Monday, 29 February 2016

Giselle - The Royal Ballet - Achingly Haunting Production Something Special - Royal Opera House, London, 27.02.16

There has always been a deftness in the productions of Giselle by the Royal Ballet, a clarity of vision from choreographer Sir Peter Wright. Originally staging his initial take on Marius Petipa’s rendition of this paramount romantic ballet over thirty years ago in 1985, his highly-polished version has become ubiquitous as one of the company’s premier productions, a flagship performance in their repertory. Returning to the stage of the Royal Opera House for the first time since 2014, Wright’s production carries with it the weight of expectation after an acclaimed run that saw wild plaudits for its latest iteration.

In Giselle, the tragic story of the title character and her intervention into the near-death of her suitor as a spirit, there lies a duality at the core of its two acts; a traditional love story dressed in the trappings of both the ordinary and the extraordinary, anchored by an earthliness and yet released by the gothic supernatural. For all the horrors that unfold wretchedly to its players, there is never the sense of dislocation from the emotional interplay; the stark intimacy at the heart of Giselle is painfully apparent, from the shyly tentative first steps of young love through to the grieving desperation that drives the performance to its conclusion.

The Wills of Act II, Giselle, at the Royal Opera House. Courtesy of  Bill Cooper.
The emotional weight hinges upon the performances of Iana Salenko’s Giselle and Steven McRae’s Albrecht, the two lovers though whom death cannot part them. Of the two, McRae is the stronger performer; in Act I, he plays Albrecht as a maverick of a young man, emotionally immature and unaware of the potential repercussions his infatuation will create. He injects an innocent eloquence to the character, one that serves as a buffer to his deceitful nature, and convincingly renders his inevitable collapse as that of a man torn between his unscrupulous moral code and his realisation of consequences he did not intend. It’s a less suave take than previous renditions, more playful and endearingly youthful, a trait apparent in his Act II performance as he slowly matures through his desperation into a man aware of his own failings during his trial by spirit and dance.

In contrast, Salenko’s transition from timid romancer to struggling spirit never fully realises the emotional arc it should. In Act I, she possesses the character with the feminine charm of a young girl in love with a delicacy and poise that is achingly pretty, a fine interpretation that plays well off McRae. As it progresses, Salenko successfully peels back the layers to reveal a confidence that grows as she becomes more attached to Albrecht, and later his betrothed Bathilde, before she makes the crushing realisation that she’s been toyed with. In the closing motions, the emotional breakdown of Giselle is underplayed by Salenko – but its ultimate pay-off is extraordinarily played and resoundingly heart-rending.
Leads Steven McRae and Iana Salenko, in a previous production
of The Two Pigeons. Courtesy of the Royal Opera House.
Her Act II performance though fails to convey her inner struggle between the vengeful Wills of which she is now part of, and her relationship with Albrecht. Whilst McRae brings a vast emotional range in his performance, from pleading desperation to guilt-riddled resignation, Salenko still feels like the Giselle of old. This is indeed part of her story – but despite having the ethereal presence required, her performance is occasionally too blunt as the ghostly spirit. It is a role that lends itself to subtlety, but Salenko struggles to land the hidden depths of drama, despite a fine acrobatic routine. A strong performance; but one that in the second act, never rises to the guileless heights of the first.

Both acts are sumptuously designed, in particularly the ghostly-woodland-wreck of Act II, that creates a haunting tone to every movement, in particular the Royal Ballet’s Wills under their Queen Helen Crawford, whose pas de six are delectable. Valentino Zucchetti’s Hilarion was loveable if not overly scene-stealing, and a dominantly superb Kristen McNally as Giselle’s mother Berthe was the figurative highlight of Act I away from the would-be-lovers interplay. But perhaps the true star of the show was conductor Barry Wordsworth, who delivered a maestro performance with the baton, with emotion pouring from the beautiful score under his hands. Aching, breath-taking, and tragically brilliant – there is no doubt that with Giselle, and in particular McRae, The Royal Ballet have once again found something special.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Foals - Indie Veterans Stake a Place with Muscular Arena Debut - First Direct Arena, Leeds, 20.02.16

“Leeds, you’re f------ awesome,” announces Yannis Philippakis, he of the bear-man beard and floral-shirted fame, as he appears out of the dark again to rapturous cheers for an encore. “Seriously, you guys are mint.” There’s an uncharacteristic smile pulling at his lips and the Greek-born, Oxford-raised frontman seems genuinely warmed by the ecstatic reception that has greeted his band on the final night of their maiden UK arena tour.

Yannis Philippakis of Foals, live in 2016. Courtesy of Birmingham Mail.
Foals have just made the step up this winter, on the back of last year’s fourth album What Went Down, a defiantly forward-facing record that the elements of the previous three, throws them in a blender and sets the dial to heavy. Eight thousand people are packed into the First Direct Arena tonight to see the quintet ascend to major player status on the British music scene and there’s a feeling of triumph in the air before even a note is struck.

