When they’re at their best, the members of The Antlers create haunting indie rock that’s capable of soaring. So given the high ceilings at First Unitarian Church’s Sanctuary, the venue seemed like an appropriate match. But few things will permanently ground a live musical performance as much as a poor mix. Last night, lead singer Peter Silberman—whose lyrics are often the centerpiece of the band’s music—found that his words were all but lost. And with them went The Antlers’ capacity for emotional resonance, as well as any hope for a lasting connection with the passive audience.

After inviting everyone to stand at the front of the pews (“You look very polite and comfortable,” Silberman said), The Antlers began with a series of songs from their new release, Burst Apart, including “I Don’t Want Love,” “No Widows.” The heavy distortion drowned out Silberman’s falsetto so that it became just another instrument—one still capable of delivering sound, but not meaning. He yelped, wailed, and moaned, but everything he said was lost in the crunch of too-loud guitars. Beyond his lyrics, Silberman’s voice is in many ways The Antlers’ calling card, and his glistening high notes have the potential to fill the rafters of a place like the Sanctuary in a way that fuzzy dissonance does not. Unfortunately, this was only allowed to happen briefly.

Along with “Corsicana” (from Burst Apart), “Bear” and “Sylvia” (both off of 2009’s Hospice), exemplified what the concert could and should have been: an intimate session, with the clarity of The Antlers’ songs heightened and fortified by the Sanctuary’s acoustics. Silberman’s voice was permitted to rise above the fray of synth and noise, and he looked straight at the crowd, which finally started to respond. The anthemic chorus of “Bear” conquered the hugeness of the room, and for the first time all night, the Antlers didn’t seem small and washed-out on the very bright stage.

But that was short-lived, and The Antlers struggled to hold the group’s attention. There was a lot of whispering, texting, and slumping over with half-shut eyes. (Midway through, a guy in a blue shirt appeared behind drummer Michael Lerner, mouthing, “Let’s go!” and waving his arms frantically for more energy.) That the members of band spent much of the show with their backs to the audience and their gazes pinned to the floor didn’t help the situation. That sense of disaffection might work in a dark basement full of writhing fans—but, at the Church, the lack of engagement seemed to spread from the artist to the audience. They took a few stabs at humor, which sometimes worked (on the allegedly impending May 21st apocalypse: “we’re safe as long as we’re in church”) and sometimes didn’t (“I think if you sweat a lot in church it means you’re going to hell. We’re all going to hell tonight”).

The Antlers weren’t really indifferent, they just didn’t know how to overcome the hole left whenever Silberman’s voice disappeared into the mix. Without that charisma, bridging the yawning gap created by the elevated stage and substantial space proved too difficult. Still, it’s hard to blame The Antlers entirely; in a cozier, more informal venue, the set would have held up fine (as it did when I saw them in Boston in March). Don’t count the Antlers out—just be sure to see them in the kind of venue they can command. —Kiley Bense