New Model Army.

Plug.
11th May.

Reviewer – Edward Russell-Johnson.

There are a lot of bands who are said to defy description, but New Model Army is up there with the most defiant. The Bradford troubadours have been making articulate, rebellious noises for over 30 years, loosely covered by the ambiguous ‘post-punk’ label but trying their damnedest to avoid classification altogether.

Their music broods over social injustice and corruption in all its forms, but a diverse range of influences elevate NMA far beyond conventional punk territory. In front of a boisterous crowd at the Plug, crunching distortion sits comfortably alongside acoustic guitar, keyboard and even bodhran to create a richly textured sound that confounds the stereotype of an angry band.

The most striking aspect of NMA’s music is its searing honesty. Frontman Justin Sullivan’s lyrics are politically-charged and have a whiff of brimstone, but without any of the dumb rhetoric or pretension that usually follows. This is the voice of intelligent dissent, forged from real life experience and genuine anger. Seen live, it is a very powerful thing.

Sullivan himself has the kind of captivating stage presence that comes from decades of experience. Wild-eyed and beetle-browed beneath his shoulder length iron grey hair, his personal appearance puts him somewhere between Old Testament prophet and staring hobo. His breathy vocals range from an angry whisper to a feral roar, delivered with an intensity and sincerity that is truly compelling. Between songs he relaxes into his sardonic side, relating to rapturous applause how Thatcher died on his birthday, before gleefully plunging into ‘Today is a Good Day’.

NMA’s loyal fans are known as The Family and there’s an obvious sense of camaraderie in the crowd, with good humour in the face of some pretty savage moshing. You get the impression that NMA are just local lads done good, and their relationship with the audience is remarkably intimate. It’s not often that the cry of “How are you doing, Sheffield?” is answered with a roar of approval, followed by “And how are you, Justin?”

The band finish their set with ‘I Love the World’, a real belter with a chorus as powerful as it is simple. The lyrics are as condemnatory as ever, but as Sullivan himself says, it’s a good message to end on. Despite all the fury in these songs, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could be so consistently and intelligently angry for 30 years without genuinely caring about the injustices around them.

Public Service Broadcasting.

Leadmill.
16th May.

Reviewer – Alex Fenton-Thomas.

The Leadmill was suspended in time for a few hours on 16th May as the tweed-clad Dr Who look-a-like J Wilgoose Esq and his companion Wrigglesworth performed as Public Service Broadcasting in front of a packed crowd.

This extremely conceptual band rely on samples taken from public information films, old documentaries and war-time propaganda for vocals, leaving the timelord frontman to create beautifully composed tunes on synth, keyboard, laptop, guitar and banjo. His trusty sidekick accompanied him with incredible drumming “made to look effortless”, as someone behind me commented.

On stage there was an elaborate set of old TVs stacked on top of each other showing strange coloured shapes and the occasional test card, and a large mock-up of a 50s telly showing the sampled footage, skilfully controlled by a VJ hidden in the corner.

Their set was a mixture of Battles-esque funky thrash and Lemon Jelly style ambient niceness, but the sheer variety of voices on each track gave them a special quality of their own. The Second World War was a favoured topic (last year’s EP The War Room was a collection of these tracks) and shows that these young adventurers were severely affected by that period.

‘If War Should Come’ is a brooding, apocalyptic song that perfectly encapsulates the nervous energy in Britain before WW2. The more triumphant ‘Spitfire’ is one of their standout tunes and drew a massive reaction from the crowd, as if they were transported through time themselves and the Battle of Britain was won last week. Other standout tracks included the thrashy, almost early Queens of The Stone Age-like ‘Signal 30’.

During the expected and noisily demanded encore they played one of their best songs, ‘Everest’. The sample footage is taken from the 1953 film The Conquest of Everest and truly informs – apparently it was called simply Peak 15 before it was found to be the biggest – as well as entertains, the beautiful soundscape complementing the epic climb of Hilary and Tenzing perfectly.

The mystique behind this band proves they are probably not from this time, but the obvious effort to make us believe they are from the 40s probably means they are fugitives from some distant and terrible future. Hopefully their disguises as tweed-clad, post-futurist, krautrock gentlemen who have mugged HG Wells and stolen his time machine will serve them well and they make a home in the 21st Century.

Ghosting Season.

Bungalows & Bears.
23rd May.

Reviewer – Tasha Franek.

London-based label Fields pretty much encompasses this decade’s new indie flavour. Gone are the days of the four-piece band with their electric guitars hanging low and their arrogant stage presence sky-high. Welcome to the age of electronica.

With only two acts on, things didn’t get started until about half nine. Although it’s difficult to tell who showed up for the music specifically, as The Slow Revolt stepped up people certainly paid attention. One man, a couple of guitars and a whole host of electronic equipment, The Slow Revolt, also known as Joe Mirza, created a perfectly precise set which built in ferocity, much like the layers of each individual song. Though the sight of a MacBook perched on a keyboard stand may not be unfamiliar in indie-electronica territory, the colourful and uplifting music that he created with it was a breath of fresh air. Combined with charming vocal tones, the set was fun and powerful in perfectly equal measure.

