Friday, October 28, 2011
THE MISSION / FIELDS OF THE NEPHILIM London Brixton Academy 22 October 2011
Here it is. 21 years to the day since the launch of the final Sisters Of Mercy record and the final record by the 'classic' Mission, and The Mission are here, headlining Brixton, supported by The Fields Of The Nephilim for what is, undoubtedly, the single highlight of the year for people with lots of dark shirts and big boots. The cavernous Brixton – last played by either of these bands in late 1990 – reverberates with something. Arriving at Brixton at 7.30, the queue snakes around the entire venue, and joins itself at the front in a lap 5,200 strong. I have never seen a queue so long for this venue in my life : a Goff Human Centipede where the tail and the head join each other.
A sea of old T-shirts for the bands – black, naturally, where the three biggest names for tonights leisurewear are well, the two bands playing tonight – and Pop Will Eat Itself, who are also playing across the same city the same night.
At 8.15 – sharp, ladies and gentleman – the Fields of The Nephilim begin. A dull roar, and each respective member takes the stage to a place where all you can see is ice, smoke, and colour. Shilouettes lock into a groove, and a uniform of battered grey, sunglasses, hats.If anything, the Nephilim remind me of The Sisters Of Mercy ; a band of fluid members, a common identity that transcends the individual, big smoke and lights and roaring guitars. Sure, Nod, Tony, Rod & Bod may not be part of the band anymore, but they haven't been for over twenty years. What matters is not who is making this noise, but what the noise is.
At a certain point, the Fields Of The Nephilim ceased to exist in any tangible way, but became a brand, an idea, a concept, achieved through a united presentation, a philosophy, and not around the identity of the players. This fourth incarnation of the band, having gone through three bass players and three guitarists in four years and thirty shows, is still identifiably the same band, albeit different. Averaging one show a month – and normally in a far European city – they perform as if they were the headliner : an exact representation of a full length Nephilim show. Drummer Lee Newell hides behind an enormous kit and dispatches hits with a ruthless execution, guitarist Gavin King plays fluently. Snake on bass, anonymously fires off grooves as if he were a human sequencer, the rolling, swooping undertones that pin the songs with a fierce rhythm.
In the midst of this, the one constant is Carl McCoy, taking his weekend job as an occasional rock star. To an extent, such a clearly defined – and easily mocked artistic identity – can be a swift route to a creative straitjacket. But it is just one of many masks a man wears ; lover, father, worker, rock star. In the meantime, this band are locked into a tight groove, as lights explode and smoke blinds, and a voice commands “Look Up. Look Down. Look STRAIGHT TO THE LIGHT”. I'm not quite sure what exactly he is singing about if anything, but it's a tapestry that allows you to project whatever you want onto it, being meaningless, meaningful, or simply just meaning something. In here, we lose and find ourselves in another world. Thankfully, at least half the set is drawn from their more recent records – the under-rated “Mourning Sun”, “Fallen”, and “Zoon” - which quickly dispenses with the fear that this is a nostalgic revisiting. Sure, plenty of the set is older, classic songs such as “Watchmen”, “Moonchild”, and, for me at least, a moment ticked off my bucket, the stellar, transcendatory “Psychonaut”, which is eleven minutes of searing guitars, heavenly keyboards, relentless bass, and McCoy intoning chants that go beyond words to some other place where the language is sound is all we need know. It's fucking glorious. Sure, it's not THE Fields Of The Nephilim, but it is A Fields Of The Nephilim, and a convincing recreation of something that may not ever have really existed except in our imagination anyway.
The Mission meanwhile,offer no such relevance - nor would they – four years after a final split / retirement as any form of active entity, the original 1986-91 lineup (or as much as health will allow) has reformed for a short 25th anniversary tour. From the off, the band have been vocally clear that tonight is clearly, and solely, the currency of nostalgia : nothing beyond their initial flush of success, nor any new material. Every song here is at least twenty years old. A travelling museum of music.
To many, The Mission were one of the finest live bands in the universe : at their peak, where Arena tours were commonplace – they were voted best live act by a newspaper umpteen years in a row. And perhaps deservedly so, but part of their appeal then had no relation to the records, or the music on the stage, but something else. The sense of community, of belonging. With the lights up, the music blaring in your ears at speed, and on speed, the crowd then – teens and twenty somethings and grizzled road warriors – were united in a place where we could lose ourselves, or find ourselves, depending upon how you looked at it. Here, we were who we should have been or who we wanted to be, and always wanted to be, dreamers, lovers, whatever. Then, the world, as it was, went away : the world of mortgages, children, childcare, bills, debt,ex-wives, Child Support, commuting, deadlines – these were for other people. The fools who questioned nothing and went to the office everyday in a suit. We became them.
But maybe 14 years previous, John the Finance Director was a punk. Maybe he'd be one of the Johns. Maybe there was a photo of him in an old Sounds newspaper with safety-pin ears and grey newsprint mohawk. Twas ever thus : we all come from somewhere. Who would've thought that the kitbag army would've turned to this? Queuing in shops, and not overthrowing the world? Managing budgets, running hospitals, and being fathers and mothers? That was the other people. And with every day we compromised a little to survive, and then compromise became a way of life.
Everything changes over the time. Then, we thought we were the first, the unique. Just the same as everyone else. What made this generation different – and every generation different – is we compromised in our own unique way.
But The Mission were from a different generation. Then, success wasn't being number#1 in the download chart and selling out Wembley Stadium. Then, success was being in Sounds and Melody Makers, making #38, and selling out the Folkestone Leas Cliff and the Leicester DeMontfort. The music didn't come to you ; you found it, and the new songs weren't on YouTube the next day, but traded eagerly on cassettes in the post recorded with Sony Walkmen in boomy Scottish Village Halls. There was a time when even “Wonderwall” was a 'new' song, and I remember that world. It was neither better, nor worse, just different, and the only constant in our lives is ourselves and our memories, whomever and whatever they be.