From the off, they aim to impress. Entering to Sabbath-styled chords that hang ominously in the venue, they charge into the motoring Snake Oil, a song that builds upon its motoring krautrock rhythm and transforms into a sleazy stoner-noise jam. It’s a statement of fierce intent, and even if the sound system takes a few minutes to right itself, there is no stopping the blunt trauma it evokes in its crunching lines. They don’t let up either; the Talking Heads-esque My Number follows shortly, a song that bounces on record, but packs a beefier punch live.

Foals live at Wembley Arena in 2016. Courtesy of DIY Magazine.
Four albums in, the band have shifted from their math-rock origins into a heavier beast and it shows throughout. Older tracks such as Olympic Airwaves and Balloons, both from debut Antidotes, are both somewhat jittery songs, but Philippakis, along with bassist Walter Gervers and drummer Jack Bevan, have smoothed out the agitated rhythmic angles, transforming them into muscular, groove-laden arena rock renditions that feel right at home in cavernous surroundings, an easier listen for fans as they flow stylistically with newer material.

New material that is definitely calibrated for such venues. Birch Tree crosses oriental soundscapes with the arena-friendly style of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Give It All is a lighters-in-the-air moment, underscored by muted bass-heavy rumbles that build to a desperate yelping plea from Philippakis. Mountain at My Gates is their finest pop song yet, an anthemic rush that evokes all sorts of emotions Only A Knife in the Ocean falls flat, its back-and-forth tension release failing to translate from record. But even then, it’s all distinctly Foals; instead of pandering to arena-rock convention, they have created something that does not sacrifice any of the nonconformity that made them stand out initially in 2007. It’s unashamedly pleasing to see and hear, thrillingly exciting as it unfolds.

But Foals didn’t reach arenas on the back of just one album and Antidotes and Holy Fire are well represented. Red Socks Pugie bears a tighter rhythm that explodes in its outro, all rave-house synths and growling guitar. Late Night sighs in a resigned desolation as it builds on a driving foundation. But it’s post-rock classic Spanish Sahara that truly shines, its evocative lyrics and sparse instrumentation slowly building to an exhilarating crescendo under a bank of sparkling lasers. The stage show is arena-cliché but undeniably effective, with strobe bars tinted a hellish red during a snarling Providence creating an unsettling weight that darkly lingers throughout.

Yannis Philippakis crowdsurfs in Luxembourg in 2015. Courtesy of Three Songs.

Philippakis, once cripplingly stage-shy, is arguably one of the best frontman in the business, whipping the crowd into a frenzy with his tortured screams during set closer Inhaler. For the encore, he sings candidly on London Thunder about loneliness, around the chiming electric piano of keyboardist Edwin Congreave and Jimmy Smith’s mournful guitar lines, before he stage-dives during the surging What Went Down as droning organ and brutal riffs collide. They close proceedings with an extended, feedback-drenched rush through Two Steps, Twice, a kinetic, frenetic finale that lingers long after they’ve left the stage. They now move onto the gargantuan task of headlining the world’s greatest rock festival in Reading and Leeds in six months’ time; based on this, they needn’t worry. They’ve made arena rock much more interesting; chances are they can do the same in Bramham Park.

Friday, 19 February 2016

The Kerrang! Tour ft. Sum 41 - Returning Pop Punk Heroes Deliver Dose of Daft Fun - Albert Hall, Manchester, 18.02.16

“Hello Manchester,” Sum 41 frontman and former pop-punk pin-up Deryck Whibley addresses the crowd in the city’s Albert Hall. “Sorry it’s taken us so goddamn long to get back.” To be precise, it’s been just under six years since the Canadian pop-punk outfit last stood under Mancunian skies, but for many, it feels a lifetime, not least Whibley. They were due in 2012 to headline that year’s iteration of this very jaunt, the Kerrang! Tour, only for the vocalist to injure his back and force a cancellation. Their topping of the bill four years later feels like a promise fulfilled and they return to a heroes’ welcome.

Sum 41 make their live return in 2015. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
The lower echelons of the current tour – the same slots that once delivered future rock heavyweights in the shape of Young Guns and Bring Me the Horizon – deliver seventies-indebted hard glam grooves in the enjoyable form of Biters who throw every clichéd shape in the book, and unintelligible pop-punk that is shouted into incomprehensibility by way of Eastbourne’s ROAM. For a tour that promises the best of up-and-coming rock, it all feels significantly lightweight.

