(Planet Me)
Saturday, December 08, 2018
 
THE TWILIGHT SAD : Brussels Botanique, Brighton Dome, London Bush Hall, Edinburgh Liquid Rooms 18-29 November 2018

You are, no doubt, sick of me talking about this band. But I am not. On the cusp of releasing their upcoming album “IT WON/T BE LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME”, The Twilight Sad have become one of the most important bands to me. Across four shows – three headline appearances and one to support Mogwai – I see the band become even better than I think they have been before.

But why? Why come back? Why see a band so many times in such a short space of time? Why, if you want, keep picking at the scab of these feelings? Because we must. Their songs lean to the darkness, in the same way flowers don’t. But these songs also glow with a mixture of passion and despair : almost underlining a belief that somehow trying will help overturn the state of the world.

I’m not quite sure how to describe what this band do to me except in abstract, absolute terms, discussing things like feelings and emotions. The set is constructed around tension and release, around how each song ends being closely related to the start of the next one, and around the glorious sound they make. In some respects even though these are separate and discrete songs recorded – in some cases – a decade apart – they are also all part of a whole. For me, its not just the music, but the lyrics ; each song has a carefully sketched emotional temperature that speaks to my life in a way no other band really has ; “I want you, more than you will ever know” sums up years of my life. Since the lyrics are abstract, and non specific, they can apply to almost anything, but the songs speak the language of how I experience life.

There are four new songs played tonight, and surprisingly, the band are getting even better : “I/M NOT HERE” is a huge, rampaging beast around the strain of a relationship that any couple who has ever argued will relate to, “Videograms” is another pulsing song of tension and release, but the best of the new songs is “VTR” which – to me at least – speaks to me of the battles I personally have with mental health and hope, and in five lines sum up almost everything about how I experience depression :

“There's a monster inside of you
Someone that you never knew
And someone that we didn't choose
And he won't leave us alone
And please don't leave me alone “

It also helps that the music is glorious : a combination of incessant rhythms, atmospheric keyboards, basslines that are good as most bands main riffs (and, to be honest, very reminiscent of The Smiths strong and memorable basslines that were the envy of every band of the Eighties), alongside a fierce but precise squall of melodic feedback that drones like a horror movie soundtrack and sounds exactly like the roar in my head when the world goes away, or perhaps the mating call of some otherworldly monster. Oh, hyperbole! But it isn’t. Not to me. The band are wrapped inside the music, and – from the front row – I can audibly hear the singer lost off mic over the PA. I’m lost in the moment – and that is what I personally live for ; when money, health, and The Orange Fuhrer all fade away and nothing exists but art, feeling, emotion, and release. I feel lighter after every gig ; that I have in some way lost some of the weight of some fairly damn traumatic stuff.

And if I am honest – I think it is only those who have known heartbreak that comprehend art in its most effective way. I hate to generalise, but these songs feel like they are about loss, and hope, and battle, and sometimes to feel the art, you have to have lived through it ; otherwise it’s a distant intellectual concept, and not real. And oh boy, the feelings are real here. I’ve been hopebroken, heartbroken, and lived through the kind of wars and trauma that would break many people, and I made it, and I picked myself up, spat on the floor and growled to reality : “Is that the best you can do?”*

*well, I didn’t.

And eventually, life stopped fighting me. What doesn’t kill you may make you stronger, but every battle felt it was taking a part of me away, and it is only recently I’ve started growing back. The world tried to change me, and make me cruel, and it didn’t work. But I didn’t forget the battles. I survived the war, but at a cost. Which is why “Keep Yourself Warm” reduces me to a husk many nights, because I cannot listen to it without feeling a whole bunch of Survivors Guilt ; guilt that I survived my life, and other did not survive theirs. It doesn’t get easier, but it becomes more bearable : I know what’s coming, and it’s a long few minutes. I’m not alone in this crowd either. There’s plenty of bawling and feeling.

Every show is important ; every show is different. Brighton is a compact but exhausting race through a truncated set. London is a mixture of devout and the curious. Edinburgh is a fervent homecoming that borders on cathartic : and the best of the lot. At every show I am lost : lost in a way that I last was when I was seeing Underworld pull 3 hour latenighters in the late Nineties when all that really exists is the feeling, the moment, the here, the now, and the raw, and glorious release from the world that we all need in some way or other. You know that moment? The one we all chase. The one, if we are lucky, we find in family, friends, love, sex, alcohol, or music? That. That is what this band does to, and for, me.

There’s a Girl In The Corner
That Summer At Home, I Became The Invisible Boy
Don’t Move
I/M NOT HERE
Last January
The Arbor
Reflection of The Television
VTR
It Never Was The Same
Videograms
The Wrong Car
Keep Yourself Warm
Cold Days In The Birdhouse
And She Would Darken The Memory


Monday, November 19, 2018
 
U2 – “Experience And Innocence Tour” – Manchester Arena (19-20 October), London o2 Arena (23-24 October), Dublin ThreeArena (5-6 November), Berlin (13 November) 2018

It feels like the beginning of an end. But I’m not ready. Not yet.

The past four years will be seen as a golden age of this band to fans : two studio albums, three tours, 217 live shows, 91 different songs played live, four American tours, three European ones, and a rare visit to South America, and – if I am honest – some of the best, and most intimate shows I have ever seen them do. As they draw the Innocence/Experience Tour to a close, the band seem to have reached an artistic peak. In fact, these might be the best shows I have seen them play in my life.

This time around the band seem more focused, more effective, working with a stronger vision than they have on some previous tours, as if, somehow, they know that this tour the stakes are high. Bono has had a couple of near-fatal accidents and stared his own life in the face – and I guess, when faced with mortality staring you in the face, if you have to play music, you have to make it matter. None of us are getting out of this alive. “No such thing as spare time, no such thing as free time, no such thing as down time, all you got is Life Time.”- Henry Rollins

If is the middle word in life, and if this is the end for U2 – not impossible given their age, health, and the fact that playing live is physically punishing in terms of both the miles, and the mileage, then this is perhaps the best way to bow out. I get to see seven shows in three weeks – in Manchester, London, Dublin, and the final closing show in Berlin. In Dublin, it ends as it started three years ago ; Bono walking through the crowd, singing “The Miracle of Joey Ramone”. It comes full circle. It opens, as the show has done for a few months, with a rousing speech from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator”, reimagined as a modern day, contemporary statement of intent, a call to rise up, to change, to challenge the world as it is, to make it a better world. In Berlin, the redesigned visuals work to a final, perfect effectiveness. Even now, at the final show, the show is being refined, redesigned : with a tour debut just three shows from the end and new elements added just for the final show.

The opening quarter revisits mortality : since the opening is populated with MRI footage consistent with a transient ischaemic attack (or a mini stroke), it frames the show about facing the end. “The BlackOut”, on the face of it, about the end of the world, can also be seen as a personal tale. Is this an extinction event we see? It’s both a violent call to arms, a rabble rouser, a defiant moment, and a statement of intent that these stakes might never have been higher.

For me, at least, U2 have a way about them that creates a great lyrics that could mean anything to anyone, but to me, these words are universal, they create meaning, and they work on multiple levels. : personally, few song lyrics some up my journey through life and time, as it’s clear / who you are will appear . This song – the band playing in a moving stage above the arena – calls back to a burst of unconsciousness and both individual and overall mortality. It’s followed by “Lights Of Home” : another song where the band address age, death, and the fact that we all die alone in the end. Another road you can’t take with a friend.

In its way, this tour is what I needed : spiritually, the five years that ran from early 2012 to early 2017 were very, very difficult, as I faced near certain destruction. It took every inch of me to survive that, when it would have been easier to surrender to the brutal elements. It’s clear – who I was did appear : and I was a survivor. Being a victim means things happen to you – and plenty did happen to me – but also, I fought back. I may not have won every battle, but I survived the war. It’s followed with the “Lights Of Home”, which is the most blatant and obvious song about death U2 have ever tackled. As you age, your body tells you things and you would be wise to listen. At the far end of the stage, Bono joyously sings free yourself to be yourself, almost reborn. There’s been times when this band haven’t felt this alive. I have feelings, about tonight, about this, about the fact this might be the last time I see them, or the last time anybody sees them, for all I know.

Because U2 are going on a break. I don’t know how long for. Or if there is a next time. If they want to come back, will they be able to? Will all of us be here next time around?

The following trio of “I Will Follow”, “Gloria” (or “All Because Of You”), and “Beautiful Day”, complete this – each song is themed on a sense of life/death, of spirituality, or birth and rebirth. This tour makes more sense when viewed next to the 2015 “Innocence Tour”. Both shared a common sense and sensibility, explored the same themes, and freed the band from the need to play certain songs. If you got those songs then, you might not get them now.

