Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Review: My Chemical Romance (Newcastle Metro Radio Arena, 22/02/11)

Look alive, sunshine. My Chemical Romance are in town, transported back through the annals of time from the desolated wasteland of the Divided States of America circa 2019, and they're about to paint the streets red, yellow, blue, orange and just about every other colour that still exists within the futuristic Californian rainbow. So BE RESPONSIBLE, boys and girls, TAKE YOUR MEDICINE; KILLJOYS, do your duty and MAKE SOME NOISE and everyone else, ready yourself for the comic book punk rock extravaganza of a lifetime. MCR are here to BUILD A BETTER YOU and they're about to do it now and do it oh-so-very loud.

Taking to the stage bathed in shocking Technicolor, looking like characters from Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World or some such, this is My Chemical Romance at their most bleedin' obvious, stripped of the funeral obliquity of the Black Parade era and free, once more, to engage in pure, dumb rock 'n' roll fun. Tonight's notably lengthy set is heavy on the 'Danger Days', and while the 6,000 strong Metro Radio Arena may save the loudest singalongs and most rapturous applause for the earlier material, it is the steampunk synth 'n' scuzz of such gems as the filthy 'Vampire Money' and the ass-shakingly sexy 'Planetary (GO!)' that shine the brightest and leave the most indelible impression.

For all 'The Black Parade' was a fantastically brave reinvention, and a superlative record, you get the feeling that this is what MCR were born to do; that these larger-than-life, unashamedly over-the-top fantasy figures that stalk the stage, battering their instruments and throwing the kind of camp poses that put Paul Smith to shame (we're looking at you, Gerard Way), are at their most comfortable in this environment, playing science-fiction tinged punk rock and blistering their way through their back catalogue like their very lives depend upon it. Just check the unwieldy sense of urgency that ploughs its way through a breakneck 'Na Na Na', surely one of the finest rock 'n' roll pop songs of the last ten years. The energy is exhilarating, the speed spine tingling and the brevity breathtaking.

And while 'Danger Days' may see MCR at their most cohesive, when they do plumb the depths of their earlier material, the chosen tracks complement their contemporary counterparts exceptionally well. Once-in-a-blue-moon 'Our Lady of Sorrows' benefits from six years of increased technical skill, sounding far more bombastic than it was ever meant to be; 'Give 'Em Hell, Kid' and 'Hang 'Em High' thunder along faster than a speeding bullet; 'Mama' brings the carnival to town, coming on like a slice of hyperbolic pantomime and prompting a mass clicking-of-the-fingers; and of course, 'Welcome to the Black Parade', 'Famous Last Words', 'I'm Not Okay' and 'Helena' rock like absolute bastards, aided and abetted by Ray Toro and Frank Iero's deliciously savage guitar assaults.

Inevitably, the crash queens and motor babies lose their minds to all of these, screaming each word 'til their lungs give out and, on a particularly rowdy 'Teenagers', threatening to obliterate the Arena's overly expensive flooring (it doubles as an ice rink, you know). Interestingly, however, for all these visceral rock 'n' roll thrills are invigorating, it is the quieter moments that provide the biggest highlights. The piano-led reinterpretation of 'The Ghost of You' drips with bitterest melancholy, while 'Cancer', featuring merely James Dewees on keyboard and a barely visible Gerard (bathed in smoke and cutting an eerily imposing figure in silhouette), sends shivers down the spine, so delicate and cracked is the boy Way's voice. It's a soberingly serious moment amongst the dumb fun of the rest of the evening and it's all the more powerful for it.

