With over 15 years of history going back to when Felix Bechtolsheimer was playing as Hey Negrita, there’s a great deal of experience in Curse Of Lono yet they seem genuinely and pleasingly surprised at the sudden surge in popularity they have had in the last 18 months. Their latest album, their second, ‘As I Fell’, has been universally praised in the industry and the band were given the final seal of approval when it was announced by the AMAUK that they have been awarded the title of Bob Harris’s Emerging Act of the Year in the forthcoming AMAUK awards fest. There’s no doubt that they have achieved a unique “Curse of Lono” sound which is based on Felix Bechtolsheimer’s slightly deadpan and clearly English-sounding vocals, the wonderful array of sounds teased out on guitar by Joe Hazell and the pulsating and often slightly menacing rhythm and percussion laid down by Charis Anderson (bass and vocals) and Neil Findlay (drums) along with Dani Ruiz Hernandez (keyboards and vocals). Hazell is described by Bechtolsheimer as “our secret weapon” though as of autumn 2018 the secret seems to be out.
The recurring musical reminiscence for this reviewer was the 1990s underrated USA band The Walkabouts, whose songs often dwelt on the tense, threatening underside of life and sound tracked them to fit the mood. This mood is well summed up by Bechtolsheimer saying of the enigmatic cover of ‘As I Fell’ that it shows an ambiguity as to whether the couple “are falling in love or falling from grace,” or as they sing it, “when darkness and beauty collide”. That thread weaves through many of their songs with relationships treading a fine line between passion and disintegration. Lyrics such as “scrape me off the wall” in ‘Way To Mars’ exemplify the narrative in life a la Lono, as does the encore of ‘Valentine’, the brooding, thudding drums and bass underpinning the ambience. Across the set there are mentions of shadows and ghosts, choking, a bottomless pit, a loaded disease, crime scenes, smokescreens and the arresting image, “Winds are howling round my heart.”
There are hints of the Jayhawks in the opening track ‘Just My Head’ with its dark, folk rock vibe, and again in ‘Don’t Look Down’, with a great melody and jangling chorus of “It’s All Over/Now You’re Gone.” Next up is ‘Blackout Fever,’ heavy on the bass with the sound and lyrical tension recalling early REM in ‘Murmur‘ mode, whilst later in the set the jangling guitars and quick fire lyrics share ground with REM in more rock-pop mode around 1990. ‘He Takes My Place’ is slowed right down so as to keep the finely harmonised vocals central. ‘No Trouble’ features Bechtolsheimer banging a hand held drum to add a tub thumping beat and Hazell’s playing comes over in peak Keith Richards’ vein. ‘The Affair’ is a mighty song with Hazell’s searing guitar and the throbbing bass standing out. ‘And It Shows’ was written 18 years ago but only finally recorded for the recent album, in a studio near Joshua Tree in California. It refers to Bechtolsheimer’s post-addiction rehab of his earlier years.
Final cut, ‘Pick Up The Pieces’ has an anthemic chorus and an oddly glam rock tinge, like ‘Ballroom Blitz’ arranged for 21st century adults. On this showing, it would be no surprise if they break out of the “Americana” label and find a wider audience. It’s relatively rare for an emerging band to present a sound so distinctly their own, and Curse Of Lono are doing just that.
Support act, Izzy Walsh, belies her Manchester roots in her tasty approach to southern gothic country. Already a winner of the B.C.M.A Horizon Act of the year award and recently given a coveted spin on Bob Harris’s Radio 2 Country show, her five piece string-heavy band (banjo/mandolin/Dobro/double bass – all complementing Walsh’s acoustic guitar) are all clad in black. Her dynamic performance has notes of P J Harvey’s work with John Parrish or, within the roots sisterhood, Margo Price or Linda Ortega. Walsh herself commands the stage and promises much with her darting vocal style. Closing song ‘The Curse’ is a splendid highlight, the hefty lyrical content galloping along amidst swooping choruses.