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Saturday, October 13, 2018

Live Review: Rhian Sheehan - A Quiet Divide - Wellington (Michael Fowler Centre) October 12th 2018

I will confess up front that I’ve always been a champion of Sheehan’s work.  That goes back to the time he gave me a copy of his first album, Paradigm Shift, which he made in his little dingy Newtown flat on a computer and guitars.  I was impressed then and always have been by his experimental approach and continued scientific ‘bent’ to his music.  No doubt commissions with big hitters like NASA's 3D Planetarium shows and creating for exhibits and rollercoaster theme park rides and Weta workshop projects have influenced his compositional viewpoint, as have travel, especially to India a few years back.  And his work has always been revolved around space, and alternatively, more grounded themes like ecology and humankind’s exploitation of our planet. 

Tonight’s show was once again a very ambitious project.  Like his previous shows, it involved a mix of music and projections, combining a dream-like montage of visuals with challenging and highly charged thematic music.

The last show I saw was pretty ‘out there’, literally suspending images over the band.  That show was back in 2013, and a mix of music and images from his last two albums, Standing In Silence and Stories From Elsewhere – both impressive studies in ambient electronica with a smouldering cinematic undertow. 

Tonight we arrived at a room full of dry ice ‘smoke’ lit in greasy, gloomy tones like the marshlands before the ascent of Mount Doom.  On stage were three huge screens, running floor to ceiling and angled in a loose triangle, encasing some of the band.  In perfect symmetry, a large inverted triangular prism hung in the centre of this pseudo-pagan construction.  During the show, a vast array of different imagery would be projected across these curtains and through the prism which was made of a number of smaller mirrored triangles to diffract the light around the room.  This part reminds one instantly of early Pink Floyd shows and was perhaps a nod to that era by the designers from Weta Workshops, who created all this. 

Sheehan has brought back old collaborators including guitarist Jeff Boyle (Jakob), Ed Zuccollo on keys, pianist and partner Raashi Malik (Rhombus), bassist Marika Hodgson (Hollie Smith), vocalist Anna Edgington (EDIE), and percussionists Steve Bremner (The Adults) and Grant Myhill, who all were vital to bringing this elaborate recorded vision to life on the big stage.  

Flanked on stage right was a string section, provided by experimental jazz-classical ensemble Stroma, and led by conductor, Ewan Clark.  Stroma did a fair amount of the heavy lifting for this show, especially in the first half. Their treatment of the soaring piece We Danced Under A Broken Sky. Musically, this album was probably as close to a classical experience as Sheehan has gotten so far in his career.  The show opens with a yawning soundscape Elegy For The Past, reminiscent of German industrialists or early British electronica but then folds into more melancholic themes such as The Absence Of You and the delicious and lush Lost Letters, which was accompanied by visuals of dancing, watery figures.  On other tunes, there are themes lifted from Baroque themes, some Eno, Boards of Canada, hints of Jack Body’s Wellington scenes, perhaps, and Douglas Lilburn, pastoral connections, and even some Vaughan Williams.  It was suggested to me that the piano parts intentionally emphasised a number of ‘kiwi-tinged notes’.  I thought that was very apt, with themes and motifs that drew back through popular local soundtracks from television and movies like The Piano.

Photo : Grant McLean

Thematically, A Quiet Divide deals with our relationship with the past. “We understand our time is limited,” Sheehan says of this work, “and that every poignant moment we experience is fleeting, tinged with a little sadness, because we know every moment is ephemeral; every experience immediately evaporating into a memory, slowly fading, gone.”  No stronger is that sentiment than on Last Time We Spoke, which gravitates around a motif built around a simple wind up music box ditty, a recurring device in Sheehan’s music.  The music reflects the sadness of the loss of relationships and moments. Time is slipping away, like sands washing out to sea.  Much of this mostly downbeat set dwell on reflection and sorrow.  But, here and there, is optimism and a general feeling of hopefulness, especially in the closers (of the album and firsts half) on the swelling forces in April and 1982.

aka Tim Gruar
The second half revisits a material from Standing In Silence (2009) and Stories From Elsewhere (2013) which saw Sheehan start the journey away from his earlier electronica roots, stepping deeper into ambient orchestral soundscapes.  So it natural, given the themes of time and reflection to revisit some moments from these albums again. It was also satisfying to hear the orchestral elements on some of this earlier music come to life on the stage. 

Overall, the mix of old, new and the incredible visuals made this a great night - perhaps tinged with some sadness and reflection on the slipping of time.  I am still in awe of Sheehan’s ambitiousness! 

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