Into the Pit: 188: The Sisters of Mercy – Roundhouse NW1 – 18-October 2015

In some respects, it can’t be easy being Andrew Eldritch. But then, is there any other artist who has tried so hard to bury his own legacy? Back in the eighties, they were one of the Gothic Rock titans, releasing three wildly successful albums, having a major label deal and the power to pull in Jim Steinman to produce, not to mention the financial backing to make ridiculously overblown videos.

When the band disintegrated – again – after Vision Thing, Eldritch went “on strike”, as the story goes, to get out of his contract with EastWest, but not before a lucrative “best of” was released (the basically peerless A Slight Case of Overbombing, and it’s accompanying early material compilation Some Girls Wander By Mistake), and that’s where I come in.

These compilations were my route into goth, really – and were for a number of my similarly-aged friends, too, and those tracks have never really gone away, endlessly played in clubs and endlessly packing the dancefloors – almost anything from both compilations will guarantee a full dancefloor to a goth DJ. And, bizarrely, the band got what was probably their first mainstream attention in some time just a couple of years ago, with Simon Pegg’s prominent Sisters’ T-shirt and genius use of This Corrosion in The World’s End – probably their first shot in the arm in a while.

So it was no surprise, really, that the gig (and much of this tour) was sold out, despite the band having a patchy reputation live. But before we got to The Sisters, there was a support band to get through.

Get through is rather unfair on Black Moth, who were very good indeed. They sure as hell weren’t goth – something I’m sure that worked in their favour when selected for the tour – but they were clad in black, and this Leeds five-piece delivered half-an-hour of wonderfully sludgy, down-and-dirty rock, of the Led Zep/Black Sabbath kind. Unusually for this style of music, too, they have a female singer, which adds a different dynamic and indeed works very well as a counterpoint to the punishingly heavy riffage. A great support act, as it goes – and while a fair amount of the crowd seemed uninterested, there was more than enough of a welcome for the band, and those that did enjoy it would like me have wanted more than just thirty minutes.

Which brings me to The Sisters. Despite twenty-five years and counting now for new material (I’m resigned to the fact that it will never happen, now), their tours consistently sell out, and people still moan every time in one way or another. It’s perhaps about that first love thing, in that fans continue to reminisce, have that rose-tinted view of the past, and come back time and again, even though they know disappointment awaits, as it first appears here – More is frustratingly a mess, with Eldritch’s bellowed vocals far too loud over the rest of the band, and even more infuriatingly, Ribbons is cut apart by similar issues (that’s my favourite Sisters track by far) – but at least we’re spared them going on too long, as it appears from the off that Eldritch is in a hurry, and many songs get cut to shorter, more manageable lengths, which in some cases is a blessing.

Part of the problem is the sound mix. Doktor Avalanche (Or two MacBooks as it is now) is rightly at the core, but the guitars fade in and out, and Eldritch’s voice is either inaudible when he murmurs the verses, or too fucking loud when he tunelessly bellows some of the more iconic choruses.

It’s sad, though, as at points they are genuinely brilliant, like when a connection with the crowd is finally established during a roof raising Dominion/Mother Russia – the first moment in the set where the sound balance is finally nailed, Eldritch reins it in a bit and lets the crowd do the backing vocals, with spectacular results. Alice just about survives, too, for similar reasons.

The Sisters of Mercy setlist:
Crash and Burn
Doctor Jeep / Detonation Boulevard
Body Electric
Amphetamine Logic
No Time to Cry
Gift That Shines (Red Lorry Yellow Lorry cover)
Dominion/Mother Russia
Jihad (The Sisterhood cover)
Flood II

Lucretia My Reflection
Vision Thing

Encore 2:
First and Last and Always
Temple of Love
This Corrosion

Among the muddy mess of much of the rest of the main set, though, there were apparently two covers (one of fellow Leeds goths Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, and one Sisterhood track – delivered in filling in the gaps from my notes), not that I could have recognised either even if I knew them by heart, and then one final insult in a butchered Flood II that couldn’t have sounded worse if I’d had tried to cover it myself.

So there wasn’t a lot of hope for the encore, but miraculously, things improved vastly. I don’t know what changed, but Eldritch thawed, relaxed and just sang – saving the delicate edges of 1959, the one ballad of the night, from ruin. Vision Thing was absolutely immense, always the most “rock” of their canon and the sound seemed set up to suit this more than anything across the night. The angry political discourse, of course, of this song, still holds true a generation on.

First and Last and Always was also helped immensely by the crowd joining in, as was the closing, choral brilliance of This Corrosion that might get cheesy every now and again, but with 3,000 others all singing along, it hid a multitude of sins and sounded fucking amazing.

Sadly even some of the best known songs were ripped up in the encore, too. Curiously – especially for a band and a musical style that relies so much on it – the stage set-up was two guitarists, Eldritch and someone hidden in the fog on electronics, so no bass guitar. Which is a major issue for Lucretia My Reflection, one of the band’s most enduring songs, and of course is built around an instantly-recognisable bassline – so take that away and it frankly sounded wrong.

Still, at least he sang that. When we got to Temple of Love, Eldritch just pointed the mic into the crowd, insisting they sing it, only getting involved for the choruses (and getting the timing of one of those wrong, too). He may have had a better reaction had he not shown such contempt for playing it. And if he hates it so much, just don’t play it – there is such a lengthy list of “classics” by this band that the set would have survived without it.

Which is part of the problem, really. He’s doing this because people will still come, not because he still loves doing it. There have been reports of press pass instructions banning use of “goth” and other words, which says an awful lot.

Why does he hate the fans – and scene – that got him the success that he clearly craved from the start, I wonder? Their website description says “We are a rock’n’roll band. And a pop band. And an industrial groove machine. We are intellectual love gods.” Uh-huh. They certainly have the rock chops – Chris Catalyst threw some serious rock-star moves onstage, and is clearly a heck of a guitarist – but the fact remains, that no matter what Eldritch says or does (or wears – nice Metro Chicago hoodie and luminous shirt underneath this time, although god knows that the cape-like thing he was wearing earlier on was), The Sisters of Mercy are, in their recorded form at least, pretty much the definitive Goth band for many.

Maybe it’s because those fans keep hanging onto the past. The Goth scene in the UK, to my eyes at least, has such an enormous shadow cast by those eighties “greats” (The Sisters, The Cure, The Mission, Siouxsie & The Banshees and others), that even newer bands now seem beholden to those sounds and simply ape them, meaning that the scene has barely advanced in twenty or thirty years – and if you want new ideas from a Goth template, you need to be looking outside of an insular Goth scene (just look at the likes of The Soft Moon, or Grave Pleasures for example, who come from totally different backgrounds but could both easily be identified as Goth).

So Eldritch toys with songs live (some of the older songs bear little relation to the originals, sound issues or not), fans lose their shit. New – well, unreleased – material gets aired live, never gets released, fans lose their shit. Eldritch can’t win, really – but then, no-one really wins when the fans force the band to cling tightly to the past, resulting thus in a band that play the hits because they have to, not because they want to.

Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?

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