THE SISTERS OF MERCY London Camden Roundhouse 18 October 2015
Thirty five years since they thundered in a shoestring of drum machines and guitars, and with a 56 year old singer, The Sisters Of Mercy – the name for the peculiar rock vehicle Andrew Eldritch has commanded all his adult life – can still bring 1,800 people to London on a cold Sunday night.
Legendarily, The Sisters Of Mercy – whomever they are today – are a Rock Marmite experience. You love them, or you hate them, with little inbetween. They are either amazing or awful or alright. It all demands on the variables : most of their sound comes out of a box commandered by R. Orpheus of Leeds alumni The Cassandra Complex (who first became a Sister of Mercy in 1994 when the band remixed Die Krupps “Fatherland”) : from this box comes the bands rhythm section – a fiercely mechanised set of drums and bass courtesy of Doctor Avalanche, lay down a metronomic groove, as rigid as The Stooges. The rest of the sound comes from humans : Andrew Eldritch on vocals, Ben Christo on rock guitar, and Chris Catalyst on punk guitar – and, at a decade in age, the most stable line up the band have ever had.
I've seen bad Sisters gigs in the past quarter century : I've not seen consistently bad lineups.
And for the few that still care, The Sisters are still one of the most important bands that ever existed. They don't make records, they barely play live, but somewhere in another reality, they are bigger than U2. They appear every few years, make a racket, and then disappear for another few years.
Were this a new band, would you like them? That's the question you should ask yourself of every single old band you love. This lot, yes. Absolutely. They still burn like they did back then, in the literacy of big dumb rock, the cleverness of simplicity. The Sisters are a big, stupid rock band, often plagued with smoke and lights and bad sound. Some nights they sound like heaven. Others? They can be the worst band on the planet. You just gotta get lucky.
As a rule, the further away from the stage, the worse it gets. Despite being a Wembley Arena sized band at one point, The Sisters of Mercy were a band that happened to be big, as opposed to actually being a big band. The difference is small but huge. Where I am, in the sea of people directly under the wedges, feet from the stage, swathed in fog and buzzsaw guitars, the band are glorious and raucous and throwing big dumb rock shapes, but knowing they are big dumb rock shapes. And the knowing is everything. The Sisters have played some awful gigs over the years – and some stonking hours of music that go like a freight train on fire through your quiet village. The Astoria ten years ago still rests as legendarily limp and one of the worst shows I have seen. There the sound was far too quiet, technical problems plagued the mix, and the vocals were an apologetic mumble. Here, the Sisters roar. The new stuff – and there are several unreleased songs, alongside recently-revitalised renditions of “Jihad” and the thoughtful “1959” - sound as good as they ever have. To those of us down the front.
Anyone expecting a carbon copy reproduction of 1985 must be dreaming. The Sisters may never be a museum piece ; albeit they evolve slowly. These are the songs of the past thirty years reinterpreted for here and now – years of performance honing them into the same songs, but different. Some of them have never sounded so good. Chris Catalyst, found behind the bar of Leeds Joseph Wells pub – does jumps and scissor kicks like a 70's glam metaller whilst pounding out the relentless wall of noise : “Body Electric” roars, and “Lucretia, My Reflection” (which may be the most cliched goff song title of all time), like some kind of crack suicide squad of rock. Ongs aren't just rotedly performed : “Lucretia” is stretched out with a rarely-sung final verse, and “This Corrision” intro revamped to match the huge choral cacopony that you get on record. Eldritch is clearly enjoying himself : he smiles at one point, and often leads his microphone out to a crowd of massed voices. It's a celebration down the front, and perhaps underwhelming if you are at the back ; being a roar of purple light, smoke, and guitars.
Everything changes. And nothing changes. Always different. Always the same.
In a state of absolute radio silence, The Sisters are a band that don't do interviews often, play live with a frightening regularity, and release records in dimensions that don't exist to mortals. Having washed their hands of the corrupt and incompetently asinine industry, the band are a cottage industry. The only way you can legitimately hear their canon of new work is if you get to stand in a room the same time as The Sisters, and they feel like playing it.
So. The Sisters Of Mercy are my favourite unsigned band of all time. Existing outside of the system, fiercely independent in their workings, intolerant of the wretched trench of the music industry and pursuing a touring ethos that would shame lesser, and younger bands, The Sisters are their own nation. As song after song falls from the stage – the relentless “Lucretia”, the utterly timeless “Vision Thing”, and the obligatory “Temple Of Love” - The Sisters disappear having accomplished again their mission, and we are spat out into the cold Camden streets on a Sunday night.
Crash And Burn /
Doctor Jeep /
Detonation Blvd /
Body Electric /
No Time To Cry /
The Gift That Shines /
Dominion – Mother Russia /
Flood II /
Vision Thing /
First And Last And Always /
Temple Of Love /