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11th November 2022

Live review: HMLTD create a totalitarian microcosmic state with their conceptual show The Order

The Mancunion attends the London art-rock band’s ambitious new live experience at Heaven
Live review: HMLTD create a totalitarian microcosmic state with their conceptual show The Order
Photo: HMLTD – Molly Gregson @ The Mancunion

It’s not often that you enter a gig with a medieval cowl, a designated AI manufactured identity and a genuine sense of fear for the nights’ events. The Order is a conceptual show created by South London alternative band HMLTD.

The premise is as follows: “Influenced by The Stanford Prison Experiment, ‘The Wave’, and Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality, a mini totalitarian state will be created inside Heaven. HMLTD will preside over a cult of personality, issuing commands to the audience, according to a predetermined class division.”

The Order is an experiment of what happens when you manufacture a class system and tell people that they have systematic privileges and powers over others. Respectfully of course – HMLTD stressed beforehand that everyone would be made to feel safe and only had to participate as much as they were comfortable doing so. 

HMLTD have always been a heavily political band, aligning themselves with left leaning social positions, so I was intrigued by this show. How would this avant-garde band use the concept of a hypothetical fascist microcosmic state to comment on the irrationality of class systems? 

Photo: HMLTD at Heaven – Molly Gregson @ The Mancunion

“Are you a subject or an authority?” a voice asked me in the queue for Heaven, London’s LGBT+ super-club/venue. I was a designated member of the “authority”, determined by the ticket I had bought prior to the event. I had no idea what this meant going into it, except that the tickets were priced slightly higher and came with a free piece of exclusive merch.  

From then on, me and my authority gig companion were partially segregated from the subjects; queuing in separate places, handed different informative leaflets displaying our roles as members of our respective classes and given our merch. This turned out to be hoods, with the words “HMLTD The order” displayed on them. The leaflets contained a QR code to create an artificial intelligence identity card.

We were told to upload a photo to get our new identities. This would be our character for the night. I became Thu Hamrick, a Lemurian Timelord, born in 2086 in the Musk commemorative space station on Mars. I was to remain in character and to keep my ID card on me at all times. It was an unorthodox experience to say the least- and this was only the queue to get into the event! 

Photo: Molly in the cowl – Molly Gregson @ The Mancunion

The role of the authority was to abide the rules of The Machine, the on-stage panopticon style Big Brother at the top of The Order’s hierarchy. This would bark out orders and we were told to obey them and ensure that the subjects did too. The subjects were taking orders from us, and we were taking orders from the machine.

Other members of the order included secret police, who could order us to show our identification cards at any point, and the class agitators, radicals who were attempting to undermine The Order. The authority were told to co-operate with the secret police: we were to report anyone we suspected to be a class agitator and to prevent the subjects from overthrowing The Order. In return, we were offered privileges, including access to an “authority only” bar during the entirety of the show. 

Photo: Molly Gregson @ The Mancunion

Once inside, the venue appeared relatively normal. There was a clear division between the cowl-wearing and the non-adorned but only in a similar way to the division between different ticket tiers at a festival. Members of the secret police soon approached us and showed a picture of a man, known as Tarzan, who we were to report on if we sighted him in the crowd, but they soon retreated and we were left alone, the atmosphere returning to normality.  

Kirin J Callinan, known here under the pseudonym Anaemic Adonis, entered the stage in a green cropped tank top, a matching green plaid kilt and a thin John Waters style moustache. His brand of queer 80s inspired electro-pop felt very fitting for a night of queer subversion on the rigidity of totalitarianism. His trademark flamboyancy took stage and you quickly forgot that the concert was anything more than a normal show. His performance could have been a headline one – I was amazed by the energy he gave to this supporting set. The one shame was that everything was done through backing tracks, with the exception of his own guitar. I would have loved to see a live band accompanying him.  

Photo: Kirin J Callinan – Molly Gregson @ The Mancunion

During this set, Kirin unexpectedly brought out gothic theatre performer Genie Genie for what HMLTD called on their Instagram stories “Weimar Cabaret”- an art form centred around sex, politics, and darkly comic hedonism. This consisted of some spoken word, dramatic movements and screaming that resembled something out of the Theatre of Cruelty. It was utterly bizarre and felt so out of place with the rest of Callinan’s set. But honestly, it was interesting to experience such a unique style of performance and it added to the sense of unease and the unpredictability of the evening.  

Next on the bill was Walt Disco, a queer-fronted new romantic, alternative band. Lead singer Jocelyn Si held so much instant charisma and felt so effortlessly glam rock.

Photo: Walt Disco – Molly Gregson @ The Mancunion

Walt Disco shot to success over their 2022 debut album Unlearning but they’ve been steadily releasing music since 2018. You can immediately tell that while their breakthrough success is new, they as a band are not. They seem so self-assured and have all the breezy looseness of a band wholly comfortable in each other’s company.  

Jocelyn is an unpredictable force of nature, and they know how to please a crowd, prancing across the stage, flirting with the audience and occasionally even death dropping – their stage presence really is incredible. My favourite from their album was the whimsical ‘How Cool Are You’, but its overlay of weird and chaotic circus sounds was more suited to the studio session than a live setting and I was left feeling slightly disappointed. Their performance of ‘Selfish Lover’ was the best of their set. It’s an anthemic ode to “sh*t sex” (Jocelyn’s words) and Walt Disco truly gave their all to it. Their performance was outstanding and made me wish that I had experienced them play a headline tour. 

Up to this point, the concert felt like a normal live show- alternative but conventional in its approach. I knew, however, that this was where that changed. 

