In some ways Perfume Genius is the perfect opener for Belle and Sebastian. The latter, after all, was one of the first bands to capitalize on the internet’s ability to unite small clusters of fans across the globe into one international cult. Now, nearly 20 years after the release of Tigermilk (Belle and Sebastian’s debut), the internet has helped fans across the globe discover the music of Perfume Genius.
Perfume Genius, the project of Seattle singer-songwriter Mike Hadreas, has now released three albums (Learning, Put Your Back N 2 It, Too Bright) and each is more eviscerating, beautiful and ultimately heartbreaking than the last. With arrangements commonly backed by a single piano, Hadreas is gay and he wants you to understand that society’s reaction to his sexual orientation has, at times, been painful; however, he doesn’t want your sympathy. Most of his music is ripe with flagellation, but he is deriving power from that pain, while also empowering others who are in the same position. The music is the vehicle for his message and his message is a powerful one.
To accomplish this mission, Hadreas has begun pushing the medium forward. On 2014’s Too Bright, Hadreas’ “most extroverted album,” he moves beyond the sonically central sound of Put Your Back N 2 It and blends singer-songwriter sensibilities with bold, powerful drum lines, fuzzed-out synthesizers, and sounds from industrial noise genres to create some of the most genre-defying music of last year.
Of particular note is album standout “Queen” (below). Proclaimed by Slate Magazine to be the “gay anthem of the year,” it features heavy, fuzzed bass backed by synthesized vocal choirs. The song is full of insults that have been heaved towards Hadreas, but rather than asking for your sympathy, he instead revels in those insults and the uncomfortability that is at the root of those doing the heaving.
While many bands today recycle the past, Perfume Genius is inventing the future. Your next chance to hear him in all his glory is at the Roseland Theater on Thursday, April 9 with the aforementioned Belle and Sebastian. While that band, with nine albums and 20 years under their belt, needs no introduction, a quick reminder can be helpful for those of you who were busy listening to Incubus or Spice Girls when their masterpiece If You’re Feeling Sinister was first released in 1996.
While the name Belle and Sebastian implies two singer-songwriters, the original inception of the band is really just a product of lone musical genius Stuart Murdoch. Murdoch has meticulously built up the band’s image as a product that has to be sought, first by pressing only 1,000 copies of their debut Tigermilk and then by being notoriously sparse with public appearances. This meant that if you caught Belle and Sebastian live, you’d earned a level of social capital as being one of “those in the know” in a “I saw them when” type of way.
After the success of Tigermilk, Belle and Sebastian were signed to a major label and released their second album, If You’re Feeling Sinister. While that album didn’t sell a ton of records during its initial release, it has since gone on to receive near universal acclaim earning a spot near the top of decade “best of” lists from the likes of Spin Magazine and Pitchfork.
That album was quickly followed by several EPs and the 1998 release of The Boy with the Arab Strap. With this record, Belle and Sebastian finally found commercial success, and as the band moved into the 2000s, Murdoch began sharing songwriting responsibilities with his bandmates. This change, combined with the release of the 2003 DVD Fans Only and more live performances, had the effect of stemming some of the mystery behind Belle and Sebastian. Even though the cult had grown and the band had crossed over into rock stardom, they continued to put out great work, most notably the 2006 album The Life Pursuit.
Now in 2015, Belle and Sebastian have cemented themselves as legends and are comfortably taking risks and moving themselves beyond the sounds that have soundtracked so many sunny days in the park. That is not to say that they have become inaccessible—quite the contrary. Last year’s Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance saw the band add a pop shine to their otherwise staid music. (Listen to the first single "The Party Line" below.) Synthesizers, drum machines and basslines dot the album and will give live audiences the opportunity to dance.
Their upcoming Portland show will give you the chance to rediscover the treasures that are the catalog of work described above, but be sure to arrive early. Belle and Sebastian may be worth the price of admission, but Perfume Genius might just very well be the future classic you’ll find yourself name dropping to friends “in the know” saying “I saw them when.”