As boys, girls, mums, dads, freaks and creeps alike stumble out of the Metro Radio Arena tonight, their T-shirts emblazoned with slogans like ART IS THE WEAPON, their hearts and minds battered and bruised from the Technicolor punk rock show they've just witnessed, there's a sense of victory in the air. Victory for My Chemical Romance, who, by their own admission, were teetering on the brink of collapse after 'The Black Parade'; victory for the killjoys, whose devotion continues to prove well justified, and victory for the genre as MCR prove, categorically, that punk rock can translate to the cavernous corporate opulence of the arena environment without losing any of its heart. Louder than God's revolver and twice as shiny, MCR pump out the slaughtomatic sounds to keep you alive and look fucking fantastic doing it. The future IS bulletproof; the aftermath IS secondary and tonight, my friends, My Chemical Romance ARE fucking outstanding.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Review: British Sea Power (w/Teeth of the Sea, Journal Tyne Theatre, Newcastle, 14/02/11)

There really is no question about it: British Sea Power are a decidedly weird bunch. With a penchant for soundtracking documentaries about islands (2009's 'Man of Aran') and a fondness for all things nautical, the Brighton six piece might be just about the closest thing we have to a quintessentially English band of utter and complete nutters; stark raving lunatics in every possible capacity. They're also refreshingly genuine, refusing with endearing steadfastness to bow to the pressures of that unforgiving beast we call the industry, looking and sounding about as far from the conventions of the Zeitgeist as you can possibly get. Let's face it - those waist-high trousers, sailor suits and pirate boots (we kid you not) are resolutely uncool, the kind of gear your average Topshop employee might puke all over, and frankly, we love 'em for it... which makes tonight's rather reserved performance a tad disappointing.

The completely unfathomable Teeth of the Sea set the scene aptly enough, baffling the few hundred that bothered to show up early with half an hour of cascading cadences, thundering drums, relentless distortion (thank you, Flying V) and precisely no lyrics whatsoever. It's suitably arresting, if slightly flawed in execution: bathed in the brightest of white lights, these Godspeed! wannabes lose a great deal of their lustre. This kind of deranged musical morbidity would be better suited shrouded in darkness; in the cold light of day, the performance falls largely flat. Thankfully, BSP suffer no such technical faux pas, but there is no denying that something is amiss.

Perhaps it's the venue; while the underused Journal Tyne Theatre has some of the finest acoustics in the city and makes an appropriate setting for British Sea Power's particular brand of untempered eccentricity, it is hampered somewhat by its inherent politeness. Punters have little option other than to park bums on designated seats, quietly observing rather than participating, and even when half the crowd get up off their backsides and make a beeline for the stage - promptly creating a pit and hence, one of the finest sights this theatre has ever seen - during 'We Are Sound', there is still very little activity to speak of, very little actual movement. It's a shame really as BSP are certainly heavy enough, bestowing this Valentine's Day crowd with a brash, brusque set taking in a large proportion of their rather more intense numbers (with a strong emphasis on superlative debut 'The Decline of British Sea Power'), the most notable of which is a deliciously messy, sprawling 'Spirit of St. Louis', which closes proceedings in suitably sporadic fashion.

But then, perhaps that's a problem in itself. Maybe these loved-up couples and terribly bitter cynics weren't out for a good rock 'n' rollicking. Maybe they wanted the twisted, maudlin British Sea Power, or the quiet, contemplative British Sea Power, the kind that rears its timid head in the gorgeous 'Blackout'. Or maybe we just expected more from the mad hatters: bereft of headfuckingly bizarre costumes (well, save for the sound guy's Viking helmet), overbearing flags (yes, they do play 'Waving Flags' and of course, it's amazing) and general weirdness, BSP appear a little exposed, slightly uncomfortable in the nakedness of their surroundings. Sure, we get the obligatory foliage - thrown crowdwards by night's end - but you can't help feeling that tonight, it isn't quite enough and that, given the chance, British Sea Power would rather have hidden behind their gimmicks.

And perhaps that's a little unfair. BSP are unquestionably good: their set is a strong mix, the performance is largely note perfect, they play 'The Great Skua', and Newcastle is most appreciative of the fact. It's just... well, from the guys responsible for their own brand of clotted cream fudge, we kinda expected a little bit more. And they could at least have played 'No Lucifer', jeez...

