BAS II Festival: Blancmange/Tenek/Marlow/Speak & Spell/Strangers/Electro Kill Machine/Spacebouy/Modovar/Naked Lunch/Shiny Darkness/Sinestar/Protege Reign

Bowers Club/James Hornsby School, Basildon, Essex – 4-5 May 2012

"Gig of the year"

Anyone with a basic knowledge of Depeche Mode knows that they originally came from Basildon, Essex, England. Anyone having a deeper understanding of English electronic music generally will also cite Yazoo, Erasure, and Robert Marlow as further examples of artists who all emerged from the Essex new town during the early 1980s. Clearly, there must be something special then about this place that resulted in such a well-spring of similarly-themed, electric-powered musical creativity. The BAS II festival (the second of its kind) taking place in Pitsea, a suburb of Basildon, over the recent May Bank Holiday weekend was obviously designed to celebrate that rich heritage. It also provided a platform both to like-minded artists from the same era and newcomers. All hoping to demonstrate that the well-spring is still flowing freely and that its ripples of inspiration have travelled far. 

The BAS event is an uncommon blend of music festival and fan convention. The performers a mix of 80s electronic Depeche Mode contemporaries and new artists obviously inspired by that heritage. In Ba5ic there was even a family connection, with two of Martin Gore's nephews as members. (One of the organisers is a former teenage girlfriend of original Depeche Mode member Vince Clarke.) Performances were split into three chunks across the weekend. Blancmange, Tenek, Marlow, Modovar and Naked Lunch on the Friday night. Protege Reign and Sinestar on the Saturday afternoon. With Speak & Spell, Strangers, Electro Kill Machine, Spacebuoy, Shiny Darkness and Ba5ic on the Saturday night. 

Venues utilised emphasised the 'homebrew' nature of the weekend. Friday and Saturday nights were held at a local social club in the middle of a housing estate. Whilst the Saturday afternoon memorabilia event, trading stalls and two live bands were hosted in the main hall at the James Hornsby school. There was a very sound logic for the latter, Hornsby being the school that Martin Gore and Andrew Fletcher attended as pupils and their band first performed as Depeche Mode. A plaque on the wall of the school hall commemorates this. 

Personally, one of the major deciding factors in attending the entire event were the first band on stage on day one: Naked Lunch. Perhaps only familiar to a considerably smaller number of people than, say, Depeche Mode, Blancmange, Soft Cell or The The. However, all five bands shared tracks alongside one another on the landmark Some Bizarre compilation album back in 1981. Naked Lunch were one of a number of promising bands on that album that never went on to achieve their full potential. Having released just three singles and being courted by three major labels (Polydor, EMI and WEA), the band imploded in typically youthful 'acrimonious fallout' fashion right before they might have soared. Their track La Femme has always been a personal highlight of that Some Bizarre album, so when I read on Facebook that they had reformed (specifically on the suggestion of the festival organisers) especially to perform at BAS II, I could not contain my excitement. Naked Lunch's sound was always firmly on the raw and edgy side of the electronic field of the late 1970s, having as much affinity with the punk movement than the more fey electropop scene that quickly followed. Punks with Mini Moogs sums it up pretty well for me. 

[Live photo]

[Live photo]

[Live photo]

[Photos L-R: Naked Lunch, Modovar, Marlow]

Sounding tonight like they might have emerged from the pages of a 1977 issue of 2000 AD, a couple of pull up banners flanking the band on either side of the stage projected a taste of what was to come. On both, comic book drawings of post-apocalyptic landscapes. On one, a rouge trooper defiantly holds up a pole with a wind-torn flag showing the anarchy A symbol. On the other side of the stage the image is of a female warrior, wearing protective breathing gear and holding a 'Naked Lunch' flag. Anyone expecting this event to get gently underway with some lightweight synthpop will have been taken aback. 

