Overt sexuality, gender ambiguity and a hypnotic range of sound textures: these are some of the ingredients that come to mind when one thinks of Velvoir. As one of the most forward-thinking bands in the North East (and possibly in the country), what they embody goes much deeper than a desire to shock. This is the first of three pieces in which I aim to explore the power of their music.
A delicate chorus of silk gowns and chattering pearls echoed off the high walls of the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées. There was a murmur of sophisticated voices belonging to the rich, influential humdrum of France as Parisians shuffled into the theatre, eager legs rubbing against plush velvet chairs. Paris. 29 May 1913. The day Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring premiered. A day forever marked as a turning point in the history of music. Written by the Russian composer in a small, dank room fitted only with a piano, this ballet showcased a Russian pagan tradition of sacrifice: a virgin dancing herself to death. The accompanying score tore itself away from familiar, accepted musical traditions. The exoticism and primal surges captured in the imagery and bizarre dance sequences paired with the experimental force of the music, and a seething undercurrent of division amongst the audience (both political and artistic), led to a riot at the end of the performance.
The first time I saw Velvoir perform, it was the image of this pulsing artistic force of change that came to mind: violent, primal and unashamedly human. Music of this calibre, both in its combination of unexpected elements and lyrical depth, and a performance that enhances the music by giving it human shape may not cause a riot, but it does have the potential to shift societal views and be influential in more than just a musical sense. The potential lies in the lead singer’s gender disposition. It lies in the technical ability and personalities of all four musicians: Verity Jasmine Bee, Adam Sams, Joe Fannan and Marty Bennett. It lies in their espousal to artistic integrity and their struggle with life’s darkest spectrum of troubles.
The moment Verity steps on stage there is always a moment of pause. She gives human shape to contradiction by casting a silhouette of simplicity and extravagance across the room. Wearing a plain black top and black jeans, a contrast with her 1950s-style blonde hair, white skin and lush red lips, she becomes a vessel for both female and male sexuality, a shape-shifter of gender. In short, sexless. Her presence stirs up a moment of pause because it serves as a confrontation with every person in the room bound not only to their gender identity but a series of preconceptions of their societal reality.
Preconceptions that throb silently under the surface of our thoughts. Freedom. Morality. Injustice. Discirmination. Religion.
'Pearls on Velvet', a favourite amongst the crowd, is an example of Velvoir’s uncensored delving into the darker side of our sexuality. It is about sex in all its forms and guises. Dirty. Sophisticated. Pleasurable. Painful. It is about death and the relationship between the two. Verity explains that in embracing both (sex and death) we are able to reach “a new plane of understanding or experience”. The song follows a traditional form with a recognisable refrain — the repeated call to thrill and not kill. To accept and not judge, to understand and not discriminate. Yet, nothing that Velvoir touch is ever completely traditional. Verity’s soft coercion is juxtaposed with rising violence, at first hidden in the instrumental voices, until it breaks through in ripping staccato guitar notes and harsh vocal tones as the song precedes to a realistic (sometimes loving, mostly loveless) enactment of sexual intercourse and the build up to la petite mort. The moment of orgasm. The closest we’ll ever come to experiencing death. It also touches on the psychological damage that people who are ostracised by society undergo and their willingness to exploit themselves sexually to affirm their self worth and feel accepted.
Not only is the duo of sex and rock ’n roll a clichéd image, the subject of sex (and love) has become entrenched in most popular music genres, albeit in a repetitive and superficial way. Velvoir tread on the verge of reinventing its depiction with tasteful expertise. However, in focalising too much on the lead singer’s "orgasmic serenades", listeners risk missing the rich extent of the rest of their works. In terms of verging away from traditional forms, 'Pulse of the Earth' is what one can describe as an early masterpiece. Mike Ray, a supporter of local music and a Velvoir follower, calls it “just magnificent”. Combining jazz overtones over a relentless build up of African-style rhythms and a merciless narrative following “the instruction to kill”, it is everything a contemporary ritual of sacrifice should be. Tribal drums drive you through the dense jungle of your own soul. A journey mirrored in a frenzied dance by Verity and ending in a final explosion of noise that just goes on and on and on.
On her knees, in that climatic moment of sacrifice, Verity lets the changing dynamics and pitches flow through her. “Kill. Kill. Kill…” the command echoes through the room. And then a part of you dies. And perhaps it is good. Perhaps not.
The live versions of 'Pearls on Velvet' and 'Pulse of the Earth' are better described as scenes from the play of life. 'Hysterical Sweat' carries the same theatrical power. With an unexpected submergence into a rant of anger against the barbwire dogmas that imprison us, the song — carried by a cacophony of strings, percussion and taunting notes of condescension — delve into the pain of attaining freedom. In fact, each song Velvoir write evolves into a distinctive piece of art. They should not be called songs at all. And maybe the members of Velvoir should not be called musicians.
Labels and genres confine us. They limit our possibilities. They prevent us from doing what we truly believe in. After all, Stravinsky did not compose The Rite of Spring with the prime purpose of creating a controversy or inciting his audience to violence. He composed it because he wanted to break away from stifling mainstream artistic thought to create something new. Something never heard before. Something he truly believed in. The same can be said of Velvoir.
In the second piece I will focus on the individual members of Velvoir.
Listen to their music here.