After a short break and an excuse to top up our glasses, the main attraction for the evening headed on stage. Ghosting Season spawned as a side project of worriedaboutsatan, with the Manchester duo looking to take a new direction more suited to their new label. Although the venue was still a little sparse, those who made it were spoilt with a very intense set that it was impossible not to become completely engrossed in. With spectacular skill showcased across the spectrum, including an electric drum kit and guitar played with a violin bow, Ghosting Season put on a visual performance the likes of which I haven’t seen from many artists who are predominantly centred around the DJ booth. There is no mistaking the boys love what they do. A pulsating rhythm kept everybody moving from start to finish in their continuous set and the crowd went wild when the final stillness arrived.

It’s always a shame when the audience doesn’t quite fill out, especially when both acts would have gone down a storm in a bustling room, but the tour continues through into June, after which I’m sure they’ll be hitting the festival season hard.

Mopomoso.

Bar Abbey.
28th April.

Reviewer – Cathy Soreny.

Free jazz gigs often raise unpredictable questions. Can you really play a chair? Is there any part of a double bass you can’t play? Will Bontempi beats ever feature in serious music? Mopomoso are celebrating 21 years as purveyors of free improvised music with their first UK tour, taking big names out from the capital direct to the curious-of-ear, joined nightly by local improvisers.

Sheffield has produced some legendary innovators of free jazz, including Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley, and tonight the city’s offering is confidently subtle and surreal. Mick Beck (bassoon), Charlie Collins (percussion), John Jasnoch (oud) and Eun-Jung Kim (Korean komungo) deliver an angular sound. Beck and Jasnoch build a spiralling foundation onto which Kim hammers beautifully tortured sounds from her komungo. Collins bows waterphone and - yes – a retro metallic office chair, invoking a surprisingly haunting resonance.

Kay Grant (voice) and Alex Ward (clarinet) conjure up three short mesmerising sonic pieces. Grant’s utterings glide, swoop, trill and grunt, morphing magus-like to match Ward’s astounding clarinet attacks. It gets harder to separate them and their symbiotic improvising relationship is palpable. As a voracious fan of Mike Patton’s vocals, I’m deliciously stunned.

The Alison Blunt Trio (Blunt on violin, Benedict Taylor on viola, and David Leahy on double bass) offer a stringed frenzy, with bow strokes shuttling back and forth like a feisty game of tag. Sudden calmness is steadily filled with Blunt and Taylor’s tense droning, as Leahy launches into vicious rubbery attacks around his bass, using bow, palms and fists to sound out across its entire structure.

With the front of the upright piano open, we can peek at the dancing hammers. Pat Thomas must have 20 fingers. Whirling concoctions of honky tonk and spasmodic abstractions drive the crowd crazy. He swings round to a keyboard, whacks a button, and unashamedly pumps out a Bontempi beat. He matches it with a ham-fisted and facetious thumping up and down of the keys. He swishes back to the piano, leaving no doubt about his dexterity of digits and styles. The definite show stealer.

Finally, Sheffield has legendary Evan Parker (sax) on stage. Alongside Mopomoso founder John Russell (guitar) and John Edwards (double bass), House Full of Floors rightly crown the night. Russell and Edwards build energetic fluctuations from fertile valleys of disjointed plucking to swirling misty intense peaks, with Parker flying around, through and over them, coaxing the trio higher. It's breathtaking at these kind of heights, but even so the night is suddenly over too soon.

The Sheffield jazz scene in all its variations is suddenly looking as healthy as an ox. Who will bring more of this glorious unpredictably to our city next?

Tesseract.

Corporation.
12th May.

Reviewer – Talie Eigeland.

This line-up constitutes a tasty sandwich of awesome. And yet apparently we’re in the small room. TesseracT? Are you kidding? I’d never have guessed.

The musicians are all deambulating somewhere between their respective merch stands, the bar and the steps leading to the stage, but I’m ashamed to realise I only recognise about 50% of TesseracT, not including the singer, although to be fair they’ve had far too many of them. As much as I take great pleasure in writing damning reviews and pinpointing things that have gone amusingly wrong, this time around the worst thing to happen is probably support band The Algorithm’s sub-optimal amount of T-shirts on sale.

Enochian Theory, an unarguably proggy three-piece from Portsmouth, is on first. While they do make us wait a while for an actual, all caps riff, it’s an enjoyable and logical start to the evening. The band can confidently cease to sound so thankful because the audience wouldn’t bother cheering if they didn’t feel so inclined.

Enter The Algorithm, and my jaw is in exceedingly close proximity to the floor. This band immediately nails it. The members are from various locations around France, with lead man Rémi on his digital audio workstation accompanied by a live drummer and guitarist. It’s a cool mixture of electro and metal executed in the classiest possible way. Honestly, my thirst would have been quenched by an additional 20 minutes of this lot, but apparently the guitarist is brand new so they might just have an extra song down by London and some actual merch available by Manchester.

