(Planet Me)
Friday, March 08, 2019
THE TWILIGHT SAD – London Camden Electric Ballroom 28 Feb + Glasgow Barrowlands 02 March 19

To see a band visibly make The Great Leap is a rare thing. Few bands get to do such a thing and even fewer of us get to see it happening with our own eyes. After 12 years, the ever changing Twilight Sad meanwhile, have managed to somehow step up a gear artistically and creatively – and brought people in with them on the way. It’s exciting. It’s intoxicating. It’s beautiful. The great leap has seen them take a huge step in both their visibility, and more importantly, their work. The latest album “It Won/t Be Like This All The Time” is probably my favourite album of the past 25 years, and to experience this is a night that will not be forgotten by anyone who was there.

The crowning glory, as such of this, is a Saturday night headline at the legendary Barrowlands in Glasgow – and for a band that came so close, so many times, to not being around anymore and often played to empty, small rooms and openly wondered if this was the end, the fact that they can sell out the best venue in the country (if not the world), in their home town, in a few minutes is a moment to savour. The secret it seems has escaped.

Exposure is a terrible word ; and yet exposure is what has opened doors. For all the high profile support slots, never forget that the band got here through two things ; the quality of the songs – and a dogged determination, of hard work, and persistence. It doesn’t matter how much exposure you get if the core songs aren’t good enough, or don’t connect. What this bands music does to some people is a magical thing. For the band, part of it is that they too believe in this. Because if you didn’t believe in this, and did it just for money, sometimes there isn’t that much money in this.

Nonetheless, tonight victory is The Sad’s to lose : but they triumph. In Glasgow they are supported by Fiskur and Michael Timmons – handpicked, local acts that mine similar territory. In London, it is probably the final London appearance by A Mote Of Dust, which is, in itself, a sad moment to see such talent simply unable to continue because of money.

The Twilight Sad never do things by halves. There’s no real showmanship as such, more a fluency in the music that becomes something else. And, in the shape of vocalist James Graham, there’s an obviously emotional, and conscious focal point who is both very aware of what this means, and absolutely not taking it for granted. Years of playing and songwriting have culminated in this night.

What we do get is a committed, passionate performance by a band that have utterly grown into everything they ever promised they could be. James sings at the peak of his abilities and powers with a passion that most bands could only hope to hit. Andy McFarlane on guitar acts as a sort of aural ringmaster, stoic and barely moving whilst creating a beautiful squall of noise as a dark texture over everything else ; almost, in many ways, similar to the way The Jesus And Mary Chain slathered “Psychocandy” with tonal noise over the top of these brittle, great songs. The bands engine room of Jonny Doc, new drummer Sebastien Schlutz, and Brendan Smith create a solid and powerful bedrock. Jonny’s basslines act as the melodic lead – he’s a sorely under-rated bass player, whilst at the same time Brendan creates rhythmic textures and atmospheres that match the guitar tones and complement them. At the heart is new drummer Seb, who pushes the songs with a technical fluency the band needed to make these songs what they have become. Seeing them with him now, even though I have seen other lineups, makes me wonder how the band could have ever done without him. They probably, truth be told, not been able to do this.

London opens with a powerful triple hit from the new album ; the music is built on dynamics with tone and tempo shifts, ebbs and flows, tension and release – veering between a tightly coiled spring and a joyous expression. The opener “[10 Good Reasons For Modern Drugs]” is a slow build that casually spends its choruses like a millionaire on a gambling spree. As soon as there’s a chant from the crowd of “I called you. I called you all night.” There’s the double barrel line, that the first moment I heard it, I just knew this band had become everything I hoped they could :

“Do they understand you?
Do they call out your name?
Do they even miss you?
All these boys look the same.”

In the current world, and the refreshing tide against toxic, and stupid masculinity there’s not many songs that so obviously rubbish fuckboys for being the utter idiots they are. And yet, here it is, addressing it, and being openly vulnerable and emotional, in a way that the best bands do. Alongside Idles, this band are unafraid of showing their emotions and their humanity.

