Fontaines DC: A Night at Montrose, Dublin review – a blast of joy and disquiet

The Dublin five-piece launch their brilliant second album with an intense, pre-recorded livestream event and bonus commentary

Last week, Spotify founder Daniel Ek enraged musicians by stating that they would have to keep the content mills turning (“continuous engagement with their fans” in Ekspeak) because “you can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough”. Of course one reason why the likes of David Bowie and the Smiths were so prolific was that record sales paid well so they didn’t have to spend most of their time touring. There was more opportunity to create.

Ek would presumably approve of Dublin quintet Fontaines DC, whose creative velocity, as well as their sound, is reminiscent of the post-punk 1980s. Last April, their debut album, Dogrel, wasn’t so much released as unleashed: a fierce, hot blast of youth, wit, ambition, anxiety and romance. No gradual ascent for them. Next year, at least in theory, they will headline London’s Alexandra Palace.

In between US tour dates in 2019 they somehow managed to record an exemplary second album in Los Angeles with producer Dan Carey. Inspiring even more critical hosannas than Dogrel, A Hero’s Death, released last month, is bolder and darker, full of difficult questions. Vignettes of on-the-road angst are mercifully absent, but you can hear frontman Grian Chatten’s racing brain grappling with the onrush of attention and expectations: “Operating faster!” he yelps on You Said. Still, you can’t blame people for wanting a lot from Fontaines DC. A genuinely great, genuinely popular new rock band is as rare as a Sumatran rhino these days. One that can outdo its debut within 18 months is something close to a miracle.

Fontaines DC should have been commanding festival stages this summer. Instead, there is this livestream, which is live only in the sense that 3,000 fans are watching it at the same time. The hour-long performance was filmed in Dublin two weeks ago by directors Greg Purcell and Mark Logan in a room decorated with flowers, table lamps and drapes and enlivened with faintly psychedelic visual effects that might remind some viewers of BBC Two’s Snub TV.

It unfolds now beside a scrolling cacophony of comments from fans, pelting the band, in a live Q&A after the broadcast, with questions or, in a bold attempt to bend the laws of space and time, making requests. It’s too much “continuous engagement with their fans” for my liking, but the band members’ responses are an occasional boon. Just as I’m thinking that guitarist Conor Curley’s introduction to I Was Not Born vaguely resembles Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart, the band themselves write, “literally sounds nothing like joy division lol”. That’s me told.

Nevertheless, there is something of Ian Curtis’s dagger-eyed intensity and introvert’s charisma in Chatten’s performance, though he’s not one for dancing. He’s the kind of frontman who can rivet your gaze while standing perfectly still and acting as if you’re not there. His T-shirt advertises his love for the Pogues, the band that convinced him it was OK to lean into his Dublin accent, as so few Irish rock bands do.

Fontaines DC frontman Grian Chatten.
Fontaines DC frontman Grian Chatten during the A Night at Montrose livestream. Photograph: Fontaines DC/YouTube

A Hero’s Death may lack Dogrel’s Joycean local colour (taken far from home, Chatten has said, he chose to sing about “the places within as opposed to the places without”) but the voice plants stubborn roots, whether it’s as droll and accusing as Mark E Smith on the new album’s title track or meltingly tender on the bruised lament Oh Such a Spring.

Fontaines DC are a classic band in the sense that every member is essential, but perhaps with a less indelible vocalist they wouldn’t have been able to make a second album that wilfully swerves the punk-rock attack of Dogrel’s biggest songs, and plunges instead into inky psychedelia, ominous mantras and cracked ballads.

In performance, Chatten’s poker face makes the songs’ ambiguities even more potent. Nothing here – love, freedom, family, America – is wholly good or bad. I Don’t Belong asks where autonomy stops and loneliness begins, while the title track’s machine-gun list of rules for living could be read as either a vicious parody of self-help bromides or sincere advice, especially when the sunny backing vocals kick in.

The chanted chorus “Life ain’t always empty” sums up these new songs’ ability to be both stirring and disquieting. Living in America’s brutal post-punk alone offers stark, compacted poetry (“Snowman coaled, pigeon holed, cooed to death, pilgrim soul”) and melancholy wisdom (“You’re about as old as the last day you felt young”) while the room lights up as red as a vice den.

After running through the new album, Fontaines DC encore (if one can have an encore without an audience) with three songs from their debut album, reframing their set closer Roy’s Tune as a bridge between the two records. “It feels good to be playing for a reason again,” Chatten says at the end. To be honest, it’s hard to imagine Fontaines DC doing anything without a good reason, which is what makes them so cult-worthy.

In the comment thread, two old Clash fans rave about getting the same life-changing feeling from Fontaines DC. True enough, their passion, intelligence and purpose make them the kind of band you might follow anywhere. For now, of course, there’s nowhere to follow them but, even confined to a laptop screen on a Monday night, they merit devotion.

Watch the video for A Hero’s Death by Fontaines DC


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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