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Review: NME Awards Tour (Crystal Castles/Magnetic Man/Everything Everything/The Vaccines), Newcastle O2 Academy, 07/02/11

Another year, another NME Awards Tour and another round of much-heralded wannabes from the indie Zeitgeist, clawing to translate the magazine's excessive cock sucking into actual record sales. To be fair to the commendably diverse bunch on tonight's bill, they're all on the cusp of greater things, having wormed their way into the alternative consciousness by virtue of either a few undeniably catchy indie/electronica-pop ditties or the helping hand of the well-oiled hype machine. The question, of course, is whether they can earn their stripes and convince the rabid masses that they're worthy of their time, effort and download limits.

Unfortunately, things don't go too well for The Vaccines. Crippled by an atrocious sound guy, who seems determined to project internal organs out of mouths by turning the bass up to life-threatening, their four-to-the-floor indie scuzz gets lost in a sea of overbearing distortion, leaving the first half of the set pallid and lacking in character. The band seem acutely aware of the problem, going through the motions for the majority of the performance, and only really coming alive when 'Post Break Up Sex' wakes everyone up. Unfortunately, the three minute exercise in relentless drone-making sounds even worse live than on record, but nevertheless, the boys, girls, mums and dads in the audience get themselves all excited and, you know, jump up and down a bit. 'Wrecking Bar (Ra Ra Ra)' very nearly saves the day, sounding positively invigorating for its wonderfully brief one minute and twenty-four seconds, but sadly, the set doesn't end here and the Vaccines continue for a further ten minutes of incomprehensible caterwauling.

Local heroes Everything Everything suffer too. Lead singer Jonathan Higgs' vocals are too low down in the mix and their uniquely intricate, delicately flavoured sound becomes lost in translation in such an imposing venue. All is not entirelyn lost, however: 'Schoolin' and 'MY KZ YR BF' sound thrilling and 'Photoshop Handsome' is one of the evening's undeniable highlights, giving the crowd the first excuse to shake their asses in fantastically embarrassing fashion. And the Devo-esque full body uniforms are pretty nifty too.

Magnetic Man is essentially an exercise in pantomime, with hired hand Sgt Pokes proving a most effective showman, adept at working this bounciest of crowds (incite a repetitive action, praise the crowd, crack a terrible joke/pun and repeat ad nauseum). However, he does seem a bit of a waste: there's no actual skill involved here, no rapping and barely any MCing. The DJs don't really do much either, essentially playing a bunch of records for half an hour, while Newcastle goes ape shit. This might as well be a Friday night at Digital, for which we'd all pay a hell of a lot less. It doesn't help that every song sounds the bleedin' same: take one grime/dubstep-influenced 'dirty' beat, add a few vocoder effects, sprinkle with some keyboard wizardry and hey presto, you've got yourselves a hit.

Crystal Castles suffer from no such problem; their undeniably varied palette is every possible shade of shite imaginable. The aural equivalent of a prolonged enema, these guys are an excruciating migraine of a band, whose primary remit appears to be to spew as much pretentious wank as possible on an unsuspecting public before imploding in a haze of their own bullshit. Unfortunately guys, a load of incomprehensible screaming and a Spectrum ZX81 do not a good record make.

And yet, strangely, there's something undeniably captivating about their live show. Like all good car wrecks, it's just impossible to look away; Alice Glass cuts a mean, imposing figure stood atop the monitors, perched on her broken ankle (now there's a commendable feat... performing with such a painful injury and jumping up and down on it), beckoning to the crowd, goading the masses, looking like the coolest fucker in the world. And then there's Ethan Kath, silent as a mouse, face hidden by his hoodie, quietly ushering those otherworldly noises out of his CASIO keyboard (or whatever the hell it is). They're shrouded in darkness of course, punctuated only by the myriad strobe lights that threaten to blind the pill-happy audience. It's an arresting visual and one that ensures you won't take your eyes off the stage. Now if only we could press the 'mute' button.