Naked Lunch's set could have spanned total and embarrassing disaster, through to glorious nirvana, and anywhere mediocre in between. In spite of having had just three days rehearsal directly in the run up to this opening Friday slot, and some minor sound difficulties on the night, this was just about as invigorating as any reasonable individual might have wished for. Setting out their distinctive stall firmly, they began with the song that they are probably best known for - La Femme. The soaring (unforgettable) lead synth of the original recording was somewhat lost, but its testament to the writing as a whole that it didn't dampen my unbridled delight at what I was finally hearing. Second song Slipping Again I'd never heard before, but the version here was possibly the highlight of the set. The perfect blend of analogue sounds, guitar and electronic drums. 

The half-hour set was a mix of old and new tracks. The new material was comfortably up there - simultaneously retaining the characteristics that made them sound resolutely Naked Lunch, but without any hint of merely imitating their former selves. Naked Lunch live - after 31 years. I never thought this day would come. It had, and it was even more rewarding than I'd have dared hope. 

[ can exclusively reveal that the band have decided record a couple of singles for release this summer comprising: La Femme/Glow and Alone/Slipping Again, Again - the latter a reworking of a 1981 track. Stay tuned for more details to come.] 

Naked Lunch setlist: Intro, La Femme, Slipping Again, Rabies, Alone, Glow, Weekend Behaviour, Emotional Turmoil 

[Live photo]

[Live photo]

[Live photo]

[Photos L-R: Tenek, Blancmange, Protege Reign]

We reviewed three-piece Modovar's debut EP last month. It comprises of three cover versions: two Yazoo songs, one by Roxy Music. Lead vocalist Christopher Beecham has an androgynous quality meaning he can comfortably span Roxy Music's Same Old Scene wherein Bryan Ferry provides the vocals, and Yazoo's Situation wherein Alison Moyet does. They were convincing in their recorded versions and their live counterparts were just as impressive. Sadly, I missed much of their set, but see that they have more live dates planned for this year ahead of the release of their debut album The Sea of Unspoken Words. The title track from which I did manage to catch and suggests an album of their own material will also be worth a listen.

Modovar setlist: Darkest Shadows, The Sea of Unspoken Words, If I Called, Same Old Scene, Clearly, Situation 

The last time I saw Robert Marlow live was in 2009. Since then he's been cutting back. Not only has he lost a lot of weight (and looking more like his old self from the 1980s) but band wise too – his collaborator of recent years Gary Durant having left the band just a few weeks before today's gig. On the downside, this meant that it was only Robert on stage singing to a backing track – with no live instrumentation. On the plus side, that hardly mattered as an on-form Marlow is always a pleasure to hear. A well-balanced mix of old and new ensured all the key long-standing favourites from the formative years (ClaudetteCalling All Destroyers and the genuine classic Face of Dorian Gray) all got good airings. Most unexpected was the rather deft (and very effective) inclusion the chorus lyrics from REM's Losing My Religion into The Kiss.

Marlow setlist: Life in a Film, Torch Team, I Just Want to Dance, Easternize, Calling All Destroyers, Claudette, The Kiss, That Dangerous Age, Ambition, My Teenage Dream, No Heart, The Face of Dorian Gray

Tenek either had a hardcore fan base in the audience or they were perfectly suited to the audience and took very little time to click with them. Just a couple of songs in, you'd have thought they were headlining. Just in case there were many out there who were unfamiliar (and to the band's credit, that did seem to be so) Tenek unleashed a barrage of their catchiest numbers – which from a band known for writing catchy tunes, means this was a full-on melodic assault! It was the perfect tactic. By the end of their set they'd not only worked a very responsive audience into the perfect mood ready for headliners Blancmange, but they'd also won themselves over a bunch of new fans. This was proven when their CDs sold out on their merchandise stall later that night. 

Tenek setlist: Losing Something, Higher Ground, What Do You Want?, I Don't Cry (For You), Under My Skin, If I Should Fall, Elusive, Submission, Blinded By You, No Time For Fighting 

A date clash meant I missed Blancmange's London leg of their tour last summer, so their appearance at BAS II offered the perfect opportunity to see them live - for the first time. Being of a certain age, I remember when they emerged onto the early 80s scene. Whilst liking and admiring their distinctive take on the synthpop field (I have always been a sucker for a bit of Indian music), inexplicably I only ever bought a couple of singles. The band still comprises the two original members: lead vocalist Neil Arthur and Steven Luscombe. The two released Blanc Burn last year – their first new album in a quarter of a century. Unfortunately, Luscombe has been diagnosed with an abdominal aortic aneurysm meaning he is unable to participate in live dates, missing both last summer's and the current tour. Arthur pointed this out and while we all wish Luscombe a full and and speedy recovery, he can rest assured that those standing in did a sterling job. Front man Arthur was on superb form, ably assisted by Graham Henderson on keyboards and Sri Pandit on Rajastan/Bengal percussion. 