The second quarter is a long overdue, and effective, reclaiming of the bands Zoo TV era – the period where the band had shed their innocence, become cynical, heartbroken, become men. This period was the first time, I suppose, this band had become experienced. There’s little of the sense of naïve wonder that the band had in their earlier songs – but here is the wisdom of experience, and the knowledge it brings.

For me, the importance of Achtung Baby/Zooropa cannot be overstated. By the time Rattle & Hum came to a close, with its hectoring and overly sincere preachiness, I had begun to tire of the band. When I was 14, and full of hormones and FEELINGS, I felt the absolute punch-in-the-face sincerity of the earlier stuff perfectly. But as I changed, somehow, they changed, and the sense of humour, of mockery, of nuance, that I had grown when U2 weren’t looking, they had also grown. And so, for me, Achtung Baby/Zooropa is the apex of their creative experimentation. (And, also, the maturity of a record that dripped with heartbreak and divorce, served as a warning even in the title. Both a warning about children and love, and the destructive power both contained). When they took a left turn and retreated into the more direct period of All That You Can’t Leave Behind / How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, I felt that the band had put down some of their most effective, most powerful weapons, trading skill for sincerity.

Tonight, the set that runs from Dirty Day > Zoo Station > The Fly > Stay > Wild Horses is a half hour reprise of a bastardised, grown up, Zoo TV. “Dirty Day” sees a return after a twenty five year gap from the stage. Redesigned, and narrated by Bono as a tale about both the bands fathers, and their own fatherhood, “Dirty Day” takes on new, powerful aspects. And seems odd that they didn’t play it for so long. The imagery recycles some from their previous tour, but adds in the context of time and the change from boy, to man, to fatherhood. It’s a perfect addition, and the show now feels incomplete without it. Naturally, the band leave it to the last three shows to play it. But it should always have been there.

The next four songs are a rampage through their best era. “The Fly” sees the venue divided by the band members playing on a stage that cuts through the length of the arena – and the screens above them bombard the crowd with a wall of words and letters that pick out specific phrases of importance. It’s the best presentation of that song I have ever seen.

As a concept, “Experience + Innocence” addresses the same elements as 2015’s “Innocent + Experience” tour, but this time as men : aware of the past, but facing the future, and journeying through it. This time, the band address their future. Even though it was introduced with just three shows to go, “Dirty Day” sees the band marking their point between being sons, their fathers, and fatherhood, in a way that it should always have been in this show. Thankfully, the reprise of the middle quarter has been replaced with a stunning mini-ZooTV set : with huge screens turning into a kaleidoscope of visuals, tickertape words, and messages that capture the sense of being overwhelmed that is exhausting and numbing. These days every time I see the news it feels like being assaulted by madmen who have too much power and not enough thought. “Stay” is brought back as a full band performance for the first time in 25 years. And it is glorious. The main body of the first set closes with “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?” which had become a tour staple for the first time ever : it was an irregular appearance when it was released, and very occasionally played since. And live it sounds better than ever. They’ve nailed the song. It’s never been so good.

One of the things that this tour has done is quite clearly state that U2 don’t need some of the songs they always used to play. U2 aren’t a band where you can take any song for granted in the setlist these days : for example, some of these songs have been absent from setlists for the past quarter century, yet they sound so good that they should be played at every show. Not many bands can say that.

Yet, somehow, I feel you can start to see and sense that this heavy schedule isn’t easy for the band anymore. They play with the passion of young men they aren’t anymore. You can see in how Larry plays that it’s not easy for him anymore : the playing is sparser, very efficient, and very regimented. Being a musician is akin to being an athlete, and there’s a physical limit to what the body is capable of. There’s only so many hits a body can take sometimes.

The second half of the show is the same as the Berlin shows. Stripping away the thematic narrative of the songs, that the band choose songs to sit well together and since each song carries within it multiple themes and ideas, and putting some songs together strengthens the bond and makes each one better by association. What is clear by seeing the band now is that they are working as well as they ever have, and are locked into a fluency, a groove that only comes from being together a long time. Each song flows well into the other, and creates a crescendo.

But this is the last night of the tour. This is being filmed for home release. This is a high stakes show, and the band – and the crowd – both bring something special. Something … more. I’ve not seen a bad crowd at a U2 show, not seen a lax, or unenthusiastic crowd. But this crowd, given how many people have travelled across continents to get to here to say goodbye to their band until who knows when, this crowd, this crowd are somehow more than any other U2 show I have seen. Only the Dublin shows – the original closers to the tour – match it.

Seeing this tour multiple times makes each individual show better though : this is a major production with a strong visual and thematic element as well as a confident, assured performance. Visually, the band have further refined the show for the final show, with new and different visuals for a number of songs, and during “City Of Blinding Lights”, a mosaic of visuals used over the rest of the tour as a thematic arch and reprise of the rest of the tours, including bending back to the visuals used on several songs on the previous tour, making connections between then and now, between innocence of the past, and experience, and the entire era. In some respects the 2015 tour was loaded with earlier songs – innocence – and this tour is loaded with later songs – experience, with last years Joshua Tree shows being the period between.

If you’d said to a U2 fan that over the next four years, we’d see some of these songs as staples of the next three tours – “Zoo Station”, “Fly”, “Wild Horses”, “Red Hill Mining Town”, “Trip Through Your Wires”, “Exit”, “Staring At The Sun”, “Zooropa” – they’d think you were a little optimistic, crazy even. Instead, we’ve had (creatively) a thorough journey through the bands work and history, with many long lost songs returned to the fray, and thankfully, both a full replaying of The Joshua Tree, and a long overdue resting of workhorses like “With or Without You” : they may be great songs, but also, with Pride reaching its 1,000th performance, and Streets on 892 times, Sunday Bloody Sunday on 928, and With Or Without You 826 times, these past three tours have seen a time where there was no guarantee that any of their eleven most played songs was going to be played every night. (It’s only “Beautiful Day” that appeared at every show, and they have played it at every show since they released it).

The final quarter of the show moves into a call for unity, with an imploring “Pride” reimagined and made relevant again, “Get Out of Your Own Way” calling keenly to mankind to remove its own, self-imposed barriers, “New Years Day” being a thematic demand for unification (first, co-opted by a divided Poland but not call for a united Europe), segueing into “Ode To Joy” – the EU anthem before it turns into “City of Blinding Lights”. The use of “Ode To Joy” is canny and wise : the anthem has lyrics around the unity of man under a common ideal :

Thy Magic Power re-unites
All that custom has divided
All men become brothers
Under the sway of thy gentle wings

The final encore sees “One”, “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” and “13”. Bono seems to have cut a bit on the speechifying and the lectures, turning instead to the music to provide a clear and unambigious narrative about the nature of mankind. Not so much recently, but some of the U2 shows have felt more like a political rally than a gig, and here the band have managed the perfect balance than turns the moralising into a nearly subtle art statement, and also an uplifting night of joy and celebration. “One” becomes a sort of hymn, between couples, countries, even band members, and whilst it is obvious, the last two songs are both from the new album, and again, a clear statement. They aren’t old songs or necessarily crowd pleasers, but clear statements of currency and the need to stay connected to the new and the now, not nostalgic recastings of times past. ”Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” is a song written by the band to their children, a thematic passing of the torch to the next generation, and “13” closes the show, to an extent where it started three years ago, inside Bono’s bedroom, with just an idea staving off the darkness, as a scale model of a stylised terrace house illuminated by the roads of their childhood beams out to the arena, and a single lightbulb ascends to the roof : Bono sings clearly that “Darkness gathers around the light”, the lightbulb being a key element here, the idea that saved the lives, changed the band, changed the world in some way, the idea of unity through music, the idea that there is something better out there if we work for it. The lightbulb rises, (and in Dublin at least), Bono sings the opening themes of “The Miracle Of Joey Ramone”, the opening song of the tour three/four years ago, and somehow the tour – and a huge portion of my life – is over. But it is not the end.

Sure, there are other bands, and many of them are brilliant, but none bar one, I think its fair to say connect with me quite the way that this band have, and brought so many people, from so far away, all into my world and made it richer. The nights, all of them, have been an ode to joy, over the past few years. A celebration. I’m not ready for it to end, and maybe this isn’t the end, but a pause before the next thing, the next day. A beautiful day.

