Shot! Years & Years at the Brighton Centre

40 years ago, when he was creating Star Wars, George Lucas founded a special effects studio. He called it Industrial Light & Magic. Years later, that same moniker could also be an apt way of describing Years & Years’ gig at the Brighton Centre.

This was in fact my third time seeing the band in 2015 and from the moment I first heard King, it was obvious to me that there was something special about them. A notion confirmed after listening to the rest of their EP and validated still further when they headlined the Concorde 2 in March 2015. They were really impressive that night, buoyed no doubt that King was about to go straight to the top of the charts the next day.

Of course having also been named Sound of 2015 by the BBC and playing live at the Brits Awards event, their profile had been raised even beyond that of a band who were already on the lips of many a tastemaker.

Brighton’s Concorde 2 holds around 600 and it was packed, but the next time I saw them they were playing in front of a huge audience at the Wild Life festival where the London-based trio were similarly impressive. The other two may not like to hear it, but there’s no doubt that Years & Years is Olly Alexander. He’s unquestionably the star attraction, Emre Turkmen and Mikey Goldsworthy appear to do little more than support him musically. Without him, it’s unlikely they’d be in the spotlight, while without them, he’d undoubtedly still be huge.

When I reviewed that Concorde 2 gig, I said “Right from the off it was clear it was all about Olly.” I went onto say “The 25-year-old was not just the main man, but he was the only one everyone’s eyes were on. And for good reason, he’s the one with the star quality and he’s the one with the intoxicating voice.”

My review ended with the words “It won’t be long before they’re back, June sees them on the mainstage at Wild Life and, who knows, the next time they’re in town they could well be headlining Brighton Centre. Yes, they really were that good.”

So, fast-forward seven months and proof of Olly’s star power (and my predictive skills!) came at the Brighton Centre. The gig had long ago sold out and judging by the queues snaking round the back of the venue, Years & Years could have played more than one night. And no doubt, if Brighton had a 10,000 seat arena, that’s where they would have played. As it was, Olly revealed later that this was the biggest audience they’d ever played to as headliners.

So how did playing a much bigger venue change things? Well, that’s where the words Industrial, Light & Magic come to the fore. First, there was the sound. It was huge and industrial, sounding reminiscent of Depeche Mode. Indeed, with only three musicians (the trio are joined by a drummer, and have now added two backing singers) the music sounded suspiciously like much of it was pre-recorded.

Then there were the lights. Based on the album artwork created by Bristol-based design company Pretty Good, the angular LED backdrop was an illuminated pattern centred on the band’s ‘Y’ motif. Lit up in a variety of different ways by lighting designer Squib, it worked well at providing a dazzling hi-tech feel to the visual experience, which was aided by lots of other lights and even some lasers.

The magic itself came from two sources: Olly’s voice and the vocal support of the audience. I’ve previously described the former as intoxicating and I have to say the latter was some of the loudest I’ve heard in a long time. Perhaps it was no surprise that the chants were all for Olly rather than for Years & Years.

Once the rest of the musicians has taken their stations onstage, Olly appeared to One Direction-like screams. The show began with the pulsatingly atmospheric album opener Foundation before going straight into the bouncy, perfect pop of Take Shelter which had everyone dancing.

Whilst his bandmates remain static, Olly never stops moving. Rake thin and wearing a white basketball shirt (the exact same one he wore at Wild Life by the way) and baggy camo pants, he’s interesting to watch. His newly cropped and dyed blonde hair give him a touch of the Eminem’s. As you’d expect for someone who is also an actor, his face is very expressive, but I do wish he’d sing more often with his eyes open rather than closed.

Sonically, all the songs sounded way bigger and way more metallic than they do on the record. With just an album’s worth of material, it was always going to be a short set, but fortunately the album contains some great pop songs. Two of their best, namely Take Shelter and Desire, came early on, but once again it was when Olly sat at the piano and slowed things down for the gorgeous ballad Memo that the true quality and range of his voice was most apparent. Another highlight was Ties, which with its shades of Too Shy, reminds me of Limahl and Kajagoogoo.

As well as Kajagoogoo, I’ve said in the past there were elements of Bastille about Years & Years sound, but having thought about it, maybe Tears For Fears is actually a better comparison. 30 years ago, they had a huge hit with Everybody Wants To Rule The World. Based on what Years & Years have achieved so far and how quickly they’ve reached the giddy heights they now occupy, it seems ruling the world is exactly what Olly and his band will be doing. Global domination is almost a foregone conclusion.

Follow Years & Years at @yearsandyears

Follow Olly at @alexander_olly

Years & Years debut album Communion is available now

“To me, shooting live music is all about capturing the personality of the performer and the emotion of their performance. And then creating an iconic image.”

Behind the image: All these images were shot handheld with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and either the 12–40 2.8 Pro or the 75 1.8 lens using available light only. I was allowed only to shoot the first three songs from the pit. The lighting for the first of those was almost entirely red (which is terrible to photograph). Typically, from then on, the lighting became really interesting. As he sung with his eyes closed much of the time, getting expressive shots of Olly proved much more difficult than on the two previous occasions I shot him. Shot in Brighton on 24 October 2015.

This review originally appeared in BN1 magazine

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