On Sept. 23, Half Alive offered the crowd at the Masquerade’s Heaven stage something more than a typical concert experience. Half Alive presented a visually cohesive performance that extended beyond musicality to include a rich synthesis of aesthetics and choreography.
Frontman Josh Taylor and drummer Brett Kramer founded the California-based band Half Alive in 2016, and the band later expanded to include bassist J Tyler Johnson. Although they released their first EP, “3,” in 2017, it was their single “still feel.” and its accompanying video that brought them to fame within the alternative rock community. Noted for its remarkable cinematography and choreography, the successful video propelled the single to NPR’s “All Songs Considered.” Catapulted by the success of their single the band signed with RCA Records in late 2018 and released their debut album, “Now, Not Yet,” in August 2019.
Although Half Alive is primarily an indie-pop group, critics have lumped them in with the recent trend toward post-genre music because they draw inspiration from a wide range of styles such as jazz, R&B, soul and gospel. However, the band’s unique focus on aesthetics sets them apart from other groups. As the band opened with “ok ok?” the first track off of “Now, Not Yet,” they stepped onto a stage awash in chromatic hues. The lights switched between cool blues and vibrant yellows, oranges, reds and pinks. The bright colors of the band’s wardrobe seemed to mimic the lights, creating a visually cohesive presentation. The audience, comprised largely of college-age kids, seemed to have either consciously or subconsciously imitated the aesthetic of the band, as they wore brightly colored prints and fabrics. Just from the first few moments, it was easy to discern the effects of Taylor’s background in film studies on the performance. The environment of the concert was deeply cinematic, reminiscent of a Wes Anderson set.
As the band moved into “RUNAWAY,” the second single off of their latest album, the artistic image presented on stage further developed. “I don’t need to run away,” Taylor sang with a sense of urgency as he moved into the chorus of the song. Dance group JA Collective, consisting of Jordan Johnson and Aidan Carberry, joined the stage; the bodies of Taylor, Johnson and Carberry seemed to meld together. Their intertwined, fluid movements created the illusion of a single body moving as one to the snare drum beats woven within the chorus. These interspersed instances of choreography flowed throughout the set, building a cohesive artistic aura.
Half Alive’s set was dominated by these dramatic moments. Up-tempo songs like “Maybe” and “ice cold.” glittered with sparkly synth breaks and hypnotic beats. The audience’s captivation was undeniable, as they clapped along to the peppy yet sincere chorus of “Pure Gold.” As the intro to the band’s hit single “still feel.” began to play, excitement pulsated throughout the crowd. “Feeling closer to the stars,” Taylor sang, stepping back from the mic, giving the audience a chance to sing the rest of the verse back to him: “Outer space.” When the bass dropped into the chorus, it was nearly impossible to hear the earnest voice of Taylor over the chanting of the crowd.
Although these theatrical images dominated the concert, Taylor and the band’s lyricism truly shone in the quieter moments. In songs like “The Fall,” the group traded out high-concept dance numbers for a toned-down performance. Taylor sat at the piano and led the audience in a chorus of “oohs” amidst a break in the song. In these moments, Taylor glowed with youthful sincerity, characteristic of the band’s quick rise to fame. In “Aawake at Night,” Taylor crooned, “There must be something more than dreaming,” expressing an existential anxiety that persists throughout many of their songs. Taking a closer look at their lyrics, it comes as no surprise that Half Alive is deeply inspired by Christianity. Songs like “TrusT” grapple with the difficulty of trusting God among the strains of daily life.
The band brought the show to a close with one of their most powerful songs. “Creature,” the final track off of their full-length album, merged striking aesthetics with breathtaking lyricism to produce a stunningly climactic scene. As the song rolled into the outro, the room fell black, lit only by fluorescent orbs on stage. Red hues slowly filled the stage, falling back to black as Taylor sang the last lyric of the song: “Slowly I’m recovering the beauty of discovery.” The only light left on stage was a white orb in Taylor’s hands, which cast a soft glow across his face. This light faded from white to red, and finally the stage was submerged in darkness.
As the crowd began exiting the venue, I realized I had been holding my breath. For the entirety of the event, I had been completely absorbed not only by the music but by the picturesque aesthetics created by the distinctive color scheme and choreography.