This song, like many of the others, achieves what all great art does. The best art opens our eyes, helps us see the world in a different light, and makes us understand life a little better than we did before.

And what is the point of art, if not to feel? If not to see? If not to access insights and emotions? To experience life differently? And for me at least, The Twilight Sad are a band that provides me with a map through the terrain. A way of understanding and decoding emotions. The confusion, sadness, joy, that comes with being alive. Their niche is ecstatic misery, in recognising both sides of the coin, and how true happiness cannot come without struggle. My life has been an uneasy path, and there is a bittersweet comfort in knowing that its not just my path that is difficult. Not that I would wish some of those struggles on anyone else, but to feel that sense of community in that it is a battle and not a lone trek through the wilderness is sometimes a consolation.

Also – and forgive me for indulging – the Sad fan community is one of the friendliest I have encountered. There’s a sense of belonging and likemindedness amongst the people here, with shared and common experiences and battles. Life doesn’t always come easy to some people, and maybe that’s one of the common elements amongst us. And down here at the gig, it’s very definitely a sense of “us”, instead of being alone in a crowd.

With barely a seconds pause, the band have revved up and are deep into “Girl Chewing Gum”, and aside from “Last January” (which is a pounding, powerful song), the first half hour is all new material. There’s also their best song yet – “VTr”. It’s the perfect combination of tension/release, built on a throbbing bassline, and stuffed with more hooks than a fish’s mouth. The lyric clearly addresses a matter very close to my soul – the redemptive power of love and community to overcome the adverse – and in one key line, an urging to find joy wherever it may be in whatever shape it may come. There’s no love too small.

In bands I love, I cling to the lyrics, to find nuggets and fragments of truth, to find designs for life, and commandments, of insights that are tossed from minds of others, signs that point to ways through this thing called life that might make it easier.

On previous nights of the tour, the band have played the whole of the new album in full : In Glasgow, James has strained his voice and they play almost all of it – not that the night feels shortchanged as a result. His voice can’t hit the high notes of “Shooting Dennis Hopper Shooting”, or “Girl Chewing Gum” and cancelling your biggest headline show yet isn’t an option, so the band take some of songs out of the set which push the voice to its limits.

In the course of the night, the band also touch upon the key points of their history, with “Last January”, “Reflection Of The Television” and “Girl In The Corner”, as well as a final triumphant closing segment which is, to put it mildly, emotional, and designed perhaps intentionally, to make us all feel. Some of the older songs are absent – these are the first time, I think, since release that the band have taken “That Summer At Home I Became The Invisible Boy”, and “Don’t Move” out of a headline tour. But the night doesn’t feel less by their absence, and you may only miss them if you know they were once there.

There’s not a Sad gig yet that I have not felt things at. Tonight is no exception ; and I feel perhaps more than I have at most. “Cold Days In The Birdhouse” may be about many things, and nothing, but tonight its about one thing : the crowd singing together. And not mere terrace chant nursery rhymes about Wonderwalls or whatevers, but deep, heartfelt, enormous explorations of love and hope that feel like they were taken from my collective, unexpressed unconscious.

There’s the powerful, muscular “The Wrong Car”. This non-album single was only ever released on vinyl, and it floors me. I’m not sure exactly what its about, but as someone who has spent more of their life over-thinking and with anxiety as a superpower (just well hidden), I’ve spent what felt like many nights of my life staying in at night, because its more than I can bear to show. And of course, making the wrong decision, being wrong before, getting in to the right side of the wrong car. The lyrics are obtuse, even impenetrable, but to me, they cut right through to mean what I need them to mean. It’s about – to me – making mistakes, and learning from them.

And then there’s the next song. And like everytime, this song breaks my heart and remakes it at the same time. It’s Frightened Rabbit’s “Keep Yourself Warm”. It’s too much and yet not quite enough ; and what do I feel? A thousand things at once. A reminder – as if I could forget – of the joy, of the life music gave me. Life never made sense until music came in, and songs like this became my guides when I was alone, or provided a light when I was lost. Songs like this helped me see in the dark. And yet I survived, and Scott didn’t, and it’s a survival song, a song of protest, a song that to me symbolises my life itself, and a sign of the eternal battle I fight between the sad, (the blues, whatever you want to call it) itself and the light that has steered me through the dark nights. I cry and weep and lose myself, and find myself, and here I am, fighting, living, and being alive itself is a victory because there were days when I wasn’t sure I would be doing that until I hit old age. I didn’t always think I’d make it to here and now. It’s quite literally the battle of, and for, my life, and it’s exhausting some days, and oh, how I wish it wasn’t.