You millions, I embrace you
This kiss is for all the world
! Brothers, above the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving father.
– “Ode To Joy”


Wednesday, November 14, 2018
 
NEW ORDER - London Alexandra Palace - 09 November 2018

Alexandra Palace is a venue that is tough : it’s a huge distant hall, sometimes cold. It’s not easy to get to, nor easy to enjoy. It’s two trains from London, on packed and small commuter trains, and then a half-mile walk up a hill to get to surrounded by parkland. And every time I go, it seems to be raining.

Tonight sees New Order return there for the first time properly in 19 years, 10 months, and 12 days. The last time they played there publically was New Years Eve in 1998/1999 – also the last live show by the classic four piece lineup. (There was a two song set at an awards show in 2005, which was the only time New Order shared a stage with Black Sabbath). The ‘new’ look New Order isn’t really new at all by now, and has been together for seven years. Tonight’s also being filmed for a DVD release, so naturally, it’s going to be different.

Certainly, it’s the longest New Order set I have seen. Probably the longest ever. At two and a quarter hours, it’s a mammoth (by their standards) 22 songs in length. Whereas normally the band play one-of-five in rotating slots, tonight they play all five. These alone make it, for me, historical. As I’ve seen the band a few times over the years, there’s the fact that I’ve experienced “Temptation” live many, many years : and it’s always brilliant. But this was different. Given how many times I have seen them, you would expect that I would have seen almost every song they’ve played live recently. I haven’t. Tonight sees the first time for me for at least five songs – “Ultraviolence”, “Disorder”, “Vanishing Point”, “Subculture”, and “Decades” - none of which have been played by New Order in London in 30 years or more. And it is just what I wanted.

To start with, the sound is fairly ropey. Live, New Order have always been unpredictable – either great – or gruesome, dependent upon the night. They’ve become more reliable over the years, but still not exactly a slick stadium machine. The sound mix is muddy and the vocals are mixed harshly for the first few songs. With that in mind, the crowd are also the worst thing about the show. From where I am, and this being the only sizable European show of the year, there’s a lot of people who have come a long way. Some are worse for wear. There’s an abundance of Oasisblokes, of beered up Disco Mums, and people who don’t quite know how to do gigs. They’re drunk by 8pm, pushing past people, and then filming more of the show on their crappy iPhone. GO ON BARNEY! DO FINE TIME!

For the first few songs, despite the abundance of rarely played songs, it fails to take off. Both “Singularity” and “Regret” are great songs, but to follow those with the rarely-seen “Love Vigilantes”, the obscure “Ultraviolence” and “Disorder” deflates the mood somewhat. Because these songs are played so infrequently, I’m not stuck in the fray, I’m watching, I’m feeling, I’m experiencing. Sometimes you need to just stand and see it with your own eyes. Besides its all on DVD soon enough, anyway. SCUSE ME MATE! It’s time for me to wear some of your beer as you barge past.

The set quietly slips into, well, not a Greatest Hits set as such, but a best of. Tutti Frutti is a late period absolute classic. With Tom Chapman on bass, there’s no sense in the new songs of having to have that distinctive low slung bass : but it still sounds like New Order. “Tutti Frutti” offers a previously unhinted sense of slinky funk and deep retro disco. The visuals have become part of the show now, with elegantly crafted short films that abstractly reflect the songs. And then we get a pounding bass drum, a set of synth attacks, and it is, for the first time in my life, New Order performing “Subculture” in front of my eyes. Much like Peter Hook’s live sets, that normally offer a number of rarely played cuts from the bands body of work, this offers a subtle but modern reinvention of the song. It’s never sounded better. From here, the show is a solid hour or so of sublime, wonderful music. It baffles me why the band barely played this song for thirty years. That, and a hecukva lot of lasers, and it feels like I we are back in 1987. Perversely, when you get down the front of the crowd, as I do, the crowd are getting younger, and I am probably one of the oldest people there. The band seem to have picked up new fans in recent years, and its great to see.

There was a time when seeing New Order live in any capacity may have seemed like an impossibility to me : tonight, we see “Bizarre Love Triangle” (rebuilt on the basis of a Richard X Remix) grow into a roaring disco monster. As it fades, the band lock into a tight groove, and then spring on us “Vanishing Point”. This is my favourite New Order song. This is the song that I blame for everything. This is the song that gave me an awakening. This is the song that, when I saw it on television in March 1989, opened my world. I’ve never looked back since then, and this song formed me, and opened a door I walked through, to a world that has made my life much better than it was before. It helps that it is one of their best songs. I’ve seen every member of New Order past and present perform this song in the past six weeks, and that is one awesome achievement. Already, this is becoming one of my favourite New Order shows ever. Bearing in mind that two of the best shows I have ever seen were New Order in 1998, and this is no small statement.

The next half an hour or so is, if you are in the right place, with the right people, euphoric. There’s “The Perfect Kiss”, “True Faith”, “Blue Monday” and “Temptation”, all one after the other, all building to a crescendo of musical bliss. There’s a clearly happy band that’s locked into a groove of delivering musical joy. There’s Tom Chapman on bass, faithful to the music, but also his own man. There’s Gillian Gilbert who, understatedly, has returned to the keyboard slot after a health-related absence, and somewhat casually sprinkles magic dust over the songs. The human drum machine Stephen Morris makes every note perfect. Phil Cunningham’s been with this band 18 years now, but still the ‘new kid’. It’s New Order, not as we knew them, but as they are, as good as they were, but also, very different. Not better or worse, just different.

Down the front, there’s a sense of euphoria. It’s crowded, it’s rowdy, and it’s loud, but also – far from the maddening crowd – there’s a sense of joy, of excitement, where music levels all things and all people, where ages, hairstyles, politics, slip away like wet paint in the rain, and where there’s a simple sense of an easier time, and of the promise of a future that never happened. Or maybe it’s the 2 pint beer in huge plastic cups. The best music always walks the fine line between joy and sorrow, euphoria and heartbreak, and no band really captures that balance and walks it so perfectly to me as New Order. These songs helped me, formed me, made me what I am today and I can’t pretend they weren’t that important. If this is the last New Order show I see – and every time I see a band of a certain age now, I think that it could be the last time, because none of us are getting any younger, and none of us are immortal – then if this is the last show I see then it is a glorious way to go out. Not for them, the shambling half-arsed final Motorhead show I saw but this wonderful explosion of pop music. “Temptation” comes to a glorious close, capping off the main part of the longest New Order show there has ever been.

There’s an encore of course : but this isn’t really a New Order encore, but a Joy Division set – with three songs that I thought when I was 20, I never get to see even if I ever got to see New Order – with “Atmosphere”, “Decades”, and “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. “Atmosphere” is subtly revamped, moving from a medley of the introduction to Giorgio Moroder’s original version of David Bowie’s “Cat People” into “Atmosphere” itself. It’s great : but it’s not New Order. It’s important not to forget the past and where you have come from, but important to also remember where you are and where you are going. For so long New Order froze the memory of Joy Division in amber, and never returned to it, but now it’s almost expected that the band will play those songs in the encore. The use of ancient video of Joy Division performing on the screens above does feel a little strange, but again, its right that the band are proud of their past. For me, the show ends with a gorgeous “Decades”. I’ve never seen New Order perform it, and they only played it twice between May 1980 and June 2016, so it’s not exactly a ‘big hit’, but it’s a powerful, affecting song, and – as the last Joy Division song on the final Joy Division album, it’s the right place for me to end the night.

The band do play a rampaging, hands-in-the-air singalonga-Barney version of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” which is a great, lovely racket. But for me, that song isn’t a stadium rock anthem, but a desperate and final, almost angry statement of resignation from the former band. As it stands, I have to leave early anyway or face potentially staying up all night without anywhere to sleep in London, and that’s not how I want to spend the night. It’ll all be on DVD anyway.

This then, is New Order, nearer the end than the beginning, and taking ownership of their body of work and their past, stating who they are and how they have got here. It’s been a hard journey sometimes for all of us, but it was worth it, to be here now, to see them here as the old men, where they have been, and how we got here in the end. What a fantastic voyage ; what great tales we have to tell and adventures we have lived ; and what happens next? Who knows. But I’m here for the journey. Sometimes it feels like I didn’t choose this life, that music chose me, and I had no choice but to answer the call, because music saved me and music changed me, and music completed me. Or maybe, as the band named their last album, Music Complete.

