The veil of the mystery around cult electro-pop act Chromatics lifted temporarily at White Oak Music Hall on Sunday night, and the band’s excellent releases and spotty touring schedule meant a healthy crowd ventured out to see them.
The Los Angeles-via-Portland group did not disappoint the Houston contingent with their effortlessly cool vibe and soundscapes that drew on sounds from the past to point the way towards the future.
All three acts on the bill, including In Mirrors and Desire, find their home on record label Italians Do It Better, co-founded by Chromatics member Johnny Jewel, also a producer for many of its acts. It slowly built itself into one of the trendiest independent homes of artists in the streaming era, drawing heavily on elements of new wave, post-punk and Italo disco.
While being around since the 2006, Chromatics received a major boost when the group appeared on the soundtrack to avant-noir 2011 Nicholas Refn film, Drive, starring Ryan Gosling, winning many new fans in the process. Chromatics made the most of the newfound attention and released the superb 2012 collection, Kill for Love, one of that year’s best albums.
Since then, the Chromatics output has been spotty, a new album threatened, but never delivered. Only a series of singles satiated a growing fanbase’s hunger for more music. An appearance on David Lynch’s revived Twin Peaks series — performing at the Bang Bang Club — only grew the band’s stature.
After a set from In Mirrors, opener Desire served as the perfect appetizer to the main course: ethereal synths, four-to-the-floor beats by live drummer Nat Walker, and an intriguing presence by lead singer Megan Louise (and Italians Do It Better President), dressed in red and latex. They recalled the pop sensibilities of ‘80s synth heroes the Human League mixed with the melodic rhythm of Discovery-era Daft Punk. In other words, glorious, especially their cover of the timeless “Bizarre Love Triangle” and set closer “Under Your Spell.”
That gave way to Chromatics opening, with Drive centerpiece “Tick of the Clock” serving as an intro. Lead singer Ruth Radelet joined Jewel, Walker, and guitarist/keyboardist Adam Miller for the Ladytron-meets-Kraftwerk “Lady,” her presence suggested the Velvet Underground’s Nico, a blond shock of hair that wouldn’t be out of place at Andy Warhol’s Factory.
Many of the songs included programmed beats and effects, but there was a surprising amount of rock and roll swagger to the impossibly cool band. Whether it was Miller’s leather jacket, Jewel’s ‘70s mop haircut, silver scarf and blouse, or the striking aura of Radelet, it was pretty clear Chromatics members put a lot of effort and thought into establishing their look.
Visuals on three screens directed by Jewel veered from classical statues, to apples, to rainy neon streets, and space, all which kept with the band’s art-leaning tendencies. A masterful light show added to the futuristic ambiance, turning White Oak into our very own version of the Bang Bang Club.
While the set did not feature a sure-fire single in the sense of a radio hit (“Cherry” and “Shadow” probably come the closest), Chromatics built a vibe that rewarded patience. Whether it was the gradual build of dancefloor banger, “Blue Girl,” or the glorious cacophony of the outro of “I Can Never Be Myself When You’re Around,” the night was more about creating an atmosphere, gorgeous neo-noir soundscapes of layered synths, syncopated by live drum beats and minimalist guitar hooks.
A few times songs reached transcendence, pushing into the stratosphere. Those came on the Miller-vocoderized vocal turn of “These Streets Will Never Look the Same,” which transformed into an exciting beat-driven electro track. Fan favorite “Shadow” pulsated even better than the recorded version. “Kill for Love” and “Time Rider” leaned heavy into romantic new wave.
If there were any complaints from the evening, it would be that Radelet’s vocals were too buried in the mix. Thankfully, she was able to make up for during one of three covers near the end of the night in a harrowing solo rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire.” The other two covers, Neil Young’s “Into the Black,” and Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God),” worked to varying degrees, no surprise the latter, already synth-heavy, song standing out as a highlight.
Judging by the steady line for band merch in which CDs and posters went for an affordable $5 each, Chromatics’ legion of fans will continue to adore the band long into the future. Let’s only hope that devotion is rewarded by new music soon from this special, unique group.
“Tick of the Clock”
“Kill for Love”
“Back From the Grave”
“I Can Never Be Myself When You’re Around”
“These Streets Will Never Look the Same”
“I Want Your Love”
“Into the Black (Neil Young cover)”
“I’m On Fire (Bruce Springsteen cover)”
“Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)”