Massive Ego/The Department/Johnny Normal/Rodney Cromwell

Electrowerkz, London - 30 January 2016

"I hope all involved live long and prosper"

Presented by those folks over at Electro London who's self-titled one-day festival last September appeared from nowhere and impressed on multiple levels, this was to be my first sampling of the opening act Rodney Cromwell and headliners Massive Ego. Scene supporter DJ Rob Harvey filled the air around the bands in his usually thrilling fashion.

Rodney Cromwell popped up on my audible radar last year with his debut album Age of Anxiety. Its low-fi/analog synth styling, combination of dry wit, New Order-esque bass lines and songs about the disappointment of old friends becoming arms dealers and falling in love with an Essex girl immediately appealed. I had seen/heard Cromwell (the stage name for one Adam C Cresswell) DJ at a club night in December and his eclectic selection of tunes whilst seemingly a bit random actually contained a consistent thread held together by a discerning taste.

Rodney Cromwell   Alice Hubley (Rodney Cromwell)   Rodney Cromwell

Photos [L-R]: Rodney Cromwell, Alice Hubley (Rodney Cromwell), Rodney Cromwell

For some reason, I felt a bit unsure of just how this would transfer live. There's a lot of humour in Comwell's writing, particularly lyrically, and I suspect I feared it might come across live as a bit lightweight or disposable. I was so misguided. This was way better than I anticipated. If it's playful and wry on the surface, Cromwell's writing is actually deeper and more weighty underneath. I guess I'd expected those undertows to played down live, the aim being to keep it at the 'light entertainment' end of the performance spectrum.

However, this exceeded all expectations. Not only were those smile and chuckle-inducing lyrical moments that feature on the album present, but the music came across as far more serious and substantial. In part thanks to a fair amount of the live elements. Cromwell was joined on stage by the wonderfully named Alice Hubley (who also works with Cresswell under the Arthur and Martha project). There was something captivating about her, and I was instantly reminded of the slightly detached but equally compelling synth player who appeared with The Associates when they performed Party Fears Two on Top of The Pops in 1982. Also, Cromwell had borrowed Richard Salt on guitar from a band he couldn't remember the name of, and Cromwell himself variously played bass guitar, a Korg MS10 and melodica. And included a hat change mid-set. Fans of Mute's I Start Counting/Komputer should love this. I do. 

Setlist: The Internationale, The Blue Cloud, Cassiopeia, You Will Struggle, Fax Message Breakup, Barry Was An Arms Dealer, Black Dog

Johnny Normal I'd first seen at last year's Electro London festival and whilst his combination of influences aren't always aligned with my own, he does come across as a seasoned professional. Tonight there was just two of them on stage, whereas at Electro London there were three of them - including a drummer. Although accompanied by just a live guitar, Normal was still surrounded by an extensive array of equipment that he put to good use throughout the set, and like Cromwell before him, not replying too heavily on a backing track.

Johnny Normal
Psycho Pete (Johnny Normal)   Johnny Normal

Photos [L-R]:  Johnny Normal, Psycho Pete (Johnny Normal), Johnny Normal

Introducing each of the songs seems a bit needless and the set would probably flow better if her dropped them. Sometimes Normal and my own influences do, of course, overlap as in the closing cover of Gary Numan's I Die You Die - just in case you were in any doubt as to where some of them were coming from!

Setlist: Remember Me, Alive, The London Sound, There's A Girl That Lives In The Sea, Miss Razorblade, Save Me, Don't Blow It, Time, Robot Rock, I Die You Die (Numan cover)

The Department were next up and they do have to rely on a backing track more as live they are just lead vocalist (and main songwriter) Rob Green and Swedish import Magnus Lindström. This, and the additional fact that 
Lindström's performance style is about as minimalist as they come(!), doesn't detract as much from the 'live experience' as it can do, as they have quickly honed their live show into a tight presentation with Green the energetic counterpart of Lindström's cool, Caligari-esque showroom dummy. Moreover, Green is clearly not only settling into the role of frontman (something he hadn't originally intended for himself), but is beginning to relish it; increasingly looking and sounding the part.

The Department (Rob Green)   The Department   The Department (Magnus Lindstrom)

Photos [L-R]: The Department (Rob Green), The Department, The Department (Magnus Lindström)

Despite their reliance on a backing track, songs are not straight performances of the recorded versions, and it's the subtle tweaks that reward. A good example of this is new song Not For You which featured on the compilation album from the Electro London festival. Honestly, I wasn't bowled over by its recorded version, but the live rendition beefed it up and it was much more engaging as a result. The only disappointment with their set was Slow Down (something of a personal favourite from last year's debut album) had to be dropped due to a technical hitch - which Green was the first to admit lay with him and not the sound engineers. Nevertheless, this is one act where increasing familiarity with their material combined with their continually-improving performances are really starting to pay off.

Setlist: Take My Hand, Glass Houses, Not For You, Days Of Liberty, Come Inside, As If Transformed, When You're Not There    

Unusually, headliners Massive Ego, were the least-known entity on tonight's bill. To describe them as a 'theatrical-looking' bunch would be something of an understatement. This is a level of glam you rarely see here in old Blighty - someting we usually leave to those mainland Europeans. Indeed, based on their appearance I assumed that they weren't British. I'd caught the video to their latest single I Idolise You on the Facebook event page for this evening's soiree and that left me none the wiser. But British they are. Founder member Marc Massive sports a look like Mickey Mouse as if created by Tim Burton and dressed by D&G. At once, attractive and slightly unnerving! There were four of them on stage with Oliver Frost on drums, Scot Collins on synths and Holly Pearl on backing vocals.
Lloyd Price usually on synths couldn't make tonight's show.

Massive Ego (Marc Massive)   Massive Ego (Marc Massive+Holly Pearl)   Massive Ego (Holly Pearl)   Massive Ego (Marc Massive)

Photos [L-R]: Massive Ego - Marc Massive, Massive+Pearl, Holly Pearl, Massive

Massive has been working the band, under various line ups, largely as a live PA act on the club circuit. Tonight was the first gig with the new line up and sound. With the band having been signed by Out Of Line last year and 2016 being, rather amazingly, their 20th anniversary, it looks like they might just be on the cusp of something... well, massive indeed! It cann be tricky reviewing a band you're pretty much brand new to on the night you first hear them (that video viewing aside). What gradually became clear was that Massive's writing doesn't feel the need to thump, thump, thump at breakneck speed to garner your attention. Rather it charms you in with some varied mid-tempo writing and some intricate details that even come across live. So I'd be curious to listen to more of their recorded work. A cover of Hazel O'Connor's Eighth Day slotted in nicely.

Also a pleasant surprise, was that having seen their look online before tonight and, somewhat naively taking the band's name on face value, I didn't expect such humble words from Wedgewood who clearly really appreciates the chance to be on stage and the support he's had down the years from fans. In fact, the complete opposite of a 'massive ego'. And it is perhaps not by accident that Massive Ego found themselves headlining at an Electro London promoted event, as the team behind that venture have brought a refeshingly inclusive and positive vibe to everything they do and how they go about promoting not only their own events, but supporting the new wave scene of synth-based bands in the UK. I hope all involved live long and prosper. 8/10

Setlist: Rise, Generation V, Out Of Line, Dead Silence, Coldest Light Of Day, Let Go, Drag Me In, Drag Me Under, Eighth Day (Hazel O'Connor cover), I Idolise You, Low Life

Review: Rob Dyer
Photos: Mark Smith