Cult Party

– Partisan, Manchester –

When I arrive, Partisan offers us a quarter circle of sofas for viewing. Behind that, more chairs of plush and non-plush kinds. Though there’s a sizeable free space on the floor, with people clustering around the edges.

I’m admittedly entering with some bias and expectation. I saw Cult Party (the collective arranged by Leo Robinson) and Kiran Leonard play a few months ago in the reverse order to tonight. It was a meditative experience in a church with the accompanying spacious acoustics. At the end of the gig I bought Cult Party’s most recent record, ‘And Then There Was This Sound’, without needing several sleeps to decide whether or not to do so. The two acts have had a hand in each other’s music, recently with Kiran being part of the recording on the afore-mentioned LP.

Sacks are thrown down in the clearing on the floor, a few people perch. Leo, the main figure of the collective Cult Party, begins by hitting a tambour suspended in front of a microphone, a second microphone poised before his mouth. He solemnly delivers lyrics including the paced out “endlessly delightful you, and endlessly delightful me”. He wears loose trousers and no shirt. There are repeats of elongated “me”.

I’ve been feeling things strongly lately, and the mood of the music in the low-lit, calm basement floor of Partisan helps this process to continue. His second song is about not having fish to sell, about pots and pans. It is slow, faintly sad, with vocals and the gentle Jaguar guitar. Next, the tambour returns in the same fashion. The song is oratory, the lyrical theme rings of something feudal. It’s a song about a maid, awakening and death. The rhythm and overall steadiness soothes in a different way to the precisely orchestrated gig of their latest record launch. He performed with band, wearing tunics, harmonising, playing percussion instruments. It was commanding, musically and visually, a state they are achieving again today. I note the lines “Blackberries in the city might be nice and ripe, but they don’t love me right”, reminding me of the content order in ‘Roses are red…’ where plants pre-empt a proclamation or truth about love. The current song is like an ode, but pleads its point in a mostly measured way. Leo’s voice is deep and contained, with only slight urges. The Cult Party sound more broadly makes me think of the slow but powerful sound created by Low.

Leo places his guitar on its stand and hits it with the beater from before, catching some harmonics as he roughs it over the neck. He increases the fuzz, apt for a humbucker. It continues, monotone, before the tambour is brought back. There’s a mention of ‘Hurricane Girl’, the titular character of the one-side long track from the latest record. For the first time, his voice makes a moderate scream. Cult Party – they, he – has been ritualistic in both gigs I have seen. In this case it is impressive to see the act captivate the audience whilst playing in its singular, pared back form.

Kiran Leonard was solo the last time I saw him, this time he has three people alongside. Where Cult Party has shrunk, Kiran’s act has ballooned. He starts on guitar with fingers speeding across the fret board, the first track encouraging him to pulse his head in bursts towards the mic. I think I can hear an out-of-sight (and welcome) cowbell. It is intense until a soft interlude where his voice floats. The vocals feel less central than they did the last time I saw him, owing perhaps to the set-up (last time, simply voice and piano) and the resonance of the space. This time the rhythm and its dynamism feels like the focal point. It is quick to change but allows for swells. Kiran, as I have seen him do before a long time ago in Oxford in a small bar, holds his guitar high as he plays with the body in the crook of his elbow. I don’t see him switch the bright blue model for a brown-burst coloured Stratocaster until the following song is underway. I recall his audience conversation a few years back about the DWP’s wicked ways – still relevant – and try to work out if these observations are woven into the material. The third song has a more balladic intro, the keys player now takes to a violin. Kiran works well in the folk-tinged mode. I enjoy how the singing and guitar move like complimentary sheets of math, with tempo switches, quick crescendos, throatiness for force.

Kiran Leonard (photo Sebastian Matthes)

Kiran chats with us, and says it’s the first time he’s played with this band in Manchester in a long time. He applauds Partisan and says there needs to be a space like this in Central Manchester. It is over a year now that this space has been a hub not only for music but for social justice groups like Women Asylum Seekers Together and Safety4Sisters (amongst a considerable list of others). The changeover from club nights with highly reputed electronic artists, such as a recent one with Objekt and Call Super, to evenings like this shows the flexibility of the space and the variety of audiences it hopes to serve. Kiran’s stage presence is comparatively quiet to his vocal delivery and the punch the music can carry when not in its occasional calmer lulls; it suits Partisan’s homely atmosphere at hand.

The following song is from the next record, ‘Western Culture’, out next month. It is short, and feels like it pushes against something resisting. After, a song starts with a quick Latin-sounding drum beat. Everyone in the band is standing apart from the drummer. The guitar is solo until a second rhythm guitar and the bass enter in, the drum shaking slightly. The song feels like rattling, tightly organised chaos. It can be hard to pick out the depth of his words here. From listening at home I am aware of the range in content, approaching literature, politics, and history. Here, I can now hear comments on sexual harassment against women. In my own thoughts about how we navigate the expression of difficult content in art and music, whether it is more interesting or useful to abstract and cloud it, I have made no solid conclusion. However my ears are open to Kiran’s approach, which is earnest but not cloyingly trite or virtue-signalling. The delivery is fulfilling with its scaling in multiple directions, and the ever-morphing structures.

He switches for another guitar, a black Stratocaster. The keys player returns to his keys. Kiran notes the weird tunings he brought to the latest records, “one of the worst mistakes I’ve ever made”. The violin comes out again. There are moments of guitar and violin facing one another, no other instruments used. After, a new song, a new tuning, a song written for a friend. The next song, also for a friend, one he tells us is about counteracting stereotypes of art to do with the internet, where we’re characterised as zombie-like screen slaves.

As the gig continues I melt into the environment without noting a grand finale, though myself and my plus one acknowledge that Kiran is a bit of a wizard (and shockingly, younger than the both of our own young selves). Both on record and live, the two acts present and create very rich art with memorable deliveries and mapping. Returning home and listening to Kiran’s ‘A Bit Of Violence With These Old Engines’, I want to fall in love with more things and maybe marry them. With music of such range and strength, no doubt numerous excellent performances from both acts are to come.

Cult Party Facebook | Bandcamp

Kiran Leonard Official | Facebook | Bandcamp


Hannah Ross

Hummer and strummer with Kurt Vile hair. Likes neo-soul, reverb, and most things put out by Beggars. Will review for money and/or free tickets + exciting new music.