Black Celebration VIII: Suicide Commando/XPQ-21/Psyche/Chaos Engine/Knifeladder/V2A/Deathboy/I Am Immune/Modulate

Islington Academy, London - 5 November 2006

"XPQ-21 were the (re)discovery of the day"

[Black Celebration VIII flyer]Is that really Black Celebration VIII... 8... EIGHT?! Blimey, how the years fly by. Christ knows what happened to Black Celebrations IV through to VII. The last time I was here was, apparently (he says checking the extremely handy A-Z of Gig Reviews), way back in 2001 for Black Celebration III - just weeks after mass terrorism befell the USA and Covenant headlined the bill at the Mean Fiddler. This year's line up promised some old reliables (Suicide Commando and Chaos Engine) plus newcomers in the form of I Am Immune and Modulate.

Modulate: "Fucking hard industrial" according to their website - could be good... Put it this way, the track entitled Skullfuck lived up to its name with plenty of samples of the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket. Baring a private warm up party in York the night before, this was Modulate's live debut - great - always like to be around for such things. Last time I knowingly did this was man(i)kin at Infest back in 1999 and that was a doozie. Uncannily, Martin from man(i)kin was guesting on stage helping out with the live instrumentation. This was essentially instrumental hard dance rhythms with an industrial attitude and it was those tracks that just did their own thing rather than try to be something else (like Skullfuck) that worked best. As a debut it was impressive enough and deserved a bigger audience than the slot allowed (after all, it was 2.30 in the afternoon).

[Knifeladder: musical butchers]Next up were I Am Immune who layer guitars over synths and programmed drums. If anyone on the bill was going to make it onto the defunct Top of The Pops, it's likely to have been this lot. But that's also the reason I took my leave after just one song (to nip out and get a late lunch as it happens - my stomach was groaning for attention). Polished but hardly original.

A name like Deathboy conjured up all sorts of possibilities - all featuring varying degrees of unpleasantness. Having psyched myself up for an aural onslaught, the opening song just confused me. What was this supposed to be? Goth for Goths who like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers? I'm probably way off the mark and completely missing a vital new sub-genre but I never quite got to grips with Deathboy. Let's make it clear though, the name is wildly misleading (and could scupper chances for a potentially significant following), there was nothing deathly about this at all. The psychedelic multi-layered projections matched the thrashy and occasionally slightly trippy music. The live performance and presentation was well-done, with three guitarists up front, a keyboard player and live drumming, the latter helping a lot.

What are we to make of lyrics like "Looks like and angel, fucks like a whore"? V2A proved they lacked creativity, the ability to shock and were either lazy or slightly pathetic. They came on stage, stood at the front and made their "V" and "A" symbols with their hands, which, frankly, looked a bit naff. The visually impressive V2A website only serves to create the impression that this is more style than substance. Shame, as the idea is fine enough (I like the name), they could have been the definitive EBM act (they even named their debut album EBM!); but to achieve anything significant they've still a great deal of work to do.

Like all of those on the bill so far, Cryonica act Knifeladder were new to me. Three burly men walked on stage, bare-chested and sporting black butcher's aprons. This was already unsettling and they hadn't played a note. The thumping dry toms, crashing cymbals (courtesy of John Murphy of Death in June fame) and chants of the opening track signalled Knifeladder's assault on the Black Celebration crowd. Not sure what this sort of music is called but it was bloody good stuff. I was vaguely reminded of gigs and bands from decades ago like Swans and Coil and as an antidote to the overwhelming pop styling of so much alternative/electronic music these days, this was a real welcome tonic. Had Knifeladder been around when David Lynch directed The Elephant Man, they could have provided a matchless industrial soundtrack. I found this very hypnotic and oddly captivating; although, judging by the guy next to me repeatedly turning his thumb down and shaking his head throughout, Knifeladder were not to everyone's taste. But then that bloke did look like a bit of an arse.

[Chaos Engine: temporary reformation]Former Wasp Factory leading lights Chaos Engine had temporarily reformed for this event (and the annual Gothic pilgrimage to Whitby a few days beforehand). I'd always had a soft spot for Lee Chaos' project. This fondness was rapidly rekindled as, to a sample of the 'terrorist' speech by V from the recent V For Vendetta film boomed out, the band members walked on stage each sporting a 'V' mask. The effect was simultaneously chilling and exciting (V2A take note!). If I'm perfectly honest, the set that followed, whilst admirable and thrilling at times, didn't quite live up to the billed 'reformation/come back' expectations or that entrance. Still, there was plenty to enjoy despite Lee publicly dissing "all the shit promoters this year". It wasn't clear if this included today's organisers Flag. This said before launching into a new song built around a fast breakbeat backing that saw most of the audience on the ground floor dancing. Una Bomber was on form and, to demonstrate The Chaos Engine's famed unpredictability, the Gwen Stefani cover worked amazingly well! Last song Employee of The Year, thoughtfully dedicated to all of us who had work the next day, brought to a close what could be The Chaos Engine's last ever live performance. It was good while it lasted. Whether or not it will return again, only time will tell.

