Of all the 2000s indie bands you wish would see the writing on the wall, Wild Beasts are not one of them. Last September, the Cumbrian four-piece announced that, after releasing five albums, it was “time to leave this orbit”. You’d praise their self-awareness (critics agreed their last album, 2016’s Boy King, was their least remarkable) if they weren’t leaving such a gaping hole in the scene. It’s hard to think of another band who has so compellingly revelled and recoiled at masculinity, deconstructed and delighted in sexuality.
When bands split, fans are usually privy to the wreckage rather than the last rites. The knowledge that tonight’s gig is the last time they will ever perform these songs (Wild Beasts have sworn they won’t reunite) makes every moment unbearably poignant. Their manifold lyrics about loss and regret become gut punches. “All we want is to feel that feeling again,” Hayden Thorpe croons on Mecca. Too right, say a crowd that gives each song a Viking-style send-off.
The set-list is so spot-on that you wish bands would split up more often: 23 songs, spanning each of their records, not too heavily weighted towards their final album. The band’s career progression is evident, the lascivious greed of Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants, from their debut album, giving way to the boisterously conflicted All the King’s Men, from Two Dancers; the cataclysmic desperation of Smother’s Bed of Nails, meanwhile, finds relief in Present Tense’s A Simple Beautiful Truth.
Until the brash Boy King, Wild Beasts’ music got silkier as they matured, but the career survey tonight highlights their constants: Thorpe’s unabashed grandeur; the way Fleming’s lusty exhortations mingle pleasure and disgust; their knack for heart-racing momentum. Juxtaposed with their older material, it becomes clear why Boy King didn’t land, forsaking Ben Little’s gorgeous undulating guitar for cruder riffs and stabbed synths, and smoothing the slinkiness of drummer Chris Talbot – one of rock’s finest percussionists – into playing it straight.
There are no grand farewells, but the men permit themselves a few moments of awe. Thorpe frequently spreads his arms as if to embrace the crowd, a heroic sermoniser; Fleming, the only Beast resistant to the split, moves defiantly; Little, meanwhile, looks as if he’s half-frozen with fear. The stagecraft manages the tension: a confetti canon explodes after an interval, and their catalogue contains the perfect eulogy.
After Thorpe bids the crowd goodnight, the four-piece hold each other centre stage. They start the sinewy lament of End Come Too Soon and, between verses, Thorpe embraces his bandmates individually before returning to the keyboard. Amid howling feedback, they all make eye contact, like astronauts reassuring each other before breaking through the Earth’s atmosphere. The noise climaxes, a curtain falls and a choir appears, harmonising with Thorpe’s final cries. It’s glorious.
The band leaves, but the choir breaks into three-part harmonies for Cheerio Chaps, Cheerio Goodbye, from the band’s 2008 debut, Limbo, Panto. It’s a song so comically verbose that it undercuts the spectacle’s grandeur, in pure Wild Beasts fashion.
Earlier on, Fleming had remarked on that album’s unlikely existence: “God knows why they gave that budget to a band like us.” Wild Beasts were a very particular brew – too ripe for many ears – but it’s hard not to see their demise as something bigger: that of a period when labels and bands could still afford to take bold risks. It’s a tragic loss in every sense.