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Through the gloom, a projector splutters into life, casting an image of a swirling, growing oily liquid onto the white curtain in front of the stage. From behind the curtain, a light casts a silhouette of Romy Madley Croft as she begins the opening lines of ‘Angels’, lead single from new album ‘Coexist‘. When band mates Jamie Smith and Oliver Sim come in, the curtain drops to the floor and the gig begins in earnest.

The xx were appearing live at the Shepherds Bush Empire on the day that their new album appeared in record shops. For the London-based band this was a homecoming gig after months away from the touring circuit in preparation for album number two, with the band demonstrating a relish for being onstage that belied their usual insouciant coolness.

The new material presents no great step away from their debut album but it’s not broke, so we’re glad they’ve not fixed it. The sparse beats and haunting vocals are still very much present and correct and most tracks are memorable enough to hum after just the first listen. Being album release day though, the crowd were forgivable unfamiliar with the new tracks, with the best reception saved for old favourites. ‘Islands’, ‘VCR’ and ‘Crystalised’ all sound as fresh as they always have done and remind us why the xx are swiftly becoming one of the biggest alternative bands around. Romy’s fragile vocals contrasting perfectly with Oliver’s low rasping voice, while the echoing guitar lines are complemented by Jamie’s powerful percussion and beats.

In the past, they might have been criticised for lack of showmanship and stagecraft, leaving live performances a little sterile but they have put this right now and can put on a show and still look like they’re not even trying. Following the projection on the curtains (reminiscent of the new album artwork), silver confetti was released over the front rows and throughout the gig, beams of light danced above the heads of the audience from one of the most expensive-looking lighting rigs we’ve seen.

Photo by John Godley

With only one track of the set left, another curtain at the back of the stage was raised, revealing behind it a giant 10-foot clear Perspex X suspended from the roof. As the band played, the hollow shape began to fill with dry ice which, when lights were projected through it, moved in a similar way to the oily liquid from the earlier projection and the album artwork.

The xx are a band growing, maturing and developing their sound and seem markedly more assured than we remember from previous tours. Some say that the second album is the most difficult and it has certainly provided a hurdle for many bands over the years but Coexist is at least the equal of its illustrious predecessor and may in time be viewed as a greater accomplishment. The live show is undeniably better. Welcome back, xx. The world of music is greater for having you around.

‘Coexist’ is out now.