This changes with the arrival of Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes. The ex-Gallows frontman’s new band are in possession of an uproarious racket that blends menacing hardcore punk with classic rock swagger but Carter’s mercurial qualities as a performer elevate it beyond the call of duty. He sits the crowd down for what seems to be a twisted parody of childhood story-time; a rug-pull leads instead to the aching Beautiful Death, accompanied by solo electric guitar. There’s a bruised tender side to the Londoner that feels startlingly human when contrasted with his fiery rage and impulsive gestures – it endears him greatly, particularly when he flips back to the chief instigator of chaos.

Frank Carter, of Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes, live in 2015. Courtesy of Gigwise.
“A guy just rolled across the floor like a f------ ninja,” he wittily quips at one point from his spot in the midst of the eye of a circle pit. Back on stage, he is gifted the sole of a shoe onstage to his surprise, minus the rest of the boot. His rambling diatribe on the lack of bras is remedied when the fur trimmed leather joins its rubber counterpart at the foot of his monitors. Thrillingly primeval, Carter threatens to steal the show from the headline act – and indeed does.

Whibley’s back injury marked the beginning of a rough few years for Sum 41, with the frontman suffering liver and kidney failure in 2014 due to alcoholism. Tabloid images showed a fragile husk of a man; the fact that the band survived to even return to the live stage is something to be celebrated in itself, though at first glance, it’s debatable how far Whibley has come on his path to recovery. Pale, gaunt and rake-thin, with an angular blond quiff of hair that recalls a younger Billy Idol, he thrashes his microphone stand round during ragged opener Over My Head (Better Off Dead), scattering a dozen or so toxic yellow guitar picks. The crowd feeds off his defiant posture, ecstatically throwing themselves around with careless abandon and hollering every word back loud enough during Motivation and The Hell Song to drown out Whibley’s occasionally tremulous vocals. Their brand of punk-power-pop is tried and tested, but is inclined to generate dopey smiles; at its core, it’s brilliantly daft fun.

Deryck Whibley of Sum 41, live in 2015. Courtesy of Getty Images.
So much of a band’s ability to connect relies on the frontman, and when Whibley is on form, there is a gleefully childish vigour about him that is both refreshing and reassuring to see, such as during a touchingly earnest Walking Disaster. But when his energy wanes, the rest of the band occasionally founder, particularly during a stretch of thrash-punk numbers when their vocalist vanishes for a break on occasion. Proceedings are not helped by a sound mix with the pitch set to waterlogged that quagmires tracks often. But the goodwill is physically palpable and a hurtling sprint through big hits Still Waiting, In Too Deep and Fat Lip, whilst messy, is deliriously received, earning a rare smile from Whibley that stretches across his drawn face. Carter may have delivered the showmanship; but Sum 41 delivered the old-fashioned fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Trapped in a Loop: The State of the Festival Headliner

Ah, festival season. The period between June and early September across the UK and Europe where practically every single artist known in the world, and then some, descend to various fields across the continent, where large Big Tops, vast metal constructs, and crowds raging from the small to the indescribably huge await them and their songs. Music festivals have been a cultural cornerstone for half a century, and are arguably even larger than ever.

Festivals are a wonderful place, if you don't mind appalling weather, dodgy sleeping patterns and the one drunk Northerner wearing nothing but an inflatable rubber duck ring and latex horse head. It's often a chance for the fan to see several of their favourite artists playing their favourite hits in one day, or over a weekend, for a substantially-reduced cost than it would be to see them all individually. But they are also a great place to discover new music. As a personal example, I'd never given Sheffield metallers Bring Me the Horizon any real time of day before I saw them sub-headline Leeds Festival in 2015, playing under thrash veterans Metallica. They produced an electrifying live show and their new material was distinctly against the grain of their older work from the album There Is a Hell, Believe Me I've Seen It. There Is a Heaven, Let's Keep It a Secret, incorporating a more mainstream pop-rock template. Their fifth record released in the aftermath, That's the Spirit, was a contender for my album of the year, and I will be seeing them step up to the big time on the standard touring circuit when they play Manchester Arena in November.

Oli Sykes of Bring Me the Horizon, live at Reading 2015. Courtesy of  Reading Festival.
But Bring Me the Horizon also help to exemplify the issues that plague the festival circuit, namely the coveted position of headliner. Critics and detractors often like to point out that the larger festivals in Britain are reluctant to promote up and coming acts in favour of traditionally tried-and-tested artists who have been topping festival bills for considerably time. Many smaller festivals, owing to their capacities and demographics, are often headlined by acts who are one the rise, such as End of the Road, but the big six British music festivals - Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds, T in the Park, V, Download and the Isle of Wight - seem to have a perpetual reluctance combined to give fresh talent a chance.

