It isn't often you can say this about an industrial gig in the UK, but I feel certain that the Saturday night of 1 May 1999 will long be remembered by those who were there as a something historic. Mainly due to the fantastic atmosphere created by 500 people packing out every dark corner of Camden's subterranean venue - the Underworld, but also because it was the first gig to be promoted by Cybase23 (the UK's leading industrial website) and Resurrection Records (long-standing supporters of the Industrial scene). Of the 500 tickets printed for the event, 450 were sold in advance and when I arrived to queue around the block outside the venue (a novelty itself for the UK scene) punters were snapping up the last 50 tickets ensuring a total sell-out.
First band up were Narcissus Pool whose particular brand of music was described by a friend as an industrial version of Dead or Alive. Not sure I'd entirely agree with that (!) but the lead singer did seem to share Pete Burns' dress sense. Clad in a silver jacket and whooping it up between songs, he looked almost impatient for pop stardom although his vocals have some way to go yet.
On the musical side things were stronger with some excellent synth sounds blending well with the live guitar. Particularly impressive was the drum programming, with lots of pounding, dancy beats and fast, open high-hats, and some rapid sequencer patterns. I could be wrong, but it seems like early days in the career of Narcissus Pool and with some tidying up round the edges and some improved vocals they could cut a distinctive niche for themselves in the UK scene.
Second band on the bill were the increasingly impressive VNV Nation. When I first caught this band at a Cybertech label night at Dingwalls in London a couple of years ago I wasn't convinced at all. Then it seemed they had all the vision but the song writing hadn't caught up. After that I picked up the first album, and when I saw them supporting Covenant last year my conversion began. Of course, last year they also released the album Praise the Fallen on the Off-Beat label and the rest, in the realms of the industrial music scene at least, is history. A very impressive collection of compositions ranging from filmic instrumentals to the more heavy and danceable yet elegiac vocal tracks; PTF was a quantumn leap over the first album. During the past few months I'd played the album to death and my hopes for May 1st were high. VNV Nation did not let me down.
Lead singer Ronan was clearly charged up for a night to remember and asked wryly: "Isn't it nice to have a local band doing so well!" The audience responded with an almighty roar. The pulsating 40-minute set that followed spelt out exactly why this band have managed to rise above so many others in the international scene, let alone that in the UK. VNV Nation have a vision and that is something that is glaringly missing from most industrial music at present. Front 242 did it originally and now bands like :Wumpscut: and VNV are continuing that tradition. I don't recall the last time I saw such a genuinely emotional performance from a singer. Ronan's rendition of the vocal version of 'Forsaken' was a joy to behold and, caught up in a well of emotion, Ronan lashed out to stop the applause before the film sample that completes the song was finished. Once over, the audience went berzerk.
From the first album only 'Serial Killer' made the set, as did the wonderful 'Rubicon' from the recent essential 'Septic' compliation from VNV Nation's new label Dependent, performed here as a teaser from the new album due out later this year. When they'd finished their set, one could only pray that an encore had been built into the running times. Fortunately, a one-song encore was possible. Good job too, I don't even want to think what that frenzied audience would have done if the powers that be vetoed that option! The band returned to the stage and just when I thought things couldn't possibly get better my ears began to deceive me - or so I thought. As the backing began to deliver the first notes of the final song, I thought to myself (in total disbelief) "This sounds like Front 242!" That's because it was. VNV Nation ended their set that night with an absolutely magnificent rendition of 'Circling Overland' from Front 242's 1992 album "Front by Front". What an encore, what a set, what a band, what a night! Overwhelming.
If there was someone I felt sorry for that night it had to be Mesh. Although they were the headline act, it was clear that many had come specifically to see VNV Nation and even those that hadn't must have wondered just how anyone could have followed what we'd just witnessed. For the uninitiated, for 'Mesh' read 'top quality synth-pop' or, more simply, 'Depeche Mode'. Now I know it's an overused comparison for this band but it is oh, so appropriate. After the wall-of-sound that VNV delivered, Mesh were always gonna sound just too mellow on the night. But, as ever, they did an excellent job of what they do. The slides on the walls helped keep me interested when the music failed to hold my attention but Mesh just don't do it for me. Now, I should love them. I love Depeche Mode, I love synth-pop, I've even got an Elegant Machinery album. But Mesh... I don't know what it is... but I'm not convinced. A couple of the tracks did manage to draw my attention back to the band but it's not insignificant that I took in their set from the (slightly) less crowded upstairs - where I wasn't too far from another beer.
As a night of Electronic/Industrial music it was a great hit. VNV Nation were undoubtedly the stars of the night. But I can't help but think that the if the second and third bands had been switched in the playing order it would have been even better, and justice would have been more readily served to those that truly deserve it. Put it this way, I don't think we'll be seeing VNV Nation playing support to Mesh this time next year. Well done Cybase23 and Resurrection Records, when's the next one?