Royale hosts ’90s French-English band Stereolab

Stereolab performs at Hebbel am Ufer - Hau 2, Hallesches Ufer 32 in Berlin on May 15, 2006. via Wikimedia Commons

Stereolab is the innovative, fiercely influential band you’ve probably never heard of. The band was founded in 1990 by Lætitia Sadier and Tim Gane, and their songs can best be summed as the soundtrack to a cerebral pop spaceship ride, with distinctive motorik beats and heavy synth melodies culminating into a unique lounge sound. In 2009, the band began a hiatus that only ended months ago in Maywith its first live performance in a decade at Primavera Sound Festival. The band played a two-month long European tour before coming to the U.S. in mid-September. On Sunday, Sept. 29, the avant-pop group stopped in Boston at Royale.

Opening the set was drone band Bitchin Bajas, a side project of Cooper Crain who is also the organist/guitarist of the band Cave. The group, consisting of Crain, Dan Quinlivan and Rob Frye, opened the show with a low-key but cerebral set. The trio’s stage presence was aloof — they didn’t even use a mic when introducing themselves to the crowd; only the front few rows could hear them present themselves as the Bitchin Bajas. There were no flashy outfits or theatrics. The music was the first and only priority for the group. 

The songs performed by the Bajas were reminiscent of Brian Eno’s “The Shutov Assembly” (1992). The synth-heavy songs by the group were littered with intense, pounding percussion and dreamy flute accompaniment. The end of the set featured a saxophone solo that evoked a near-religious experience for the listener. Ethereal, almost hypnotic synth and saxophone chords swelled over the audience, casting a dreamy wash. Much to the surprise of audience members, the men packed up their own equipment at the end of their set, a distinctly humble move for a band at a venue the size of the Royale.

Shortly, Stereolab took the stage for a sound check. Lætitia Sadier, donning a comfy-looking sweatshirt with baggy pants and a tiny backpack, walked out and waved to a friend in the audience. It was far from the typical pretentious attitude that many artists with Sadier‘s acclaim adopt, and her down-to-earth energy was refreshing. After another brief wait, it was time for the show to start.

The band opened the set with “Anamorphose” off its 1994 album, “Mars Audiac Quintet,” which was deemed by Pitchfork as one of the 100 best albums of that decade. With its looping, mesmerizing keyboard groove and soft but captivating French vocals, “Anamorphose” was a simultaneously energizing and soothing opening to the set. The group picked up the pace with “Ping Pong” (1994), a satirical, brass and synthesizer heavy criticism of the economic cycle. Teen college students and 55-year-old adults alike danced and hopped along to the bouncy rhythm of one of the band’s most well-loved songs.

Following a round of applause, an audience member yelled to the group “Oscillons from the Anti-Sun,” a plea for the band to play tracks off its 2005 album.

“Hold your horse!” Sadier quickly retorted.

“Infinity Girl” (1999), a perky track with infectious and surfy keys, was the third song of the night. Then, much to the delight of the audience, the band transitioned into “Fluorescences” (1994), the leading track of “Oscillons from the Anti-Sun.” “Fluorescences” was a definitive high point in the night, with the crowd going manic for the floaty track featuring the flutist of the Bitchin Bajas. The band put a new spin on the relatively light track, with Gane playing a mind-melting heavily distorted guitar solo. The usually gentle track turned into a much harsher and more engaging track, leaving one feeling like they were listening to harsh noise in space.

“Time for a little ear recovery,” remarked Sadier after the band finished the track. “Crest” (1993) provided such, but it still kept the same level of energy from the last track. “Need to Be” (2004) was next, a track that highlights drummer Andy Ramsay‘s sheer mastery of the instrument with its fast-paced syncopated beats. French-language track “Lo Boob Oscillator” (1999) was another high point of the evening, with the initial pop sound of the first half of the track melting into a feedback heavy, avant-garde sound. The band proceeded with ultra-dreamy track “Baby Lulu” (2001) and fan favorite “Miss Modular” (1997). “Percolator” (1996), one of the bands most experimental and bizarrely fun songs off its critically-acclaimed album “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” (1996) was next, pumping up the crowd with a fast-paced bass line and layered keyboard.

The band finished the set with two of its most beloved songs, “Metronomic Underground” (1996) and “French Disko” (1993). The former was mellow and rhythm heavy while the latter got the audience — already worn out from dancing through the entire set — back into action and dancing and raging to the fun, upbeat track.

The band departed the stage, and after a few minutes of sustained, spirited cheering, returned to play an encore including the songs “Brakhage” (1997) and “Rainbo Conversation” (1997).

The band, while not particularly focused on interacting with the audience or dramatic performance, played an unforgettable set that left audience members in pure awe of the group’s sheer talent and rare, true creativity. The band continues its tour until its final U.S. show on Oct. 20 in Los Angeles.