The final song is “And She Would Darken The Memory”. It’s a transcendent blow out ; a firework ; a final cacophony of sound and defiance against the silence for me, that builds to a hypnotic trance of release.

Of course some bands have fans. And some bands have people that either love them or are indifferent. If you could judge a band’s greatness purely by how much a band is loved by their most fervent, The Twilight Sad might just be one of the best bands in human history ever. I would not argue that assessment.

Friendships were made. A intercontinental marriage proposal was made. This band changes lives. For one night, people travelled all across the world to be in that perfect room for two hours. There’s not many shows where you might think You had to be there. This was one. Magic happened here.

[10 Good Reasons For Modern Drugs]
Shooting Dennis Hopper Shooting*
Girl Chewing Gum*
Last January
The Arbor
Reflection Of The Television
Sunday Day 13
There's A Girl In The Corner
I/m Not Here
Keep It All To Myself*
Let's Get Lost
Cold Days In The Birdhouse
The Wrong Car
Keep Yourself Warm
And She Would Darken The Memory

* - not played in Glasgow

Monday, January 14, 2019

“It Won’t Be Like This All The Time” is a promise, and a threat. And right now, I need to hear that it won’t be like this all the time : because here and now, I’m – like many people – fucked in Brexitland. If you have any kind of anxiety, or even common sense, the concept that somehow the fragile life we have spent all our lives buildings will be thrown over the cliff edge of a no deal Mad Max Brexpocalypose is a form of terrorism and I need to hear that It Won’t Be Like This All The Time. Because I don’t know how much more of reality I want to be around.

And this is exactly what I need. It’s been four long years since their last album, and so much has changed, and nothing has changed. Feelings, emotions, eating, sleeping, they are unchanged. Immortal.

Starting with “10 Good Reasons For Modern Drugs”, the album sets out its stall early – and assertively. It’s a pulsing, angry beast, which fulfils all the promise the band have ever had. These are the best songs they have written. Sonically, it’s immaculate – if My Bloody Valentine and Jesus And Mary Chain had somehow become stadium filling rock gods and learnt how to write the best songs of all time, and on top of which sit strong, powerful, heartfelt songs about love, loss, loss of love, and the shining beacon of hope in all of them.

And lets not forget that all of this beauty and the serrated, perfect guitar tones mean nothing without the songs. It’s dripping in unforgettable vocal hooks – The urgent, pleasing “I’ll call you. Call you all night” of “10 Good Reasons” become, somehow, more and more important and meaningful through a repetitive, compulsive demand. This whole album cuts through to the sound in my head of what it is to love, and to long, and to lose.

The next song is “Shooting Dennis Hopper Shooting”. First time I heard it I realised that this band were poised on the edge of the next great leap forward – and that they had made it. I thought they couldn’t get any better, and yet somehow, they have. It’s a stuttering, threatening coiled beast, rotating on a feedback riff loop, and make no mistake, it means as much to the band – this raw honesty – as it does to some of us.

Like the rest of the album, the underrated Jonny Doherty provides pulsing basslines – reminding me of the much under-appreciated Andy Rourke’s sense of melody (where they could have been lead guitar), that counterpoint the guitar and keyboard textures like the band has deep, low rhythmic lead guitarist which reminds me, often, of New Order’s unusual rhythms. The drumming is precise, efficient, and beating ; each song sounds simultaneously claustrophobic, and embracing. I get lost in these dense soundscapes, and then a voice cuts through as the guitars come to a crescendo.

And each song seems designed to sit comfortably, perfectly, next to the other. As if, somehow, the ebb and flow is designed to maximise the effect. Like an action movie, sometimes you have to breathe – to make the whole work even better.

