Meltdown Festival, Royal Festival Hall, London
SOPHIE suits the Southbank Centre, where on Saturday night she took a headline slot for Meltdown Festival. At Southbank, slabs of angular concrete slide down into the river, shocked through only with bolts of neon yellow metal – SOPHIE’s trademark sound too melds tinny colour onto harsh, thudding structures. She was there a few weeks after dropping a two-sided continuous remix of her 2018 debut, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-insides.
That debut was Crack Magazine’s Album of the Year. It was compelling in part for owing as much to the swirling dysphoria of SOPHIE’s Cocteau Twin compatriots as it did to the peppy PC Music scene, of which SOPHIE was originally thought a fellow traveller. Her old live shows centred that heady rush of dance, keeping her sometimes literally offstage. So an open question, and one she has grappled with in recent interviews: where would the shows go now? This was a question even more pertinent tonight at the Royal Festival Hall – if the orderly seated venue does not prohibit dancing, it certainly limits it.
SOPHIE was introduced by Nile Rodgers, curator of the festival. He was effusive of her, heralding her production as didactic, primal. It’s a moving connection between two revolutionaries of dance music. But while earlier in the week Rodgers and Chic used the Hall for a victory lap of their disco revolution, SOPHIE delivered a provocative audiovisual experiment.
That experiment arrived in three parts. Act one was OUTSIDE OF TIME. Centre stage was an installation of massive nylon sheets stretched across wire, and a single androgyne squeezed out from the gaps. Their dancing was the focal point throughout the show, with SOPHIE in shadows a little to the side. The dancer-androgyne gave a rabid post-vogue to poppy tracks that are savoured all the more for knowing SOPHIE will never release them.
The mid-section ABOUT 600 MILLION YEARS AGO was like an ocean plunge after that cocktail, with a million riffs on ethereal album centrepiece Is It Cold In The Water?. Over strangely inhuman sounds, there was stark footage of waves and grotesque sea creatures; provoking a horror that only the vast unknown of the sea could. SOPHIE is loved in part because she does not turn away from the disorienting inexpressibility of queerness: here, she placed that feeling, and those who feel it, right back at the start of life itself.
This pensive section carries on so long that some turn the aisles into an impromptu club, chatting loudly with friends over the whirring synth-pool and waiting for bangers to emerge from the waters. Others, tote-bagged and here for seated spectacle, shoosh them frustratedly.
The last section THE PRESENT DAY, was nothing like a reprieve. We saw the nylon landscape ripped apart and tangled into neon tape. Hard techno erupted across the hall in darkness; raptured strobe lights daring the beat to catch up, resulting in a showpiece so frantic that Instagramming it seemed futile. But THE PRESENT DAY is not all dissociative apocalyptic ruin – soon the storm relents, and she closes on the robo-tropical staple It’s Your Life. It’s a track so irresistible that SOPHIE even gave up on deck-lurking and joined her dancer out front.
She was met with a wall of applause, and thanked Rodgers for having her. Then a fan heckled her to play Taxi, a Charli XCX-led gem which sends live shows into a frenzy but remains stubbornly unleaked. In the spirit of an evening more about dystopian futures than greatest hits, she curtly refused.
And then, just when you had accepted SOPHIE is an artist who won’t kowtow to the demands of conventional pop, she paid homage to her curator by exiting to Diana Ross’ I’m Coming Out. No one disagreed now: we were all too busy dancing.