The Machine began ordering the audience to take their places. ‘Big Brother’ was a high pitched vocaloid accompanied by a picture of moving eye. HMLTD began appearing on stage, one by one emerging by their instruments, all except for frontman Henry Spychalski. Behind them, rapid fire images of seemingly randomised pop culture iconography and prominent propaganda images began to circulate; images of the Soviet Union, Rosie the Riveter, TikTok, Donald Trump etc.  

A hooded man appeared on stage, dressed in the same cowls that we, the authority, were wearing. He and the band began reciting the Pink Floyd classic ‘In The Flesh?’. The lyrics “Tell me, is something eluding you, sunshine? / Is this not what you expected to see?” rang true as it became clear that it was not in fact Spychalski in front of us, but Callinan.

‘In The Flesh?’, the opener to Pink Floyd’s conceptual album, The Wall, sees the character of Pink imagining himself as a fascist dictator overseeing and performing to an obeying audience. Thematically it fitted: HMLTD were introducing their own conceptual show with their characters of fascist dictators overseeing their ‘citizens’ at Heaven.  

Spychalski jumped on stage, dressed in a leather-bondage military outfit that matched the rest of the band. They wore leather berets, leather trousers and had a sash of plastic bullets draped across them. Without addressing the crowd, they opened their set with the bold statement song ‘The West is Dead’. Spychalski informed the audience a total of 16 times that the West is dead and here, the statement is a scathing reminder that we are under the totalitarian power system of The Order, and no longer have access to the Western cultural comforts system outside of Heaven.  

HMLTD then began playing their older work. This was their first UK show since early 2020 and it had been twice rearranged due to various Covid strains, so they tried to make it a show for fans who had patiently been waiting for a tour. They played ‘Music!’, ‘Proxy Love’ and ‘Kinkaku-ji’- all songs released prior to their 2020 debut album, West Of Eden. Various commands appeared on stage during these songs. The machine told us to clap, to jump, to sing at specified intervals – nothing too vicious to begin.  

For ‘Satan, Luella and I’, HMLTD brought out Abigaille, singer of The Dinner Party and girlfriend of Spychalski to sing as a duet. The song took on a more flirtatious angle than its two studio versions as the paired shared so much chemistry on stage. “Luella, babe, won’t you marry me now”, Spychalski serenaded, as someone threw a ring at the couple on stage. They ran with the gesture, taking turns to get on one knee and propose to one another – “as a joke”, they clarified after the song concluded.  

Photo: Abigaille and Spychalski – Molly Gregson @ The Mancunion

My position in the front row prevented complete participation with the events of The Order. Had I been in the middle of the crowd, perhaps the conceptual experience and crowd interactions with both subjects and other authority members would have been greater. But for me, sadly, a lot of the gig played out fairly normally. I noticed that the front rows were almost entirely occupied with members of the authority, but I wasn’t sure if this was coincidence or enforced class segregation.  

‘Where’s Joanna’ – a cartoonishly grotesque fan favourite, saw more vigorous orders from The Machine. We were ordered to mosh, to make a corridor in the crowd for Spychalski to move through, and to bend down and rise-up in succession. It then became obvious and indeed policed if people were disobeying this.  

‘Flex’ saw HMLTD bring on another guest, Jazz Alonso of XVOTO, who originally featured on the song. She appeared like a pantomime villain, calling the audience worms and peasants, and thanking The Machine for existing to provide order. “Do I need a witness? Had an apparition and I saw god”- Spychalski proclaimed in the bridge of the song, taking on a short-lived American Preacher affectation before returning to his normal singing voice. ‘Flex’ is another early single from the band and embraces a lot more glitchy gothic electronica than their more contemporary music utilises, so it’s not surprising that they change up the way it’s played live. 

The Machine then commanded us to stomp. HMLTD provided the rhythm and we were to obey it. They used this rhythm as the basis for the first performance of a new song ‘The End is Now’. They promised new releases coming very soon, teasing the new album’s name and the themes and insisting that we could work them out “if we had been paying attention”. The Machine also told us to sing, which initially confused the crowd, who was unfamiliar with the unreleased song. But HMLTD instructed us on how to chant the single-line chorus, and soon the audience was self-policing the stomping and the chanting in line with what The Machine said.

Spychalski announced that they had one or potentially two more songs to play. This, he said, depended on the citizens, and whether they’d managed to overthrow The Order. And with that, they began playing the strobe and bass heavy ‘Stained’. The Machine began to freeze and malfunction on stage and balloons fell into the audience. Everyone began passing these forward to the stage until Spychalski was surrounded onstage by balloons, screaming into strobe lights. 

The lights came up and it was announced that the class agitators had overthrown The Order. In celebration, HMLTD invited all citizens of The Order to raid the stage. Euphoric scenes emerged as we all clambered on stage to mark the breakdown of the hierarchy and the fall of authority. I ended up next to Keyboardist Seth Evans, and together; authority, subject and band we all sang ‘Blank Slate’. The song marks the close of their dystopian debut record; it’s an uplifting song about how the end of a society brings us opportunities to create a new world – one where “the world is ours”. This is exactly what happened, The Order was destroyed, and the stage became ours.  

I don’t entirely know how The Order ended up being overthrown, and my regret from that night is that I didn’t feel as invested in the plot of the show as I wanted to be. I found out after, that Tarzan, the man the secret police had warned us about, was in charge of The Machine (and also the special effects) so my hunch is that he may have been a key class agitator. But this show is something special and the intimacy and elation that was present during that on-stage finale is something I have never experienced at another live show. There are some kinks in the production that I think need to be worked out if they were to continue to tour this project. But overall, it’s an ambitious and bizarre show and HMLTD pulled off the concept well. 


You can listen to HMLTD here.

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