Spetsnaz/Proceed/Ashbury Heights/Din [A] Tod (Out of Line Festival 2007)

Islington Academy, London - 17 November 2007

"Out of Line's touring festival came to the UK. But only just."

Last night saw the 2007 Out of Line label's touring festival come to the streets of London. But only just. The tour bus was held by UK Immigration in Calais, France - for TEN hours. Once it was finally released it was without Mexican headline act Hocico who were inexplicably refused entry. The remainder of the bands got to the central London location as soon as they could but were inevitably late as a result of the hold up. To say nothing about being seriously pissed off. Doors having opened at 5pm, the first band wasn't on stage until 7.30. Promoters Flag and label Out of Line must have been at their wits end by the time the music finally began and posters and flyers posted all over and outside the venue described the day as being "emotional". An admirable understatement I imagine. Apparently it was considered to cancel the event, but to go ahead, albeit in a seriously compromised manner, was definitely the right choice. Compensation (in various forms) was on offer but despite the organisational trauma you have to give the audience credit for not only sticking with the heavily revised proceedings but doing so in decent numbers and being vocal in their support of the four bands that did make it.

[Din [A] Tod][Ashbury Heights]Relative newcomers Din [A] Tod opened their set by saying "Fuck England!" - not something that's usually advisable when playing away from home, particularly with the notoriously hard to please London crowd, but under the circumstances nobody was going to complain. Only two of the band's usual three members were on stage today but with them both swapping vocal and instrumental duties the lack of a member didn't noticeably detract from the performance. With a passion for analogue synths, and English bands like Joy Division and early Sisters of Mercy, Din [A] Tod have managed to blend electro and an early 80s new wave sound into something that stands apart from their peers. With black and white Gustave Doré illustrations providing an epic backdrop to their set it was a real shame that, due to circumstances, they only got to play for 20 minutes.

Ashbury Heights were next up and were also constrained to just 20 minutes and, again, more would have been desirable. Anders Hagström and Yasmine Uhlin are the band, their debut album Three Cheers for the Newlydeads, mixed by John Fryer of Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails fame, was released just last month. If our limited sampling this evening is an accurate measure then Ashbury Heights are yet another ingenious signing by Out of Line. Uhlin and Hagström have a rare chemistry that suggests they are either lovers or siblings. She had all the attitude, spitting between songs when she wasn't almost threatening the audience to vocalize their support. He was at first subdued then suddenly went berserk where his incessant and violent movements and head shaking looked like a rather cool case of St Vitus Dance. Their multilayered dark-pop sound is actually pretty unique, but with their bringing together of shadowy electro-clash and pop I could sense shades of everything from Alphaville to VNV Nation despite the small sampling. Ashbury Heights would made a great double-bill with IAMX.

In marked contrast to what had already been, Proceed were as straightforward as it gets. If hard-edged Electro/Electronic Body Music is your thing then you need look no further. All the trademarks of the genre we present and correct, from the growling vocals, through heavy beats and fast monophonic sequencers, to aggressive delivery. In the right hands, like early days Front 242, this sound can be both primal and immediate yet simultaneously demonstrating depth and character. Proceed's version however lacked these attributes, coming across as simplistic and more one-dimensional. Their sound a natural bridge between the classic EBM of Spetsnaz and the harsh contemporary electro sounds of Hocico.

With Hocico presumably languishing somewhere in France, it fell to Swedish two-piece Spetsnaz (Stefan Nilsson and Pontus Stålberg) to headline the night. Inspired by the pioneers of the minimalist EBM sound like Nitzer Ebb, DAF and Die Krupps, Spetsnaz only formed in 2001 - arguably a full decade after that original EBM sound had since come to a natural conclusion with Nitzer Ebb's 1991 album Ebbhead. With no serious or credible exponents of the sound for more than ten years it was either brave or foolish for a couple of guys from Sweden to think they could take on such a seminal sound and continue the legacy let alone add to it. But, amazingly that's just what they've done. There no subtle way to say this, so I'll just continue. Take the genre defining sound of Nitzer Ebb at their height and simply repeat the formula - and you have Spetsnaz. Yet to their entire credit, they never come across like some cheap wannabes. As their songwriting is of such a credible standard, the results are as if NE never gave up the fight. Spetsnaz are the true and worthy heirs to the Nitzer Ebb crown.

[Spetsnaz][Spetsnaz]Having seen Nitzer Ebb live a few times, I can also vouch for Spetsnaz's live show. In comparison to live McCarthy and Harris, Nilsson and Stålberg may lack the gravitas of their heroes, but they not only deliver the performance goods, but bring a tangible sense of perspective to things that manifests itself as the ability to not only raise a smile but even qualifies as humour. However, this never compromises the sound or impact, instead it means Nilsson and Stålberg come across as likable human beings generating a positive vibe alongside the terrific old school sounds. The hour long set spanned their entire career to date with everything from their first demo right up to date with the new track Faustpakt - taken from their latest album.

By the end you'd have been hard pressed to know that the supposed headliners were a no-show, so convincing were Spetsnaz. I'd go as far as saying that they are markedly better as a live act than they are in the studio. Their recordings lack the energy and frisson of the live sound and it would be unwise to judge them purely on their studio work. Apparently after a difficult period together, Nilsson and Stålberg almost chucked in the towel not long ago. Thank goodness they've gotten over their differences. I urge you to check them out live just as soon as you can. Better to be safe than sorry.

With an earlier than usual curfew of 10pm the 2007 Out of Line Festival (London leg) had come to an end. The promoters and label could be forgiven for wishing to put the entire infuriating experience behind them. But from the punter's view, okay, so the early slots (particularly Din [A] Tod and Ashbury Heights) were woefully short of what we'd have liked and Hocico were nowhere to be found (through no fault of the organisers) but Spetsnaz proved to be more than up to the challenge of headlining the day. Between them, the bands had delivered a great evening's entertainment that showcased Out of Line's remarkable ability to sign varied but (for the most part) remarkably consistent talent. Let's just hope that the experience doesn't put the bands off returning to our shores again before too long. 7/10

Rob Dyer