“VTr” is track 4, and I have waxed lyrical on this many times. But it is the best Twilight Sad song ever. Ever. It’s a pounding lesson in tension and release, in power and glory, all wrapped up in lyrics that seem to address the monster of mental health, about a monster inside of you, someone that we didn’t choose, and how we all have to live with our invisible demons, and how we fight them, and how sometimes, we win. You have genuinely no idea how much I love this song.

“Sunday Day 13” is a delicate, and heartfelt moment of pause. Even inside the power of love, which is a glorious thing, this album never forgets that that power is a blessing and a curse.

At all points, and all sides, every song is about the weight of love – how its power can set us free or destroy us in the same movement – and how it’s amazing, and must be embraced. Because it will hurt, but it will heal. That’s what I take from this album.

In every line of every song.

“I can’t believe you hurt me. I don’t know where to go. I can’t believe you hurt me. And it will never show.”

If you’ve ever had feelings, you probably know exactly what he means. The first time I heard “Auge Maschine” my jaw actually fell open. Especially when the words cut to a refrain of “you saved my life” seconds later, as somehow the feeling that saved your life has gone away, and you have to carry on anyway. You can’t die of a broken heart. God knows some people have tried to prove that theory wrong. And then comes “Keep It All To Myself”, which feels like a direct sequel – in the way that every song on this album seems perfect for the song before and after it, creating an album that feels like one, long, perfect song made of multiple parts. “Let’s Get Lost” is classic Twilight Sad, yet better. Any traces of spindly indie rock are banished forever in a band that are so, so much bigger and better than I dared hope they could be.

The final song is “Videograms” – an old technical term for a media delivery system like a DVD or a VHS player, drawing attention to the artifice of recorded music in the very title. There’s no sense at any point in this album that the band are anything other than utterly in control of their powers, and able to wrap the whole album up in a finale that sounds like both a veiled threat, and a controlled, precise radio-controlled bomb straight to the soul. The walls of noise are still in there, but they’ve learnt how to control it, bend it, guide it, and how to cut right through everything, like a surgeon to get to the soul of feeling and articulate the elusive speech of the heart.

I needed this. In ways I didn’t quite know. And there won't be a better album all year.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Dead People Can’t Sue.

“Between the fact and the legend, print the legend.” – Tony Wilson
“Fuck it. Who cares for the truth anyway?” – Me

Bohemian Rhapsody is both brilliant, and bullshit. But the four most important words relating to this film are simple : Dead People Can’t Sue.

The artistic licence, and utter callous disregard for fact and reality that this film shows are those that makes Donald Trump look like Jesus. Since neither Paul Prenter, Jim Hutton, nor Freddie Mercury are here to counter the film, anything can happen, even if it didn’t.

No, Freddie Mercury didn’t meet Smile after the bands bassplayer walked out. He lived in the same apartment as the band long before that. No, Freddie didn’t find out he had AIDS in 1984 before Live Aid, and no, Freddie didn’t tell the band in rehearsals for LiveAid. No, the band hadn’t split for several years before LiveAid. They had last played together seven weeks before in Japan. No Jim Hutton wasn’t a waiter at a party of Freddies in 1982. No, Freddie didn’t fire the bands manager by throwing out of a car in America in the mid 80’s. No, Paul Prenter didn’t appear on television in 1985 calling Freddie a “Paki boy” after being sacked in a rainstorm for not telling Freddie about LiveAid. It’s all lies. Unless everything the band have told us before the film is lies. Though somehow, if Paul Prenter had done that TV interview, it would have been on YouTube.

So, lets ignore the fact that the last hour is obviously delusional nonsense and Any Resemblance to Actual Persons, Maybe Living or Almost Definitely Dead, is Purely Coincidental, apart from the fact that some of it, sort, kinda happened like that about forty years ago, and lets just… enjoy it? The casting is accurate, definitely. The attention to detail in the costume design, awful hairstyles, and so on is correct. It’s just… it didn’t go down like that. Freddie didn’t knock on the door of a butler he’d made a terrible pass at years ago in his Rolls Royce on the morning of LiveAid, then on their first date the same day, introduce him to his estranged parents before going off to play a football stadium on global television. It. Just. Didn’t. Bloody. Happen.

