Borderline, London - 16 October 1999

"Digital folk for the new millennium anyone?"

Falling on the same night as a Pig gig, I had to make a DSO executive decision and, having already sampled the delights of Pig live, plumped instead for this enigmatic Italian band. Known only by name and reputation (mostly gleaned from the Internet in the days running up to this night) this, the band's first ever UK live performance, provided the ideal opportunity to expand my (and the AUDIO site) horizons.

What I'd read about Ataraxia in advance gave me a pretty good steer as to what to expect. Some ballpark names to get you thinking along the right lines: Miranda Sex Garden, In The Nursery, Dead Can Dance, Medieval Babes. The Borderline, looking like it does as a cross between a Mexican border outpost and a wine cellar, was a fitting venue for the band who are known for their 'theatrical' stage presence and fondness for music of the rural past. Unfortunately, the small stage cramped their style somewhat, but we got a good impression of what the band might be like in a bigger environment. Left to right, the live set-up comprised of a semi-acoustic guitarist (plus vocals - male), drummer, Oboe and tambourine player (plus vocals - male), lead vocalist, recorder and tambourine player (female) and synth (male). The other additional member was like an arthouse version of Bez from Happy Mondays. Only instead of looking like a drugged up, dancing monkey, this was a masked character performer who waltzed around the stage with a variety of ever-changing costumes, carrying an ever changing array of flags, banners and other eye catching accoutrements.

The songs were a mixture of original and traditional compositions. Although the original composition were clearly 'inspired' by the past, they were happy to adopt some pretty extreme electronic sounds providing an interesting blend of the two that worked well. "This is a typical song from the Italian Rennaisance", "A French song from the Middle Ages", or "A song from ancient Greece" were some of the introductions to the traditional songs. And they were sung in a number of different languages. I managed to identify Italian, French and English among them. These songs had obviously undergone some modern arrangement to provide parts for each of the band members, all of whom were remarkably accomplished. In particular the guitar stood out like none I have heard before. The Spanish-like plucking was crystal clear and the other styles used throughout the night also shared an amazing clarity. Much time must have spent on the sound mix in advance and all credit to those involved. I've never heard such a terrific live sound in a small venue before. A Roland JV80 synth was used to provide some superb wind instrument sounds to back up the real ones being used live. The combined effect was entirely in keeping with the style of the music, yet when the keyboards went into obvious electronic sound territory the harmonious effect was sustained.

But by far the most memorable element of the performance was a highly impressive lead vocalist. Looking like an extra who'd just walked off the set of Excalibur, this pre-Raphaelite blonde showed that not only did she have an almost opera-quality voice but that she also demonstrated impressive versatility. One moment applying an operatic approach, then suddenly switching to a soulful or sassy style the next, and then back again. Her vocal performance alone was mesmerising. A madrigal utilising all three vocalists was equally captivating. With other band members playing different instruments and adding different backing vocals to great effect, and with the silent, masked performer appearing in different roles and interacting with the singer (maypole dancing even put in an appearance!), Ataraxia are certainly one of the most unusual live bands I've seen in a long while. Of course, if you've no stomach for this style of music then you'd probably find the whole thing something of an ordeal. However, for those partial to heavenly voices, traditional folk-inspired compositions, and an imaginative take on electronic-based composition then Ataraxia are pretty impressive. Digital folk for the new millennium anyone?

Rob Dyer