Into the Pit: 143: Assemblage 23 – Live at O2 Academy Islington – 14-July 2012

This gig was unusual on a few counts, but particularly for having the dubious honour of being the first gig I’ve attended downsized (i.e. moved to a smaller venue) in a long, long time. It would be easy to blame it on the recession, but this was the first turnout I’ve seen this poor in a while. I think more likely is that now we are heading into the holiday season, and with the Olympic getaway already underway, maybe just many people were elsewhere.

Anyway, plans earlier in the day meant that I missed most of the support acts, aside from some of Cybercide‘s set. Now, I was somewhat critical of their debut some six years ago, and various events have, I understand, conspired against the band in terms of a follow-up so far. But on this evidence, things have changed. No longer just vocals and synths, here they had a guitarist and live drummer, but sadly the sound balance was such a mess from further back that it was difficult to work out what was going on. Too many songs were all drums and vocals, and little else, with some respite coming from old track Searchlight, that while still rather derivative in the synthpop stylings and soaring chorus, actually was recognisable. There was no faulting their attitude, but they were let down badly by a room clearly not set up for electronic music.

Assemblage 23 setlist

The Last Mistake
The Other Side Of The Wall
Over and Out
Let The Wind Erase Me
The Noise Inside My Head
Let Me Be Your Armor
The Cruelest Year

It wasn’t quite as bad for Assemblage 23, but there was that nagging feeling that the sound was not totally there. But enough of that for a moment. It has taken a few listens for Tom Shear’s new album to start digging the hooks in, but I’m finally getting there and happy to agree that once again, on the seventh full album, A23’s anthemic synthpop/futurepop/new-school EBM is onto a winner.

But saying that, I’m still not totally taken with opener Crosstalk, a strange melody and strained chorus that doesn’t really go anywhere, and for me is the first weak album opener he has ever written. It took a while for more new songs to be aired, with Tom instead rolling out various older songs, and making by-no-means-full room very happy indeed in doing so. Why? Because – with songs like Binary – over the years Tom Shear has continued to roll out intelligent, emotional dancefloor anthem after anthem, and then with tender ballads like Damaged, he is able to make a point of having songs that actually have depth, and a sense that so, so many of the scenarios and feelings in the songs are all too personal.

That feeling of intrusion into personal grief came up a couple of times in the set, firstly with new song The Last Mistake, a melancholy song that has the distinct feel of a song where he tries to put into words a way to make amends over past transgressions, and then of course later on in the all-too-personal, as ever, Disappoint. Of the new songs, though, the best for me is Over and Out, a chopping vocal rhythm merging seamlessly with another of those lovely, melodic choruses, and it was easily a match for the old defiant favourite Document that followed it, and was bellowed back by the crowd.

A tight curfew, as ever at the Academy, meant that such niceties as an encore were dispensed with, and the band simply played on – and it was nice to find that for once, not a single song was dropped as a result. Other bands take note. The “encore”, as it was, did include the expected/hoped for – including an utterly joyous and roof-raising Let Me Be Your Armor, a song so good that it appears a remix album (Addendum) was cobbled together to ensure it got a release in good time. Things finished on a melancholic note, though, with the aforementioned Disappoint followed by the slow, regret-filled lament of The Cruelest Year, leaving me with a small feeling of, well, sadness as things closed.

In some ways, that ability of Tom Shear to inspire emotional resonance and still be able to write skyscraping dancefloor anthems is not far off unique, certainly in these days of harsher forms of dancefloor-bound electro/industrial apparently being in vogue. Here is hoping he doesn’t decide to deviate from his style anytime soon.

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