“Hello Manchester, we are Highasakite, thank you for coming to our ‘Uranium Heart’ tour” intoned Ingrid Helene Håvik in her faltering English, then the band ignored their new album for half an hour to play previous classics.
It was one of numerous strange moments during Norway’s biggest band’s first visit to Manchester since May-2016. Ingrid had already walked on stage in a costume that wouldn’t look out of place in Game of Thrones only to be disrobed by a mysterious figure in black who then disappeared into the wings behind a curtain where he contributed occasional bass guitar and twiddled a few knobs, the audience largely oblivious to his presence.
Meanwhile, in the bar area there was no merchandise on sale, not a single T-shirt, the second time Highasakite has pitched up in Manchester without their latest album to sell. You couldn’t help but get the impression things were being done on the cheap. Stage lighting and props were basic unlike previous tours where they brought a lighting expert with them. Drummer Trond Bersu’s kit during the previous ‘Camp Echo’ tour looked like something off the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise, with its flashing neon overhead pads. Tonight’s version looked like they’d picked it up from Cash Convertors on Oldham Street for fifty quid half an hour before the show.
But then the extravagant tour bus parked outside might be the one used by Beyoncé or the Rolling Stones even though they were only here for two shows. They could have taken the Megabus up from London.
Highasakite is, of course, in a period of transition; not that far removed from the five-year one at Old Trafford since old Alex hung up his hairdryer (and now seemingly put right by the return of a Norwegian). They have gone full circle back to the Trondheim Conservatory duo they started off as – Håvik and Bersu – by way of an acrimonious split which saw three of the most talented musicians in Norway, Øystein Skar, Kristoffer Lo and Marte Eberson, depart. It’s like The Beatles breaking up to leave just John and Ringo.
So the tour line-up features a couple of synthesiser and guitar players who I guess are session men (they weren’t introduced). They certainly had ample kit between them, Highasakite always does. I recall Gordi, who opened for them at the Deaf Institute last time out, quipping, as she teetered precariously on the edge of the stage, that Highasakite is “the band with the most gear in the world”. This time there were four synthesisers. (Last time out there were seven). The stage was full and BotW’s stage is big.
If you’ll pardon another football analogy, the show was one of ‘two halves’ in the sense that Highasakite performed historical material from ‘Camp Echo’ and ‘Silent Treatment’ that had previously been played to audiences here by the earlier incarnation of the band, and new, ‘Uranium Heart‘ material that belongs solely to the duo (and for which Bersu had been elevated to album Producer). By my calculations this was only the third occasion the new material had been performed live.
The ‘Uranium Heart’ songs, even allowing for there being no ‘comparison’, were excellent, far transcending what I expected when I reviewed the album several weeks ago. Right from the off, with that album’s opening song, ‘Too Early’ Ingrid demonstrated yet again her unique, almost supernatural vocals while ‘Revolution’, which I’d dismissed as “a bit of synth-based plodder, barely enlightened by a middle eight of any great quality” took on a whole new aspect.
Later in the set ‘Uranium Heart’ reappeared as a series of songs that got better and better. I said in the album review that I was sure ‘Mexico’ would be a live show favourite and it was as Ingrid turned it into a new anthem. ‘Egomaniac’ far exceeded expectations but the highlights came in the form of two of the quieter numbers, the album’s title track and ‘Stick with You’.
For ‘Uranium Heart’ itself, a composition in a style completely new to Highasakite, one more in the manner of Kacey Musgraves, Trond Bersu deserted his kit to strum a guitar, perched on the edge of the stage as if around a camp fire in the desert. Then, at the end of ‘Stick with You’ which followed it an audience member in front of me couldn’t restrain himself, gasping ‘lovely’ as it ended. I agree. It was.
As for the songs from previous albums, Highasakite served up a pot pourri, some of them doing the job while others didn’t.
The set opener, unusually, was the bleak but powerful ‘Hiroshima’. I’ll digress for a second here to talk about Trond Bersu, one of the crispest strikers of drum skins, cymbals and pads you’ll ever see, with his slightly unorthodox shuffling style and a perfect role model for young aspiring drummers. The metronomic way in which he delivered, as always, the fast semi-military beat to ‘Hiroshima’, was a joy to behold from up on the balcony.
But even that couldn’t detract from the fact that this ‘Hiroshima’ wasn’t a patch on the old one. Apart from the missing flugabone (a squashed trombone with valves, plugged into an amp) of Kristoffer Lo – which really made the track – and with all due respect to the highly competent session men, it was a little like asking lower league utility players to step into the boots of Hazard, De Bruyne and Pogba for a Premier League season. That bit extra, that flair, the je ne sais quoi, was absent.
‘Hiroshima’ in 2014
While they made a good fist of songs such as ‘My Name is Liar’ and ‘My mind is a bad neighbourhood’, they aren’t particularly taxing to play. Rather, the difference was really evident on ‘God Don’t Leave Me’, to my mind one of the most beautiful songs ever written and performed to perfection by the old Highasakite. But tonight the keyboard dexterity in the complex outro wasn’t there and, critically Ingrid’s vocal reference point, the support provided by Marte Eberson, was missing.
That meant that Bersu, along with the session men, had to provide backing vocals, something I’ve never heard him do before, and the result, while adequate, was nowhere near what it used to be. Indeed, while I am no vocal coach I’m sure I even heard Ingrid slip out of key on a couple of occasions on the night.
Much the same applied to the other material. ‘Golden Ticket’ was a shadow of the song they played at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in 2016, the signature ‘Since Last Wednesday’ lacked Skar’s craft, Lo’s stage dynamism, its huge finish and even its echoing “whoaah…whoaah” has gone walkabout.
The closer, as ever, was ‘Lover, where do you live’. An excited lady next to me loudly demanded it, only be ‘shussed’ by Ingrid; it is clearly a song that means a lot to both of them.
While it was delivered as emotionally as ever by Ingrid, again there was something missing and again it was the quality of that previous musical support, including Lo’s furiously bowed guitar and Eberson’s vocal backing.
‘Lover, where do you live’ at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert, 2016
None of this really mattered that much to the audience of course. Highasakite has dedicated fans the world over and everything was well received and loudly cheered. While privately Highasakite is my favourite band I make these comments because I am a critic and I am expected to criticise. It goes with the territory.
During the show it struck me, as indeed it did when reviewing the album, that with some of the ‘Uranium Heart’ songs Ingrid has reinvented herself or at least gone back to her solo roots, to when she recorded her 2014 album ‘Babylove’. You might even argue that she should break with the past altogether and perform with Trond Bersu only the songs from ‘Uranium Heart’ live, although that would be extreme and guaranteed to irritate longstanding supporters.
Highasakite now move on to play seven arena shows in Norway, where they are, or at least were, deity; the 350 or so audience in BotW tonight becoming possibly over 100,000 in their home country where reactions to the split have been mixed.
Like the Starship Enterprise, they are setting out on a new adventure, boldy going where they have never gone before. We wish them well on their journey.