They will of course argue against this strongly, and festival promoters have an obligation to make their business model a success - regular headline acts such as Kasabian and The Killers remain some of the biggest bands in the business and draw in huge crowds. But taking a chance on a new artist is a rarer occurrence. To return to Bring Me the Horizon, there were strong hopes after superb sales for That's the Spirit (since certified Gold and still selling at a reasonable pace in the current market), that they would make the logical step up on the back of their Reading and Leeds billing to headline at Download, the country's premier metal and hard rock weekender. Instead, Castle Donington's annual bash announced three headliners who had all played since 2012, two of them together in 2013 - Rammstein, Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. They are one of the strongest trio of headliners you could get on paper - but there's a distinctly stale feeling about it when Bring Me the Horizon outsold Rammstein and Sabbath's last efforts with comfortable aplomb (Maiden's sixteenth record The Book of Souls, ended up being the biggest hard rock/metal album of the year but even then That's the Spirit was snapping at its heels). Sabbath are admittedly on their farewell tour, making them a prime booking for Download - but with a huge album and deep enough back catalogue (five albums worth now), there's no logical reason why Bring Me the Horizon shouldn't have gotten the gig ahead of either Rammstein or Maiden if going on sales, of both albums and tickets in the instance of the former.

T in the Park is an prime offender for stale bookings. In 2010, they gave Kasabian their first major UK headline slot, a nice example of a promoted band. But in the five festivals since, they have topped the bill another two times. That's three headline gigs over six festivals. A sixth of all headline bookings at T in the Park since the turn of the decade are accounted for purely by Kasabian. It's ridiculous. They may put on a very good live show, yes, but plenty of bands have been snapping at the heels of headline slots for years. Elbow, The Script, The Black Keys. Of those three, online the latter have found any luck - a 2015 slot at the Isle of Wight, a festival than runs a strange gamut in pure nostalgia (their 2012 lineup of Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam was ridiculously strong, but not exactly modern). These festivals appear to be trapped in a perpetual time loop, of the same dozen acts or so filling the upper tiers of  bills - Kasabian, Arctic Monkeys, The Killers, Metallica, Coldplay, the list goes on.

Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance, live at Reading in 2011. Courtesy of NME.
There are flaws in this circuit too - after all, how do you decide when an artist is ready to take the step into the headline position? Mumford and Sons topped the Glastonbury bill in 2013 on the back of two massive albums - but two albums alone wasn't enough to convince a festival crowd they were ready. Their 2015 Reading and Leeds headline slot, with a third album under their belt, was better received, and it's possessing this depth of catalogue that is a key factor in deciding who headlines. As a general rule, three hit albums is enough, no matter your remaining releases. Biffy Clyro have released six albums but the first three didn't particularly trouble the charts. Then Puzzle, Only Revolutions and Opposites all became mainstream hits and they were rewarded with Reading and Leeds, T and Isle of Wight slots on the campaign trail. Ditto the now departed My Chemical Romance, whose first album sunk without trace but whose remaining three records took them to a Reading and Leeds slot in 2011.

There was a general outcry over Florence and the Machine's lack of a headline slot at Glastonbury Festival last year - an unfortunate accident to Dave Grohl took the Foo Fighters' show out of the equation and, again with three hit albums, Welch and co stepped up to steal the festival (owing to middling sets perhaps from the much-hyped Kanye West and the last minute headliners of The Who). It seems that three records is as good a justification as any for a new headline act but even then, there's always going to be veterans. Coldplay have just been announced to top the Sunday night at Glastonbury, their fourth time headlining the festival. It's a strong booking fiscally, yes, and similar to Sabbath at Download, comes as part of a rumoured farewell tour. Elsewhere, it's a mixed bag. The Isle of Wight Festival has conjured up two previous headliners for a co-headline jaunt on the Friday in Stereophonics and Faithless, whilst the camp-as-a-row-of-tents Adam Lambert will burst across the stage with Queen another night. T in the Park has nailed on the resurgent Stone Roses, who after an initial run of reunion dates (including T in 2012) appeared to have gone into hibernation. Reading and Leeds has tapped the heritage alt-funk of Red Hot Chili Peppers, but have also given Foals a co-headline slot with Disclosure (most of the outcry for this is that Foals could probably do it without the need for Disclosure, whose second album dropped down the charts faster than a stock market crash). V Festival is yet to drop anyone, though rumours are pointing to The Killers - again, for the third time in five years. Bestival has soundly tapped Major Lazer to headline - but they've also got The Cure back, albeit five years since they last played. There's a definite cycle going on, with perhaps only one new act breaking through to the top of the pile each year.

