See all the photos from this concert here

Black Celebration all-dayer:
Apoptygma Berzerk
Sheep On Drugs
Angels & Agony
Chaos Engine
Astoria, London
October 27 2002
~review and photos by Uncle Nemesis

For the fourth year running, Flag Promotions presents Black Celebration, 'London's Premiere Industrial/EBM/Electro Festival', to quote the flyer. That's 'Premiere' as in 'number one in a field of one', since no other promoter is currently putting on this kind of event in London - but I think we can allow Flag a bit of shameless hype, because this year's event is the biggest Black Celebration yet. It's moved up into the 1500-capacity Astoria, one of London's principal theatre-style rock venues. This, I suspect, is largely due to the pulling power of the headliners, Apoptygma Berzerk, who seem to have an ever-expanding fanbase these days. If they weren't on this bill, frankly the event would look dangerously like yet another of Flag's 'round up the usual suspects' gigs - and probably wouldn't pull in anything like enough people to fill the Astoria. But what the hell. A crowd is a crowd, a result is a result. Let's go to the show.

Neurophoria open the proceedings at the ghastly hour of 3.45pm. At this early stage there's hardly anyone inside the venue, so the band have the thankless task of trying to entertain a wide expanse of empty floor. Still, they throw themselves into their music enthusiastically enough. It's bouncy, accessible, electro-industrial, fronted by a be-goggled and be-dreaded cyber-chap in trousers so wide it looks like he's growing out of the stage like a tree. The other musicians are spread out around the extreme fringes of the stage - an odd move, this, since it reduces the visual impact of the band to the point where the singer has to carry the whole show by himself on a vast and empty sweep of stage. Bunching everybody all together down the front would've given the set more focus, and concentrated the band's energy; but still, Neurophoria made the best of a bad slot, and the early crowd, although sparse, seemed to like them well enough.

More people arrive in the moshpit zone for Needleye - this band obviously has a bit of a following. It's still early, but they're pulling in the fans. Quite what Needleye are doing at this 'industrial/EBM/electro' event is a bit of a mystery, for they're the very model of a modern metal band - all grinding guitars, snarled vocals, and freestyle headbanging. Now, normally I'd say that this kind of stuff is *so* not my type of music, but there's something about Needleye that grabs my attention and stops me wandering off to the bar. Maybe it's their gung-ho approach - they're here to ROCK and by jeepers they'll do just that. Maybe it's their larger-than-life cartoonish stage presence - every member of the band has their own look, their own style, their own persona. I particularly enjoyed the bald guitarist, who's perfected a headbanging technique in which his head bounces crazily up and down like a nodding dog in the rear window of a car. Meanwhile, the singer prowls the stage, occasionally pausing and raising his eyes to the heavens, like an Old Testament prophet seeking enlightenment in the lighting rig. It all adds up to quite a spectacle, and although I confess I'm highly unlikely to rush out and buy Needleye albums to play at home, as a live act they definitely hit the spot.

The Chaos Engine are now one of the UK scene's more established bands. They've been around since '96, toured the UK gig circuit umpteen times, supported everyone from Project Pitchfork to Christian Death, released three albums, and headlined a stage at the Eurorock Festival in Belgium and at C8 in Montreal. So what, then, are they doing so far down *this* bill? They certainly have the pulling-power to handle a higher place - they're the first band today to get a real crowd down the front. I strongly suspect the reason for their lowly billing is the simple fact that the band are far too willing to say 'Yes!' to any deal they're offered, without stopping to consider whether it's a *good* deal. If I were the Chaos Engine's booking agent, I'd have given Flag Promotions a very dusty answer if they'd offered me a crap third-up-from-the-bottom slot like this. I'd have politely but firmly (well, maybe not toooo politely...) held out for a higher slot - or no show! You know what they say: nice guys finish last - or, at least, further down the bill than they deserve. Perhaps it's time for the Chaos Engine to stop being so nice when promoters come along with less-than-impressive offers.  But regardless of their position on the bill, the 'Engine still deliver when it comes to good old fashioned noise and mayhem. They crash-land on stage like a hand grenade, a manic explosion of energy, a firework going off in a confined space. There's new stuff in the set, but for me the highlight is the older song 'Employee Of The Year' in which Lee, the band's frontman, whips himself into a dangerous frenzy, hollering 'IT'S JUST A FUCKING JOB!!!' with such intensity I fully expect to see his vocal chords burst out of the side of his neck. There's even a surreal interlude in which Mark Eris, one of the Wasp Factory label crew, emerges on stage  in the guise of a gangsta rapper, and assures us that 'Lee Chaos is my bitch!' and that he's 'Doin' it for the kids!' These men are, frankly, not normal. But we wouldn't have it any other way.

