Iamthemorning / The Flower Kings

Scala, London

8 December 2019

I like the Flower Kings well enough, but I wouldn't have made the journey to London just to see them. But when Iamthemorning were added as last-minute replacements for the advertised support band, that was a different matter. I would go anywhere to see Iamthemorning, even playing a shortened support set. The Flower Kings would just be a welcome bonus.

Every time I have seen Iamthemorning in London, their audience has been surprisingly mixed and disturbingly young. The Flower Kings' queue tonight is reassuringly old and grey. I feel like I'm going to a proper rock concert.

Scala is an interesting venue. The outside of the building suggests something old and grand, but inside it's just another generic square black box, and much smaller than I had expected. But the sound is good, even when I was at the front for Iamthemorning (you never get the best sound in the front row, but sometimes you just have to be there), the stage is large and well lit, and the all-standing venue is arranged on several tiers so there are good sight lines to the stage even after I moved back to watch the Flower Kings from a distance.

The first band on is Rikard Sjoblom (I think, forgive any errors in spelling and lack of Swedish accent marks tonight) on piano, guitar and vocals and Rachel Hall on violin and backing vocals. And I have to admit, I don't know them or their music, but I got the feeling most of the crowd did. They played a very short acoustic set, just four songs, and I was instantly a fan. Well, let's be honest, putting a violin on stage has me hooked immediately. But the songs were good and the playing was superb. I would happily hear a full-length headline version of this set from them.

The funny thing is, I suspect most of the crowd thought they were a prog act. I thought they would have fitted on the bill of any folk concert I've seen this year. Genres are funny like that.

Iamthemorning seem less well known than the opening act, though they definitely have a few fans here. And even more fans by the end of their set, I'm sure. How can you listen to Iamthemorning and not instantly love them?

Ok, I doubt that anyone who's bothering to read this doesn't already know who Iamthemorning are but: they are a duo of Marjana Semkina (voice) and Gleb Kolyadin (piano), and tonight they are backed up by a percussionist and cellist. They play 40 minutes, which is honestly more than I had dared hope for. Their set is a cut-down version of the set they played a couple of months ago, so there are no surprises for me tonight. The only real surprise is Gleb's hair cut. But that's ok, I didn't come for surprises, I came to see the best new band of modern times doing what they do best: playing rich, complex, emotive, classically-tinged songs about death and despair. Marjana sounds as beautiful as she always does and looks very happy to be on stage again. Given the short playing time her song introductions are less rambling than usual, but are enough to get the band's personality across. It's like Marjana in bullet points: we're Russian, here's a song about electro-convulsive therapy, dead girls, misery, the world is on fire, everything is going to hell, but I'm so happy to be here. And then Gleb plays such mind-boggling classical piano your jaw hits the floor, Marjana delivers her despair-laden lyrics with total conviction, and you just completely fall in love with them all over again. It's extraordinary. I don't know another band like them.

Best band in the world at the moment. And this is the best concert I've ever seen, no matter what comes next.

What comes next is ... incredible.

As I said, I like the Flower Kings, but I've never made the effort to see them live before. Oh, stupid me. Stupid, stupid idiot. How many years have I been missing out on this? Live, the Flower Kings are just incredible.

Roine Stolt sits down for the entire set. I wonder if this is what he always does, but at the end he tells us he's playing with a broken collar bone (!!!) so I guess that explains it. But it means that although Stolt is still the nominal front man and does all the introductions, it's left to Hasse Froberg to be the visual focus of attention, and he makes the most of it, throwing out all the rock star poses while switching from acoustic to electric guitar, to percussion, to very impressive vocals, all in the space of a single song. Froberg and Stolt alternate who takes the lead vocal and who takes harmony, as well as sharing lead guitar duties. But it's Stolt's guitar which, not really surprisingly, stands out, and he spends all night just rolling in and out of astounding solos, not just showing off his speed and dexterity but all of his beautiful feel and tone.

But it's not just the Stolt/Froberg show. On the left, Jonas Reingold plays his Rickenbacker bass like a lead instrument, and his delicate, beautiful, playful bass solo is probably the highlight of the night. Over on the right, Zach Kamins' keyboards don't just fill out the sound, they demand attention as the band's fourth lead instrument, and at the back, Mirko DeMaio's drumming is so busy and complex he's their fifth lead instrument. Yes, it's that kind of band, five virtuosos all vying for attention yet all coming together seamlessly to reproduce all the rich dynamics of their music. And what music it is. They play a balanced mix of the new album and their older material, and the new songs stand up just as strongly as any of the old. It's classic progressive rock, a timeless sound, full of rocking passages of dynamically shifting tempos and time signatures that give way to beautiful, soaring, melodic hooks. It's hard to believe any five people could reproduce their recorded music on stage, but they don't just reproduce it, they exceed it. And they rock through these complex 20-minute-long symphonies with so much apparent ease, while you're just standing there boggling, and thinking ... no, I can't, I can't even understand what you guys are doing, how can you do this?

The Flower Kings are an absolutely phenomenal live band. Now I know that, I'll see them again, for sure.

For an encore, they bring on every musician from the support acts and they all take part in a joyful (and surprisingly coherent) rendition of the Beatles' The Long and Winding Road, with such smiles all round (in the audience as well as on the stage), it's just a beautiful end to the evening.

And, hey, I've heard Marjana sing The Long and Winding Road backed by the Flower Kings. This is officially my Best Night Ever.

I am so happy.