Atribute to the great 19th-century engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Rotherhite’s Brunel Museum was originally built by his brother as part of the Thames Tunnel infrastructure, and was also reportedly host to the world’s first underground party, in 1827.
Clearly attempting to channel dormant spirits, Shards have taken over the vaulting subterranean rotunda for a night of immersive theatre, Victorian mysticism and occult acrobatics – an ambitious project for a band only playing their third show. Fronted by Melissa Gray, former vocalist for fearsome death/black metallers Adorior, this is a very different affair. Musically on the acoustic end of the occult spectrum, their neo-folk rites are acts of invocation and hymns to transformation, and the buzz that’s preceded tonight has brought a full house as inquisitive metalheads rub up against punters in period attire, all having crawled through tiny doorways and down scaffolding, no one entirely sure what’s about to unfold.
Amidst a stage bedecked with foliage, a suspended wreath-adorned ring and numerous damsels looking like they’ve come from one of Aleister Crowley’s Golden Dawn parties, a Victorian vagabond narrates a fevered intro before a horned Melissa eventually appears, strips off her cowl and heads to the right of the stage for an impressive if historically dubious bout of pole dancing. From here on in, she prowls the stage, prowls through the audience, performs more acrobatics on the ring and introduces tarot readers, male acrobats, ghoulish brides and grooms depositing fake snow from the scaffolding above and relates a tale of love, death and rebirth to ultimately bewildering effect.
Sonically, Shards are mesmerising, the cyclical rhythms unfolding with intricate attention to detail, but for all the intimacy and rarefied air they provoke, tonight doesn’t quite reach the level of magick it’s aiming for. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a band whose outings have been so rare, and despite all the gravity-defying choreography, tonight doesn’t allow for a full-suspension of disbelief, and for all the theatricality of the performance, the vocals often come across as too earnest and there’s still more self-consciousness than the outright abandon that would truly create something transformative.
It’s a brave and ambitious endeavour, but right now Shards are running before they’ve learned to walk.