The Institute of Contemporary Arts made for a bizarrely brilliant setting for HMLTD’s back-to-back night of shows for two reasons. First, arty is exactly what this kind of show was; a theatrical fest of performative prowess. Second, situated on the mall – where crowds turned out in droves just weeks ago to observe the King’s coronation – its location struck an eerie accord with the themes of the band’s latest project, The Worm.
Set in a version of Mediaeval England, this imaginative concept album figures the band’s frontman Henry Spychalski as a leader of guerilla group The Grunters, fighting back against the despotic Devertebrates – the feudal lords who’ve removed their spines in an act of sycophancy towards the giant Worm God that’s swallowed the earth. It sounds bonkers, and in many ways it is; but then, so is life, with its actual spineless politicians.
HMLTD were certainly dressed for the occasion, inspiring a degree of artistic licence among the audience, as they donned the same mediaeval garbs seen in the album’s accompanying photography.
But before they made an appearance, they had another worm to contend with, in support act Heartworms (real name, Jojo Orme). We spoke to the artist and Speedy Wunderground signee not too long ago, but tonight she exuded an altogether greater confidence. With a short head of hair and wearing all-black, she prowled the stage like a panther. Her vocal heckles were delivered with absolutely no fucks given, yells that repeat like mantra.
At one stage, reflecting her love of all things military (she’s frequently volunteered at Hendon’s Royal Air Force Museum and even released a set of model military Airfix planes earlier this year), she had the audience marching in tandem. Left. Right. Left. Right. Again, it ironically mimicked the King’s procession that had passed the road outside only weeks ago.
At other moments, she cast her hand out above a nifty piece of tech that whirred everytime she flicked her wrist, like a punk-rock magician. Her often melodramatic charm, as she glared her eyes and arms toward the ceiling before slumping her back towards us and burrowing away on guitar, made her an astute precursor for what would follow when the main act appeared.
For such a smorgasbord of sound The Worm offers – shifting from the glam-rock aspects of ‘Wyrmlands’ to the free-flowing jazz of ‘Past Life’, which interpolates Nina Simone’s version of ‘Sinnerman’, via the disco-inflect grandeur of ‘The End Is Now’ – it’s not easily crammed into a one-hour–twenty-minute set. A cacophony is easy to create without a degree of control. (The album is so sonically dense in fact that it features 47 musicians and a 16-piece string orchestra who recorded their parts in Greece).
Yet somehow, even if they have now cast a formidable reputation for their live shows, HMLTD have managed to pull this off. This is in large part thanks to the sheer charisma of lead singer Spychalski, who has a penchant for taking his shirt off – then putting it back on, before throwing it off again.
The band have been accused in the past, rightly or not, of ‘queerbaiting’, which in many respects is an act of not being aware of the line between artistic persona and real-world impression. Given The Worm is so extravagant, so flamboyant, and set in an entirely different epoch, excess is entirely necessary – and Spychalski has it in spades.
The night’s success was really a testament to how strong the album is and its rather ingenious pacing. The emotional rock guitar ending of ‘The End Is Now’, for instance, gives way to the sorrowful piano-backed ‘Days’ (which sounds like only a slightly more melodramatic James Blake tune), before the rousing energy returns with the shout-outs of “Power gets you high” on ‘Saddest Worm Ever’.
The night wasn’t an entire run-through of the band’s newest creation. Instead, the album was prised open on ‘Liverpool Street’, with some HMLTD fan favourites inserted in-between. Even if the crowd in the excessively large mosh pit didn’t quite know when to charge into each other during the electro-punk-rock ‘To The Door’, at least it still sounded good. The salacious ‘Music!’, meanwhile, was a reminder of how much variety there is to HMLTD’s catalogue to date.
When the second half of The Worm arrived, the energy had certainly been ignited; in time for the album’s convulsive title track and perhaps the greatest tune they’ve ever penned in the aforementioned ‘Past Life (Sinnerman’s Song)’, with its holy cries to “keep the faith”.
Following album closer and swaying crowd-pleaser ‘Lay Me Down’, we were hit with ‘Blank Slate’, taken from the band’s 2020 debut album West of Eden. This Bowie-like call for revolution, as Spychalski barks “Throw away your books / Rally in the squares / The world is ours and the world is a blank slate” again seemed apt, with Buckingham Palace’s presence felt just up the road. We might not have obeyed his command on this occasion, simply because we’d much rather stay and enjoy the vibrancy of the gig in hand.