Richard Barbieri at Hoxton Hall, London - live review

Atmospheric solo show for former Japan and Porcupine Tree luminary

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

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First built in 1863, this recently restored listed building is innately atmospheric, its iron rails and columns suggesting gravitas and grandeur. It’s a canny choice of venue for this show, wherein Richard Barbieri proves again his vision and versatility, conjuring an array of cinematic sounds and surprises from his bank of keyboards, synthesisers and laptops. His easy-going humour prevents it being a chin-stroking boffin masterclass, while Swedish collaborator Lisen Rylander Löve, joining him onstage, brings an ocean of singular flavours. Dipping into most phases of his career, this is a celebration of electronica, of the exploratory urge in music and of this relatively unsung hero himself.

The rare live performance is in support of Barbieri’s new album Planets + Persona, which has won ecumenical plaudits. Ambient avant-garde jazz? Progressive space rock? It’s all about duality, multivalence and unpredictability. Few albums this year will reveal their glories so subtly. While tonight its peaks are climbed, there are enough nods within the setlist to Barbieri’s previous pinnacles – whether with Japan or Porcupine Tree – to please long-term converts to his alchemy.

Night Of The Hunter (Innocence Lost) and Solar Sea draw us in, these new pieces restrained but gathering momentum as Rylander Löve adds saxophone, percussion and treated vocals. She’s a real discovery, her smart improvisations dovetailing beautifully with Barbieri’s treasure-chest of textures. She leaves awhile, our man quipping that, “It’s not every night you share the stage with a genius. And tonight, for Lisen, that night came.” Our chuckles are filed away as, lo and behold, we realise he’s serving up a radical reimagining of Japan’s poignant Ghosts. Shorn of vocals, it retains the broodiness but brings in beats and strings which move and thrill. Barbieri seems startled by the rapturous applause, though it’s a safe bet that’s the favourite-ever song of half this audience. That he can deconstruct it so unsentimentally yet keep our approval is another sign of his inspired musical instincts.

There’s the Tangerine Dream-like techno of Medication Time, then Barbieri plays his 1980 Japan b-side The Experience Of Swimming, sprinkling in shades of Nightporter. Löve returns for Unholy, the new album’s dark horse (as Barbieri berates religion, as opposed to spirituality), and New Found Land. As an encore, the Porcupine Tree track Idiot Prayer is reworked, booming like Steve Hillage-era Simple Minds. There’s a standing ovation, for a long-standing pioneer.

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.