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London WC2 Theatre Royal

You want to spacewalk but the plush theatre seats make it hard...

London WC2 Theatre Royal

In an ultraviolet twilight, five men all dressed in white (like angels or scientists) assemble onstage. Deep frequency space noises bounce off the baroque walls and rattle our vestigial tail bones. Soon we won't have ears left, either. There are at least ten keyboards up there, all set to maximum warp; there's a Theremin and some [I]Star Trek[/I] hand-held boxes whose function isn't clear. One synth auxiliary sports a mullet, another has hair down to his solar plexus; somehow we have fetched up in the early-'70s and this is the Prog Keyboard Orchestra. Help...



It was never meant to be like this. The thousands of people who bought 'Moon Safari' for its starry-eyed post-party vibe could not have expected the Pink Floyd odyssey that Air kick off with, and occasionally relapse into throughout the evening. But then they probably didn't foresee the reserves of mischief and distorted rock guitar lurking in Air's modish, retro-futurist bubble, either.



Tonight's wig-outs are not a total surprise: anyone who saw Air tear through their hits with all the religiosity of a Tasmanian devil on[I] Later[/I]... will know Jean-Benont Dunckel and Nicolas Godin are unfazed by the cultural ripples emanating from their second album. If anything, they seem to want to sabotage their cosy status as this year's sonic wallpaper. And if it takes a mix of [I]2001[/I] pisstakes and bloody-eared meltdowns, so be it.



'Kelly Watch The Stars' is their first victim. "This is sort of a schizophrenic song," confides Nicolas sweetly, as pumping Eurodisco beats and hypersonic squelches mangle their prettiest tune into a smoking heap. It's an utterly ridiculous and inspired act of creative destruction. And it's not half as sick as what they do to 'Sexy Boy'.



But before that, there's a new song, 'Be A Bee', a stupidly brilliant hive of psychedelic sound that melts hypnotically into The Beatles' 'Tomorrow Never Knows'. The fluid bathing our brains curdles. Then some whirrs, farts and groans take us down to the starkest of electro funk-outs. This is 'Sexy Boy': it sounds like a robot orgy on a PVC couch. Air's bass player Justin, borrowed from Beck's band, does some body-popping. You want to spacewalk but the plush theatre seats make it hard.



This dizzying mayhem does come dosed with beauty, though. Because for all Air's desire to play havoc with our expectations, they're still the dreamy Moog archivists who wrote 'Le Voyage De Penelope' and 'La Femme D'Argent'; both are revisited gracefully tonight. And the electronic folk of 'All I Need' and 'You Make It Easy' flows without so much as a snigger, since American singer Beth Hirsch is on hand to ooze sincerity. Her mic fails to work for half a song; the cheer that goes up when she's finally plugged in could well be down to relief at hearing a human voice after Air's kitschy robo-talk. J-B only speaks through a vocoder; eventually, Nicolas cracks and starts nattering happily in a mixture of French and English. Their Paris posse are in the house, and so we are treated to a cover of a French cartoon theme tune. Disappointingly, it's not [I]Belle Et Sebastien[/I].



But for all their Moog pyrotechnics, Nicolas' treated serenades are the most honest and pristine of Air's moods tonight. 'Le Soleil Est Pres De Moi' weeps with melancholy and unease in turn, while 'J'ai Dormi Sous L'Eau' builds from an ambient trickle to a fluid drone-rock finish. They do two encores, but nothing comes close to these delicate parcels of oscillating feeling - synthesised, but not synthetic.



Air may want us to think their oeuvre is there to be demolished in one big sonic raspberry, but we know better.

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