There's a few of them about now, in London. Bars that claim to have hifi or audiophile credentials. Based around the concept of playing music on equipment that delivers quality rather than quantity in a lounge type atmosphere (rather than a disco) - allowing punters to talk, over the music.
The first of these I became aware of is Spiritland at Merchant's Tavern in Shoreditch - you can read about my first visit there, and an interview with its creator here. I've been back 2 or 3 times since and have enjoyed each visit. The music is not always to my taste, but its always high quality for the genre and well curated by the DJ of the day.
Apparently there are many such bars in Japan, but its great to see the concept spreading (albeit very slowly) in the UK. A recent article in the Guardian newspaper alerted me to another such bar - Brilliant Corners in the Dalston area of North London, so it was that I made my way there on a cold and damp January Wednesday evening to give it a try.
After a substantial "Squeaky Cheese" Burger at the strangely named Macho cafe, just up the Kingsland Road from Brilliant Corners, I headed to the bar.
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Brilliant Corners - a reference to the classic jazz album or to the Klipsch speakers in each corner of the room I'm not sure, but I'm erring towards the former option. What's the layout? Well, its very different to Spiritland - from the outside it looks like a converted shop, with a glass frontage - its subtle and doesn't stand out too much in the dark. Through the window its possible to glimpse the coloured suspended lightshades and the bar itself. Once inside, the bar is down the right-hand side of a fairly narrow space which, tonight, is very crowded. As is tradition, the bar was the first call - and here we find it's all bottles. Bottled beers, wine, and a focus on cocktails. Tonight, I think I got unlucky with a new or trainee barman who needed to ask a colleague what an IPA was before he could bring me the right bottle. There's a focus here on locally brewed "craft" beers and organic wines. I'm sure there were a selection of IPAs to choose from, but I was happy just to get an IPA rather than something else. This was handed to me in the bottle and the £4.60 for 250ml is, from a UK wide perspective, a little steep, but from a London perspective is fairly normal. Bearing in mind that there is a DJ spinning tunes and there's no entry fee, it seems reasonable.
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Behind the bar area, the room opens out into a wider space where there are cafe style tables and the kitchen hatch. The room is dark, lit by variously sized and randomly placed white spherical pendant lighting. Its simple, but different and effective in terms of the right level of lighting and quirkiness for this kind of venue. Tonight, its absolutely packed. There are no spare seats and most tables are circled by groups of 8 to 10 people who, in the main, are under 30 years old tonight. There's a constant hubbub of chatter which makes the place both vibrant and welcoming, unless you're a sad old audiophile on his own, feeling a bit out of place because of the age range and the lack of somewhere to park myself. I choose a corner near one of the speakers, a plant and near the bar to observe and listen.
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The venue serves Japanese style food - maybe in deference to the audiophile club movement over there. I didn't try the food, but what was about looked well presented and I would characterise it as large snacks rather than a full meal - entirely suitable for the relaxed atmosphere around the tables which wouldn't really have been suitable for a full meal. There are plenty of folks eating, which is probably a good sign. After a couple of swigs of my IPA, which I find to be very fresh and citrusy, I note the cloudiness in the bottle. This is a bottle conditioned ale - which means it demands to be served in a glass - poured carefully so that the sediment stays in the bottle. So the bar hasn't scored too well tonight. I'm sure the beer itsself is enjoyable, but as I made my way down the bottle, it gradually became too bitter to enjoy fully.
So what of the sound system? The DJ area is down the left hand side of the room with the decks upfront and supported by a booth constructed from breize blocks.
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The walls and ceiling of the room have been treated with acoustic panels - clearly some thought has gone into how the system is going to sound in this room.
Well it's sounding good tonight, doing justice to the Mogadisco delivered African dance tunes - there is good but unforced bass and smooth refined treble. They're not playing loud, yet the sound is pervading the room and cutting through the chatter. Being loud enough to hear throughout the room but without drowning out the converstion is a good move and partially down to having 4 speakers rather than the more traditional 2. This is one area where I think Brilliant Corners scores over Spiritland.
Part way through the visit I pay an essential visit to the Gents. This was not such a pleasant experience and something Brilliant Corners could do with focussing some effort in this area - a real down side.
The music being played was great - really enjoyed hearing the mix of Afican beats - mostly melodic and danceable, then followed up by some jazz funk. The DJ's could do with an album cover stand on their booth so we can see what's playing. Mogadisco can be sampled on Mix Cloud.
Feeling a bit out of place, and not wanting to tackle the bar again, I leave after about 50 minutes. Overall, I really enjoyed the venue and the music on offer - there are some areas for improvement in the venue and the bar offering (maybe I just got unlucky tonight), but the main focus - the lounge and music offering - are absolutely spot on. And to be packed out on a mid-week January evening demonstrates that Brilliant Corners is doing the right thing for its cleintele.
Spiritland feels slightly more relax and certainly is operating in a more upmarket environment but with a limited range of booked evenings, Brilliant Corners seems to have the better sound system and a wider range of booked nights in the months ahead. So its great to be able to choose and that's a massive step forward in this concept to only 18 months ago and both bars deserve to be supported and to succeed. Lets hope they're the tip of the iceberg and the movement continues to flourish within London and further afield across the UK.