Ultraísta @ Echoplex, October 19, 2012

Nigel Godrich’s Ultraísta–referring to them as such not to diminish in the least the roles of other members (Laura Bettinson [vocals/controllers]; Joey Waronker [drums/laptop]) but only as a quick broad description of a new band–made their U.S. debut the other night at the Echoplex.

The good news is that while they might be a producer’s “project”, once they hit their stride a few songs in, they do start feel like a proper band. So can we kill the dreaded “project” term. (I cringe when I hear a Chris Douridas say “new work from a new project by…”)

They already have their visual style locked down–unique projections for each song, a video soup of color bars, camera feedback, artfully blurred overexposed photography, sparklers, tapping into the hallucinogenic imagery of a lot of the 90’s shoegaze videos.

Even at this early stage, something like their 5th or 6th show ever, with pros like Nigel and Joey on board, the level of craft is high as expected. Working with a spare stage set up of a few controllers, some occasional electric bass and drums, they lay down a dense electronica of classic and new synth sounds and lots and lots frantic choppy beats by Joey. (Some of the beats and textures at play here do recall those of King of Limbs, though that’s were the similarities between that group and this group end.)

Nigel expectedly does most of the between song chatting, joking early on that they could be terrible and that they’re “’havin’ a laugh” with all this. He’s clearly comfortable to be back in his adopted hometown and on the same stage he’s played previously alongside that Thom Yorke guy.

With the two boys more or less known quantities, the mystery here is Laura and all eyes on her. Her vocals toe a line between twee and soul and navigate the atmospherics nicely. She gets live sampled and looped here and there to blend a nice controlled chaos. She’s finding her stage presence and a bit of awkwardness is understandable and a bit charming. She’s clearly not going to be the motionless ice queen type but has a bit of diva in her to get out. I can see her ending up closer to a Shirley Manson type than Toni Halliday type, to throw out a couple names and make an unfair premature comparison.

Their m.o. eschews verse/chorus structure for grooves that layer and build, dropout and build up again. Overall, it’s tasty stuff. Not your dentist office background electronica, but active, engaging stuff. Personally, I wouldn’t mind some more blank space moments to let things breathe a little more and maybe a little more menace. Maybe on the next record.