Singularity
Regret
Love Vigilantes
Ultraviolence
Disorder
Crystal
Academic
Your Silent Face
Tutti Frutti
Subculture
BLT
Vanishing Point
Sirens Call
Plastic
Perfect Kiss
True Faith
Blue Monday
Temptation
Atmosphere
Decades
Love Will Tear Us Apart


Saturday, November 10, 2018
 
SLAYER / LAMB OF GOD / ANTHRAX / OBITUARY - London Wembley Arena 03 November 2018

This cavalcade of sound sees four of thrash metals biggest and best acts united for what seems to be Slayers final tour : Obituary are no doubt great – but we miss them thanks to a enthusiastic security search. Anthrax are next and play a set that shows they should be headliners in an alternate reality. Lamb Of God are the newest act and seem, certainly, to show how they are the next generation that carries the spirit forward. Finally, we get Slayer.

That Slayer can headline Wembley Arena on their ‘final tour’ – without having had any airplay, radio support, or anything in the way of hit singles for an astonishingly long time – is testament to, if nothing else, the durable loyalty of their fans – and the cross generational appeal that sees the 12,000 strong crowd (running from 16 to 60 in age) seemingly all united in air guitar and headbanging. In some respects, Slayer are a band that either you get or you don’t : and it is difficult to logically explain the appeal.

We miss Obituary, thanks to an absurdly long queue to enter. Anthrax are next and play like they are headlining : the crowd are rampant and the band are a tightly honed, finely tuned machine that deliver an endless succession of strong material – such as “Indians”, “Madhouse”, “Got The Time” and “Anti-Social” that serves as nothing so much as a spectacular advert for their next headline run.

Lamb of God are probably great but they’re not a band I have ever got to know or love. I do feel a bit like Old Father Time, confused by all this new music, its not even singing anyway, he’s just growling, and well, I’m sure they are fantastic but it doesn’t connect and I don’t know why they are here. Nonetheless, we use the time wisely and I attend to an unpleasant eye infection rather than see the band.

And finally, it’s Slayer. In this way, then, their ‘Final Tour’ is far more of a last, glorious celebration than anything maudlin : Slayer don’t have hits so much as songs that the crowd love, and they seem to have perfected their approach with 1986’s “Reign In Blood” and every record after that has been More Or Less More Of The Same. Whilst the lineup has changed thanks to death and money, it still feels like Slayer – as a concept, a brand, a band – are much bigger than anything as basic as the integrity of a lineup. The band are a rampaging beast with Tom Araya and Kerry King still fighting the good fight, alongside Gary Holt (of Exodus) on lead guitar and Paul Bostaph (who has been in and out of the band a few times) delivering a fierce pummeling assault.

The nearest comparison, complete with lineup changes and a stubborn work ethic, is a furious Satanic AC/DC. And, like AC/DC, Slayer give the crowd exactly what they want – an exhausting, and exhaustive – run through their entire body of work, with near enough every album represented. They open with “Repentless”, the relentless breakneck lead single and title track from their final album which could have been written anytime in their career, and barely lets up. It’s fierce and supremely Slayeriffic. Their biggest hit only made No. 50 in the charts in 1995 (“Serenity In Murder”, which you almost definitely don’t remember). Naturally, it isn’t played tonight. But then, the final encore is a twenty minute summary of the genre and the band completely : “Raining Blood”, “South of Heaven”, “Chemical Warfare”, and “Angel Of Death.”

No sentimental speeches or grand farewells, just a near endless wall of fire that shoots out pentagrams, a set of stone pentagrams, fluorescent skulls, and a ceaseless roar that sounds like an angry bear arguing with a broken jet engine. It is, of course, brilliant, stupid, hilarious, and invigorating in roughly equal amounts.

It is also the only place where ten thousand people can scream phrases like “HOW LONG CAN YOU SURVIVE THIS FROZEN WATER BURIAL?” and not be – at least – spoken to by the Police. If nothing else, Slayer are still, at this stage, as brutal and brilliant as they ever were ; and choosing to go out now, and not in an enfeebled state as some of the last Motorhead gigs were, ensures that memories and legacies are not diminished by time. Still reigning.


 
R.E.M. At The BBC (Box Set)

Just recently, and quietly, R.E.M. passed the tenth anniversary of their last live performance. And I miss them. I miss knowing what they were doing now, where they were going creatively, and how they would address these totally balls-out-to-batshit-crazy times. R.E.M., as was, even though they no longer exist, still exist as a business that quietly maintains an ordered history. Every twenty fifth or so birthday, each of their studio albums gets a deluxe reissue, with a live show of the period, or a clutch of demo recordings and unreleased songs, or both. Frustratingly, each of them seems to come in a slightly different sized package (a 5” clamshell box, a DVD sized book-pack, a 12” photobook with CD’s inside). Standing outside of these, and separate, the “R.E.M. At The BBC” set captures across 8 CD’s and a DVD, 11 complete live shows spanning 20 years of the bands life.

In short we get :
CD1 : in studio radio sessions from 1991 to 2008
CD2 : John Peel Session from 1998
CD3 : an hour from Nottingham in 1984
CD4-5: the full live show from Milton Keynes in 1995
CD6-7 : the full live show from Glastonbury 1999
CD8 : St John’s Church Radio Session 2004
DVD : Jools Holland 1998 and a bucketload of TV shows

There’s no sign of the Royal Albert Hall show from 2008 I went to, or the 2003 Glastonbury performance, but I think that’s more than enough there isn’t there? Every period of the bands life, from the 1980’s Jangle Years, to the 1990’s Stadium Gloom and 2000’s Awkward Mature Band stage are all represented. Some of the recordings aren’t perhaps as well mixed as you might hope, being live on-the-fly broadcasts with synthesisers a little loud, the occasional muffled vocal, or guitars overdriven occasionally, but they all reflect R.E.M. is their element : live, breathing, there in front of you. Normally playing “Losing My Religion”, which appears eight times on this compilation.

The radio sessions captured on disc 1 are a mixture of acoustic glory (including an appearance for the rarely heard, and utterly beautiful “Fretless”, and a previously unreleased cover of Editors “Munich”, which justifies the purchase price of the whole dang set) and full band appearances. The second disc is an intimate Gig-but-not-a-gig Peel Session in front of an audience from 1998. In fact the awkward “Up” period gets four outings here with this Peel Session, Later with Jools Holland 1998 on the DVD, a BBC Session from 1998 and the 1999 Glastonbury headline show. To call this set “1984-2008” is a little unfair as one show is from 1984, and then nothing until 1991 apart from occasional TV appearances as extras on the DVD, and there only two songs after 2004.

Milton Keynes 1995 rounds out two discs, being a complete headline show from the “Monster” tour, which was R.E.M.’s most interesting period. It shows the band taking a left turn from the acoustic based period of the “Out of Time”/”Automatic” era to something fluider, snarlier, and weirder ; as if the band that toured in 1989 stayed the same, but got bored of the Rickenbacker, and bought a whole bunch of lo-fi fuzz pedals and got weird. It was also the first time that Michael Stipe outed his character based role play and narrative lyricism, playing at being a ‘rock star’ gone slightly wrong rather than a sincere narrator. It’s an assured two hour stretch of R.E.M. at their apex, and covers both most of “Monster”, and some of the then-unreleased “New Adventures In Hi-Fi”.

The next set comes from the post-Bill-Berry “Up Tour” of 1999, and covers their first Glastonbury headline set. The set is both confident and hesitant, with a wide range of songs, a new drummer, an expanded lineup, and a bizarre transition as they learned how to become a band again, and mostly succeeded.

The final CD sees a live-in-a-church session, with final drummer Bill Rieflin, and in support of the lacklustre “Around The Sun.” The show suffers by virtue of being heavy on a large number of midpaced, lifeless, and uninspired material : surprisingly these songs fare better on stage in front of an audience than the finalised studio record. But it’s still not great, and fails to entice. The DVD covers “Accelerating Backwards” which is a set of TV appearances from 1984 to 2004, and the nearly full hour long “Later Live With Jools Holland” show from 1998 which is a fluid and curious snapshot of the band as they learn to be themselves again. (Many of the songs from this were selected to be live B-sides, and a weird cover of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” briefly appears as well).

In summary this Box Set is an affordable and comprehensive slice of R.E.M. as a live act, showing how they were often better on stage than on record, and a healthy compendium of the bands live history in one place. A fine way to remember them.


 
JOHN GRANT - "Love Is Magic"

John Grant’s fourth solo studio album – “Love Is Magic” – is, so far, possibly the least of Grant’s solo albums. Gone are the nakedly vulnerable songs, the emotional baritone, the sound of a torch-singer-surrounded-by-computers, that characterised his more touching work – there’s a love of technology here that sometimes overshadows the work, the songs, and sometimes the art is lost in the possibilities. Like Darth Vader in the end days, Grant’s latest record is “more machine than man”, and whilst it might be very, very good, it’s not the record I was hoping for.