Coldplay, live in concert in 2015. Courtesy of AP.
Of course, the only way for artists to get there is to dominate commercially too, and in the current climate of the harts, that's easier said than done. Acts who are either not-festival friendly or too early in their career to possess a depth of catalogue are the ones with the big albums - Adele, Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith. It is difficult for promoters to look at the figures and make these gambles on the uninitiated. But there are plenty waiting for their chance and already able to acquit themselves at the highest level. In fact, it is unfair to say that no new blood is coming through. Reading and Leeds have given debuts to Queens of the Stone Age, Paramore, Biffy Clyro and now Foals and Disclosure in the past three years. The Isle of Wight edged up the Black Keys. Download put on Avenged Sevenfold. But for many, it's veterans of the scene. Green Day, Eminem, The Prodigy, Noel Gallagher in some shape or form, Coldplay, ruddy Kasabian again. How long before we can truly look at the biggest festivals and say that offer something entirely new? That, may be a long time coming.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Suede - Glam Veterans Deliver Thrillingly Cinematic Rush - O2 Academy Leeds, Leeds, 14.02.16

Nostalgia is still a strong seller in this day and age. Why else would several thousand apply for tickets to see three members of the original Guns N’ Roses perform together without the other two? Why have men in bucket hats bought headed in droves for The Stone Roses’ summer run of concerts at Manchester, despite the fact that this is a band who have not released an album in over two decades? Why did Busted re-emerge? S Club 7? The Bay City Rollers?

Brett Anderson of Suede, live at Glastonbury 2015. Courtesy of Tumblr.
There’s a collective sigh when a band reunites as it seems to signal a paycheque cash-in on rose-tinted memories with little of the creative juices still flowing. But not now for Suede, who with their second reunion album Night Thoughts, have found a record that sits shoulder to shoulder with their superb self-titled debut and magnum opus Dog Man Star. A concept album to soundtrack a short film, it faces up to growing old with fear and trepidation, and confronts the responsibilities of parenthood with tragic insight, wrapped into a baroque art-rock package that positions them as far away from nostalgia as possible.

Its accompanying picture, directed by Roger Sargent, is as much a part of Night Thoughts as the album, which gives the first half of their gig at Leeds’s O2 Academy the feeling of an intimate art exhibition. A translucent screen is stretched across the stage, upon which Sargent’s film – the story of a drowning man whose life flashes before his eyes – is projected, whilst behind, the band play the LP in its entirety. It’s an emotionally challenging experience, but entirely riveting. As the protagonist wades into the ocean to the ominous strings of When You Are Young, there’s a thrillingly cinematic feel to it. When the screen recedes from its opaque projection to reveal guitarist Richard Oakes during the urgent Outsiders, there’s the sense of peeking behind the curtains into the raw nerve of a band riding a second wind.

Suede live at the Albert Hall, Manchester, 2016. Courtesy of MEN.
The remainder – drummer Simon Gilbert, multi-instrumentalist Neil Codling, bassist Mat Osman and frontman Brett Anderson – all phase into existence at points, though their presence is keenly felt. Gilbert and Osman anchor the bleak No Tomorrow whilst on screen, a grandfather overdoses on painkillers. Codling adds lush textures to the haunting Pale Snow, cold and frigid. But Anderson is the star; his voice is near impeccable, soaring on the heart-rending Tightrope, and the agonising scream on I Can’t Give Her What She Wants helps the film pack additional emotional weight. It’s a dark experience, but no longer focused on bad sex and addiction, it tackles the wider issues of life with a maturity that never sees the band attempting to be their former selves.

Once the album is finished, a short intermission gives way to a second set of hits and treats. Freed from their confines, Suede transform from a restrained creature into a hedonistic beast, a throwback that feels forward-facing. Anderson, lizard-like with absurdly sharp cheekbones, prowls about the stage boundlessly, barking the lyrics to My Insatiable One with a delicious venom. Oakes wrenches out fuzzed noise during a sneering Trash. Animal Nitrate’s iconic intro is messy but its searing crescendo creates palpable euphoria. It feels visceral, an adrenaline rush that takes the grunge-glam sound and beats the crowd unsuspectingly round the head with it.

Brett Anderson of Suede, live in London in 2016. Courtesy of Gigwise.

But they click into a finer groove of showmanship as they hit the one-two strut of Killing of a Flashboy. Anderson wades into the crowd for Sabotage, before dedicating a beautifully rare and acoustic Europe is Our Playground to the fans who have followed them throughout the tour. A breathless burst through more classics –  a superbly rendered For the Strangers, the glam flourish of So Young, the charged guitars of Beautiful Ones – is flawlessly executed and note-perfect, before Anderson returns to the stalls to conduct a superb acoustic singalong of Everything Will Flow. One more track follows – the aptly fitting New Generation, a song that gives a knowing wink to the reinvention of the former glam veterans. Suede’s bold gamble on Night Thoughts has ultimately paid off, leaving them rejuvenated. Nostalgia? Who needs nostalgia when they can make the old stuff sound new and the new stuff this good?

