Music For A Darkened Theatre Festival:
In The Nursery/Zodiac Youth/Inertia/Mechanical Cabaret/The Ghost of Lemora/Maleficent/AlterRed/Black Light Ascension

The Cochrane Theatre, London - 13 August 2011

"Inspirational, cracking, excellent, rocking, mad, psychedelic, glorious"

[Black Light Ascension]

From the outset, this one-day festival promised a line-up clearly suggesting careful consideration and thought had gone into the selection of artists booked to appear. About half were familiar but they were all so closely aligned it made you pause and ask why they hadn’t appeared on the same bill together before. Only major disappointment was that dsoaudio favourites Attrition were forced to pull out in the weeks running up to the event. Originally, with them and In The Nursery headlining there was something of a Third Mind Records reunion thing going on (Google it if you’re unfamiliar) – both having shared the ground-breaking and influential English label. Even label founder Gary Levermore was among those attending.

The festival title was a neat play on words. Obviously, the bands playing were all of a certain ‘darker’ bent, but it also acted as a reference to the impending closure of venue The Cochrane Theatre – which is due to be demolished next year. The building is one of those 1960s modernist developments but unlike its larger counterparts (like the Barbican for example) it doesn’t suffer from the excesses of the brutalist aesthetic making it easy to navigate, with a decent bar level with glass walls (affording panoramic views of the bright, sun-lit Bloomsbury streets outside), and the main performance space a dedicated theatre setting – meaning today would be a fixed-seating affair. This didn’t stop punters dancing in the aisles and stalls when the beat and mood took them, but did provide an uncommonly 'civilised' setting and some sense of comfort throughout the long day ahead.

Opening act Black Light Ascension [Photo: left] is a project from Knifeladder’s Andrew Trail and was the perfect scene setter. Their dark intelligent post punk against a shadowy ambient backing was immediately arresting with Trail's characterful vocals straddling mood and clarity well. To these ears, there were moments when the likes of Cabaret Voltaire and The Cult came to mind. Not that BLA imitated any influences they may have, they are very much an original proposition, but those are still two very inspirational names to conjure with. I will definitely seek them out live again this year as they’re currently on something of a tour and strongly suggest you do the same if you’ve not already done so. Would be great to see them on the same bill as Advanced Idea Mechanics.

It had already been some two years since I first saw AlterRed live [Photo: right] and on the strength of today’s cracking show, I’ll be doing my damnedest to see I don’t make that foolish mistake again. Beyond having fond memories, I honestly couldn’t recall the detail of what had made them stick in my mind for so long despite not hearing their debut Mind-Forged Manacles. So bad was my amnesia that I had to resort to reading my own review of that previous gig to remind myself of what to expect! 

I had connected with founder, driving force and lead vocalist Michael AlterRed (probably not his legal name) via various social media and discovering similar tastes in many things had enjoyed interacting online. Part of me then was slightly anxious that I’d perhaps built up a rose-tinted view of their music as my previous mention of IAMX as a point of reference would not have been made lightly. Oh, how foolish! AlterRed have a songwriting ability, quality delivery and stage show that is seen all too infrequently. To bookend the touch points in history, you can start with the likes of alter-ego era Bowie and update that with Chris Corner’s IAMX persona and those are both legitimate and useful points of reference. Personally, I could even hear bits of the techno side of Snog in there and all this topped with lead singer Mikey’s quality vocal delivery (wince if you like, but Midge Ure at his finest also came to mind).

The stage presence is that - presence. There’s not much genuine presence on this scene, and that’s another reason AlterRed stand out. The sound mix lacked oomph with the voice loud and upfront with both the live instruments and backing track too far in the background. Michael also managed to dexterously weave a line from Tears Of A Clown. There are plans for a more extensive show for the next tour, but with seven folk on stage already, fronted by a captivating leading player this was already very theatrical in the best sense – the setting therefore ideal. The (literal) curtain fall was very appropriate end to a very convincing performance. 

