Hannah Peel, Vaults – Islington Assembly Hall, London, UK (9th Feb 2017)

An audience from the seriously quite old, to middle aged, all the way down the generations to young teenagers with their parents are in Islington to see Vaults. If they want to hear the Christmas John Lewis advert, ‘One Day I’ll Fly Away’, they’ll be disappointed. It’s on the group’s debut album, ‘Caught In Still Life’, released late last year, but it’s not on tonight’s setlist. 

First, the multi-talented composer, musician, singer, songwriter, music-box maker and Alzheimer’s research campaigner Hannah Peel takes the stage as support act. As a mesmerising set of six songs unfolds, Vaults fans are impatient to learn her name. Safe to say she’s won over a lot of them with her happy enthusiasm, beautiful voice, stirring synths, keyboard virtuosity and violent violin playing — not to mention the unique music box charm.  

Peel is without her sometime drummer Daisy Palmer, for reasons that become clear later on. It doesn’t bother her at all, as she demonstrates that a perfectly measured drum machine technique is just another part of her electronic repertoire. Boom boom goes the drum machine as Peel’s soaring voice tackles ‘All That Matters’ from the much lauded album, ‘Awake But Always Dreaming’. Hips swaying to the beat, in an elegant pleated metallic frock, she sings “All that matters is here” and, for a short while, it’s true — nothing else matters apart from her performance. Peel bounds from synth to violin to Nord Stage EX electric piano and the track immediately connects, taking those watching to another place.

A slow heartbeat drives ‘Silk Road’ from Peel’s 2014 EP ‘Fabricstate’, a tune that shows how to execute the perfect key change. Whooshing synth and portentous piano accompany the beautiful words of ‘Tenderly’ (“Listening to the car stereo dance, mirrored lives spinning past”) as Peel stands between her keyboards, one hand on each. She changes the mood to optimism with the upbeat ‘Hope Lasts’, smiling and hopping in delight at the noise her kit makes when she strikes the electric piano keys with all her might. ‘Cars In The Garden’ brings out the music box and an awed audience response. 

She ends her half-hour set with a six-minute version of ‘Foreverest’. One touch of her drum machine takes the venue to another dimension. It sounds as if Peel has discovered the piece fully-formed, hidden in a secret landscape of perfect compositions. Peel works hard, twiddling with the drum machine, turning another knob to make a wahwah on the electric piano, mixing her own voice by adding echoes from yet another knob fixed to the keyboard, bringing out a clack clack percussive beat. She conjures heavy anvil percussion, big piano chords, bells and gothic atmospherics, and a huge drum beat. Her violin shrieks and then reprises the piece’s main melody. It’s an enormous, crunching finale to a brilliant one-person set.

Vaults emerge in front of their drummer, the aforementioned Daisy Palmer who, in the circumstances, was never likely to drum for Peel too. She has the usual kit, but also the most enormous drum this venue is likely to have seen in its long municipal history. Vaults also have three backing singers and two dancers to augment the core electronic trio’s live impact. They open with 2015 single ‘Cry No More’ — all gamelan cowbells and big bass — and the catchy 2014 debut single ‘Premonitions’, which happen to be the first two tracks on the album. 

Lead singer Blythe Pepino sings and moves impeccably as she commutes between the front of the stage and her Nord Piano 2 HP, peroxide bob matching a flowing white one-piece trouser suit. She comes to the front for early single ‘Lifespan’, which cleverly seems to have the synths on a backward tape loop. Pepino and collaborators Barney Freeman and Ben Vella craft electronic adult-oriented pop, which is tuneful in the way Americans would use the word flavourful to describe comfort food. 

Vaults’ are slick, tight, popular and artistic — the artiness especially evident in the use of the black-clad dancers. As well as virtually all of the long-awaited album, Vaults perform the three tracks from the ‘Vultures’ EP of 2014. For one of these EP songs, ‘Mend This Love’, the two dancers come into the front of the crowd, clear a circle and perform modern ballet in it – the most creative moshing ever seen. Electro-pop single ‘Hurricane’ follows and then a couple of east Asian-influenced tunes, new song and catchy hit-in-waiting ‘Bells’ and gamelan-infused ‘The Valley’. Palmer hits that massive drum for ‘Poison’ and then the fans get an encore of the poppy, almost R&B single ‘Midnight River’ (it’s tailor-made for Adele) and the synthpop of ‘Bloodflow’, another catchy one. “This is the real world,” sings Pepino. And that’s the end of the show, so the crowd has to trudge out past the merchandise and into the cold Islington air, the real world, much refreshed by an hour of Vaults and a half hour of Hannah Peel.