Friday, 12 February 2016

Tame Impala - Psychedelic Dreamers Dance Into Disco with Shimmering Style - Manchester Arena, Manchester, 11.02.16

Fashion is a strange, beguiling thing. One minute, you find yourself tragically unhip, so far off the spectrum of cool that Tim Peake wouldn’t even register you on the ISS as remotely worth bothering with. The next, you’re suddenly thrust into the spotlight, imitated and adored by many, all of whom are clamouring to stake a claim as the ones who saw it coming in the first place.

Tame Impala, the Australian psychedelic rock project of multi-instrumentalist Kevin Parker, are a group who find themselves now in the midst of fashion after two albums of critical praise and only moderate chart impact. Their third offering, last year’s Currents, charted in the upper echelons on a worldwide scale. Pop superstar Rihanna has covered them for her latest album. They are poised to tear through the European festival scene this summer in an unprecedented manner.

Kevin Parker of Tame Impala live in 2015. Courtesy of CoS.
They’re in the midst of their second continental jaunt behind the new album, having graduated into large-scale venues such as Manchester Arena on the back of their ascent. They’ve definitely earned it; Parker, an experimental perfectionist in the vein of all great auteurs, possesses a fine knack for a pop melody underneath the hazy feedback and is unafraid to widen his horizons. On Currents, he’s made the somewhat disarming sidestep from psychedelic rock into disco, coalescing the two with a smoky dancefloor texture that pervades in a delightful manner, all vintage synths and snatches of organ.

So from the off, Tame Impala make their foray onto the tiles of seventies clubland. As the strains of Motown fade away from the PA, a woozy elongated jam bleeds into the motoring Let It Happen, all angular krautrock and Daft Punk electronica. The crowd of dreamers, a mix of leopard-print, pinstripe and glitter, lap it up in a narcotics-induced mist that removes the need for dry ice entirely. The Moment cribs the shimmering new wave of Tears for Fears with finesse, tied to a shuffling beat. The Less I Know The Better grooves along on its Talking Heads-cum-Donna Summer bassline, as mirrorballs transform the arena into Manchester’s biggest discotheque.

Tame Impala, live in 2015. Courtesy of NME.
But Parker knows how they got here in the first place, and so his first two efforts, Innerspeaker and Lonerism, are well represented too. Here, the band find familiar territory, delivering the swirling Mind Mischief under a blanket of echo, and the Beatlesque-drive of Why Won’t They Talk to Me?. The stoner-glam stomp of Elephant triggers a boisterous singalong, its riffs taut and snarling. Alter Ego reaches top velocity quickly and proceeds to jangle through a miasma of feedback, a latter-half highlight. It’s trippy in every sense of the word, with Parker, imploring the crowd with repeated calls of “baby” comically reminiscent of Austin Powers in his delivery.

But the newer material works best on the bigger stage, such as the touching Yes I’m Changing, an emotionally-charged space-rock ballad with twinkling synths that conjure the images of a wistful star-filled night sky. Ditto Eventually, whose soaring vocal and string samples gives the impression that it is flying amongst the crowd, carrying them with it. The band itself is tight, with Parker’s vocals near-sublime; but sometimes, synth riffs are lost under each other in a sound mix that struggles on occasion, a drawback of transferring to less subtle, cavernous spaces.

Kevin Parker of Tame Impala live in 2015. Courtesy of LA Record.
Visually, the show is a simple concept made hyper-effective, delivering eye-popping spirographics, disintegrating film reels, loudspeaker internals and flying comets behind the band on a white sheet. Confetti cannons are launched at various points, and the strobe lighting is representative of a collapsed sun. To invite the obvious comparisons, it is a Floydian show in nature – but Parker has never been one to shy away from his influences. The Detroit-flavoured strut of Apocalypse Dreams and the euphoric Feels Like We Only Go Backwards form a fine psychedelic pairing either side of the encore break, before he bows out with the sensual slow jam of New Person, Same Old Mistakes, where the trance-like organ and hip-hop beats create a heady cocktail. Based on this performance, Parker’s slide into the mainstream hasn’t dulled his creativity; if anything, it has fuelled him to make something truly sparkling, and for that, his dreamers can be grateful.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The NME Awards Tour ft. Bloc Party - Art-Punk Nostalgia Helps Cement Delightful Return - O2 Academy Leeds, 08.02.16

There’s always been an undercurrent of malevolence underneath the desperate art-punk cries of indie stalwarts Bloc Party. They walked a fine line, with the darkly psychosexual worlds of Bowie and Suede on one side and the post-punk dancefloor-spite of Franz Ferdinand, never particularly straying from the template initially.  Debut effort Silent Alarm was acclaimed, with strong commercial success behind it too. The band never really strayed too far from its comfort zone, bar some experimentation here and there. They remained a resolutely mid-noughties example of classic indie-punk, laced with a poison that struck out wildly.