Sure, it’s a fascinating tale of a gawky kid who somehow became a huge megastar, who was goofy and an opera nerd, and somehow also possessed with immense talent, who managed to rule the world with a failed dentist, an astronomer, and an electrical genius who all met at University. It’s a compelling tale, told with surprising sensitivity – and it doesn’t exactly hide away from the bands collective or individual failings (and failures). And when it gets it right – it’s wonderful. And when it plays fast loose, and flippant with the facts, it falls over. It feels emotionally correct and has the classic redemptive arc, with Freddie as the errant lost soul lead into darkness by horrible people who exploit his naivety to get rich, who find the blah blah blah of his predictable musical family etc etc., and get to conquer the world through being one of the freaks. Or something.

Make no mistake, it’s very well done. And I, with more than your average interest in Queen – though also, at the same time, very aware both how incredibly daft the band are/were and how they were rescued from their certain fate as the London version of Dumpy’s Rusty Nuts by having Freddie become their guiding light, was unimpressed with just how relaxed this film is with the truth. I kept getting drawn in then pulled out with the realisation that It Didn’t Happen Like That!

Buy the ticket. Enjoy the ride. Leave your brain – and your history books – at home, and enjoy it. It may be many things, but it isn’t the truth. It’s a show. It’s a business. It’s showbusiness.

ORBITAL - London Hammersmith Apollo - 15 December 2018

Hot on the heels of their latest album – “Monsters Exist” (or “Monster Sexist”), Orbital have evolved. Last year was a pre-album come back gig, replete with all the hits you can imagine and a huge wave of euphoria as you recognised each song. This time round, the new album looms large in the set, with half the set being songs that have been out about three months. Not that there is a noticeable quality gap as such : the new stuff sounds just like the old stuff, and the only reason the crowd isn’t quite as keen is all to do with the fact that no one really knows the new stuff that well. Aside from “Impact”, the first forty minutes are all post-reformation songs, and it’s not that noticeable to be honest.

As ever, the material is a dense, beat heavy rampage through songs old and new, with dynamics, stuttering rhythms and huge synth blasts that remind me of atmospheric movie soundtracks for car chases, but played on retro synths and dancing to.

As a ‘show’, Orbital are very little to do with two geezers crouching over laptops and synthbanks. The focus of the show is all outside of them. On lights, on visuals, on pointed documentary collages that make clear the themes and ideas behind the songs, and on the inevitable drop of the beats, when the sound clears, and the gorgeous dopamine and serotonin rush as it all starts again. To break it down into individual songs is a bit pointless, as the set is constructed on ensuring there is a strong rhythmic and thematic flow that kind of tells a story.

The main set is surprisingly short – there’s a considerable encore to follow, with a triple whammy of “Doctor Who”, “Chime” and “Where Is It Going?” that pushes the night on. And then, like *that*, it’s over. It feels so short, so quick, and yet two hours have passed. And like so many other things, where does the time go? The night is a memory, and another glorious one at that.

Monsters Exist
There Will Come A Time
Tiny Foldable Cities
Hoo Hoo Ha Ha
Vision OnE

The End Is Night
Doctor Who
Where Is It Going?

UNDERWORLD - Shoreditch Village Underground 02 December 2018

Returning back to the kind of venues they last played twenty five years ago, this short Underworld tour (six shows, small venues, in Manchester, Amsterdam, and London’s hip Shoreditch), feels like the kind of show that actually never happened. The Village Underground is a relatively small venue, with room for 500 or so people, in what looks like a railway arch.

It’s what bands call a ‘club’ gig, complete with – if you are seeing them on the weekend – an inappropriately late end time of 2.00am. Since a 2.00am finish would result in me having to get a hotel and stay overnight on a Saturday – or perhaps, drive back until 4am – I ditch that stupid idea and make the Sunday show where the band play at 10pm, and end at 11.30pm, and where I still have to leave early or be stranded in the capital.