Built on the foundations of “Mr.Dynamite”, the album that Grant recorded as part of studio project Creepshow, this is perhaps the flipside of that. “Mr Dynamite” is a hard record to love, of somewhat abstract musical experiments and relatively meaningless songs (that is, missing the searing honesty and personal injection of sincerity that made his previous solo albums), and just didn’t quite work for me. With what seems like the same studio team, this album is the A-sides to that albums B-sides. The two feel cut from different sides of the same cloth.

“Love Is Magic” is though, the least of Grants solo albums : For me, the combination of vulnerability, wit, and music was at its peak with “Pale Green Ghosts” – and whilst 2015’s “Grey Tickles, Black Pressure” was almost as good, almost isn’t the same. Here, Grants retro love of technology and electronica – and the sometimes overbearing lyrical references – overshadow the raw heart of the earlier songs. Maybe John is happier and I like Sad John. However here, the songs are more measured. Less raw. In cases like this, it is not a surprise when an artist becomes bigger, and matures, to start to conceal more, to write less directly, whether intentional or not, and to start to be in a form of code. The tenderness of the songs that Grant gave us before seems blunter and more concealed now, surrounded by references and jokes. The songs need to be deciphered. Sincerity is a superpower.

So “Love Is Magic” is a difficult album to love. It opens with “Metamorphosis” a tempo-changing set of unconnected phrases and lyrics that communicates nothing so much as confusion and a checklist, much like some of Nirvana’s later songs, where try to decipher what was actually being said was a practical impossibility amongst the non-sequiters and jargon. At the heart of this, Grant still has his aces up his sleeve. His ability to write a stunning couplet is undiminished : but both “Metamorphosis” and “Diet Gum” are the two least effective songs of his solo years.

Following that is “Love Is Magic”, the most optimistic song he’s ever written. It’s Grant at his best, hit level, and brutally funny. When Grant is at his best, he disarms with humour but also a piercing, beautiful honesty. It’s an instant classic of his type. And it’s followed by “Tempest” which turns a conceit of ancient video games into a whole new world – and it’s a fine, fine song. A very good John Grant song. Hardly anyone can write a better song. To know that he is capable of songs as powerful and cutting as “It Doesn’t Matter To Him”, and to see that same talent trudging through, say, something like “Diet Gum” is a an act of knowing underachievement.

Unlike his other albums, “Love Is Magic” might be a struggle to love. The songs seems hidden in barnacles or in references that not everyone who ever spent all of 1983 in a video arcade will ever get or know. And that’s not to say it’s bad – because this album definitely isn’t – it’s just harder to love, harder to reach, and the sincerity is hidden sometimes.

There’s great songs – such as “Is He Strange?” and “Touch And Go” – and terrible ones that almost undo all the good work of the rest of the album. It’s by no means his best record, but one that I will grow to love more in time.


Tuesday, October 09, 2018
 
PETER HOOK AND THE LIGHT - "Technique/Republic" - London Camden Electric Ballroom 28 September 2018

Continuing the seemingly infinite quest to play everywhere to everyone, and to play every song he’s ever released with Joy Division and New Order, Peter Hook and The Light now knock down albums 10 and 11. With the ability to play nearly every song from the 1977-1993 body of work, Hook and his band have become, like his former band, custodians of anthems that these days belong to the audience as much as they do the band themselves.

Moved hastily from the Camden Palace (not Koko, despite what legally may be the name), the Electric Ballroom is the stage that he first played as a member of Joy Division 40 years ago. And, as a result of the venue also having a night of hair ballads and Ultimate Power rock at 10pm, he’s on stage at 6.45 for a traditional three hour set that is all over by 9.45. Enough time for a pint post show.

He opens, as is normal with an assortment of Joy Division songs. I’m beginning to think that I’ve seen those songs played enough now with at least half an hour of Joy Division songs played at every show I’ve seen him play. Sure, give it twenty five years, and I’ll be clamouring to see a member of Joy Division perform “Transmission”, in the way that when I was a twenty five year old in suburban nowhere, seeing a member of Joy Division perform any one of those songs was an abstract impossibility. Flashback to the 1997 Monaco tour, which saw that band perform “Failures” to a rabid ballroom in Wolverhampton, and maybe it’s time to rest the Joy Division legacy for a while and come back to it later. It sure is weird, to see the band perform something as punishing as “Autosuggestion”, then to be rampaging through the hands-in-the-air Baleric disco of “Fine Time” ten minutes later. The change in tone is a leap.

For me at least, “Technique” was a transformative album. I came out of that album with my eyes and ears opened. Having not seen any songs from it performed in twenty years, its surprising, but also exciting : the songs are as good as they ever were. They have aged elegantly, though now are promises of a future that never quite happened. The first side of the album – “All the Way”, “Love less”, “Round & Round”, “Guilty Partner” are largely guitar based rockier numbers. It’s probably around the time of “Round & Round”, which sounds the same, yet different, that I kind of realise I’m a few minutes away from seeing something important to me. “Round & Round” is perfectly executed. It’s stunning that this hasn’t been a staple of the setlist since the dawn of time. Other, lesser bands would make something like this a must-play-every-night concert staple. For Hooky’s former band, it’s been played only 7 times in the past 25 years.

For me, this album was an eye opening way in to a much bigger world ; where things like indie, electronic, and so on, just became squashed into one category : good music. At the end of “Guilty Partner”, we turn to four songs that, in my eyes form the best single side of vinyl ever pressed. “Run”, “Mr.Disco”, “Vanishing Point” and “Dream Attack”. Since I was a spindly 15 year old when they toured these songs, I had no chance to see these performed live then. Now I see them now.

What is also obvious is that Hook is performing the album, as the album, in full. The live arrangement of “Mr.Disco” had a very different (and equally fabulous) middle-section the band never recorded which isn’t here, replacing it with a duelling bass/guitar solo that was on the record. The whole thing sounds perfect. And then there’s my favourite New Order song, ever. “Vanishing Point”. In the confines of an ancient ballroom, the driving rhythms, Italian House pianos, and great big disco stabs sound as good now as they did then. We’re all older, bigger, wiser, but also.. we’re still here. I’ve waited a long time to see these songs played live, and I wasn’t disappointed.

On stage, the songs from these two albums – New Order’s commercial high points – are rarities. “Technique” was born in the midst of a separation, and the lyrics are ones that Barney Sumner rarely wants to revisit : “Republic” was born in the midst of bankruptcy through a sense of commercial obligation. That said, on stage, the songs from both of these albums betray none of this.

In fact, more than half of Republic has never been played live by New Order. Aside from “Regret”, its largely been written out of history. So, for me, I’ve never seen 15 of tonights songs played live ever, by anyone.

“Republic” may be just a record, but it has a distinctly formative place in my life : I remember sitting in a Burger King in Leicester with the CD, thinking This Is The Last New Order Album I Will Hear. I was wrong, but there was no knowledge of the future. There never is. “Regret” is the one which I can most easily compare with New Order live.

What is clear is that Hooky is rightly proud of these songs and his role in their creation. To see where the bands differ though, you have to look at what they are doing now. Hooky plays 70 or shows a year, and is determined to perform almost every song he recorded. New Order play less often. Hooky would, were he in charge of New Order, probably have been playing frequently with varied setlists, probably like some electronic version of Pearl Jam with three hour sets, the ability to play anything from the body of work, and always out there somewhere. His band, The Light have largely been together since 1996 or so, and acquit themselves and the songs faithfully. The songs are more muscular, more assertative, given a different lease of life on stage. On record, “Republic” especially sounded like a studio creation that had perhaps been mixed a bit too often and became lacking in spark. On stage, the songs feel alive. “World”, which I’ve known for 25 years before seeing it performed live, bounces playfully like I always thought and hoped it would. “Ruined In A Day” is reimagined with a break into the godlike K-Klass remix that makes the song even better than it was. After this, it’s nothing but songs New Order haven’t performed since 1993, if at all.

“Spooky” is perhaps the most.. interesting. Never performed live by any member of New Order before this week, it’s absence is baffling. The song is streamlined, a blend of the numerous remixes and alternate versions, powering along assuredly, vocals shared evenly between Hook and Pottsy, and glistening with a modern incarnation. Alongside many of the songs tonight, it would become a live classic – if it had been played live more often.

