Following a broken bone and a string of cancellations, Scotland’s North Atlantic Oscillation are finally out on the road in support of last year’s excellent The Third Day, their third LP on Kscope, and a substantial departure from the two that preceded it.
As the band kick into the single August, it becomes clear that the album works tremendously well live. The band’s stage set-up is leaner than it has been in the past – despite an extra member, Pete Meighan, on keyboards and vocals – and yet their sound is sharp and vividly drawn.
With a live projectionist on board, the band are lit mainly by the live visuals, giving the gig a Kraftwerk vibe, especially with the quota of keyboards per capita on stage. The epic Dust is suitably grandiose, and the Radiohead-esque Wires boasts a mesmerisingly incessant build. A Nice Little Place is a welcome break from more insistent, uptempo numbers from the new album, and also shows that frontman Sam Healy appears to be using a lot less vocal processing than in the past, instead using special effects and instruments to capture NAO’s trademark ethereal, electronic tones, opting to leave the vocal organic.
Judging by how busy the venue is compared to previous outings, new fans are voting with their feet, but NAO are more than happy to dig into their back catalogue. Early single Ceiling Poem is every bit the oddball pop masterpiece it ever was, while thrilling post-progressive tunes such as the soaring Alexanderplatz, emotive Drawing Maps From Memory and expansive Ritual from their 2010 debut Grappling Hooks have never sounded better. The visuals are exceptional, particularly during Drawing Maps…, bringing an extra dimension to the performance and hinting at the song’s macabre video.
Meanwhile, during tracks from the new album, the visuals echo the style of the illustrations in the Codex Seraphinianus, the eccentric encyclopedia of an imaginary world that inspired the artwork and videos for The Third Day. A number of cuts from their gauzy second album Fog Electric materialise as well; Soft Coda is a stronger live effort than memory suggested it would be, although its B-side, One Good Reason, would have been welcome – and Savage With Barometer is exceptionally atmospheric.
Closing with When To Stop, the final track on the new album, the set reaches a dramatic peak, and the song’s breathtaking climax yields the fact – more obvious live than on record – that NAO are making the best music of their career. The queue of fans waiting to congratulate them after the venue lights come back up suggests that maybe this most overlooked of cult new acts is finally getting the recognition they deserve.