When someone tells you that a live show was “absolutely insane,” the image that comes to mind is a packed house, blaring noise, and a mosh pit that threatens to swallow you alive. On their current tour, however, Xiu Xiu presents a very different kind of madness—at any given show, you’re likely to find rapt crowds, plenty of personal space, and moments of eerie silence to balance out the wall of sound hurled out from the stage. At small, intimate venues across the country, Jamie Stewart, Angela Seo, and David Kendrick treat their audiences to not just an incredible concert but an emotional journey.

From their early work on Knife Play to their most recent album Ignore Grief, Xiu Xiu’s music has spanned every inch of the broad spectrum of human emotion through their honest portrayals of both ecstasy and suffering. Sometimes the human experience is beautiful, as captured by the driving, glittering synths on songs like “Wondering.” But just as often, life can be ugly, brutal and chaotic. The blistering noise of  “Girl with Basket of Fruit” and the alternating whispers and shouts of “Ian Curtis Wishlist” capture the bitterness and confusion life can leave us with. Beyond the emotion their songs capture, Xiu Xiu also has a deep commitment to experimentation, making their output deep and varied, with tracks ranging from Tracy Chapman covers to powerful pop–esque tracks to, most recently, dark industrial tunes that seem to hammer into the back of your skull.

The one major question I had before seeing Xiu Xiu live was how they would manage to replicate their unique sonic profile live. The average Xiu Xiu song is replete with complex synths, a powerful rhythm section, and a couple fun noises thrown in there for good measure. What was most striking about seeing them live was that they strove not to perfectly replicate their songs as they were originally recorded but to reform them to better suit a live performance. While synths still play a major role in their live shows, more emphasis is given to Kendrick’s drums and Stewart’s guitar work, which really come to drive each track. This new emphasis on analog experimentation has different effects on different songs—pieces like “Rumpus Room” remain largely unchanged but have their rhythm section come out stronger than ever.  Already one of their most “experimental” tracks, “Girl with Basket of Fruit” becomes a disorienting, violent, orgiastic spasm of noise that hits the audience like a truck, losing even the small sense of predictable rhythm the recorder version possessed. 

Stepping into their live show felt akin to entering Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Glorious in all of its chaos, every song feels as if it is moments away from devolving into pure madness—and that anticipation makes every moment of their show full of an indescribable energy. Stewart’s vocals alternated between whispers of discontent and screams of pain, taking such a toll on his voice that he had to gargle a strange orange fluid between each song to keep himself going. Angela Seo’s work on the synthesizers was incredible and set an eerie tone across the whole show. And David Kendrick’s drum work was absolutely electric; with an illustrious career in bands like Gleaming Spires and DEVO, Kendrick’s driving rhythms were absolutely essential in ensuring that the energy of Xiu Xiu’s songs survived the transition to the live stage. 

Hearing Xiu Xiu live is exactly like listening to them recorded: raw, powerful, and honest. But standing in a captive crowd and feeling the bass pulsing in your chest, the experience was elevated from a concert to a rapturous catharsis, realizing so much of the human experience in just one and a half hours.