Arab Strap turned from post-rock grumps to beloved miserabilists over the course of an acclaimed 10 years from the mid-90s to 00s. After a tentative return in 2016, they released a fantastic new album last year. But they show no signs of resting on laurels tonight at Leith Theatre, pushing brazenly forward and demonstrating an interest in new arrangements, though with the same bitingly dark lyricism.
The Edinburgh International Festival seems to have learned from past years that shows with no opener result in a weird vibe and a crowd that all arrive just before the start time. It’s nice to have a support act to ease you into the night, but as much as Iona Zajac‘s lovely guitar jams (and they are great) provide a solid foundation, they rarely manage to penetrate the din of uninterested punters chatting away. It’s a good set, and certainly better than nothing, but I think this issue is a little wider than the EIF’s remit.
Arab Strap are in fine fettle, straight to business with the wonderful The Turning of our Bones. Its opening lines – “I don’t give a fuck about the past / Our glory days gone by” – is a perfect encapsulation of the forward-looking band. While nostalgia might pop up as a theme in some songs, it’s never rose-tinted, more likely edged with bile.
Songs from last year’s excellent As Days Get Dark hit with the most power – songs clearly designed to be played with the force of more than just two people. Compersion Pt. 1 and Here Comes Comus! provide the catchy hooks, while the haunting Bluebird speaks to the existential worries of love, with Aidan Moffat‘s low croon/speak at its best atop the metronomic beat.
Despite the future-facing outlook, there’s always time for The First Big Weekend, the duo’s signature song that is now soundtracking its 26th(!) summer. We might be nearing the end of summer, but it sounds just as glorious as ever, with Malcolm Middleton delivering his iconic lines in his typically laconic style, while Moffat is much more feverish, growling through his monologue with sardonic fervour.
Another couple of oldies surface during the encore from 1998’s Philophobia, as well the brilliant opener from Monday Night at the Hug & Pint: The Shy Retirer. It’s of a piece with the new material and a fitting closer, getting the crowd going and demonstrating that you don’t have to jettison the past to move forward. The music may be a little dour at times, but there’s no shortage of energy and enthusiasm tonight.