English Teacher prove they’re the future of British guitar music

English Teacher frontwoman Lily Fontaine
English Teacher frontwoman Lily Fontaine - Gus Stewart

Leeds quartet English Teacher played what they called the “biggest gig of our lives” at the Electric Brixton in London, concluding a national tour in front of almost 2,000 transfixed fans that should affirm their status as top of the pack of thrilling new British guitar bands.

Frontwoman Lily Fontaine made her entrance to atmospheric synths and smoke machines, posing in a sinister outsize papier-mâché head. But by half way through, any sense of archness had been utterly abandoned, as the charismatic multi-instrumentalist and whip-smart lyricist was stage diving into the crowd, being passed over the heads of an adoring audience as her fellow musicians (three nerdy-looking chaps on drums, bass and guitar, augmented on tour by a young woman playing electric cello) whipped up a strange mash of austere post punk and elaborately jazzy math rock, like a cross between Joy Division and King Crimson.

“This is rock and roll!” brayed Fontaine cheerfully back on stage. But is it? Much of English Teacher’s set is made up of intricate mid-tempo pieces, with Fontaine moving between synth, electric piano and guitar while speak-singing lyrics that conflate drily comical northern social realism with a biting surrealism. Songs with titles such as The World’s Biggest Paving Slab, Broken Biscuits, Nearly Daffodils and I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying prove perhaps surprisingly affecting as Fontaine’s twisted narratives move between dry recitation and bravura emotional singing.

Sometimes, the rhythm section recedes as drummer Douglas Frost switches to playing delicate piano motifs while guitarist Lewis Whiting picks out a single wonky synth line and bassist Nicholas Eden runs through nimble repetitive motifs high up the neck of his instrument. It is twitchy and odd but mesmerically compelling, with the audience falling almost silent to catch every nuance, then responding with abandon when the drama amps up in weird prog-rocky codas. “That rock and roll just won’t go away, will it?” smirked Fontaine, with a perky provocation that acknowledged the humour implicit in aligning her band with such an old-fashioned genre. “It can sink in the sludge, but it always comes back.”

It always does. When English Teacher launched into the snappy single RnB, the room seemed to explode, with Fontaine roaring defiance of musical stereotypes on a song acknowledging how rare it is to see a young woman of colour fronting a “rock” band. Fontaine has starry charisma that allows her to deliver the lateral-thinking cleverness of her lyrics with full-on heart and soul. The band (who all met at Leeds Conservatoire) are adventurous and accomplished, rooted in the deadpan post punk sprechgesang mode favoured by such striking young bands as Fontaines DC, Yard Act, Dry Cleaning and Black Country, New Road while expanding into something authentically their own. The diversity of the audience was noticeable: a crowd of apparently all ages, genders and races, an unusual mix for an upcoming guitar band.

At the end, confetti cannons fired their paper loads overhead, and Fontaine wandered about the stage, gleefully scooping up handfuls of confetti and dumping it on her bandmates. “I’ve always wanted to do a show with confetti,” she sighed, as if a rock dream had been fulfilled. “It’s happened! Everything’s possible.” For this band, she might be right.

No further performances