The show drops pace for ”Everyone Everywhere”. Given that I’ll never get to travel back in time to see New Order in 1989 or 1993, this is probably the closest anyone can get. Like other artists of advancing years that don’t release songs anymore, Hook is recreating the past and, to some extent, reclaiming a sense of ownership over those songs. These things are always driven by a mix of ego and pride. Hook’s voice tends to suit the Joy Division material better, but more than adequately matches the songs and I do wish he’d sung more in New Order.

The second half of “Republic” is a banquet of rarely served treats : “Young Offender”, “Liar”, “Chemical” and “Times Change” have never been played live by any member of New Order, and it’s a bit odd. Seeing these songs performed live for the first time, a quarter century after release, is a little strange – but also, rewarding. In the new configuration, the band have to do things and play instruments, and so the sound is thicker, stronger, with lovely guitar embellishments, textures and vocals that make the songs sound just that little bit more complete. “Avalanche” isn’t included ; it’s a song Hooky made no contribution to so seems a little strange to try.

Encore time comes (and its not even 9.15pm). There’s a four header of “World In Motion”, “Blue Monday”, “Temptation” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. There was a time the thought of seeing any of those songs live was my holy grail : now it’s the sound of a rowdy Friday night. Inevitably the question comes down to which one you prefer? Hook or New Order? And do we have to choose? Both are valid, both offer a rewarding experience, and both are authentic in presentation and sound. There’s no winners, as such. Both are now free to follow their own path, and that is perhaps the victory – as best we can enjoy it. I waited 30 years to see some of these songs live – and it was worth the wait.

No Love Lost
Warsaw
Leaders Of Men
Digital
Autosuggestion
Transmission

Fine Time
All The Way
Love Less
Round & Round
Guilty Partner
Run
Mr. Disco
Vanishing Point
Dream Attack
Regret
World
Ruined In A Day
Spooky
Everyone Everywhere
Young Offender
Liar
Chemical
Times Change
Special

World In Motion
Blue Monday
Temptation
Love Will Tear Us Apart

p.s. pictures from "Stage Left" by Hebe Katia.


Sunday, September 30, 2018
 
SUEDE London Rough Trade East 21 September 2018 / London HMV Oxford Street 23 September 2018

Opening the live campaign with a series of in store appearances, Suede play two live sets in London (at Rough Trade East and HMV). I barely make Rough Trade a minute before they take the stage : I was trying to get to, and then back, from a wedding hundreds of miles away. I’m in a foul mood, and I cannot get anywhere near the front – so I don’t try. Standing at the back as the band play a fifty minute set made exclusively of newer songs is a refreshing and rewarding experience. The confidence in there – and the material – makes clear the band don’t need the old songs to play a great show. Sure, the old songs are great. But the new songs are great too. And I love that over the two shows, almost every song is made from the recent years ; the millstone of history is a weight they carry with grace, not a rock that drags them down.

Starting with a double punch of “As One” and “Wastelands”, either of these songs would be hailed as godlike classics if only it was 1994. Make no mistake about it, this version of the band, with Richard Oakes and Neil Codling in, is as much Suede as they ever were and more so, and these choices have become integral and essential to the band ; Codling and Oakes interplay with an affection and playfulness – especially on the live debut of “Flytipping”, that demolishes confidently any doubts anyone should ever have had. In particular, the absence of any songs written by the first lineup, isn’t to me, noticeable at all. Suede are a self-realised, fully complete artistic identity that have outpaced the shadow of history and escaped the legacy by being who they are, not who they were. I don’t feel the lack of those older songs at all. This is who Suede are.

At this point, Suede are as close to perfect as I think they will ever get. They’ve been doing this so long now that they’ve clearly mastered their craft, and at that enviable point where skills and experience at their apex whilst also the band are physically young and hungry enough to be atheletes. In short, few bands get to this point – 30 years in – with the same lineup they had 23 years ago, and still make vital, and fresh records. Suede have long left behind any conception of who you think they might be, and now are growing with grace and skill. In some ways this stuff they do now is like Talk Talk’s “Spirit Of Eden”, a world removed from their previous pop life. They don’t try to have hits, because nobody has hits these days. They try to write the best songs they can, and compete on their own terms.

The pop level is still there, because the band can’t help but write songs – and good ones. The grand epic reach and drama, the curled tension of the later years shows a band that has, in the past five years, been reborn. Suede have pulled off, as I hoped they would, the best reformation I’ve ever seen. The records are just as good as they used to be, if not better. The abilities they had then have become refined, and strengthened with time. “The Blue Hour” is made of solid, powerful songs that sit very well with each other, and on their own. Suede can do epic at the drop of a hat. “Outskirts”, for example, has the pull-and-release stomp of glam rock wrapped around the kind of drama you would expect in a move soundtrack.

There’s a token nod at HMV to two songs from “Coming Up” : know your audience, and the live debut of “Flytipping” (that is, to my minds, a huge meditation of sound and words that is a latter-day brother to “Asphalt World”), sees the band communicating by glances to make sure they don’t lose their place in this multi-faceted and complex song, with a seamless and showy transition to “Film Star” and “Trash”. Both sets close with “The Invisibles” and “Life Is Golden”. The latter is one of the best songs Suede have ever done, and closes the set with a confident optimism that asserts the song’s rightful place, and position, as they grow old with a dignity and strength of vision that so many of their once-peers abandoned many years ago. Suede are determinedly not a touring history museum for nostalgic middle-aged people clinging to the last gasp of their twenties, but clearly showing how it is not only possible, but preferable, to remain valid, relevant, and determinedly alive as you travel in time through life. This isn’t the sound of surrender to time, but, as so few bands do, not going gently into the night but living and being alive.

Rough Trade East :
As One,
Wastelands,
Cold Hands,
Outsiders,
It Starts And Ends With You,
I Don’t Know How To Reach You,
For The Strangers,
Tides,
Sabotage,
Invisibles,
Life Is Golden

HMV :
As One,
Wastelands,
Outsiders,
It Starts And Ends With You,
Roadkill,
Flytipping,
Film Star,
Trash,
Invisibles,
Life Is Golden.


Friday, September 14, 2018
 
IDLES Joy As An Act Of Resistance

This is the album of the year. I *never* say things like that on first listen. This isn’t first listen. This album is less than two weeks old, but I know. It’s what I’ve been hoping for in music in years. It’s smart, funny, fiercely human, joyful, and fuming at the same time. It reflects – exactly – the war that lives in my head. The music is a furious, tightly coiled spring. The band wait, they pounce, and they roar. This is the articulate sound of unheard fury in every street in the country.

Joy As An Act of Resistance is the perfect title. The album is full of joy. The world should be joyful. We should be living this life, now, at the peak of humanity ; humanity has conquered space, and has nearly defeated disease. We have the resources in this world to equalise poverty, eliminate hunger, to cure unhappiness. And so many of us are unhappy ; because it’s not fair, it’s not equal. It’s not right. And this is where the joy comes from. The news is terrible. We should be worried about everything. Joy, happiness, love, a smile – these are acts of resistance. This is the war.

Sometimes it feels like the way the world works, that we, humans, we’re just Economic Units Of Production and all joy and emotion is nothing compared to a balance sheet. And then, we get the words in the songs : all the songs come from a place of Joy. In a belief that mankind can conquer all imperfections if – IF – somehow the power was all in the right places. It’s written in every line. And whilst the songs are undoubtedly angry, at the same time, they’re also full of passion. Each song is a story, an image, a snapshot of modern life. “A dulcet man with a dulcet tone from a dulcet town and a dulcet home” sums up so much of a modern high street on a Friday night ; the electric terrifying buzz of a Saturday Night at closing time that we’ve all known.

And it’s a vulnerable album ; the lyrics are raw, and emotional : a man lost in a modern world, where we are surrounded, bombarded by conflicting messages and a confusion over what it is to be a man anymore :

“I'm lefty, I'm soft. I'm minimum wage job. I am a mongrel dog. I'm just another cog. This snowflake’s an avalanche.”

And there’s songs that cover every part of how I feel. The songs pointedly and clearly address the xenophobic post-Brexit MadMaxScape that is modern Britain – a land where we want more nurses, yet also deport them – a land where we are taught to hate ourselves to buy more things – a land where we are taught to hate everyone who isn’t quite exactly like us – a land of adequate food, low quality meat, No Deal, and stockpiled medicines - and, at the same time, that somehow all these contradictions are meant to make sense. Which they don’t. They can’t.

