LIVE: Hands Like Houses / Normandie / Jule Vera @ Academy 3, Manchester

By Gem Rogers

In what’s become a fairly regular churn of Manchester venues over the years, the university’s Academy 3– hidden away on the top floor of the Student Union building– has stood strong. Fortunately, it’s also long been one of the best, and tonight this small room is playing host to a pleasingly international trio of artists– at least, for all those who manage to navigate the slightly confusing and brightly coloured gauntlet of teens attending a show in Academy 2. It’s not a venue entirely without flaws.

Representing the US are opening band Jule Vera, who aren’t yet a familiar name in the UK– vocalist Ansley Newman is probably most known for her appearance on State Champs track ‘Around The World And Back’. They certainly deserve more attention, though, with seriously funky indie-pop that holds just a hint of country and 60s-esque groove. Newman’s vocals are flawless, whilst drummer Kyle Horvath’s style is both distinctive and captivating– and loud. Very loud. He drills power into some otherwise mellow songs for an alternative spin on their recorded counterparts, and final track ‘Bad Company’ is a pounding, feet-mover of a song. Their music doesn’t have too much in common with tonight’s headliners, and it’s a shame that as a result it’s maybe not the best crowd for them to play to; but this is a great performance by a talented group of musicians.

Swedish group Normandie, on the other hand, are exactly the right band to kick-start tonight’s crowd with their blend of powerful, anthemic alt-rock. Despite the relatively small size of the venue, new singles ‘Enough’ and ‘White Flag’ sound especially huge; the band’s energy is infectious and guitarist Håkan Almbladh’s immaculately delivered riffs are a delight as the songs switch from singalong moments to thrashing breakdowns. ‘Ghost’ is the definition of stadium-filler anthem and sees vocalist Philip Strand hitting some mind-blowing notes. Alongside these impressive clean vocals, his grittier tone compliments the band’s heavy edge in choruses, with bassist Lucas Englund and drummer Anton Franzon providing the strongest of backbones to a memorable set. Judging by the number of fans singing along to set closer ‘Collide’, Normandie already have more than enough support to keep them coming back, and with performances of this calibre it surely won’t be long before this music is gracing the arenas and main stages it deserves.

It’s been a little while since Canberra natives Hands Like Houses toured the UK, and there’s a palpable air of excitement in the room as the lights finally dim. High energy is the name of the game from the outset as the band launch straight into a one-two hit of ‘New Romantics’ and ‘Colourblind’; they couldn’t look happier to be on stage, and the delivery couldn’t be tighter. Intricate and headbang-inducing guitar riffs charge alongside Trenton Woodley’s powerful, stunning vocals, with each track driven forward by sublime basslines from Joel Tyrrell and Matt Parkitny’s relentless drums. This is the rock music that dreams are made of, and it’s gorgeous.

New album ‘-Anon.’ is brought into focus early on in the set, and with a not insignificant change in musical direction, there was a possibility that the contrast between old and new material might have seemed stark in a live setting– forget any ideas of that, though. ‘Monster’ is an explosion of sound in the best possible way– a glorious assault on the eardrums– whilst ‘Bad Dream’ is an unexpected highlight with its dirty, sexy style and lively chorus. In fact, each of the five ‘-Anon.’ tracks played tonight take on a whole new (and heavier) life on stage, with the kind of performance that sends you back to the record with fresh ears and appreciation.

“There’s something about this room that’s special,” Woodley says in a brief mid-set break, “we couldn’t be further from home, so having a room full of people singing along is amazing.” These aren’t just empty words; the vibe in the room is one of warmth, life, and joy, with equal amounts of fun being had on stage and off it. There’s little more beautiful than a room full of people bellowing the words to ‘No Parallels’ in unison– “this is happiness, to be everything at once”– and a relatively even split of tracks from their most recent three albums results in an immersive set, packed with crowd-pleasers that keep the energy high for the full hour.

Hands Like Houses may have been flying under the radar so far, but ‘-Anon.’ is already garnering the kind of attention that may finally push them into the mainstream consciousness – for existing fans, these small room shows are moments to be treasured on the road to bigger things. Manchester has been treated to a performance from a band at the peak of their game tonight, and it doesn’t look like they’ll be coming down anytime soon. This truly is happiness.