[Mechanical Cabaret]

Maleficent, upped the ante in terms of members on stage by mustering an impressive eight, and all of these were playing or singing (unlike AlterRed). A massively tall spectral male vocalist in the guise of Mortimer Cain strode the stage like a real-life character from The Nightmare Before Christmas and had a voice like gravel falling down a well. The female lead (Italian-born Miss Maleficent Martini and former ballerina) wore ballet pumps and literally pirouetted around as she provided the lead vocals. The bass guitarist (who had a cartoonish tough guy appearance) looked like he’d been press-ganged from another outfit entirely. This was clearly supposed to come across as a seemingly disparate collection of individuals, problem was it sounded bit like that too, with the various influences not gelling to my ears at least.

Mechanical Cabaret [Photo: left] were next, and after my scathing (but frankly honest) review the last time out I saw them, I wasn’t sure if members Roi Robertson and Steve Bellamy would even acknowledge me, let alone say hello. But they did – so I think that's all in the past (unless they screw up again publicly! ;-)) Tonight, they were fucking excellent. With the quantity of alcohol obviously within more manageable levels tonight, Robertson was bang on form. Still right on the edge, delivering a dangerous but terrific performance. Robertson still taunted Bellamy both by twisting lyrics, such as on Disbehave when he asked “Will Steve do as he’s told?”, and then he pestered Bellamy by reaching out to slap the Bellamy’s keyboards like an annoying child trying to bait a parent. Bellamy stoically continued in his usual understated manner, but hit back slapping Robertson’s jabbing fingers. It was like watching some deranged domestic drama against a backdrop of thumping beats. Robertson is a star who knows how to disbehave.

Noticeably, like AlterRed earlier, their sound suffered from being too compressed, realising now that was probably a venue issue where they were more used to mixing voices from the stage than the deranged technoid electronics of Mechanical Cabaret and the like, you just had to accept it. After the set, a couple of guys in front chatting, one of them said, “I’m not a big fan of their music, but they do put on a great show”. He’s right, they do.

[Inertia]The Ghost of Lamora I’d not seen before. Leaning firmly towards the trad post-punk goth camp, this London-based outfit seemed to have a bunch of supporters present today. Though not really my kinda thing, as a group they projected a friendly persona with lead singer Richard's relaxed charisma coming across well for to newbies like me. They were the first act to get the audience up onto their feet down front and this fun tone continued throughout their half-hour set. With a singer doing jokes combining the riots of the days before and a fondness for football – a new Italian signing named ‘Grab-a-telli” (!) this would have been more natural in a pub setting than a theatre. So, even if I’m unlikely to seek them out again, those partial to such a style would do well to check them out as anyone would find it hard to actively dislike The Ghost of Lamora.

Industrial flag bearers for the day were Inertia, [Photo: right] featuring the folk behind the Cryonica studio and label – who were organiser and promoter for this festival. Given all the responsibilities they had leading up to the day and on the day itself, I was impressed that not only did they have the energy to perform as well, but that they did it with their usual high levels of gusto. I think their current album Deworlded is their best ever, so I was looking forward to hearing a good smattering of tracks from that tonight. And I did. In fact, most of the set came from that cracking release. So, in addition to the Falco, T-Rex and John Leyton covers (Children of The RevolutionMonarchy Now and Johnny, Remember Me – the latter featuring Mechanical Cabaret’s Robertson on guest vocals), we got a broad cross-section of Deworlded. That meant whilst we got songs more in the style of old school Inertia (Gone and Feed), we also got samples of the songs that for me took Inertia onto another level (Deworld and Anticulture). Meanwhile, recent single Repeat & Follow worked better live than in its recorded form. The entire live band (much toured and so well-honed) were as tight as one could expect – with Kneill X's guitar sounding particularly rocking.