And the songs : they pound on a complex set of ever changing tempos and parts, all built to come to a crescendo in each song, and each song is perfectly placed next to each other. Especially the heart-rending, mid album pause of “June” which deals, brutally, with stillbirth and tragedy with the power and devastation of the most powerful poem you might have ever read. And to follow it with “Samaritans”, which addresses the way masculinity becomes a flippant prison where you aren’t meant to show your feelings as a mask is no accident. The whole album feels like the soundtrack to an exploration of the utter fucked-up-ness of modern life, and an acceptance of who we are for all our flaws. And, at the same time, that acceptance is a joy. Loving yourself is an act of joy ; this is who I am, and what I am, and that is that.

The album ends with “Rottweiler”. The final call, the final word on this album is a cry of “Unity!” – a theme that pulls through many songs on this record, the sense of unity, community, of people all in this together, united by a common experience : and of course, there’s also the joyful music, that is so furiously alive, so passionate, and so clear. This album feels like being given a pre-match pep talk by Muhammad Ali – except the match is your whole damn life, and Joy As An Act Of Resistance is a musical instruction manual on how to survive the modern world.

This is my album of the year in one of the best years for music I have ever known.


Thursday, September 13, 2018
 
U2 “Experience And Innocence Tour” Berlin Arena 31st August 2018

Three years later, U2 work on the concluding part of what has – perhaps unintentionally – become a themed triptych of related touring ; building on 2015’s “Innocence” tour, and last years somewhat nostalgic “The Joshua Tree 30”, the last part – this tour - is a determinedly forward thinking, modern show – part art installation, part rock gig with half of the set being new songs from the past five years. Whereas “Innocence” seemed all about growing up, and finding your place in the world, and “The Joshua Tree 30” tour felt like a look back and a contextualising of the past in the present, of coming to terms with history, “Experience” feels different ; about the here, and the now, and the future. It’s a strong and powerful, clever show. Like everything U2 it’s “political”, but political only in the sense that the bands work has always addressed the state of the world what we do in our place in the world.

It starts in a way that clearly, unambigiously, makes its position clear. Redesigned for Europe, the show places politics front and centre – and the inevitable too much politics crowd can shut up. Politics – or more correctly, ethics – has been part of the U2 texture for forty years : and, at the ground level, in every part of the band. If U2 has been a band, it has also been an exploration ; a way of trying to find out how one fits into this world, and how others are also part of this. The opening montage is a heady mixture of footage and sounds that contextualises the rest of the show ; alongside MRI scan footage and static, it also combines carefully selected shot a of each city the band will be visiting on tour, taken from war damaged history. Berlin 1945, London 1940, Manchester, amongst others, showing the universal, and great leveller that is war. It is a carefully selected warning, as a remix of the bands “Zooropa”/”Love Is All We Have Left” is played, and perhaps most pointedly the Speech To Humanity from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” addresses the crowd.

Certainly, some of it will go over some heads. But context is important : to me, this montage sets the tone of the show – a near death experience represented by the MRI, a crisis point for reality, a moment of surrender and revelation : and in that moment, where we see our whole lives flash before us, and we see things the way we really are, and where we are now is a warning.

In the context of things, “The Great Dictator” is an obvious but also sly move. Hitler – who walked the streets of this town, and whose shadow hangs heavy over the continent still – was apparently furious about the obvious mockery of him. “The Great Dictator” (and apologies if you are aware), sees a hairdresser become a stand in for the great dictator. The mockery of power is biting and, even now, amongst the most obvious and effective political satire made. The parallels drawn between then and now are also clear – the current political climate sees the world standing on the edge of American dictatorship and every day it isn’t stopped it becomes more likely. It is a terrifying time to live in. The world has become poor in the space of a generation, and we are implored to fight amongst ourselves for scraps of nothingness.

And it helps that U2 are at this age, still pushing to explore new ideas, find new meanings in their songs. Old songs are given new meanings, and new songs are shown to be part of the bands overall work : the positioning of songs next to each other draws lines between them. Does “I Will Follow” now work better because “You’re The Best Thing” also draws on the refrain of walking away, why am I walking away? versus Walk away, walk away. I will follow.

The show opens with last years roaring protest song “The Blackout”. It’s both an urgent, and supple exercise – musically taut and urgent, and lyrically biting. It’s all about extinction, earthquakes, the collapse of civilisation, the end of the world as we know it – and in the heart of it is a line that certainly rings true to me : “Blackout. It’s clear. Who you are will appear.”

It seems such an obvious, reductionist truism, but we show who we are when tested, and this song, at this time, is important to me : I have personally, travelled through a terrible and testing five year run of relentless battles, and survived and came out the other side alive. Who I was did appear, and it was a near extinction level event.

With the battle played out on stage, the next song is an exclamation of survival. Bono sings clearly “I shouldn’t be here. I should be dead.” Certainly, the first few songs in the set directly address mortality ; even later, with “Beautiful Day” which is the first ‘big hit’ of the note, is a celebration after a near-death event. Seize the day, don’t let it get away. It’s followed by “The Ocean” (played in Europe for the first time since 1982), that moves seamlessly into “Iris”.

The middle quarter of the show acts as a virtual reprise of the 2015 tour. The four songs that follow – “Iris”, “Cedarwood Road”, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Until The End Of The World” – are largely the same as they were. In this context, and it is only now, I realise, that “Iris” is so damn important ; a key point of the tour, and the bands work, that openly addresses the premature death of Bono’s mother. It’s raw, but true, and it feels a lot like a lot of our lives : Iris says that I will be “The Death of Her” But it was not me. The second half of the show takes the promise of 2015’s “Innocence” tour and builds upon it. Thematically, it opens with “Elevation” and “Vertigo”. Both are well known, almost tired, numb-through-overexposure songs that have been played at 99% of U2 live shows since their release. (“Vertigo” missed ten shows last year but aside from that made 316 shows in a row and at one point was played twice at 38 shows). Sure, the songs get the crowd jumping and they’re great stupid fun to play, but at the heart of “Elevation” is a lyrical emptiness, a lack of cohesion that has somehow made the song lesser over the years. It’s U2’s worst song lyrically, and ultimately it’s like candyfloss : it tastes good, but full of air and nothingness. It makes you feel full but doesn’t fill you up.

For the European leg, the band bring back “Even Better Than The Real Thing” – having missed every American show thus far. Linked with a thematic speech from alter-ago McPhisto, it addresses the reality gap we often face these days ; the void between what we see and what we are told we are seeing, and the nature of identity. Following that comes the ‘holy grail’ of U2 live performances : “Acrobat” sees its first performance in Europe ever, just 27 years after release. On stage its biting, powerful, pointed, urgent. And it shows that a song that is fresh to the band – no matter how old – is not dulled by time. Lyrically it fits perfectly with the theme of the tour : resistance, reality, delusion, and conflict – and Edge peels out the solo in a way that feels new and old at the same time. It’s glorious. U2 should play more older, rarer songs : because unlike many bands, U2’s “crap-songs-on-the-album” ratio is really very low, and even songs they rarely played at the time are still normally very very good. A look at the hits the band haven’t touched on the tour so far is staggeringly big : it’s also necessary that the band play nothing from “The Joshua Tree” on this tour. They played that record in full last year, and to then play huge chunks of it this year is redundant.

Also, any show without “Bullet The Blue Sky” is a good one in my opinion. I know U2 love this song, but I don’t. It’s hectoring and to be honest, has been very boring on occasion. This tour is clearly aimed at the bands newer material, with 10 songs less than 5 years old in the pack, and the back half of the set is almost all newer material. Unlike most U2 gigs of the past 25 years – which have been a celebratory victory lap of “Bullet The Blue Sky”, “Where The Streets Have No Name”, “I Still Haven’t Found”, “With or Without You” and similar, all those songs are mercifully rested. Sure, you can say that U2 haven’t played Australia in 8 years and be factually correct, but I like my artists to be more than a breathing jukebox, and not every song needs to be played at every show. Songs like “New Years Day” are ones that some bands would make staples of their set : here, U2 have played it at just 4% of their previous three indoor tours.

The acoustic set moves from sincere to passionate and furious in a blink. “You’re The Best Thing About Me” is a gentle, heartfelt love song – and followed with “Summer of Love”. The latter is a powerful song about refugees dying by the hundreds as they flee war. The visuals start to become horrifying familiar, with shots of devastation and despair that are designed purely because they are identical to the opening carnage – the eternal battle, mankind in a loop, trapped in repeating itself with brutality. It’s followed by a necessary “Pride” – recontextualised into a great song about human equality, and the call to arms that is “Get Out of Your Own Way”, “New Years Day” - thrillingly rearranged with huge chunks of the 12” remixes used – becomes a new song after many years of being predictable. It’s the little things that give you away, after all. As the band perform, the European flag hangs behind them, and the band sing of soon, we will be one. Unity is baked into who U2 are : You too indeed.

