The Garage, London
October 24, 2011
HTRK have always been a difficult band to love. Once you got used to their narco-minimalism and faceless anonymity that pervaded their artwork, you realised they weren’t a band seeking attention, merely like-minded souls to tumble down their rabbit hole. They weren’t looking for you, you were looking for them. They ply romance as being one of their tenets, but their music is neither romantic nor seductive. More confessions of bitterness and jealousy from a self-loathing voyeur unable to look away from what attracts them, or the last words of a dying emotion. This was no affectation, no conscious design to portray themselves as intense individuals creating challenging music, but more an attempt to give voice to their own inner demons, their own fears and weaknesses.
It’s hard to be objective about a band when your introduction was through the same member who decided to take own his life in March of 2010. Sean Stewart was the beautiful heart of HTRK, his bass-playing a formidable and driving presence in their sound, both live and on record. Listening to the band perform without him for the first time, having missed their ICA return late last year, is a moment filled with sadness while being conscious that something is missing, something important, the sense of nostalgia that pervaded HTRK’s songs now made visible. Unspeaking throughout the show, both vocalist Jonnine Standish and guitarist Nigel Yang have the hardest of tasks ahead of them. The detached stare of Standish, gazing out beyond the assembled, is impenetrable as ever and so little appears to have changed, yet so much has.
Work (Work, Work) is a valiant attempt to salvage the last moments of HTRK in its original incarnation, but it falls short in delivering the same haunting allure that was found on their debut LP. Where HTRK were once a hypnotic, transfixing experience, the effect now is disjointed and disorienting, a stuttering collage of fragmented beats and shards of guitar with Standish a ghostly emotionless presence. Again, so little appears to have changed, yet so much has. The absence of that bass groan, the absence of Sean, has shifted an unconscionable weight between Standish and Yang that neither seem able to carry. It’s unfair to expect the transition to be a smooth one, and perhaps it’s an adjustment that both audience and artist need time to get used to.