Yak frontman Oli Burslem looms over his synth, as Andy Jones’ buzz-bass riff cuts through the air of London’s Scala like a heat-seeking missile. Burslem smiles like a reptile, before letting fly with an unreserved assault on a white Fender Stratocaster which had been hiding behind his back. The riff to ‘Harbour the Feeling’ (my vote for single of the year) rumbles around the room for a good two minutes to the delight of the crowd (re-energised after too long waiting for technical problems to be resolved; in the end, Burslem came out himself to fix them).
Previously, as the crowd stumbled in, there was a smell of anticipation (and glue) in the air, and with good reason. To some of us, Yak are the most refreshing band in at least 10 years; they don’t do safe, unlike 99.9% of current artists. Led by Oli Burslem, who channels Iggy (Pop), (Mick)Jagger and The Cramps’ Lux Interior whilst adding his own style of stage diving and self-destruction. Yak bring the sound of proto-Punk bands like The Stooges crashing into the modern age. Much like The Stooges, aside from the frontman the other two members of the band, bassist Andy Jones and drummer Elliot Rawson, keep their heads down and play like well oiled machines. (Tonight they are augmented by a saxophone player, Stooges-style.)
As ‘Smile’ (it starts softly before going ballistic) reaches its crescendo, Burslem launches himself into the willing hands of the audience, who’ve been longing for him to do this since the band arrived on stage. Fans fall over each other trying to help him on his journey over the heads of the crowd. When Burslem eventually returns to the stage he drops to his knees in front of his amp, teasing the crowd by morphing ‘Smile’ into another fan favourite, ‘Alas Salvation’, for just a few seconds.
About three stage dives later, the band appear to be launching into ‘Victorious (National Anthem)’ before (fooled ya!) thundering headfirst into a raucous rendition of ‘Cumberland Gap’ originally made famous by Lonnie Donegan. In Yak’s rendition, the song is less like skiffle and more akin to The Cramps covering 1950s tunes in a way that seems just right for a ‘new kind of kick’ 60 years later.
As Burslem turns his back on this old ditty, he returns to unfinished business, namely, ‘Victorious’. “I must be living in the wrong place,” the Yak anthem begins. “They pull the wool over your eyes, no two up, two down, no picket fence, tough shit, you’re sick, you’ve missed the rent.” Burslem starts the lyric, muttering like a paranoid, but by now the youthful crowd is shouting it back to him, united in the anger they share. Burslem continues: “I’ve found a country in your heart, that I would like to terrorise.” And terrorise he does, launching himself into the crowd, guitar first.
As Burslem climbs back on stage he shakes his body violently and starts a bouncy little tune which slowly sludges into the King Crimson classic ’21st Century Schizoid Man’, played with equal parts irony and arrogance. The subsequent guitar meltdown sends the crowd into fits of headbanging, while on stage Burslem mirrors them, utterly lost in the music.
As the gig gets into full swing, the crowd rebounds off the floor as if electrified. The band rip through both songs from their new double A side, ‘Heavens Above’ and ‘Semi-Automatic’, the latter making its live debut. The new songs carry an added kick with lyrics referencing current topics such as suicide bombers. Locked in to the continuing thud of Rawson’s bass drum, the Scala descends into pandemonium.
“Rock N’Roll, starting to bore, the living daylights, out of us all, REARRANGED, STRIPPED BARE, I WAS A BOY, I WASNT EVEN A MAN.” Burslem wishes the crowd goodnight before barking the line from ‘Use Somebody’ that defines the band totally. Jones’ bass, which has held the band together throughout the evening’s carnage, acts as a defibrillator straight into the heart of rock n’roll, and the audience is resurrected after every note.
Yak have honoured their earlier Instagram promise to play “more and harder than ever before,” and it’s not over yet as the band return to finally finish their set (and the audience) with the Third Man Records single, ‘No’. As the noise builds Burslem stands on the barrier between audience and stage, staring and screaming “NO, NO, NO” at the crowd, he leans down so that the audience can see into the whites of his eyes before thrusting himself into them one last time. The audience returns the compliment, grabbing hold of the mic and screaming “NO” along with him.
When Burslem returns to the stage sans microphone, he sets himself the task of murdering his Stratocaster, snapping its neck and dragging it across the cold hard floor of the Scala stage. When the ensuing riot subsides and the stage finally becomes visible again, there is only a Yak shaped hole where the drum kit once stood.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is the best band in the country right now: catch them while you can.