So, the verdict? The jury is well and truly out. There are no legendary moments, no game-changing, once-in-a-lifetime performances, but there are no unmitigated disasters either. The Vaccines come closest to disappointing us, losing their oomph thanks to some very poor sound decisions, but even these guys have their ace in the hole. Everything Everything have moments that impress, Magnetic Man steal the audience's hearts despite sounding somewhat monochrome and Crystal Castles achieve the unenviable feat of convincing even the most vehement of haters that they're at least worth watching. Not quite the well-rounded success story these bright young things would've wanted but hell, it's a start, eh?

Friday, 4 February 2011

Review: Funeral Party (w/Flashguns and Barcode, The Cluny, 03/02/11)

Bit of a miserable night for a Funeral Party. As the gale force winds batter the fortified Victorian ramparts of the Ouseburn's finest drinking hole and the heavens promptly take a gigantic whiz all over the good folk of Newcastle, a few hundred dour-faced punters huddle together for protection, waiting for the Zeitgeist's flavour of the week - Zane Lowe narrates their ads, they *must* be hotly tipped - to carry us away on a wave of distorted guitars, errant cowbells and visceral rock 'n' roll thrills... but before we get round to the business of throwing shapes, there's Barcode to contend with. Perennially besotted with Gang of Four, just like EVERY OTHER BAND TO HAVE COME OUT OF SUNDERLAND EVER, these guys have hooks aplenty, sure, but they're just not sure how to use them. Their brief six song set reads like a Who's Who of contemporary indie-rock, taking in Two Door Cinema Club, Bloc Party, The Hives, Biffy Clyro's 'Folding Stars' and even, at one low point, Jet. The songs aren't bad per se, but the band lack focus and would benefit from concentrating on a sound of their own. And someone needs to get that bassist to shed a few garments for the next show. Talk about untapped sex appeal.

Fortunately, second support Flashguns have no such problems. Youthful of countenance and perfect of cheekbone, the Southern noise merchants have both the boys and girls coming over all giddy for the majority of their deliciously ethereal set. These boys are gifted with the most beautiful voices this side of a Wild Beasts record and they make the most of it, gently caressing each slice of fuzzy Americana with otherworldly vocal duets, the most notable of which is 'Passion of a Different Kind', which leaves the sold out crowd dumbstruck. It's a truly mesmerising performance, threatening to upstage the main attraction.

And to Flashguns's credit, they very nearly do. For a short while, the hype machine is almost too much for Funeral Party; the opening run of soundalike album tracks lacks pizzazz, despite a concerted effort to liven up proceedings by inflating a bunch of balloons in honour of the bassist's birthday. While this brings the arms-folded brigade to life, sending slogans like 'SORRY YOU'RE LEAVING' soaring around the venue and bouncing off people's heads, it doesn't disguise the lack of a detectable hook in many of these songs; if anything, it further exposes their weaknesses and the boys from the Party seem to know it, appearing initially tempered rather than animated, shying away from engagement with the masses.

Fortunately, it doesn't last long. As soon as the monumental 'Just Because' rears its filthy head, band and crowd come alive and lead singer Chad Elliott lets the music swallow him up, leaping off the drumkit, wrapping the microphone lead around himself, his band and quite probably a few audience members, goading us into action. Before long, he's screaming every other word, loading 'Youth & Poverty' with purest, guttural rage, and James Torres responds in kind, thrashing seven shades of shit out of his manhandled guitar. This is the untempered, primal noise that the good people of Los Angeles spunked all over in the early months of 2010. This is the justification for the front covers, the billboards and the action figures (well, maybe some day).

Inevitably, the loudest screams and the most energetic jumps are reserved for the cyclone of indie-punk noise that is 'New York Moves To The Sound of L.A.', which sounds especially huge this evening, all unfathomable guitar chops and acrylic percussion. It's a perfectly maniacal end to the Party, descending into a haze of sweat and distortion... and then it's one-upped by the presentation of the bassist's birthday cake, which he promptly showers the crowd with, covering us all in chocolaty goodness. It's an appropriately messy, impromptu climax (hur hur) and one that adds an additional touch of character to an already vibrant performance. A bit of a miserable night, sure, but one hell of a Party.