! Black Emperor provoked a dash to the bar, and seeing fans abandon ship tonight is as puzzling now as it was then. If anything, listening to The Falling Age’s isle full of noises should have been a respite after the past week in the real world.

“Here’s another oldie – kind of a similar one,” Holter promises when The Falling Age concludes. “There’s some A-minor in this one.” It turns out – what a wag! – to be entirely dissimilar. In fact, In the Same Room, from her 2012 second album, Ekstasis, is four jaunty minutes of C86-style electrorock inspired by her interest in ancient Greece. Holter sings caressingly, “In this very room, we spent the day and looked over antiquities,” which is consistent with her lyrical style – though she claims that many of her songs are inhabited by fictional figures, that’s hard to believe, when characters such as the equivocal Betsy in Betsy on the Roof feel so closely cherished.

Real or not, they contribute to the spell Holter casts. And “spell” isn’t entirely an exaggeration. There’s something rather magical about an artist who can hold a sold-out audience on the strength of her small voice – which is mainly employed as a texture rather than as the music’s focal point – and her galloping imagination.

• At Manchester Cathedral,15 November. Tickets: alttickets.com; Sage, Gateshead, 16 November. Box office: 0191-443 4661. Then touring.

Contributor

Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Julia Holter review – magical mystery tour of classical, pop, jazz and all between
Rigour and precision are at the heart of Holter’s convoluted, supernatural songs – their glassy, silvery qualities unsettle and entertain in equal measure

Maddy Costa

11, Nov, 2015 @11:08 AM

Article image
Julia Holter: The Passion of Joan of Arc review – strikingly contemporary, piercingly loud live score
The mercurial composer’s brilliant score perfectly captures the raging agony and beatific ecstasy of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent movie masterpiece

Dave Simpson

24, Nov, 2022 @12:07 PM

Article image
50 great tracks for October from Noname, Julia Holter, Objekt and more
From Behemoth’s satanic metal to a triumphant return from Lana Del Rey, here are the tracks you need this month – read about our ten favourites, and subscribe to all 50 in our playlists

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

01, Oct, 2018 @9:59 AM

Article image
Julia Holter: Have You in My Wilderness review – exceptional pop built on avant-garde foundations
From her found-sound DJ mixes to her experimental albums based on French novels and Greek tragedies, Julia Holter seems very much the serious artist. But she has always done beautiful melodies, and never more so than here

Alexis Petridis

24, Sep, 2015 @2:00 PM

Article image
Julia Holter – review

Both pristine and deranged, Julia Holter drapes herself in mystery and transforms herself when she takes to the stage

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

21, Aug, 2013 @9:12 AM

Julia Holter: Ekstasis – review
Julia Holter's sophisticated, cerebral pop may not be for everyone, but it casts something of a spell on Michael Hann

Michael Hann

29, Nov, 2012 @11:45 PM

Julia Holter: Ekstasis – review
Julia Holter invites comparisons with Grimes and Laurie Anderson on her classy second album, writes Kitty Empire

Kitty Empire

02, Dec, 2012 @12:05 AM

Article image
Julia Holter; Joanna Newsom – review
Two of left-field music’s most fascinating stars underline why this has been a special year for odd pop with a high IQ

Kitty Empire

15, Nov, 2015 @9:00 AM

Article image
Julia Holter: Aviary review – sonic beauty and brains in a 90-minute epic
Holter’s album is complex, with bits of avant-garde experimentation, but it’s always appealing

Rachel Aroesti

26, Oct, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
Julia Holter: Loud City Song – review
Julia Holter ruminates on the shallow world of celebrity-obsessed media and the ultimate futility of it all, writes Harriet Gibsone

Harriet Gibsone

15, Aug, 2013 @8:15 PM