Which makes fifth album and comeback record Hymns an intriguing proposition, a collection of alternative-dance songs that instead of snarling, cleave to a quasi-religious palate of forgiveness. It comes in the wake of the band’s lineup overhaul – only Kele Okereke and Russell Lissack remain, resulting in a fresh rhythm section of drummer Louise Bartle and bassist Justin Harris – and serves to reinforce that Bloc Party Mk.2 are a different beast from their predecessors.

Eoin Loveless, of Drenge, live in 2016. Courtesy of Tim Gray.
Their stop in Leeds, in the headline slot of the NME Awards Tour, is the first chance for many fans to hear new cuts, with the album barely a week released, to a disappointing commercial reception. They have to wait through three other acts first, of varying quality. Rising grime artist Bugzy Malone delivers some wry asides and solid rhymes in his lyrics – but his entire catalogue appears to rest upon two different backing tracks. Rat Boy, real name Jordan Cardy, delivers the next Cheeky Chappie-based indie-punk act filled with social commentary, though he adds an intriguing electronica element at points to an otherwise rough-by-numbers performance.

Drenge, a band who were once rather drunk on stage in support of Peace in this city, have tightened up considerably since the last time. Receiving initial large exposure in an MP’s resignation letter, the Loveless brothers have added a bass to their primal squall of guitars and drums, resulting in a considerably meatier melodic quality to their sound. Recent cuts The Woods and Never Awake do themselves justice whilst a closing one-two of Fuckabout and Let’s Pretend develops into a feedback-drenched progressive grunge masterclass, executed with professional precision.

Bloc Party’s performance, by contrast, is jubilant and well-executed, but falls prey on occasion to a muted solemnity. They elect to open with the synth-gospel of new album track Only He Can Heal Me, Okereke half-whispering his vocals into the swirl around him. It’s a tender pleading line that works well, but casts a continuing shadow over the rest of their seventy-minute set. Later tracks Different Drugs and Into the Earth are cut from similar cloth and an abundance of tracks from Hymns in general seems top-heavy in a setlist that eschews several of the band’s largest hits (the absence of Positive Tension and Flux is noticeable in a lull of back-to-back new songs).

Kele Okereke of Bloc Party, live in 2016. Courtesy of Getty Images.
But not all of their finest cuts are absent and Bloc Party clearly relish being back, bouncing through Mercury, Song for Clay (Disappear Here) and Banquet in the opening stretch alone with a childish sense of glee at his songs of punkish energy and blackly-tinted spirit. The band is well rehearsed too, near note-perfect in their faithful renditions of a gorgeous Waiting for the 7.18, weaving together with a surprising elegance, given a previous penchant for blunt delivery. Their sound mix unfortunately meanders all over the place, with Octopus rendered incomprehensible in the wings, but a stellar light-show and a triumphant closing number in Hymns lead single The Love Within signs them off in style.

They return with another new one – the after-hours slow ballad of Fortress, a song that blends icy synths with ham-fisted lyricisms. But their final power trio – the angry party-starter Helicopter, the beautifully aching This Modern Love and the punk-rave of Ratchet – trigger delirious nostalgia-based dancing and singing to Okereke’s delight. Perhaps Bloc Party may no longer find themselves the commercial behemoth they were a decade ago – but there’s definitely still a nostalgic warmth to them in their return that seems genuine enough to hope that Mk.2 is here to stay.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Black Stone Cherry - Southern Fried Metal Tastes Lukewarm at Best - First Direct Arena, Leeds, 05.02.16

“Aw, yeah!” exclaims Chris Robertson of Black Stone Cherry at one point during their headline show at the First Direct Arena in Leeds. Actually, he exclaims it several times, in varying guises, but the sentiment remains the same. It’s a rallying call to the fans of southern fried rock in attendance tonight, a shout of celebration, a signal to punch the air. It’s a shame then that half the time, that rock is served cold, dead on arrival, as opposed to the piping hot it should be.
Chris Robertson of Black Stone Cherry performing live in
Leeds in 2016. (Credit to Katy Blackwood.)
Black Stone Cherry, Kentucky’s spiritual sons of Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top et al, are proprietors of some fine riffs – short, sharp and prosaic in concept but undoubtedly effective in practice. Four albums in, with a fifth on the way, they’ve mastered a dependable ability to marry post-grunge and alternative metal with seventies-style blues rock with an old school charm; but that charm is lacking at first glance as they struggle to find their stride.

Opener Me and Mary Jane and old single Blind Man are raw and dirty on record; live, they’re tenderised under fumbled guitar work and a lax rhythm section, in particular their wild haired drummer John Fred Young. Bands often benefit from a looser feel when playing live; but as Robertson scuffs up Violator Girl once more, the wild abandon they are aiming for is simply a mess. At points, the show feels lazy and it doesn’t help that some of the material is neither prodigious nor inspiring – Yeah Man is a standard hard rock cliché in melisma of extending one-word over the course of a year, and signals a mass outbreak for the bar.