Angels and Agony inhabit that grey area between full-on EBM and the slightly more nebulous territory of electro-goth. They're a three-piece -  guitar, keyboard, vocals, and (presumably) some sort of backing track. They come from the Netherlands, and are, apparently, quite big on the Continental circuit. They certainly score some 'big band' points here - they're the only band on the bill to provide their own backdrop. Hey, if you've got a logo - flaunt it! Musically, it's fast and full-on: the beat never gives up, and energetic dancing breaks out down the front as the crowd get into it. The down side is that the band don't have a huge amount of character or individuality - three anonymous-looking blokes in T-shirts on stage doesn't make for a fascinating visual experience, and much of their material sounds samey and characterless to my ears. Coming directly after the Chaos Engine - who are *all* character and individuality - I'm afraid I found Angels And Agony just a bit bland.

Angels And Agony may come across as a little bland, but they're a spicy feast compared to Greenhaus, who have all the stage presence of a cardboard box. The presence of Greenhaus so far up the bill can be neatly explained by pointing out that one of the people in the band is Frank, the man behind Flag Promotions. Frank has been quite shamelessly booking his own band at his own gigs for a couple of years now, and, unlike Chaos Engine, Greenhaus mysteriously never seem to have any problems in grabbing plumb slots close to the top of the bill. I can't help wondering if Greenhaus would've made it this far on their own merits, because there's nothing much to look at - just three blokes standing behind black boxes, plus a guitarist off to the side. Meanwhile, the music, while not without a certain charm if punchy techno instrumentals are your thing, isn't amazingly outstanding when you compare it with the output of real techno innovators like Fluke or Dave Clarke. On this bill, Greenhaus provide a useful opportunity to grab a beer and visit the toilet - there's no particular reason to hang around and watch the stage, after all - and while the music is decent enough as a mildly groovy background sound, it never really cuts loose and lets rip.

Sulpher provide a sudden change of style, sound, and pace. They're a full-on guitar band, almost as incongrous at this event as Needleye. If you want comparisons, imagine the heavy guitars and beats of Nine Inch Nails mashed up with the angst-ridden rock of Nirvana. That, basically, is Sulpher's schtick. It may all be rather contrived these days - how many rock bands have we seen over the years who give it that fuelled-by-alienation thing? - but there's something about this kind of stuff which hits home with a certain sector of the rock audience. And you know what? I just bet Sulpher know that, and have deliberately tailored their music to suit. It works, too.The crowd goes wild, and there's a crush of people at the front, all reaching out to the band as if they're some sort of rock 'n' roll saviours. I stand back, a little detatched from it all, but impressed by the band's professionalism. Maybe it's because I'm 38 years old and I've seen this done so often I can more or less predict the moves in advance, or maybe I'm just a cynical old bugger these days, but Sulpher's music doesn't touch my soul - it just makes me think, hmmm. Clever band. They've really got this stuff nailed down! As a dramatic finale, at the end of the last song, the frontman hurls his guitar up and across the stage in a high twists and tumbles under the lights, before falling straight into the arms of a roadie, who just happens to be correctly positioned to catch it. Now, was that spontaneous, or was it rehearsed? Either way, it's a grand and extravagant stunt with which to finish the set - but I'm willing to bet it was all planned. Sulpher strike me as the kind of band who have *all* their moves mapped out. I can't say I'll ever be a massive fan, but...clever band!

