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Rethinking: Woodkid

Reminding ourselves of what one man thought of director Woodkid’s sensational music-video project.

Sat in the Southbank Centre, watching the meticulous maestro soundcheck, Alex Lee Thomson ponders a unique journey from music video director to cinematic soundscape creator that befits a truly unique artist.

Certain artists come and go from your radar with barely a blip; a gremlin of excitement and your life continues. Some bubble inside your record collection and react, crystalize with your heart and find themselves heavily ingrained in your listening habits. Then there’s Woodkid. One video in 2011, a follow up in 2012, and that’s been the sum of it until news of his debut full length The Golden Age (released March) was heard. Just two tracks to make his mark, spaced 14 months apart, with which he’d aim to find himself one of the most absorbing, talked-about characters in music.

The first of those was ‘Iron’, a bleak and dramatic score that opens with tyrannical trumpet cries and tribal drumming, and some faint electronic murmur in the background which leads into Yoann Lemoine’s vocal. It too is desolate, low and dangerously sad. The video is stunning. As each verse closes, a gorgeous black and white composition unfolds before you. There’s snarling dogs, knights on horseback, tattooed men with medieval weaponry, and a battle charge through smoke and dust. It’s without doubt one of the most flawless, cinematic debut’s anybody has made. Out of nowhere, a sledgehammer to your chest on his first try.

Alright, so technically this wasn’t his first video. Before donning the Woodkid cross, the French-born director had worked with Sofia Coppola on her Marie Antoinette roughs, before graduating to music videos, picking up six VMA nominations for his work with Lana Del Rey, Drake and Rihanna. Still, though, the public wasn’t to know this, and for most of us here stood a new act, Woodkid, who – although being pop in appeal – was grounded deeply in the relationship between visuals and soundtrack. You felt smart for liking it.

It would be over a year though, as ‘Iron’ spread online gathering tens of millions of views, before another instalment, ‘Run Boy Run’ continued the battle sequence. Now set in the mountains, a young adventurer runs sword-first to a concrete city chased by giants, monsters and ships, while the scenery around him jumps to life with each lash of the song’s harrowing string or thwack of drum beat. Like ‘Iron’, it’s disarming, only more theatrical: as beautiful as Sigur Ros at their most brittle and commanding as Arcade Fire at their most masochistic, second by second fluttering between the two impassioned states.

You can start to see Lemoine’s vision with ‘Run Boy Run’: a very obvious trend towards storytelling that lines through Woodkid’s music like a pulse. A religious theme glows through, the Vatican’s symbolic keys being unavoidable, but there are hidden messages in there for those really paying attention. You begin to romanticize the music, hanging on each frame of the two videos, falling in love with the luxurious soundscape. Yet still you know nothing of the man or his bigger picture. In those two distant outings he’s created a mythology unlike any other act, a distinct watermark of quality and anticipation. You’re a fan… but of what?!

With such curiosity, his live British debut was set to be under immeasurable scrutiny: if not from fans and early adopters, certainly from himself. Sat in the Southbank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall waiting for an audience with Yoann, soundcheck moves into its third or so hour. That night he’ll be running through the whole album for the first time, and each backdrop, whisper and vibration has to be exact. His band run through a track for the sixth time, stopping, shuffling a bit to the left or right, looking up into the lofty rafters of the venue and starting again. It continues, and any hope of a chat is abandoned, but in the reason lies far more about Woodkid than he could possibly disclose over a dictaphone.

The man is obsessed, truly and in the most exquisite way. He’ll flex an index finger during an intro and light bulbs will follow its path. It’s a charming idea that the in-house technician would be that well trained; however, it’s more a display of meticulousness. Yoann knows every sequence. He’s probably scheduled every flicker throughout the two-hour performance himself, and that’s the attention put into The Golden Age. This record is his exhaustive creation, and he is its asexual mother, father, son and holy spirit.

‘The Great Escape’ fits nicely with the songs people will have already heard. It begins life as a 1930’s movie score, then clicking into an aural horserace, chopping and clapping its way through more imagery-laden verses into an instrumental chorus. Each instrument under his cataclysmic gaze is merely an extension of his voice, so he doesn’t really need vocal-led choruses as one might be accustomed as a pop consumer. ‘Boat Song’ continues the gently melancholic theme, with a brass sound almost reminiscent of vintage Yorkshire scenes, contrasting the lonely new of ‘I Love You’ and dusky vaudeville of ‘The Shore’.

‘Conquest Of Spaces’ is also its own beast, a sci-fi sprint through whistling xx-isms and organs, a biblical wasteland of tearful confusion and Kubrick-dreamt nightmares. It’s bigger than anything you’ll hear on the radio, and ultimately not of this time. What’s remarkable is the characteristic quality laid out in those earlier videos is present in every damn second of this record.

That said, it’s easy to understand where people may struggle to connect. Until now there has been one revelation followed by enough time to consume, or absorb, that before the next adventure. You’ve been wowed with a full experience, be it a highly produced video or thorough live performance, it’s been a multisensory event. Hearing a full body of work that’s this involved will simply be too overwhelming for a lot of people, some because they live in Tumblr’s superfast universe, others because they need to be dazzled by the theatrics. This is though, a really fucking incredible album.

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