LIVE: The Cinematic Orchestra at Royal Festival Hall
True to their name, the emergence of The Cinematic Orchestra from a period of seclusion was marked by a filmic experience. On 29 January 2021, the band’s performance to an eerily empty Royal Festival Hall was live-streamed to listeners across the globe. The event marked their first public appearance in nearly a year, with a set combining a selection of old tracks and 30 minutes of new material, written while in lockdown over the last six months.
The progress of The Cinematic Orchestra to becoming one of the UK’s most respected and influential artists has been intertwined with film from their inception. Their critically-acclaimed debut album Motion, released in 1999, led to an invitation from the organisers of Porto European City of Culture festival to write a new score for Soviet director, Dziga Vertov’s 1929 silent documentary Man With a Movie Camera. Twenty years and two soundtrack albums later, the band have chosen friend and past collaborator Leander Ward to direct a film of their performance at the Royal Festival Hall, having previously directed The Crimson Wing, a Disney Nature documentary scored by the band.
Far from attempting to create a pale imitation of the live gig experience, the film drew strength from the strangeness of the setting. Close-ups of band members were interspersed with sweeping shots of empty seats, leaving an impression of having glimpsed something spontaneous and intimate. Seeing the musicians alone onstage within this vast, empty shell of a building seemed to give expression to the collective experience of a year marked by more silence, space and solitude. The atmosphere complemented the music, despite the slow motion shots, split screen and duotone effects which through overuse entered the realm of gimmicks.
Defying categorisation, The Cinematic Orchestra lived up to the eclecticism of their collected works, combining electronic samples with a live band to deliver a sound shifting between jazz improvisation and downtempo electronica. Amongst their more recognisable renditions were the familiarly rapid, syncopated drum rhythms and hypnotic arpeggios of 'Flite', a track from their 2002 album Every Day. Another familiar piece suited to the setting was 'Channel 1 Suite' from their debut album, an understated piece combining double bass and trumpet samples with cinematic string sounds. The set ended powerfully with a rendition of 'All That You Give' from Heidi Vogel, whose skill as a vocalist was felt in the new material and the old.
Four new tracks, made available for download after the show, continue along a new path forged by a band whose versatility is easily overlooked. Although known most widely for their track from 2007’s Ma Fleur, 'To Build A Home' (conspicuously absent from this set), which was overplayed in every wannabe tear-jerking advert and film scene since that date, the release of To Believe (2019), after 12 years of silence, saw collaborations with the likes of Moses Sumney and Roots Manuva on a series of slow-burning cinematic soundscapes based around the theme of an increasingly volatile political landscape. The often sparse sounds of this album are echoed in the four new tracks, which collectively form a dreamscape of harmonised saxophones laced with reverb, distorted synths and flickering white noise. As in their music, the melancholy tone of this set occasionally felt overdone, especially when combined with gimmicky cinematic effects, but The Cinematic Orchestra have repeatedly proven themselves to be a band of enduring importance.
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