There’s “City Of Blinding Lights”, and “One”, both of which present a unified world. Whilst the show itself is a regimented presentation, lacking both the excitement and spontaneity of the innocence leg of this tour, it is instead a clear, and precise presentation of the modern day band. After three shows where the band address thematically – and with guts – who they are now (and who they were), where they have come from, and how they got here, U2 bring the trilogy to a close with “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” and “13”. The former is an obvious attempt at a late period hit epic, with a huge rousing chorus, but also, and perhaps best of all, a clear message of hope and unity written from one generation aging to a younger one : U2 here are becoming, for the first time, aware of the passing of time and passing of the baton, and doing so with a form of dignity that ‘just play the hits’ legacy acts often miss. After all of this, and the context of horror we live in, U2 still are optimists. Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way.

The show closes with “13”. In this, imagery from the previous shows comes to life on the stage, and Bono grasps the tours recurring motif of a lightbulb in person. It’s the correct ending to the show ; as he sings there is a light, don’t let it go out, a light shines in darkness, symbolising both the lightbulb-as-idea, and revisiting the lightbulb symbol from the previous tour ; that somehow the concept, the idea, the band is their own light in the darkness, their own salvation. And I can be ours too. And for some of us here, they are : There is a light. Don’t let it go out.

The Blackout
Lights Of Home
I Will Follow
Red Flag Day
Beautiful Day
The Ocean
Iris
Cedarwood Road
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Until The End Of The World
Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me
Elevation
Vertigo
Even Better Than The Real Thing
Acrobat
The Best Thing
Summer Of Love
Pride
Get Out Of Your Own Way
New Years Day
City of Blinding Lights

One
Love Is Bigger
13


Tuesday, August 14, 2018
 
PET SHOP BOYS - "Inner Sanctum" - London Royal Opera House 26 + 28 July 2018

As the two year, 92 show “Inner Sanctum Tour” comes to a close, Pet Shop Boys return to where it started with a reprise. The show (and oh boy, is it a show) has demonstrated the band have become that most unlikely of things ; a compelling live act. It may be, to all intents and purposes only two people (One of whom does not leave his keyboard all night) but if you think of them as constant anchor points, the rest of the show is a bold, outlandish exploration of pop music that glows and shimmers. Taking a cue from seaside pantomime hall tradition, “Inner Sanctum” is a celebration of near enough everything and a representation of all of it – joy, sadness, heartbreak, and 808’s – as a day-glo childs version of the world.

It’s probably the last time in a long time I get to see them, because the tour only has three shows left after this – and it’s been rolling on for over two years to almost everywhere in the world. Before the first show, and the world was very different.

The past two years have seen the world change beyond all recognition – then, neither Brexit nor Trump had happened. Now, of course, they have. There’s no acknowledgement of any of this in the stage design ; but then should there be? Some artists think you shouldn’t mix art and politics (which can be a nice way of saying they are.. OK … with whatever is happening). Others over do it. On the other hand, Pet Shop Boys have a different approach ; the art has stayed, but we have changed. The world seems angrier, ruder, and harder than it did two years ago. But that is not here. Tonight is a show that is bookended by “The Pop Kids” as a song and a philosophy, a selection of the best bits, and where, thankfully, the Pet Shop Boys know what people want and aren’t afraid to provide it. Sure, you can’t get every hit single they have ever done, because they have so many of them (60 or so, over the past 32 years), but also, all the songs you could reasonably hope for are here. Also, unlike many bands, the selection of songs offers something from near enough every period of the bands career. There’s no revisionist rewriting out of history a certain mis-step. Even 2002’s first major shocker in “Home And Dry”, and the less than adored album “Release” which saw the band moving away from their strengths to produce a more guitar based pop tone, is represented – albeit in a form that resembles the more minimal ‘ambient’ mix from the 12” single and evolves into a selection of bouncy remixes – makes the song sound more contemporary and modern.

The staging, as such, is minimal, but also, wonderfully irreverent. The band take the stage with two huge disco balls that rotate and carry projections, before the walls collapse, extra musicians appear, weird circles fall from the ceiling, lights flash, video projections encompass the arena, and on my god, more lasers than an 80’s Pink Floyd stadium show. And a fleet of dancers in flouroscent inflatable suits dancing like huge, sentient disco jelly babies. It’s glorious, and never boring. And of course, the sounds match it.

What it is, from the opening “Inner Sanctum” to the final arms-aloft-disco-frenzy of “Always On My Mind” is a modern resetting of the bands work over the past three decades. By careful juxtaposition, songs like “Vocal” become a manifesto about the nature of pop music, popular culture, and most importantly, as with all great art, communication of common sentiment between people. I like the singer. He’s lonely and strange. Every track has a vocal, and that makes a change.

Even opening with “Inner Sanctum” works as a declaration ; here is a look inside the machine, here is an insight into a life made of Pop and Art. To some extent, this feels like the bands Super Tour, but also, an Ultimate tour. They might never have been more Pet Shop Boys than they are being right now. And whilst on the face of It, a 64 year old singing songs of heartbreak starting in 1983, and a 59 year old former architect plugging away at a huge keyboard rack sounds quite dull, the band stay the same in the heart of it all, like a Disco Gilbert & George, as the world – a huge lightbulb if you like – changes around them. And, perhaps surprisingly, everything comes out of those boxes live ; eagle eye punters on the final night will have seen the bands engineer/technican/general Yoda, Pete Gleadall, fiddling with boxes and reloading programmes and sequences in “Love Is A Bourgeois Construct” – and you wouldn’t’ve noticed. The narrative structure of the show, which opens in a search for hedonism, finds love, and ends in heartbreak and redemption, sounds corny, it works as each song sits next to the other in a way that makes sense. “Love Comes Quickly” sounds enormous and beautiful, and then “Love Etc.,” comes, and makes you realise that oh yes they did this song as well! And then another… And this one! And it’s all gorgeous and fun. And eminently danceable.

It’s not a perfect show ; I’d rather they play some different songs – but everyone has a favourite they don’t hear. Especially when the band have 35 years on vinyl across several hundred songs, 16 albums, 5 remix compilations, 2 concert sets, 3 greatest hits albums and 2 B-Sides Box Sets. To keep it fresh, after all, the band rebuild and redesign their songs as well ; always the same, always changing. Like a lovestruck disco version of The Fall.

And on the face of it, the bands universal appeal is that they know what it is like to be an individual in an identikit world full of individuals. As a confused 14 year old stuck in a life that never fit my soul, not sure who I was or what or how to make sense of the world there is no way to explain how "It's A Sin" helped me become myself in 1987. Songs pursue the element of identity and expectation, from the cornerstone “It’s A Sin” to “Go West”, both of which deal with the need to belong, and the trials and tribulations of being true to yourself in a world that demands conformity. To an extent, the bands visual identity has often addressed this ; from the use of uniforms and disguise, to rub out the individual in a self-constructed identity of ones own marking, which is a way of both revealing and concealing at the same time. Little is known about the personal lives of the band – which is, as it should be, mostly – but what this does is allow the band to become who they choose to be ; Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs prime pillar of self-actualisation – instead of who the world forces us to be or who nature makes us to be. Complete self-control.

After these shows (filmed for commercial release), the Super Tour comes shortly to an end. The Royal Opera House is a perfect venue for the band to end their headline run before they finish with a handful of festival shows. The audience have travelled far and wide – replete with pointy hats, silver suits with angel wings replicating old stage costumes, and other similar acts of dedication – and it has been rewarded with what I regard as my favourite Pet Shop Boys tour so far. The show ends with a reprise of “The Pop Kids”, and the curtain coming down on the evening. It’s a perfect ending : classic, traditional, yet utterly unusual for the pop format the band work in. Unlike so many of their peers who saw their powers visibly wane with time, Pet Shop Boys again stated – as if it were ever needed – their supremacy over the medium that propels them from mere musicians into artists dabbling in all mediums, and somehow making it all work as a cohesive whole, a self-contained artistic statement. It’s a Pet Shop Boys world, and tonight we lived in it.

Inner Sanctum
Opportunities
The Pop Kids
In The Night
Burn
Love Is A Bourgoeuis Construct
New York City Boy
Se A Vida E
Love Comes Quickly
Love Etc
The Dictator Decides
Inside A Dream
West End Girls
Se A Vide E
Home And Dry (ambient mix)
Vocal
The Enigma
Sodom And Gomarrah Show
It’s A Sin
Left To My Own Devices
Heart
Go West

Domino Dancing
Always On My Mind
The Pop Kids (Reprise)



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