[Zodiac Youth]

Zodiac Youth [Photo: left] are a name that many will know but remain the definition of ‘cult’ act. Mark Manning (aka Zodiac Mindwarp) and Martin Glover (aka Youth) have essentially been the band since their 1991 debut single Fast Forward The Future. Having always had a weakness for anything trance and never having gotten around to catching up with Zodiac Youth, this appearance presented me with the perfect opportunity to satisfy both needs. With ther return to performing since 2009 described as psychobilly, this live set turned out more mad jazz rock than anything, with a decidedly 60s psychedelic influence mixed in for good measure. That’s probably just reflective of Manning and Glover's vintage. Of course, part of the problem with being cult is that a lot of people won’t actually know who you are. 

Obviously Zodiac Youth were hoping for a more appreciative audience as about halfway through (what was scheduled to be) a 45 minute set, a midway through a song, singer Manning (who quite disturbingly looks like a fusion of Mickey Rourke and Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall - I josh you not!) gave the signal to bassist Glover to finish the set. Glover refused though and the band played on. Having already had a wander through the aisles, out the back of the theatre and reappearing on stage some minutes later, singer Manning did return to the stage but it’s fair to say his heart clearly wasn’t fully committed. Which was a shame as the elder statesmen of the event they could have used it as a platform to recruit some youthful converts to their cause. That never happened. I can’t see myself actively seeing them out in the future but their contribution today and their legacy are both appreciated.

[In The Nursery]Finally, we were at the headline act. It’s hard to believe that it has been four years since Sheffield’s In The Nursery [Photo: right] have played a (non-soundtrack) gig in London. For the brothers Humberstone that’s a mere pause in a career that shows no signs of flagging some 30 years in. Rather impressively, Nigel and Klive could still pass for their late 30s despite admitting on stage that they’d turned 50 this year. Incredible. I picked up my first ITN release (the Twins ablum on Sweatbox back in 1986) and have, like a faithful dog or partner, been there for them all those years since. Not that they’d necessarily know that. Besides, with a fan base outside the UK in territories like Mexico where their gigs and the audiences they draw dwarf anything they get up to back here at home it comes as no surprise they we don’t get to see them more often. Doesn’t stop us wanting more though.

Having released Blind Sound, their first studio album since 2007 a few months ago, this was the first chance for many in the audience to hear the new material live. Having only got the album the week before this gig, I wasn’t yet properly attuned but the wider use of bass guitar and vocals across a dark suite of songs not only signalled a further development in the ITN repertoire but tantalised as to the live potential. It lived up to expectations. There’s something gloriously morose about some of their writing and that aspect is heightened with the greater use of voice. Partly because as a voice is isn’t especially gifted, rather it has just the tonal qualities ITN’s compositions require to turn them into something special. The addition of a voice immediately forces thoughts of Joy Division, a band that were an influence on the brothers when they first got started. To be clear, they don’t sound like Joy Division per se, nevertheless the similarities remain.

Without resorting to nostalgia or a retro approach, the new material harks back to the very first ITN releases. Featuring the most vocals for many, many years, it’s a marked change of tact. I imagine an unconscious one for the band themselves. For most here this was likely to have been their first opportunity to sample the new material live and, with Nigel frequently adding his lead voice and bass guitar, the results made for an even more dynamic and engaging show than usual. All the new material stood up and came across well live. As ever though, they delved deep into the distant past and included classic entries such as Compulsion and Mystere. Personal highlight was an incredibly muscular rendition of Au Rebours which presented an entirely new perspective on this already great track.

It was a real pleasure to see the two brothers on stage with Dolores Mageurite C looking as glamorous as ever – a very effective and now long-standing team given that Dolores first worked with the twins way back in 1987. The aforementioned sound limitations aside, only a couple of out-of-time moments with the military snare percussionist were where the delivery faltered but they were fleeting and didn’t much matter. The audience were frankly rapturous in their adoration and support of In The Nursery. They have that ability and effect on people. Although soon to appear at the Portobello Film Festival in London (performing their score to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari), I pray it otherwise isn’t another four years before we get to see them doing their live band stuff again. 8/10

Rob Dyer