Fanfarlo Venue, Vancouver BC, March 29

Fanfarlo Venue, Vancouver BC, March 29
Photo: Joshua Peter Grafstein
Fanfarlo are generally introduced as the project of Swedish musician Simon Balthazar. While it's true that Balthazar formed the group in 2006 and has since helmed three studio full-lengths under the name, if this show was any indication, their approach is far more democratic. While the vaguely depressing yet ultimately triumphant voice of Balthazar sits at the core of their sound, a voice somewhere between Gruff Rhys (Super Furry Animals) and David Byrne (Talking Heads), the music was always presented as a united group effort. They had a truly balanced sound.

 Bearded bassist Justin Finch and ace percussionist Valentina Magaletti (also of the Oscillation) locked down the rhythms, allowing the rest of the band to move freely within their progressive indie pop rock compositions. Balthazar played acoustic and electric guitar alongside several saxophone forays, Leon Beckenham split his time between trumpet and keys and Cathy Lucas moved between keys, violin and the musical saw. As on their recent apocalyptic pop record Let's Go Extinct, the angelic voice of Lucas backed up Balthazar's every step of the way, the June Carter foil to his Johnny Cash.

For one of their most impactful moments, Balthazar moved over to digital piano to play "Vostok, I Know You Are Waiting," a song about a freshwater lake that has been preserved for a million years under four kilometres of ice in the Antarctic. This track flowed effortlessly into "The Beginning and the End," on which Lucas played the musical saw, evoking the spooky sound of the Theremin.

It wasn't a perfect gig, though. The London-based collective started off rather hesitantly, barely acknowledging the crowd for three-quarters of their set. They seemed, perhaps, a little overwhelmed by the 12,000 square foot room that is Venue, about four times as big as the Media Club and twice as big as the Biltmore, the places they headlined their last two times in Vancouver. The crowd was relatively sparse, increasing the sense of space.

However, those who were there were not afraid of showing their love, and the band loosened up over time. While Balthazar didn't interact with the crowd much early, aside from mentioning the odd song's subject matter, he later embraced a more conversational tone. He apologized for the hard curfew responsible for the early show and, at one point, returned the audience's hoots, then one-upped them with a humorous "meow." For their encore, they ditched their written set list to take up an audience member on his request to hear "We Are the Future," conclusively proving their affability and aim to please.

The more baroque-pop aspects of their recordings were toned down a touch in this setting, the violin sitting a little low in the mix and the flute gone, but there was still good timbral variety and nary a misplaced note throughout. It was a well programmed set, proven by some of their smooth transitions between songs, yet they were open to suggestion. "Cell Song" from Let's Go Extinct and "I'm a Pilot" from their 2009 debut Reservoir provided uplifting, heartwarming moments, but even in their more grandiose songs, there was no grandstanding or showboating. They just delivered straightforward albeit well-rounded synth pop, vaguely androgynous and openly apocalyptic.

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