LIVE: Sleep Token / Health @ OVO Arena Wembley

By Katherine Allvey
Photo Credit: Andy Ford

This is no casual crowd at Sleep Token’s Wembley Arena show. Tickets sold out within ten minutes of going on sale some six months ago, and even though it’s nine days earlier than the mainstream day, this is our Christmas. Fishnets and face paint offer little protection from the chill as we wait, patiently, offering mental invocations to the shrouded Vessel at his only UK stop on his Headline Rituals tour.

We don’t have to wait long, fortunately. Health serve less as a warmup band and more of a chilled amuse-bouche. They compress the future, mighty and terrible, into bites of industrial, precise darkness. Channeling nightclub alleyway anticipation into waves of noise-rock, the cult LA favourites alternate between philosophical optimism and robotic destruction with guitar chainsaws. Jake Duzsik’s vocals are dispossessed under waves of smoke, derelict artefacts to be preserved in a future museum of 2023, and you’re left with a sense that they are far more intelligent and talented than anyone has a right to be. 

Precisely on time, a looming red altar begins to glow. The screams of the faithful reach a higher pitch. Vessel stands alone, crooning ‘Chokehold’ over a droning note. High above the stage, his backing sirens appear in gold armour. Live, this song is fresh and monumental in scale; a perfect opener. Mysterious in his anonymity, Vessel stalks the stage. His movements jerk and drumbeats skitter like tarantulas while storming soft bass boils. Masterfully theatrical and borderline cultish, we sway entranced for ‘Hypnosis’. The almost acoustic chimes of ‘Vore’ have folks head banging on the balconies and down on the floor we’re dancing and swaying all the way to the back as the labyrinthine track glitches and restarts and shifts at each opportunity.

Solitary piano guides us through ‘Dark Signs’. It’s been slowed to increase the isolation, at points leaving us with nothing but the echoes of our own voices and emotions amid Sleep Token’s beats. Twisted fuchsia lights like geisha fans reflect the delicacy of the notes before he brings the melody crashing down. Each song has been granted it’s own individual colour palette and lighting mix, and we gasp as lasers split the ceiling above us as Vessel’s silk-wrapped voice seduces during ‘Like That’. Never speaking to the audience, he appears at the piano, juxtaposing the real and unreal in his costume and instrument. He grasps our hearts, electric fuzz snow falling, and makes the boxy arena palatial. Our claps are the splash of each lyrical droplet as he moans during ‘Rain’.

After forty minutes, the pause between songs goes on longer than expected. The stage dressing resets to a blank canvas and the house lights turn on. We cheer awkwardly, unsure in the silence. A crew member runs onstage, accompanied by Vessel, who paces back and forth unsteadily. “Vessel can’t sing…but you guys can. Maybe he’ll do a couple of lines here and there but he’s not well. You guys have gotta be loud, ok?” He hugs Vessel, patting him on the back reassuringly. The lights turn off again, the band re-take their places and the intro sample for ‘The Summoning’ resumes. 

There’s a few seconds where we as a crowd collectively have to make a choice. Are they seriously going to do an instrumental set? Do we leave or do we stay? Around the cavernous arena, cogs click in our heads subconsciously, inching towards a decision.

As one, we sing like we’ve never sung before. The sirens take control, urging us on, as Vessel, a touch of desperation in his movements, keeps our spirits up. Piggybacking on each other, we film the burning lasers while the band turns ‘The Summoning’ into an instrumental. The power dynamic has completely shifted now our icon is mute: it’s up to us to make the show a success, not just for us but for him. Millennial pink droplets fall during ‘Granite’ as he holds his mic to us, his gloved hand visibly shaking. We light up the arena with our phone torches as he retreats to the piano for ‘Atlantic’. He does sing, but softly, within his limits. There’s a jewelled sympathy in the air as he audibly croaks in pain, gasping before each line. Some of his strength has returned by ‘Nazareth’, and by the chemical midnight tones of ‘Alkaline’ we’re dancing again, comfortable in the knowledge that we’re making this show work. 

By ‘Acensionism’, Vessel has enough power restored through our faith to shoulder some of the load of the vocals again, albeit in a gentler capacity. Silhouetted in red and blue, and despite his vulnerability, he appears as the the puppeteer of his thrall dancers behind him. His breath rattles under his mask as primary colours explode behind. ‘Take Me Back To Eden’ takes on a new triumphant energy as we’ve made it, we’ve held this show together, and we cover ourselves in uplifting distortion and acerbic guitar touches. ‘Blood Sport’ closes the show, the only time it’s featured on a setlist this tour, and it distils everything we love about Sleep Token into one shining finish: personal piano connection, magnificence in vast musically distorted theatrics and the creation of a private world with each chord. Vessel’s voice finally cracks and dies as he sings, “it doesn’t matter…” A choked gurgle emerges from under his painted face as the lights fade. He’s either sobbing or laughing. 

It’s a rare act that can essentially lose their lead singer halfway through a huge, sold out stadium show and still leave the audience satisfied at the end of the set. Perhaps it’s the intensity of the connection between the fans and Sleep Token that lead us to take it upon ourselves to make the show work. Equally probable is that the quality of the rest of the performance was stunning enough to compensate, though the band themselves would likely argue that it’s because they’re just a conduit for a greater artistic muse anyway, so losing a singer is less important than losing their metaphysical connection. Regardless of the deeper reason behind their success in the face of adversity, Sleep Token absolutely rewarded our patience and faith with a show that’s risen the bar for acts across the genre spectrum.