Arthur has always had an edgy side to his personality. An eccentric touch. Frequently manifesting itself as a slightly bemused, slightly cheeky (maybe even unhinged) grin in the band's promo videos. This hasn't changed down the years. During the pauses between songs he'd just start reflecting on whatever popped into his head at that moment. Whether it was the extensive roadworks on the drive down from Scotland, getting into an impromptu 'long time no see' conversation with Robert Marlow standing down the front, or commenting on the dancing in the audience: “I like the kind of shapes you were throwing there – nice!”. It was engaging and amusing in equal amounts, demonstrating that there was no ego at play here. This was just a guy doing what he loved to an audience that loved it back. It made for an unforgettable, intimate atmosphere. 

As someone not already praying at the Blancmange shrine, I expected to be entertained, mainly by the hits, and to go away feeling at least satisfied that I had managed to see one of the key acts from that 80s era. I didn't expect to be blown away by the night. The selections from the latest album Blanc Burn were choice. All my favourites (I'd been listening to the album in the run up to the gig on Spotify) were included – The WesternDon't Let These Days and the Kraftwerkian Radio Therapy. That was satisfying enough. Then there were all those hits from the 80s. Their consistent quality came flooding back as the set progressed. This was, and still is, fine pop indeed. Instead of being reminders of a nostalgic past, these were slightly re-wired, contemporary interpretations, with Pandit's live percussion adding a distinctive and exotic touch to the proceedings. 

I hadn't been prepared for the colossal impact of Arthur's passion for the band's work. His passion all-consuming at times, meaning their rendition of I Can't Explain couldn't help but conjure up images of Joy Division's Ian Curtis getting equally carried away in the moment. I'd also forgotten the 'angry' edge to some of Arthur's vocal delivery. That was evident 30 years ago, it was even sharper today and the version of Blind Vision transcending its chart pop origins into something far more frantic and interesting. (The only one missing for me was Waves which was a disappointment, but hardly dented the experience.) This was one of the most impressive, charismatic and captivating performances I'd ever seen. Period. They are on tour throughout the rest of May and if you've yet to see them I strongly recommend you do so. 

Blancmange setlist: Game Above My Head, I Can't Explain, WDYF, Don't Tell Me, Drive Me, God's Kitchen, Radio Therapy, The Western, Living On The Ceiling, Don't Let These Days, Blind Vision, Feel Me 

[Live photo]

[Live photo]

[Live photo]

[Photos: L-R Sinestar, Shiny Darkness, Spacebuoy]

The second day began at 2pm in the hall of James Hornsby School – location of that first ever Depeche Mode gig. Today the space was doubling up as both memorabilia fair (to browse and to purchase) and performance space, with two new acts playing sets. It must have been something of a thrill then for fans-turned-musicians Protege Reign and Sinestar to be playing on that very same stage a quarter of a century later. 

Had they been handing them out, Protege Reign's singer and guitarist would have both deserved to take home the award for most animated performers. As if single-handedly wishing to banish forever the idea than bands based around synths have to be static and boring to watch live, these guys could not be knocked for the amount of energy they put into their set. Musically, it was a commercial blend of synths and guitars all coming across well thanks startlingly clear live mix. All credit too for the singer's repeated plugs for their album – available to purchase in the corner on the right! 

Protege Reign setlist: State of Love, What it Means to Be Me, Heat of the Sun, Puppets, Rain, Soulfinder, Dancing Children 

Sinestar occupy genetically similar audio territory to Protege Reign, so it was a neat idea to put them both together. A clash of indie guitar and keyboards ably assisted by the welcome sight of a full live traditional drum kit. Their set placed them firmly in the middle of the genre. Meaning that whilst they slotted in well it was also difficult to distinguish anything unique about their approach. Still, that is always easier to judge when listening to recorded rather than live output and since I've heard none of the former yet I'll reserve judgement for now. 