These days, The Mission coming on at 9.42 and finishing at 11.25 is a problem. There are trains and buses to catch. Tubes to connect to the suburban last exit. No drinking if we're driving once we get to the suburbs. By the final encore, the space at the back of the hall is vacant. Admittedly, not to the degree there was when Guns N Roses stormed off at 1.20am on a Thursday morning, but it's a thinner room. Not that that matters. 25 years is a long time. Much changes.
This is the first tour since Finsbury Park 20 summers ago that The Mission – Wayne Hussey, Craig Adams, Simon Hinkler – have all shared the same stage. Not all of us are here : Mike Kelly is on drums. (Which makes this the fourth drummer, third bassist, and third guitarist I have seen in this band). Of The Mission which split in March 2008, no one is the same bar the singer, even if it is The – definitive – Mission on stage. The band that made those records people bought a long time ago. When people bought records a long time ago. The Mission changed over the years, yet remained the same, and when Andy or Richie was on bass, or Mark or Rob or Tim or Malc or Etch on guitar, or Scott or Steve or Mick on drums, or Rik or Antony on keyboards and saxophones, The Mission was an idea more than a band, a band that performed, albeit fluently, other peoples songs, relived other people's glories. But a job's a job. It's better than working in an office, I suppose. This though, this is The Mission the way we remember them.
With nostalgia, celebration, as currency – as Mission shows so often were in the past decade – the band return as heroes, not as struggling survivors desperately plugging moribund new material. Reborn for a night, not trying to etch out a living in a hard world. A few days, every few years, now. Not that this is the first time, because after about a decade together, The Mission tend to split up for three and a half years, then come back again. But for the first time in a long time, this is the band that made the records, not a band made of a singer and some blokes. And I suppose, its good to see them back. After many years of holding out hope for diminishing returns – and some truly awful gigs – I gave up in early 2002 after a shambolic mess of shows early in support of the underwhelming “Aura” with a last minute guitarist in rooms where the human towers touched the low ceiling. Creatively, the band followed it up six years later with the risible “God Is A Bullet”, before vanishing out in a haze of half-attended shows in small towns and one final blowout at Shepards Bush.
None of that matters now. From the opening march, the band return to the stage in a set that may have been beseiged by sound problems and a guitarist slamming his thumb into a bus door loaded up on painkillers, but nonetheless it is for me, the best Mission show since the last time I saw this trio. Initial reservations are well founded, for the sound is poor at Brixton.
“Beyond The Pale” is an ambitious song : it soars and roars and pounds and pulses. Hinkler crunches down on guitar lines as Adams, and his immense Thunderbird bass sound, swallows planets. Drummer Mike Kelly is a showy, flashy player who adds bangs, crashes, and cymbals at strange places – not helped by the appalling drum sound in the hall that makes “St.Anger” sound like a work of genius. It takes some time for this sound to gel in my ears : the powerful, precise drumming of Mick Brown is missed. Until “Butterfly On A Wheel”, this enormous show disappoints for a number of reasons, but most of them come down to a blunt hammer of percussion.
On the other hand, the band perform admirably. The audience receive the short 60 minute headline set with no lack of love. With nothing but old songs, this is – barring the absence of the lyrically embarassing “Into The Blue” - a solid greatest hits set of ancient, good selling 7” singles with portentious titles, meaningless words, and huge rock gestures. If anything, that The Mission were ever seen as anything but an ambitious rock band is a little baffling now : the huge sweeps of “Tower Of Strength” and “Blood Brothers” would've perfectly slotted into any old Led Zeppelin setlist. In other places, especially songs such as “Butterfly On A Wheel” (which is, to all intents and purposes “With Or Without You”), and “The Crystal Ocean” or “Deliverance”, are the natural progression from U2's early work : had U2 not discovered irony and a sense of humour, and the world not changed irrevoicably around them, The Mission were, at one point poised to join them at the table of enormous rock bands. Circumstances out of their control were against them.
Given that this is a celebration, the setlist ends in 1990 – with the exception of the last 'major' Mission hit in “Like A Child Again”, performed solo. No need for the dreaded words 'new material' or, a song from the albums that nobody bought. The set is a determined barrage of old, classic rock songs, all present and correct in a living, breathing greatest hits before your old eyes. Despite being older, fatter, wiser, you can look at the stage and see the guitarist and it is exactly the same as it was on the back of old singles and live DVD's. Hands reach for the sky. Human towers are built. It's entertainment, it's a valiant reclamation against the world of something. Even the bar staff are dancing around the booth. “I remember this lot from the first time”, the barman says, before reminiscing about Motorhead.
“Tower Of Strength” raises and falls and rises again. Brixton fills with smoke. Lights blare. It's a blinding, deafening rock Vietnam. Hands reach to the sky above the roof of this Victorian Theatre. For a moment, we forget who the world makes us be and become who are. Nothing exists but this. And isn't that the point?
Nephilim : Shroud / Straight To The Light / Preacher Man / From The Fire / Watchman / Moonchild / Penetration / Zoon / Psychonaut / Last Exit
Mission : Beyond The Pale / Hands Across The Ocean / Serpents Kiss / Naked And Savage / Severina / Garden Of Delight / Stay With Me / Butterfly On A Wheel / Wake / Wasteland / The Crystal Ocean / Deliverance / Like a Child Again / Like A Hurricane / Tower Of Strength / Blood Brother / 1969