Despite the experimental nature of their music, a Carnivorous Plant Society gig is always a homely affair with a little something for everyone - and the Auckland cult favourites had plenty to offer at The Wine Cellar, celebrating the release of new album The People Below.
Visual accompaniment is a usually a rarity when it comes to local gigs, but I don’t think I’ll see any other band project footage of Final Fantasy 4 above their heads while playing a song inspired by the shops of role-playing games. Then again, Carnivorous Plant Society have always gleefully revelled in the unconventional spectacle, propelled by Finn Scholes' crudely charming artwork and animation. His explanations of the concepts behind each video and respective song made extra-dimensional body horror sound rather pleasant.
Nonetheless, this is a concert review, and what’s important is the music - and the band is as tight as ever, if not more so. With a lot of multi-instrumentalists in such a cramped space, you’d think there’d be a power struggle for audibility, but it was surprisingly balanced overall. Tam Scholes' understated yet proficient guitar melodies managed to chime clearly next to his brother’s vibrant vibraphone and keyboards. The stringed instruments were occasionally overpowered in the mix by the various horns on display, but when a tuba is pulled out in the middle of a set it probably deserves a bit of leeway anyhow.
Seeing each member accommodate each other - especially Siobhanne Thompson scampering across the stage to every piece of available percussion, from wind chimes to rattling chains and everything in between - is a testament to the frenetic yet easy-going nature of the band. It helps that this is a band confident in their self-worth, splitting their show into two acts and using the downtime in between to chat to the audience.
The other beautiful thing about a Carnivorous Plant Society gig is their love for bringing out their friends. Faithful collaborators for many years, Hopetoun Brown brought a 'supergroove' (pun intended) intermittently throughout the night, punctuating every crescendo with a sharp blast of brass goodness. There was no sight of regular bassist Cass Basil, nor an appearance by Tiny Ruins ringleader Hollie Fullbrook (like there was at a prior CPS album release).
No worries, however; stand-in bassist (and extra special guest Oliver Emmitt) did a fabulous job filling in, stealing the show at one point with a solid trombone solo.
While I was surprised to recognise a lot of cuts from previous albums - like the titular track of Phantom Finger or the classic rumination on bad parenting, Don’t Go Outside - I was happy to note that The People Below's poppier songs and song structures fit comfortably in the band's eclectic discography. Not to imply any selling out; their brand of “cinematic jazz” still has its “anything goes” qualities, from cacophonous trumpet improvisation to Morricone-meets-Miserlou genre-blending. ‘Poppier’ in this case just means shifting space around for more vocals, as The Baby demonstrated Emmitt’s blending into the song’s ethereal atmosphere. It’s a healthy evolution for a band that can still pull out the stops on an instrumental jam when they need to.
I overheard the sound technician describing the band post-show as "a band greater than the sum of its parts, and the parts are already amazing in their own right." It’s a welcome observation to make after a ridiculously blistering drum solo by Alistair Deverick, and it’s that unbridled display of enthusiasm that draws people to Carnivorous Plant Society in the first place.
If the words “victory lap” are becoming an all too familiar sight in these reviews, that’s because these bands are becoming all too good at running them.