see all the photos from this show here
And now, the second half of the Whitby Gothic Weekend - or at least, the second night of the main event: the live bands. The various 'fringe' events which now surround the WGW mean that the festival as a whole lasts for four days, if you've got enough stamina to cope. There are a few fragile-looking people here tonight who've obviously been burning their black candles at both ends, but it's time to shrug off the hangovers and sleep deprivation and get down the front for...Belisha.
Belisha remain something of an enigma. They're not a goth band, but their music and general approach seems to fit, so they've effectively become honourary members of the UK goth scene - something which the band themselves welcome and actively encourage. That's a bit of a turn-up in itself, when you think how many bands - even goth bands - try to distance themselves from all things gothic. Belisha's second album, 'People of the Dark' is now on release, and their WGW performance is, I suppose, the launch party, or as near as dammit. Belisha dive head-first into a high-energy set in which songs from the new album feature strongly, and although they're fighting against the disadvantage of the opening slot, the band brews up such a storm that the crowd starts jumping in spite of the early hour and their sore heads. Belisha play full-on rock, and make no excuses for it. They may be honourary goths, but that doesn't mean they feel obliged to wear frilly shirts and write mannered songs about vampires (and I hope they never do!) Their sound wallops into your brain like musical Lucozade, a fierce energy rush, which the band emphasise by some impressive formation pogoing - or is it Belisha's own brand of extreme yogic flying? At any rate, at certain moments, several of the people on stage are in the air at the same time, a visual effect which has to be seen to be believed. Occasionally, drones and semitones and eastern-influenced sounds are fed into the big rock brew, as if Belisha's magic carpet has swooped past the old bazaar in Cairo. It's all very accomplished: everyone on stage knows exactly where the music is going, and precisely where to place their own contribution to it. Even at moments of greatest intensity, there's no lack of control. Totally convincing stuff.
And yet, and yet. Given their undeniably impressive show, it's odd that Belisha seldom play live. Especially now, with new product to promote: surely they'd want to hit the circuit and really *work* that album. This one-off WGW date is all very well, but if the album's going to sell, the band are going to have to get out there and push it. This illustrates a nagging doubt that I just can't shake off about Belisha - they do sometimes seem to be a bit slack about the basic nuts and bolts stuff that goes with running a band. Their website, for example, is frustratingly minimal. Their recent US tour - a major coup for a band at Belisha's stage of development - is virtually ignored. No reviews, no photos from the gigs, no tour diary. Maybe Belisha have been too busy with their hobby - wandering about the countryside looking for aliens. You think I'm joking? Not so: a recent expedition to do just that gets its own photo-gallery on the website, although in Belisha's typical 'minimum information' style there's no text to explain what's going on. (You have to read their interview in Meltdown magazine for all that.) Meanwhile, the stuff we really want to know - future touring plans, band info in general - just doesn't figure. I'm frustrated by all this. Belisha are a fine band with the capability to go all the way, but if they really want to get ahead, they're going to have to take care of business far more comprehensively than they've done up to now. Gentlemen: you have potential. Don't piss it up the wall!
Yeah, I know. I'm digressing again. But it's my review and I'll digress if I want to! However, we shall wrench ourselves back to Whitby, because it's time for Synthetic to appear before us. Now, here's a band which knows the worth of hard work. Synthetic are also launching a new album - their third - at the WGW; they've got a history of heavy-duty gigging behind them (even, on occasions, travelling to Italy and Belgium for one-off shows), they run their own record label, design their own clothes, and, as if that wasn't enough, they're even involved in a forthcoming 'Brit-Manga' animated film. Live, they're a bit of a cartoon experience themselves, although probably more Tex Avery than Hayao Miyazaki. Sarn V, behind the technology, exudes an air of in-control-ness while the boys in the band go into their own peculiar freak-outs. Paul slams down the guitar-sound, while performing an impressive repertoire of scissor kicks, pirouettes and poses - the full guitar-hero workout. At the mic, Tim writhes around like a mad thing. For no particular reason, he's in full drag tonight (as a matter of fact, he looks uncannily like Sonya, The Ghost Of Lemora's keyboard player), and he hurls himself about in a faintly disturbing frenzy. Perhaps he gets a little *too* frenzied: he's audibly out of breath on some of the songs, gasping the words out as if he's about to keel over. I can't help thinking it might be an idea to slow down a bit and save his breath for the singing, rather than the on-stage aerobics.