Now we're into the upper strata of the bill, and it's time for Sheep On Drugs. Not, however, Sheep On Drugs as we've known and loved them in the past. Duncan, the band's original frontman, takes a back seat these days (although we're told he's still involved in some vague behind-the-scenes capacity). This means that Sheep On Drugs, 2002-style, is basically Lee Fraser on laptop and electronics, plus a motley assortment of friends and aquaintances whom Lee has recruited to make up the numbers. The band's set-up tonight features Lee, centre-stage, hunched over a table full of electro gear. Off to one side there's a guitarist lurking in the shadows, and a girl, all red hair and red Marlboros, standing behind a miniscule keyboard. Whether these two are on stage for any genuinely musical reason, or whether they're just mime-artists who've been brought in to fill up some space, is hard to tell. More interesting, perhaps, is the band's new vocalist - it's none other than madcap techno poet Tarantella Serpentine, who wanders around the other side of the stage, hollering and declaiming song titles and snatches of lyric as remixed versions of the old hits hammer out of the PA. Well, that's the set-up, but is this new version of Sheep On Drugs any good? Hmmm. Depends. I suppose, for people who never saw the original band, it all seems suitably groovy. But for me, speaking as an old-skool fan of the original band, the new version comes across as messy, unfocused, and ultimately rather lame. The genuinely mesmerising presence of Duncan is much missed - although, just to tantalise us, he comes out briefly to take photos of the crowd. While Tarantella is good in his own right, he doesn't really engage with the audience, or provide a focal point for the band - in short, he simply wanders around too much, and I don't think he actually sings a complete song all night. The keyboard-girl and the guitarist are kept so far back they might just as well not be on stage, and Lee, with his table-o-gear, just doesn't do enough to justify his centre-stage position. Sheep On Drugs used to be genuinely fascinating performers - they'd always put on a *show*. Now, however, the new version of the band comes across like a bunch of mates having a slightly drunken jam session - it's all quite entertaining in an undemanding kind of way, but it doesn't really *go* anywhere, and at times it looks like the band are having more fun than the audience. To be blunt, if Lee wants to make progress with this new incarnation of Sheep On Drugs, he'd better tighten up and sharpen up, because I'm very much afraid that This Won't Do.

And finally....our headliners. Apoptygma Berzerk have become genuine stars on the Continental circuit over the last few years. In their home country of Norway, they chart higher than Eminem. Even in the UK, where the music media is totally in the pockets of major labels and mainstream industry players, and the underground scene is too small and marginalised to have much impact, they've managed to achieve no-shit 'big band' status. By and large, they've done this on the back of two club hits: 'Non-stop Violence' and 'Love Never Dies' have been (and still are) instant floor fillers in UK clubs, to an extent that our own bands must envy. Even the Dream Disciples, with their towering club anthem 'Room 57', couldn't manage to knock Apoptygma Berzerk off their pedestal as Top Club Band. However, as a live act, Apop are less familiar. This isn't their first visit to the UK, but they're hardly regulars on our gig circuit, and I suspect that this unfamiliarity is half the reason the Astoria is packed tonight. Everyone wants to see this mysterious band who've taken the clubs by storm. So, what are they like? Oddly enough, very much like a conventional rock band. The line-up features a drummer, guitarist, keyboard player and vocalist. The keyboard player is clearly miming - sometimes he moves away from his keyboard altogether, while the music still churns around him. Whenever he spots a photographer nearby, he gurns and poses and lifts his keyboard half-off its stand for comic effect. He's an entertainment all by himself, but he's clearly only there for decoration. The guitarist throws shapes and makes rock 'n' roll grimaces as he plays, in approved guitar-hero style. The drummer tub-thumps. And Stephan Groth, the vocalist and main man, hams it up at the front like a good 'un, while the fans crushed against the stage reach out to touch him. This is genuine pop star fan-worship in action. Like so many lead vocalists these days, Groth cannot actually sing - that's obvious enough from Apop's albums, where he drones his way through the lyrics in a monotone. However, on the recordings, his voice nestles amid lavish production that makes the best of what he's got. Live, however, there's no such safety net, and to be brutal about it, he sounds godawful on most of the material. This is a real let-down for me, although the fans at the front clearly don't care. Their worship of the band is so total that I suspect Groth could come out and fart at them for an hour and they'd probably still be entranced. But I'm not a paid-up member of the fan club, and frankly I'm not impressed. I expected something better than this - something more than a conventional rock band with a singer who can't sing. The club hits, I'm sure, will keep on coming. I may even dance to 'em myself, after suitable lubrication. But as a live band, it has to be said that Apoptygma Berzerk just don't cut it.

So, that was Black Celebration. The biggest so far, but not the best. Sure, Flag Promotions scored a coup by booking a big-name headliner, and grabbing the new version of Sheep On Drugs before anyone else. But in all honesty I'd rather see newer bands who really have something to offer, rather than endure some lacklustre performances by alleged megastar acts, who, when you analyse what they *really* do, aren't actually that mega. There's probably some sort of frightfully erudite conclusion to be drawn here, involving the concepts of quantity and quality, emperor's new clothes, all that kind of thing. But I'll leave you to fill that one in for yourself!

See all the photos from this concert here

Apoptygma Berzerk:

Sheep On Drugs:



Angels And Agony:

Chaos Engine:


Neurophoria:  [No website]

Flag Promotions:

The Astoria:

Reviewed by Uncle Nemesis: