I think of the Camden Underworld as something of the spiritual home of Flag Promotions. They may have come on a bit since their early days and now book bigger bands to play much bigger venues, but The Underworld (it is literally underground) remains the ideal gig venue in many ways. It was hard to believe that the last time I'd seen Attrition here was back in 2000, coincidentally with support also coming from Greenhaus then too. That was an amazing gig and I was delighted that my Attrition live drought (which began that year) was finally over.
First though we had to make our way through the support acts which promised an eclectic evening. With East Road pulling out due to illness, first to take the stage were a bunch of lads known as Highrise. Some must believe they have big things in their future since there were no less than three cameras filming their performance and it was being professionally recorded too. Seemed to me that this lot on the same bill as the Drookit Dogs would make for a solid evening's post punk guitar entertainment. The boys' talents outshone their youthful appearance and if you were to ask me why Highrise aren't soaring up the charts already I'd be hard pushed to explain the logic.
Greenhaus were next up, which surprised me as I'd have thought they'd have warranted second billing given their reputation and following. But support for Steve Bellamy's project was thinner than usual tonight even if their show was up to their usual high standards. Lead vocalist Phoenix J (now with a full head of flowing hair replacing her previously bald head) has obviously well settled into her band leading role. Some of her dance moves still look a little odd to me but her vocals are perfectly suited to the rockier current sound.
Distractingly, her early 'cute' personality has been replaced with a more charming, even seductive persona. When singing the title track from their latest album You're Not Alone she kept singling out a member of the audience with her transfixing stare each time she sang the title lyrics as if she were addressing just that individual. Having been on the receiving end of the technique a couple of times I can say what an unnerving if not unpleasant ; ) experience it is. The current set of songs is a natural enough evolution from 2003's addictive Another Life album. It's not a musical direction that I'd choose, I still prefer their mid-period space rock, trippy sound, but they've nailed the new incarnation well and it could see the band finally break out of the underground scene. Being on Revolver should help with that.
In the number two slot were The Shanklin Freak Show and tonight was their first foray onto the mainland from their native Isle of Wight. It's a crying shame that Ju Ju Babies are no more as this lot on the same bill as the Babies would have been a killer evening out (come to think of it, why not chuck in John Merricks Remains while you're at it?). Imagine a nightmarish Victorian traveling side show that sings songs with titles like Lizard Man and you're probably beginning to materialise the right sort of twisted vision.
The soundbite journalist in me can't resist a line like The Shanklin Freak Show are the best thing to come out of Shanklin since the Black Gang Chine, but it's true! The lead singer with his drapes, hat, extensive black 'grinning face' make up, finished off with black, round glasses, a silver topped cane, affected 'upper class' accent and quips between songs was entertainment personified. The rest of the band members were also dressed in suitably outré attire so visually this quickly made an indelible mark.
Musically too there's plenty to enjoy. The band's visual inventiveness is carried over into the song writing that proved to be far less predictable than the strong image might have suggested. There is room for improvement on some of the songs and the playing was a tad clunky at times, but nothing that a bit of practice and further live exposure won't iron out. The aforementioned Ju Ju's aside, fans of oldies like The Cramps or their more modern descendants like Marilyn Manson or Rob Zombie should take to this like the Elephant Man to a pillow case.
Even though the support acts were of a satisfyingly high standard the best was yet to come. The recent past has been dark for Attrition - even by their standards. Martin Bowes' divorce from his wife, including the unfortunate legal wrangles over his two children, has been cited by Bowes as the reason for a hiatus in output in recent years but has also provided the fuel for songs like Two Gods (from the excellent Dante's Kitchen). Meanwhile, Bowes' co-singer for the best part of twenty years, Julia Waller, who came to represent a vital part of the Attrition sound, left (amicably) in 2005. Such potentially devastating circumstances could finish off even the hardiest of creative minds, yet not Bowes.
If tonight's performance was anything to go by then it's had the opposite effect, driving this unique talent to ever greater heights, ever closer to perfection. Current vocalist Laurie Reade has not only filled the daunting void left by Julia Waller's departure but has (remarkably) replaced it with a new voice that's just as sympathetic to the older material and yet taps a whole new dimension meaning the replacement has been both immediate and entirely successful. Anyone familiar with Waller's vocal skills will understand what an achievement that is. The power of the combination of Reade's voice, Simon Stansfield's exhilarating live electronics and Martin's unhinged, joss-stick smoking gruff rumblings and MS20 knob twiddling is simply unrivaled anywhere. This tripartite comes together in perfect fusion on the unbelievable performance of Mercy Machine. Moments of euphoria like this are as rare as they come.
I'm starting to equate evenings spent at Attrition gigs with the high points in my life. Not just my musical life either - just life in general. Not only is the live Attrition sound something that has to be experienced in the flesh (no amount of their good studio albums comes close to conveying the same emotional rush) but one that anyone remotely interested in the alternative electronic music genre is doing themselves a disservice by not partaking. All of which only goes to make the small turnout this evening as baffling as it was criminal. Still, that is a major loss to everyone who wasn't there - not those that were. For they, like me, will have a precious memory to cherish as long as they live and to take to their grave when they finally shuffle off this mortal coil.
9/10 (mostly on account of you know who)