xx presents dazzling sensory experience at Armory

March 28, 2014

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Park Avenue Armory, an alternative art space on the Upper East Side, fills an empty slot in New York City’s cultural world. The nonprofit organization aims to revitalize the historic Seventh Regiment Armory building as an unconventional visual arts and performance space, allowing its audiences to experience immersive, large-scale works of art that do not fit within traditional galleries, museums or concert halls.

The xx, an introverted indie pop trio from London, began their residence at the armory on March 19 and will be performing two or three shows every night for audiences of around 40 until March 29.

The band, comprising guitarist/vocalist Romy Madley Croft, bassist/vocalist Oliver Sim and producer/electronic percussionist Jamie Smith, formed in high school. Having gained mainstream popularity with their self-titled full-length debut album in 2009 and their 2012 release “Coexist,” the band members found themselves wishing to take a break from concert halls and music festivals to return to their roots in intimacy.

The armory served as the perfect environment for the innovative shows they had in mind.

After arriving through a clandestine side entrance and waiting in a small antechamber for the show to begin, the audience was led through a series of dark hallways in the depths of the armory building and finally into a cube made of scrim-like fabric where the band waited, pacing around a sunken white, square stage.

A slightly raised perimeter surrounding them would serve as the viewing platform from which the audience could look down on the hushed musicians, who were wearing their signature all-black attire. The cloth ceiling hung low and faint-colored light glowed from underneath the viewing platform, creating a cavernous impression.

Madley Croft gently broke the quiet tension in the room as she began to play the opening guitar patterns of “Angels,” the metallic brush of her pick against the strings audible even before the speakers amplified the clean, ringing notes.

The sonic quality was impeccable, as were her clear, dreamy vocals. There was no pause between songs as Smith’s synth carried her final wavering notes into “Crystalised.” Sim began the song with restraint, which he abandoned near the end in favor of both a bold staring contest with Croft and his signature prowl across the floor.

The exhibit’s first spatial adjustment came soon after as the ceiling was raised to enlarge the room. During the song “Fiction,” the newly expanded chamber was saturated with blue light, lending an aquatic ambience to the performance space.

Perhaps the most breathtaking dimensional shift of the night arrived during “Shelter,” when, contrary to the song’s title, the audience suddenly found themselves exposed to a vast expansion of pitch black as the fabric walls surrounding the show fell away during the song’s climax. The darkness was pierced from the far sides by lights so direct and dazzling that the ceiling and floor remained invisible to the mesmerized audience, giving the impression that the stage was suspended in midair.

Among the mix of tracks performed from their recorded material were several unreleased songs that were received with rapt attention.

One, an achingly beautiful ballad sung by Madley Croft, stunned the audience into silence. Even her bandmates could not help but stare. This silent transfixion was sustained as the band closed the evening with “Chained” and Sim thanked the audience with the first spoken words that anyone had uttered since entering the venue.

And with the simple return of prose, the spellbinding exhibition came to an end. The lucky audience was immediately led away from the performance space, left with the undeniable impact of an irreplaceable sensory experience.

Alex Berner-Coe is a staff writer. Email her at music@nyunews.com.

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