From a purely human, real-world, have-to-go-to-work in the morning perspective, it’s pointless to have a late gig where you don’t need to. Because some of us – i.e. me – don’t go out clubbing til 2am these days, and I don’t live in London anymore. Even if I did, a 2am cab or nightbus would cost more than the gig ticket. And there’s child-sitters, or favours from friends and grandparents to call in. Because kids don’t want to stay up until 2am in a club to see a band Daddy likes. I’ve seen parents dancing whilst their children snore in their arms with huge yellow ear protectors at gigs before : know your audience.

You can’t go back to what cannot return.

And anyway, at 12.10am in London, there’s two bands I’d like to see, both playing ‘late’ gigs, both starting past midnight, both of whom I’m not seeing. (And, yes, it’s been a staggering 15 years since I saw a Nitzer Ebb headline show solely because of this reason).

Nonetheless, and stripping aside what exists outside, is the gig any good?

Mostly. The venue is clearly oversold : it’s an L shape. And a third of the space can’t see the stage. So it’s very, very crowded. You can’t move. If you’re prepared to stand for say, an hour before stage time, and be quite crowded, and be at the far end of the venue from the bar, you can probably get a good spot. If you aren’t, then you’re going to feel the kind of crowded that happens when the train companies close a station at rush hour.

Underworld then, are not as enjoyable as they could be. They open with the rush and roar of 1996 : “Juanita – Kiteless – To Dream Of Love” is a rampaging beast of a song, all building and collapsing patterns and rhythms, snatches of vocal, where the vocals aren’t really melodies so much as punctuation, stream of consciousness words that fly where somehow it doesn’t make sense and then it does. On its own, the instrumental portions of these songs would be classic dance/electronic tracks anyway, and yet somehow, with the voices, they become bigger, better, more human, and the audience connect with them more. Maybe that’s why I love Underworld more than Orbital and The Chemical Brothers, because the voice connects. The next song is “Pearls Girl” – surprisingly I haven’t managed to see Underworld play this song live since 2003 – and it tears the roof off the venue. Well, not actually. But there’s pockets of crushed dancing, alongside some detectable tension at the crammed room, where’s no room to roam. But all things are equal now, if you can find a way to stand inside yourself and lose yourself in the music.

Things settle to predictability with “I Exhale”, first – and only track tonight – from the most recent album, Barbara, Barbara, We Face A Shining Future. There’s the new – pounding and fun Dexters Chalk which seamlessly melds into rarely played b-side (and utter banger) Cherry Pie which was last a setlist staple in 1996.

There’s another outbreak of glory with Two Months Off, then the final ‘new’ track with Another Silent Way from the Drift EP. As it goes on, I keep an eye on the time, and at smack on 11.00 there’s one of the most transcendental, powerful songs I’ve seen in a long time : There’s “Rez/Cowgirl” ; one of the best songs of all time. And, here, for the first time in twenty of so years, the original live intro is back, which is a pulsing, slow and immense set of seemingly random notes and bleeps that slowly fill themselves in, speed up, and elevate the night to the glorious hold-and-release buzz rush that practically timestamped the entire Drop The Bass genre. It almost impercetably melds into the hands-in-the-air rush of “Cowgirl”, and everything happens. The rush you’re chasing? The thing that makes all the standing and waiting, the supermarkets and the racist relatives and the job worthwhile? I find it here. In some other places too, but right here, right now, it is here, before me. As ever, chasing the perfect moment.

Juanita - Kiteless – To Dream Of Love
Pearls Girl
I Exhale
Dexters Chalk
Cherry Pie
Two Months Off
Another Silent Way
King Of Snake
Born Slippy / Nuxx

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
Last January
The Arbor
Reflection of The Television
It Never Was The Same
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.

Love Vigilantes
Your Silent Face
Tutti Frutti
Vanishing Point
Sirens Call
Perfect Kiss
True Faith
Blue Monday
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
Leaders Of Men

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

World In Motion
Blue Monday
Love Will Tear Us Apart

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

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