Synthetic have the uncanny knack of writing songs which lodge in your brain after just one listen, and they demonstrate this talent yet again by including in their set a few songs from their new album, 'Control' (an ironic title if ever I heard one, given Tim's mad antics on stage). 'The Body Farm' and 'Spooky Kabuki' have that instant recognition factor which, if we did but live in a decently ordered society, would see those songs sailing to the top of the charts. 'Spooky Kabuki', in particular, is a fine thing: a skewed, wistful-yet-manic love song, a cross between the Pet Shop Boys and Japan in their glam period. With *lots* of guitar. It occurs to me that Synthetic have the potential to become a bona-fide classic British pop group - in that XTC-like tradition where genuine pop sensibility is mixed effortlessly with quirky, left-field weirdness. If they'd been around in 1981 I'm sure Virgin Records would have snapped them up. Alas, it's 2003 and Synthetic are on their own label, Unpopular Culture, a name which I'm sure the band did not chose by accident. But the world of pop's loss is our gain. We should be glad we've got 'em.
Now let's tune into the history channel for a moment. One of the biggest UK goth bands of the 90s was Children On Stun. They were old-skool in the best way: accessible; poppy, even, but with a gleefully manic edge, like Specimen on whoopee pills. In Neil Ash they had one of the UK's best pop vocalists - an affable urchin in a black velvet suit like a gothic Austin Powers, with a voice that could soar and holler and tumble its merry way through a song. Alas, the Stun split in 1998, frustrated at the impossibility of pushing beyond their goth-scene status. They did all the right things: they played indie-crossover gigs, showcased for record labels, entertained A&R men - but nobody took the bait. Children On Stun had more than enough potential to make it in the world of alternative music in general, but their involvement in the goth scene always counted against them. In the corridors of music biz power, it would appear that if you're a goth band you'll never be regarded as a *good* band. It's necessary to know all this, because the next band on stage tonight is Spares, the new project formed by Simon Manning, former guitarist/songwriter with the Stun. He's got the Stun's bassist, Kyle Whipp, along for the ride, and a new vocalist, Alison Gann. A crowd of diehard Stun fans and curious onlookers gathers at the front. We're intrigued, and we're all willing this to be good.
And it's good...ish. Perhaps it's not entirely fair to draw comparisons with the Stun, because Spares most definitely are not the Stun. But two out of the three people on stage are ex-Stun members, two songs in the set are old Stun hits, and, let's face it, Spares owe their high position on tonight's bill to the past achievements of the Stun. So, fair or unfair, the comparisons *will* be made. Simon's even using the Stun's old four-track portastudio to run the backing tapes, while his guitar-sound - curiously enough - is even more old-skool goth than on latter-day Stun releases. But when Alison steps up to the vocal mic, all of a sudden we're in a very different musical area. She does a kind of sub-Courtney Love grunge vocal, husky and slightly frayed at the edges - effective enough in itself, but...grunge was 10 years ago, y'know? It's almost as if Spares have only just heard Hole, and they've thought, hey. *We* could do this! It's also noticeable that Alison's vocal range isn't anywhere near as great as that of Neil Ash, a drawback which is highlighted when the band throw in those old Stun songs - 'Style Police' and 'Auntie Crystal's Thieves'. Alison virtually chants her way through vocal passages where Neil Ash would let rip and fly. A simple line like 'Make a statement to the officer' - which Neil would relish, drawing out the vowels and emphasising every syllable, as if he'd been coached in vocal technique by Kenneth Williams - becomes nothing more than a staccato, barked command. I suspect Alison is not singing to the best of her ability: she seems nervous, unsure of what to say between the songs. She refers to the audience three times as 'You gorgeous people' - as if she's hit on a catchphrase which works, and she's clutching it like a lifebelt in a rough sea. I dare say under different circumstances she could probably do better. It's not that Spares are a bad band, but the Stun cast a long shadow - and Spares, I think, will have to struggle hard to get out from under it unless they can raise their game beyond the level they exhibit tonight.
