James Blake’s latest album represented a full circle moment for the multi-faceted producer turned singer-songwriter. As was clear in its spasmodic lead single ‘Big Hammer’, and followed-through on the twisting synths of ‘Fall Back’ and trickling ‘Night Sky’, Playing Robots Into Heaven marked a return to Blake’s association with Hemlock Recordings and Hessle Audio – independent labels that have proved a safe haven for electronic music’s most experimental acts, including Blake, who released his first two projects via them both respectively.
That’s not to say Blake’s albums since his self-titled debut in 2011 haven’t all exhibited some unusual, tricksy atmospherics, but Playing Robots Into Heaven has the touch of an artist decidedly returning to their electronic roots.
In many ways, what’s often made James Blake such a compelling listen is that his music has been challenging; tracks like his debut album’s ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ and ‘Digital Lion’ (from 2011’s Mercury Prize-winning Overgrown LP) sound like they were each recorded using numerous metronomes.
And just as some of Blake’s releases feel like their tugging away at themselves, so too is there a sense of a simpler artist beneath his electronic derring-do: one sat at the piano with nothing but an impressive vocal range. (Blake’s 2020 six-track Covers EP was arguably an attempt to take the spotlight away from his own productions and sing simply for singing’s sake, covering the likes of Billie Eilish and Roberta Flack).
At North London’s centrepiece Ally Pally venue, we were treated to both these sides of Blake: the tenor-pitched pianist and the grimacing electronic hype man, inducing the same charge as Fred Again..’s set at the same venue earlier in the month. It helps that Playing Robots Into Heaven opener ‘Asking To Break’ combines these two forces, and was used to commence Blake’s set, as a small plume of smoke rose around him onstage.
For an album as textured as Blake’s sixth record – and indeed much of his discography – there’s always a question mark as to how well it translates to the live setting. Twiddling dials behind a mixing desk is one thing, bringing them all together in-the-moment is quite another. But as early as second track ‘I Want You To Know’ (which neatly samples Pharrell’s ‘Beautiful’), you knew this would be a set of exceptional live orchestration.
In fact, Blake didn’t offer much by way of audience interaction (he’s not known for his onstage antics) but midway through did shoutout his bandmates – guitarist Rob McAndrews (who produces under the alias of Airhead) and drummer Ben Assiter – to make the point that “this is all 100% real; to me, that’s what being a band is.”
Much of the setlist did indeed sound as strong as it does on record, with ‘Limit To Your Love’, for instance – an example of a cover track that’s a genuine improvement on its Feist original – providing a shuddering beauty. Likewise, ‘Love Me In Whatever Way’, from 2016’s The Colour In Anything, was a layered wall of sound that proved almost hypnotic. Both these tracks also demonstrated that Blake wasn’t here for a limited plug of his latest record, but welcomely delved into old-timers.
There was a sense of mischief too, with Darude’s highly memeable trance track ‘Sandstorm’ interpolated into the beginning of Playing Robots Into Heaven number ‘Tell Me’. Whilst Blake often cuts a rather pensive figure – in the mould of a thoughtful “softboi”, also heavily present amongst the crowd – you couldn’t help but sense he was experiencing something akin to fun.
This was well-earnt from him and his bandmates. Here were experts in their craft. An extended version of ‘Voyeur’ and an improvised session before ‘Modern Soul’ exemplified an artist indulging themselves, much to the audience’s benefit. Conversely, the hummed simplicity of ‘Retrogade’ and the cover of Frank Ocean’s lovelorn ‘Godspeed’ saw Blake shower the crowd with some of his most-loved tracks.
The interweaving of such pared-back tunes with more dance-oriented moments produced a night that could be enjoyed on two separate levels. Indeed, Playing Robots Into Heaven might have been a full circle moment for James Blake, but that now means we can enjoy the full panoply of everything that entails – none more so than when it’s played live, “100% real”.