Yet there are touches of nuance here, and glimpses of great songwriting there. After an obligatory drum-turned-harmonica solo, Robertson straps on an acoustic guitar and sings the affecting ode Things My Father Said alone. The poignant beauty comes as an about-face, and triggers a one-hundred-and-eighty turn in performance; for the rest of the show, BSC are electrifying, undergoing a transformation from scrappy to superb in the space of a few chords. Peace Is Free features a growling cameo from support act Halestorm frontwoman Lzzy Hale, and upcoming material In Our Dreams and The Rambler showcases impressive virtuosity from guitarist Ben Wells and bassist Jon Lawhon. It’s a much-needed mood whiplash that goes some way to salvaging their performance.
Jon Lawhon of Black Stone Cherry performing live in
Leeds in 2016. (Credit to Katy Blackwood.)
When they return for an encore, after a one-two punch of the chunky White Trash Millionaire and visceral Blame It on the Boom Boom, they mess it up again, albeit intentionally; after masterfully shredding through Lonely Train, they throw all semblance of tempo aside for a ragged crash through Motorhead’s Ace of Spades in memory to the late Lemmy Kilmister. It’s shambolic and a fitting tribute to the man. They say to play bad, you’ve got to be able to play good in music, and Black Stone Cherry are testament to this; unfortunately, the rough-hewn approach often means their tasty, heavy fare is served lukewarm at best.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Coheed and Cambria - Pop-Rock Sidestep a Success for New Prog Metallers - O2 Ritz, Manchester, 01.02.16

As a fledgling band in the late nineties/early noughties alternative rock scene of America, how do you go about staking a place at the table without becoming one of the faceless crowd? Simple – you design your entire catalogue of songs around a comic book saga written by your frontman, and combine the nerdy musical equivalents of progressive rock, pop punk and heavy metal to make something defiantly unique in execution.

Claudio Sanchez of Coheed and Cambria, performing live in 2015.
So goes the recipe of Coheed and Cambria, one of new prog’s leading exports and commercial heavyweights, at least Stateside. For their eight and most recent record The Color Before the Sun though, they’ve gone off-piste from their space opera sage, instead delivering a tightly packed album of mainstream-shiny pop-rock gems which lyrically ignores all seven sets before. It’s a surprising sidestep at first glance, but singer and guitarist Claudio Sanchez possesses an ear for an inventive and original pop song, glimpses of which have been teased throughout their thirteen year recording career so far.

Their middle show of a three-date jaunt across the UK takes in Manchester’s small O2 Ritz, an elegantly upholstered venue that does no benefit with its sound for minor support band Crooks, whilst the returning Glassjaw underwhelm in a scattershot set where they look to be going through the motions. In comparison, there is something wild and untamed about C&C’s performance, from opening note to closing barrage. They play four tracks from The Color Before the Sun and each one numbers amongst the most rapturously received of the night. Opener Island is a buyout blast that hides its darker lyrical platitudes underneath a melody that brings warm skies and summer to the mind. Lead single You Got Spirit, Kid is indebted to late-seventies power pop. Here to Mars is a heavy power ballad for the modern band that soars on its feedback-drenched melody. In recalling seventies rock influence on the pop side of the spectrum, C&C cultivate an inviting familiarity to their tracks, comforting FM radio-friendly pop rock that celebrates the joyousness of the moment.

Travis Stever, of Coheed and Cambria, performing live in 2013.
The rest of their eighty-minute set is littered with a career-spanning romp through live staples, deeper cuts and early singles, with all but one of their remaining seven albums encompassed. Devil in Jersey City goes down a storm, triggering mass singalongs, alongside bubblegum-punk cuts such as Blood Red Summer and A Favor House Atlantic as Sanchez and long-time guitarist Travis Stever throw themselves around the stage. Progressive metal number Key Entity Extraction V: Sentry the Defiant exemplifies Sanchez’s episodic format of concept albums perhaps better than anything else played, though his vocals and the bass of Zach Cooper are sometimes drowned out substantially. When it reaches the final song of the main set, their standout dark-prog masterpiece In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3, the frontman solos above his head and with his teeth on the fretboard. In the hands of other rockers, it may seem cliché, but there is a genuine earnestness from the softly spoken Sanchez that stops it from becoming gimmicky.

They encore with a double-hit of singles, Ten Speed (Of God’s Blood and Burial) and their alternative metal fan favourite Welcome Home, its melodic grooving structure raising the echoes of classic seventies rock wrapped in a bludgeon of a riff. It’s a fittingly overblown end for a band to whom subtlety has never been a strong suit – but it’s also shown that outside of the quasi-conceptual journeys, C&C known how to write a damn good pop record and play it well too.