Shapeshifter are greeted by a different crowd upon returning to Brisbane's Hi Fi. Where the New Zealand group's 2011 appearance saw them delivering a sublimely soulful performance to a capacity crowd of passionate revelers, 2012 boasts a distinctly different ambience from the outset. There's a violence in the air.
Tonight's crowd is smaller and more aggressive. In a strange way, it's indicative of where Shapeshifter have started to take their sound since 2009's The System is a Vampire album. When the New Zealand quintet eventually take to the stage (following a typically stand-out showing from Brisbane drum'n'bass veteran DJ De La Haye), their opening number is a jagged, unpredictable blast of breakdowns and bass blasts.
While that assault eventually gives way to their traditional opening salvo Dutchies, it's oddly representative of the band's performance tonight. Still proudly showcasing their world-renowned blend of soul and drum'n'bass, Shapeshifter's performance is, much like their crowd, more aggressive and volatile than expected. The group's new material, in particular, proving both explosive and confronting.
Recent single Diamond Trade transitions from a sleek synth-pop to an ear-shattering dancefloor bomb in the live environment. The overwhelming, chaotic Monarch single – constantly shifting between from smooth jazz saxophone-enhanced melodies to cacophonous breakbeats and triplet breakdowns – makes sense in the context of the group's thunderous live performance.
The band's unreleased new material is especially challenging. One example floats along on an astonishingly minimal rhythm while another seems to slam together distorted, heavy metal power chords and anxious post-dubstep rhythms. It'll be difficult to know how it will all fit together when it's all eventually released next year. It's intriguing music – but worlds away from what many love about Shapeshifter.
Fortunately, the band don't forsake that heritage. The traditional array of highlights runs through the band's set. The aforementioned Dutchies is spectacular; Electric Dream remains goofy, rave-flavoured fun and set-closer One remains one of the most heartstoppingly beautiful productions drum'n'bass has ever seen. Impressively, these highlights are still delivered with a twist of originality.
Final encore Long White Cloud, for example, sports a colossal breakdown that the recorded version doesn't (but should). A song like Twin Galaxies, meanwhile, features many of the standard cliches of drum'n'bass – but boasts personality, lyricism and depth of almost revelatory profundity. Tonight's crowd don't really appreciate the sentiment of the song but those who pause and reflect are left visibly broken by the work.
Overall, it's a strange performance. Shapeshifter's adrenalised soul music wars with their more jagged new material and their crowd only exacerbates that conflict. Still, the band's musicianship and performances cannot be faulted. Frontman P-Digsss is simply one of the best vocalists in his country (or ours, for that matter) and the band's soundman Tiki Taane ensures their tricky blend of synths and live instrumentation always sounds stellar.
They're clearly in a period of transition and exploration. In a couple of years, they may be unrecognisable. For the moment, Shapeshifter still remain one of the better live acts on the planet.
Venue: The Hi Fi Bar | 125 Boundary Street, West End, Brisbane
Date: Friday 7th Dec, 2012
Bookings: At the door | Moshtix