Sinestar setlist: Locked From The Inside, Subterranean, Undisputed King of The Tragedy, A Million Like Us, Hurricane, Lived For, I Am The Rain 

The Saturday evening session and final stretch lacked the punch for me of names like Naked Lunch and Blancmange, but promised the opportunity to sample some up-coming acts which I'm always keen for. Unfortunately, a late change in the running order, that wasn't flagged up to us punters, meant that Ba5ic (who had been one of the main attractions for us on the Saturday) had been demoted to first on the bill after Londoners Strangers were added higher up. This was especially annoying as we'd planned our attendance on the publicised running order aiming to make the first band of the night Ba5ic - only to discover that we'd just missed them. 

Casting disappointment aside, it was time for French three-piece Shiny Darkness, who exuded a quality air of professionalism that so many underground bands from continental Europe manage so well. Research before the festival turned up some good-looking promo videos for their material. They hit the ground running presenting a polished package right from their start. Their debut album Lighthouse was released in 2010 and they're currently promoting their second My Angel Has Spoken

The Depeche Mode influence here is readily apparent (they've got a song entitled Sound of Basildon!), but a melange of typically French Gothic sensibilities encroaches too, meaning you get songs such as Like A Vampire which for me didn't quite sit with the rest of their electronic pop sounds. All the songs were sung in English and given some deeper exposure to Shiny Darkness I could definitely see how you'd get quite into them. A major asset is to be found in lead singer Sebastien Deruwez's impressive voice. It is perfectly suited to the genre and the similarities with Dave Gahan's 'rough yet rich' voice are instantly apparent. Out of those bands new to me, Shiny Darkness are definitely one I'd want to see again live before too long. 

Shiny Darkness setlist: Emotionally Involved, Bitter Kiss, Prayer For My Imaginary World, See You In Next Life, Like A Vampire, Highs And Lows, Dropping Of My Faith, Sound Of Basildon 

Spacebuoy are a classic synthpop two-piece with a penchant for orange outfits. Howard Moth is the 'eccentric' (Buggles-like) engaging singer, whilst Jez Allen-Smith is the (altogether now) quiet, reserved one who plays the keyboards. Clearly new to most of the audience (based on the number of 'pleasantly surprised' type comments I overheard), it seemed Spacebuoy could be something of a Marmite band. You either loved them or hated them. Luckily for the guys on stage, most here seemed to like them – quite a lot. 

Coming firmly out of the Vince Clarke school of catchy, quirky, pop made on synthesisers, they've already managed to bag support slots to Erasure on tour last year (which whilst admirable that they managed to get on Erasure's radar, must have been a slam dunk once they were heard). With songs about UFOs (on the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin track UFO), I really enjoyed their set, served up (as it was) with a judicious dollop of irony and self-deprecating humour. I look forward to seeing them again in August at the Infest festival in Bradford. 

Spacebuoy setlist: Cassiopeia, The Fear, Velveteen, U.F.O., Look To Die For, Sonic Boom, Oblivion, Venom 

[Live photo]

[Live photo]

[Live photo]

[Photos L-R Electro Kill Machine, Strangers, Speak & Spell]

Electro Kill Machine had perhaps the most misleading name of the entire festival, suggesting a style closer to the industrial/electro camp rather than the dominant electro/synthpop. As it happens, this well-groomed local four-piece (all from Basildon) didn't stray too far from the formula the majority of the bands followed. Having said that, there was something less immediately catchy pop about their sounds – perhaps a bit more reflective than 'hooky'. Which provided a nice bit of balance to the proceedings. The melodic and soulful vocals (with a vaguely Andy Bell-like timbre at times) were more memorable than many of the tunes, but their cover version of Television Set (an unreleased staple of Depeche Mode's pre-Speak & Spell era gigs) was bang on.