[Psyche: Darrin Huss - energy to spare]Having coincidentally given my first review to Psyche (of their creditable Imaginary Life DVD) only last month, I was well attuned to Darrin Huss' sound. It was surprising to think that I'd never actually seen them live before either. As the DVD contains plenty of live footage, I knew what to expect and Huss (and a fellow synth player) promptly delivered. Given today's headline act and the type of crowd that pulled, he understandably kicked off with something on the heavier side of his repertoire. Psyche have dipped into most electronic music sub-genres over their twenty-plus years and tonight's set reflected that, not afraid to draw on the earliest days of their extensive back catalogue. The Brain Collapses was one example and was, quite impressively, written when Huss was just 17. There can't be many other bands around that could not only get away with performing something that green, but could still impress with it too. It remains one of my favourite Psyche songs. Huss' frenetic dancing makes Ian Curtis look positively comatose and at times threatens to amuse more than enthrall. Nevertheless, although being somewhat out of kilter with the headline act sound, Psyche earned themselves a warm reception.

[XPQ-21... There was me, that is Alex...]I'd seen XPQ-21 years ago, can't remember where, but recall being nonplused. So, my hopes were not high, but XPQ-21 were undoubtedly '(re)discovery' of the day for me. With their current Droog outfits, makeup and cheeky schoolboy attitude of lead vocalist Jeyenne, they came across how I imagine Madness would if they'd grown up listening to punk and industrial instead of ska and reggae. Jeyenne didn't stop for one second. He was either waving his arse around, or kicking other band members' arses (very Droog style!), pulling faces, gesticulating to the front rows, swaggering and twirling his cane and tipping his bowler. All this and the voice itself wasn't half bad either. I found the resulting Prodigy meets A Clockwork Orange melange a total joy from start to finish. The song built around the baiting "Jesus Was Gay" refrain was typical of their performance - both great entertainment and terrific music. This was very much a live show with all the major instruments actually being played on stage too. Suicide Commando would have to be at the height of their game to top this.

[Suicide Commando: A Noise Terror Production]I'd last caught Suicide Commando at Infest back in 2001. I've never been a huge fan of Johan Van Roy's favoured sound - finding both the music and vocals too one-dimensional. It seems bands like :Wumpscut: did this kind of thing far more convincingly some years ago, still Van Roy's persistence seems to be paying dividends with the establishment of Dependent splinter label Noise Terror Productions - run by Van Roy as a new home for his own Suicide Commando and like-minded acts. Most striking change in the five years since I'd last seen them, was the fact that this was performed with a full band (previously it was just that dangerously dull two person vocalist and synth player presentation that still plagues the genre). Van Roy repeatedly scowling as he leaned ever further into the crowd in order to work them up further still worked, the feedback he got seemingly energising him to run (literally) with it - filling the stage effortlessly. The yucky visuals of vicera, teeth, blood and the like combined with the harsh, grumbling noise of the band created an environment that fans of the Saw trilogy would probably feel quite at home in, but for me, beyond the beats, there's still too little to entice.

The crowd was noticeably thin this year. This may have been due to the changed date - Black Celebration usually falls at the end of October but was put back in response to the Whitby Gothic Weekend having moved. It also meant that it fell on Guy Fawkes Night and a Sunday - both of which probably didn't help (even if the date did give The Chaos Engine a well-taken opportunity to demonstrate their good taste in films/comics). I welcomed the lesser-known support acts (its important to give newer/smaller acts the chance of exposure) especially Modulate and Knifeladder, but although good at what they do, Suicide Commando still just don't feel like a festival headline act to me (even if it is only a one-dayer), especially following on from XPQ-21 who really knew how to put on a show and deliver a solid set. A bigger name with broader, less niche appeal would have been a better choice for headline and would almost certainly have drawn more people. 7/10

Rob Dyer

See also:

Black Celebration (Festival)

Black Celebration II (Festival)

Black Celebration III (Festival)