Headline time. Red Lorry Yellow Lorry are the latest in a seemingly never-ending stream of first-wave goth bands who've reformed for the 21st century. Why all these bands have chosen to come back around the same time is something I can't answer, but the gig circuit of 2003 is starting to look uncannily like the gig circuit of 1983 in certain areas. The Lorries actually count as a 90s band, just about: their final album, 'Blasting Off' came out in 1991, and assorted compilations have kept them current in the catalogues beyond that point. However, they made their principal impact during the 80s, with a succession of weird, wired, scratchy, jittering, singles, all fuelled by a taut, nervous energy. RLYL were the absolute antithesis to the more pedestrian, conventional moves of the latter-day 'gothic rock' bands; their roots were in the post-punk period of goth, when the only rule was that there were no rules. And, of course, there was never any rule which said you couldn't reform if the fancy took you - so here they are. Exactly who's in the band these days is a bit of a mystery: the Lorries went through several different line-ups, and nobody's quite sure which version of the band is on stage tonight. But Chris Reed, guitarist, vocalist, and all-round main man, is present and correct, in a fetching checked shirt. So, let's blast off.
It must be said that the Lorries are not the most dynamic of bands. They pretty much stand there and play. But that's not a problem when you've got a set list which incorporates such alterno-anthems as 'Talk About The Weather', 'Walking On Your Hands', and 'Crawling Mantra'. The instruments mesh together like chicken wire, pushing forward, pushing on. It's relentless stuff, and it just keeps on building. Chris Reed is an implacable presence at the mic. Not for him the crowd-pleasing jolly-ups of lesser bands: he barely addresses a word to the audience all night, except to announce the songs, and remark, while pausing to tweak his guitar strings, 'The songs sound better in tune.' I wonder what he's thinking as he looks out over the audience - the 80s gig-crowd, all jeans and T-shirts and scruffy leather jackets, must bear no resemblance to the WGW class of '03, dressed up in their finery, acessorized by Bagpuss back-packs and goggles. I'd been a little worried that the modern goth audience wouldn't 'get' RLYL, so different are they from anything on today's scene. But they go down a treat with both old fans who recall them from their heyday, and new fans who've never seen them before. The highlight for me is 'Sayonara', a sinuous, menacing, sidewinder of a tune, as sharp and as contemporary as if it had been written yesterday.
Just how serious RLYL are about their comeback remains in doubt: I'd be a little more confident about their long term plans if there was such a thing as a current, official, Lorries website (outdated fan sites provide the only web-presence for the band at the moment). But there are rumours of a forthcoming London gig, so maybe they plan to hang around. Whatever happens, I'm glad I've seen this show. It just goes to prove that a band can still come on stage armed with nothing more than a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, an unbending 'here we stand, we can do no other' demeanour, a set list packed with starkly uncompromising music - and win. Once, this was the way it was, and the world was all the better for it. No quarter given, no concessions made, no tricks, no gimmicks. And it *worked*. Now, tell me: how did we get from this to the Scary Bitches?
And there you have the bands of the Whitby Gothic Weekend. We'll be back in six months, and the next event promises to be something special. The WGW is celebrating its 10th anniversary in November, with four nights of bands, as well as all the usual fringe events. What was that I was saying about stamina...?
see all the photos from this show here
Red Lorry Yellow Lorry:
Reviewed by Uncle Nemesis: http://www.nemesis.to