Electro Kill Machine setlist: Cause and Effect, Whatever It Takes, Electric Blue, Plastic, Television Set, Faster, Falling Down 

Late addition to the bill, Strangers were typical of the hip London set. The sort that smartly blend the Shoreditch aesthetic with the more familiar musical trappings of the new wave/dark pop genre, all delivered with a seriously professional attitude. A good-looking three piece (digipad drummer, lead vocalist and synth player), their sound was a stylish melange of influences. These, and the qualities of their lead vocalist making me conclude that they lie somewhere between Brighton's Mirrors and fellow Londoners Heretics (particular their first album). The drummer was skilled, cool to watch and produced some quality thumping sounds, underpinning a mature songwriting style. Compared with the rest of the newcomers at the festival, Strangers perhaps stood out as the ones most likely to have the best chance to succeed on a bigger stage. If I'm free when they next play in the capital, I'll be there. 

Strangers setlist: It Was A Sin, If I Found Love, Promises, In Chaos, Safe/Pain, Shine On You 

Headliners tonight were Depeche Mode tribute act Speak & Spell. It's worth saying up front that I generally don't much care for tribute bands. They do have a place and a role though. Not least to make us ask just why don't bands still performing live play more of their decent older stuff rather than so much of their current, often more mediocre material? In that regard, Speak & Spell acquitted themselves admirably. Few would argue that they are more a sound-alike than a look-alike. None of them bore any resemblance to their famous others. That's just fine by me. For the only thing that keeps me listening to cover bands is the quality of the music and (to a lesser degree) the vocals. Obviously the voice needs to be able to hold a note. I'm more interested in the vocals being faithful to the pattern of the original music than necessarily sounding so much like the person they are emulating. 

Having said that, neither the 'Dave Gahan' (Paul Christian Wood) nor the 'Martin Gore' (Joe Beaumont) sounded much like their heroes. In fact, Sebastien Deruwez, from Shiny Darkness easily claimed the Dave Gahan-alike voice competition hands down. Having said all of that then, the last thing I expected was to find myself squeezed in down the front for almost the entire set. Opening with an impressive rendition of Tora, Tora, Tora instantly caught my attention as it's a song I've always had a soft spot for. “The old ones are always the best” Wood said after another cracking cover. And he wasn't just playing up to the converted. The bulk of their set comprised of material from the pre-1990s. This I didn't expect – but I loved. What I began to realise was that odds are I'd not only would I never get to hear Depeche Mode perform the set I was hearing tonight, but it also dawned on me that, after all, it is almost as much the songs themselves as those performing them that make the experience what it can be. 

Sure, this wasn't anything like seeing Depeche Mode live. But having seen the genuine article for the first time back in 1984, I knew that I was hearing great songs tonight that if I waited for the band that wrote them to play them live I wouldn't get to hear even half of this evening's setlist. Other bands are more than happy to regularly perform sets including extensive selections from the earliest entries in their back catalogue. Sadly, Depeche Mode have never been ones for doing that. For as long as they decide not to perform those brilliant old songs, they'll be plenty of fans around the globe who will gladly pay good money to see and hear acts like Speak & Spell fill that terrible void. 

Speak & Spell setlist: (Intro) Blasphemous Rumours Intro/Outro, Tora Tora Tora, Behind the Wheel, World in My Eyes, Leave in Silence, Walking in My Shoes, People are People, Question of Time, Told You So, New Life, Everything Counts, One Caress, Somebody, Black Celebration, Wrong, Its No Good, Photographic, Just Can't Get Enough, Never Let Me Down Again, Enjoy The Silence, Photographic 

So, finally, the second BAS festival had come to an unexpectedly satisfying conclusion. It had been a uniquely impressive line up and a good-natured and friendly crowd. The passion and effort that had gone into organising the entire enterprise was apparent throughout, meaning this felt a world away from most 'corporate' festivals. For my money, Friday night alone, beginning with the first Naked Lunch gig in 31 years and ending with that mesmerising, astonishing Blancmange performance instantly made this the gig of the year to date. Everything else was just icing on a rather lovely (electronic) cake. 9/10

Rob Dyer

Live footage on dsoaudio's YouTube Channel

See also:
BAS 2014