❉ Samantha Reynolds reviews Covenant with Empathy Test at Ivory Blacks, Glasgow.
We were inside the gig venue, Ivory Blacks in central Glasgow, by 5.30pm as my chum Bridget Gray was interviewing Empathy Test for Radio Warwickshire prior to the gig kicking off. There is something quite grim about venues when they are cold and empty (especially small venues like Ivory Blacks, which is basically one big room), Empathy Test were sound checking, a solitary barman was setting the bar up and doors banged open and shut letting in freezing air and people shaking themselves like dogs as it was, as we say in Scotland, pishing doon outside. After being in a dressing room where the only warmth came from a tumble dryer, we were looking forward to body heat from happy people, lights and beautiful loud music.
Two well liked and respected local bands, Carnival and Jesus Loves America opened the show for Covenant and Empathy Test, but due to prior commitments I didn’t get to see either. All reports say that they were both energetic and entertaining and got an excellent reception from the near capacity audience.
Having seen Empathy Test’s sound check and sat in on the interview with Radio Warwickshire, I had a far better ‘feel’ for the band than I had previously. I had been to two prior gigs where Empathy Test had been on the bill, but had only caught a couple of songs each time, and, I had listened to both of the 2017 album releases (funded by a Pledge Music campaign that reached 661% funding!) ‘Losing Touch’ and ‘Safe From Harm’, I know people who love them more than they love their own mothers, but also know people who have real issues with them and think them the actual spawn of the Devil. Armed with all this I went into watching and listening to their gig, quite firmly on the fence and with an open mind.
Empathy Test are essentially childhood friends Issac Howlett (vocals/songwriting/design) and Adam Relf (songwriting/production/creative direction), but as Adam chooses not to perform live, Issac is backed up on stage by Christina Lopez (drums) and Samuel Winter-Quick on keyboards. Empathy Test are very in demand as a support band, especially for long established, well known bands in the electronic genre with whom they have toured extensively in Germany, this exposure has given them new audiences to play to and win over, and given that there were a lot of people at this gig who had come only to see Empathy Test, those support slots, have paid off.
Empathy Test perform a 40 minute set comprising of 9 songs, all of which are collated on the recently released albums. Opening with ‘Vampire Town’, the crowd are immediately reeled in, and I can see that there is a real emotional investment within the crowd, in this band’s music, there is a lyrical hook in every song. Issac is a confident and animated front man, with a pure effortless vocal that, backed up by Christina and Sam’s soft layered backing vocals, illustrate the rather dark and yearning lyrics with light and shade.
By the time the band get to the fourth song in the set, ‘Everything Will Work Out’, some of the audience around me have totally gone to pieces and there is much emotional incontinence going on! The last three songs, ‘Demons’, ‘Losing Touch’ and ‘Here Is The Place’, ramp this energy up and the band finish the set on a crowd reaction driven high. This is a clever, savvy and well-armed (musically) band, and one to watch.
Covenant, 32 years and 9 albums deep (11 if you count the 2 live albums) into their career have a treasure trove of back catalogue to delve into, and their 16 song set, although in essence in support of their 2016 release ‘The Blinding Dark’, covers the landscape of their music going right back to their 1994 first album ‘Dreams of a Cyrotank’. Covenant are Eskil Simonsson and Joakim Montelius who put Covenant together in Helsingborg in Sweden back in 1986 along with Clas Nachmanson. Joakim remains Eskil’s partner in crime but Clas no longer works with the band and as Joakim no longer tours, Eskil is supported on stage by his long time, well-seasoned band of brothers Daniel Myer and Daniel Jonasson. Covenant are hard to pigeon hole musically, but they essentially produce a hard-core electronic sound backed by darkly beautiful poetic and insightful narrative lyrics.
The Covenant set opens with ‘Like Tears in Rain’ from their 2000 album United States of Mind, the familiar stabbing opening beat brings the crowd forward, and from among the plentiful dry ice on the stage the band appear. Eskil Simonsson is a beautiful, intelligent charismatic front man. He floods even the harshest Covenant track with warmth and a magical lyrical touch. ‘Bullet’ from 2002 ‘Northern Light’ album follows, then onto the first song from the 2016 ‘The Blinding Dark’ album, ‘I Close My Eyes’, which was written some 10 years ago, but has only now found a home among the Covenant legacy. A hypnotic narrative about turning inward on yourself in a world in which you have no control, the chorus ‘I seek sanctuary, take me in, keep me safe, I seek sanctuary, take my sins, keep my faith’, was keenly heard and keenly felt.
The Covenant crowd were by now immersed in the show and there is a tangible feeling of community within this crowd which only comes with decades of loyalty and love. The band move through the set, and through enough dry ice to obscure a small planet to the final song of the main set ‘We Stand Alone’ again from the Northern Light album, for which I stood at the back of the room, observing some beautiful concentrated choreographed dancing by beautifully dressed creatures lost in their own world, which always has, and always will be sound tracked by Covenant.
Covenant come back for a two song encore ‘ Lightbringer’ from the 2011 album ‘Modern Ruin’ sees Eskil surrendering the lead to Daniel Myer which the audience very much more than appreciated. The final song, the epic, gorgeous ‘Call The Ships To Port’, which although released in 2002, still raises hairs on the back of one’s neck, ended the set in pure, precise Covenant style. Although this set covered much of Covenant’s history, the dark fury of the album ‘The Blinding Dark’ which Joakim Montellius describes as ‘as beautiful as a collapsed star’ was very much evident and I cannot recommend ‘The Blinding Dark’ enough as a soundtrack to these strange days we find ourselves living in.
An honorary mention must go to promoter Frank Drake, from Flag Promotions who does so much to keep gigs like this one on the road, in accessible venues, at reasonable ticket prices. Flag Promotions is as much of a Cult as the bands put on by Frank and his team. Blessed be Frankie.
❉ Bridget Gray’s interview with Empathy Test can be heard on Radio Warwickshire at 8pm on Wednesday 21st March as part of Bridget’s show ‘My Favourite Sings’.
❉ All Empathy Test material can be heard on Spotify and bought from their website. www.empathytest.com. Also their official face book page.
❉ All information on Covenant from www.covenant.se and their official facebook page.