Besnard Lakes at Islington Assembly Hall live review

Montreal proggers Besnard Lakes expand for London show

A crowd watching a prog gig
(Image: © Katja Ogrin)

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Since their inception in 2003, Montreal cosmic explorers The Besnard Lakes have grown in number from the original core duo of husband and wife Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas to a six-strong line-up (five when touring), but it’s doubtful that they ever saw themselves becoming a 13-piece band. And though this is a bold and determined move that’s been put together specifically for tonight’s performance, featuring members of Swervedriver and Wolf People among others, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that the one-off project is, on occasion, thwarted by a combination of less than satisfactory acoustics and the gap between ambition and actuality.

Not that this is a bad show, but there’s more than one instance when the usual smooth sailing of The Besnard Lakes finds them navigating uncommonly choppy waters. An early portent sees the pace disrupted following the beautiful opener, Like The Ocean, Like The Innocent, when drummer Kevin Laing finds himself negotiating with an unruly hi-hat stand which leads him to borrow one from Tom Watt of Wolf People’s kit.

Crucially, the material from the band’s latest album, A Coliseum Complex Museum, is displaying problems slotting in with their existing songs. Noticeably shorter and pithier, songs such as Golden Lion jar against the lengthier and more exploratory pieces that have made the Lakes’ name, and serve to break up the flow rather than add to it. Factor in the venue’s less than forgiving acoustics that contribute reverb, and there’s a very real danger of The Besnard Lakes being smothered in excess sound.

But when the ensemble hits their stride then the shortcomings fade away. Augmented by three backing singers – including Wolf People’s Jack Sharp – plus two violinists and a cellist, Chicago Train sounds gloriously panoramic, the additional musicians bringing forth a dimension to the music that would normally seem only possible in a studio. Similarly, the presence of Swervedriver’s Adam Franklin on guitar for Disaster gives off an all-enveloping warmth and lushness.

The triptych of And This Is What We Call Progress, People Of The Sticks and Albatross is simply glorious. The first of these is powered by a two-pronged attack on the drums while the throbbing bottom end and chimed arpeggios at the centre lead to closed eyes and swaying bodies as the audience surrenders itself to the music.

Thirteen may be unlucky for some, but good fortune just about smiles through tonight.

Julian Marszalek is the former Reviews Editor of The Blues Magazine. He has written about music for Music365, Yahoo! Music, The Quietus, The Guardian, NME and Shindig! among many others. As the Deputy Online News Editor at Xfm he revealed exclusively that Nick Cave’s second novel was on the way. During his two-decade career, he’s interviewed the likes of Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Ozzy Osbourne, and has been ranted at by John Lydon. He’s also in the select group of music journalists to have actually got on with Lou Reed. Marszalek taught music journalism at Middlesex University and co-ran the genre-fluid Stow Festival in Walthamstow for six years.