Round and about the country in live electronic music. Richard Barker finds it's Depeche Mode Time Again...
Colston Hall, Bristol
Got the balance right? It certainly seems that way, with a number one album in 'Construction Time Again' and a tour which is a solid sell-out right down the line. Can thousands of screaming girls be wrong?
So Depeche Mode can't hit the number one spot with the ease of Duran Duran, but there is more to them than pretty boy pop stars singing corny love songs. Indeed, they seem to be developing a social conscience; in contrast to older material like 'Just Can't Get Enough', songs like '2 Minute Warning' and 'Everything Counts' are giving the kids something to think about as well as dance to.
My favourite environment for listening to Depeche Mode is in a club over a fine sound system, or at home under headphones where the subtlety and spark of the electronics can really take you over, so I must confess that, for one weaned on the older conventions of live rock, Depeche Mode in performance were less than invigorating. Let's face it, watching Gore, Wilder and Fletcher standing po-faced behind their synths is not a particularly interesting visual experience. Dave Gahan is the only thing moving on stage for the most part, and he works hard for his money, whipping up the crowd — although the full house of mainly teenage girls were straining at the leash well before the lights dimmed.
The band opened with 'Everything Counts', their pert examination of the capitalist system and successful single, getting it out of the way right at the start instead of holding it back for the encores. The lighting rig was a masterpiece of economic splendour, nothing too flashy or over the top, just subtle variations to suit the shifting moods of the music. The atmosphere became downright spooky for 'And Then...' which for me was the most evocative song played all night, but unfortunately this wasn't a crowd pleaser.
No, it's the bright pop of 'See You', 'Get the Balance Right' and 'New Life' that really rouses the girls' hearts and Dave Gahan isn't above using well tried and tested rock routines like "Come on, let's see everybody dancing to this one" or "Clap your hands in the balcony, let's go!" and of course his every word is slavishly adhered to.
I was glad that by the time an hour and a quarter and the two encores, 'The Meaning of Love' and 'Just Can't Get Enough' had rolled by they decided to call it a night. It's not that I disliked the music, for in fact the sounds that Depeche Mode extract from their machines are vastly superior to anything others in the electro-pop field are capable of, it's just that seeing them live adds nothing to the appreciation of their music. I'll stick to the clubs, the cans and the videos, thanks all the same.
Just to prove that you don't need synthesizers to play electronic music, there's Urban Sax. The brainchild of French musician Gilbert Artman, the ensemble has recorded two albums, imaginatively titled Urban Sax 1 and 2, which exploit their unusual instrumentation to the full. This consists of anything from 16 to 32 saxophones from soprano to contrabass, together with a female choir, percussionists, two bass guitars and two electric guitars. The sound they produce is unique — a huge, mellotron like, slowly shifting drone, systems music on a grand scale.
The open-air Covent Garden performance, organised by Roxana Knight with assistance from Dave Elliott of Neu-musik, was a follow-up to successful shows in Venice, Paris and Bath. The performers arrived on stage in a selection of bizarre vehicles including an ambulance and a fork-lift truck, and others shinned down the side of the market building on ropes. Each was dressed in a plain white coverall with a facemask and a headset, which served to pick up a timing signal transmitted by FM for the benefit of those members of the ensemble who had to play without being able to see the conductor.
The music ranged from slow drone pieces to fast rhythmic sections, with repeated patterns on half-a-dozen saxes interspersed with guitar and gong crashes. Conductor Artman supervised from a position almost in the audience, while a lone percussionist crossed and re-crossed the roof of the market building to play a huge pair of gongs at odd intervals.
Audience reaction ranged from ecstatic to baffled, but there was widespread agreement that this was an event on a par with the long-vanished psychedelic shows of ELP and Pink Floyd. If Urban Sax ever appear again in this country, whether you like saxophones or not and whether you like minimalist electronic music or not, make sure you see them — it's a unique experience.