TesseracT. To those who have issues with the vocal cleanliness, I submit to you that you are wrong. It doesn’t have to be your favourite thing, but if you’re ignoring the band on account of this, you’re required to at least make an attempt to get over it. Re the bassist: props to this guy. Although some of us apparently feel a bit stared at, he has some comprehensive stage presence going on.

After being rather coy about the band’s latest album, Altered State, it’s nice to hear complete versions of the new material. I was in fear that some of it, after having been described as significantly folkier, wouldn’t spontaneously rock quite as hard as their previous releases, but everything seems to be OK and by this point the room could use some additional air. The new singer clearly gets Sheffield’s valuable stamp of approval and I hear from a friend with longer-standing fanhood that ex-vocalist Daniel Tompkins is lurking. But we must move on.

No encore despite a pretty decent case from the audience. Most of the band has already exited the room with their respective Jäger bottles. Time to scuttle purposefully towards the merch area to notify the bands of my appreciation.

Bonobo.

Plug.
21st May.

Reviewer – Rowan Colver.

Anticipating the performance of material from Bonobo’s new album The North Borders, I entered the live room at Plug to the tune of angelically vocalised bassy rhythms from a shadowy DJ at the sound desk. Taking a comfy seat at the back, I watched as the sold out room filled. The Bonobo crowd were a mixed bunch. I saw several dress styles including, to my pleasant surprise, a goth or two.

Their choice of support act, a soulful group of synth, string and vocal talent called 14th, was brilliant. To open, a colourfully dressed woman casually walked on with her band and treated us to around 40 minutes of delightful rhythmic seductive sounds. There was obviously a lot of respect between them and it showed in their performance.

After another volley of heavy and driving DJ work from the desk, Simon Green, aka Bonobo, strutted on stage just after 9pm. Calm, casual and collected, he revved up his beats machine and began to construct his opener. What began as a simple groove was slowly built up into a progressive intro for new track ‘Cirrus’. Using a midi keyboard to hammer down the bells in time to his funky programming, the crowd went crazy for it.

After a short stint alone, his live band appeared. Keyboard players, a drummer, a brass section, some woodwind and of course, who could forget Szjerdene, his extremely talented singer collaborator for this album. It is very refreshing to see quality acts using the real thing rather than referring to libraries of samples. Very refreshing and well worth it. The natural sound, although harder to control from the desk, provided a layer of beauty that a computer just couldn’t replicate.

As a master of rhythm, you’d expect the show to have an excellent flow. The live band did it admirably. From the first track – bouncy, fun and intense – the set gradually wound down, with Szjerdene treating us to her smooth, pitch-perfect vocals alongside some slow, heavy beats. By drawing on tracks from the new record and plenty of classics in between, the music was adorable and the blend of soul, funk and downright heavy bass was just right. The flow carried us down and back up again several times throughout the performance and, with the assistance of amazing lighting effects, solo performances from preeminent musicians and great crowd interaction, this was a night absolutely full of quality.

Darwin Deez.

Leadmill.
30th April.

Reviewer - Marcos Rousseaux.

Fast melodies + teenage problems = San Cisco’s opening act for a crowd in their early 20s. After, the stage was set up with vintage synths, amps and drums and Darwin Deez walked in to a soundtrack of 80s pop doing a robotic dance which fired up everyone.

‘You Can't Be My Girl’ was a great kick-off with its pumped-up rhythms. ‘Moonlit’ gave place for the first crowd clapping on top of funky guitars and Darwin’s narrated singing accompanied by a Clapton-esque guitar solo. “The next hour is all about music and songs,” he stated before playing ‘DNA’.

Then came the in-between-songs dance with more 80s kitsch synth pop. The second set was full of guitar solos, as if Darwin was bringing back some blues for the kids in ‘Clouds’, ‘Suicide’ and a medley of ‘It’s All In The Wrist’ and ‘No Love’.

By the third dance it was clear that they were not improvising the moves in this Michael Jackson cameo. See Youtube for hilarious examples. The MJ tribute was mixed with the ‘Bad Day’ intro, which everyone sang a cappella, followed by the great ‘Deep Sea Divers’ played from the heart, the lungs and the drums. Before ‘Chelsea’s Hotel’ there was time to chat a bit with the fans in the front row. Drums in perfect sync with bass created a backdrop for Darwin’s extended solo, after which he ended up admitting, “I was carried away”.

An hour in and out came his debut album opener ‘Constellations’, then the fast and funky melodies of ‘Radar Detector’, which had the whole Leadmill singing along in an epic ten minute rendition full of soundscapes, synths and solo guitar. The intensity was through the roof when he took us down with the last song ‘Redshift’ and left the stage. Not five minutes later they were back. “What you wanna talk about? Sex? We’ll do a choose-your-own-adventure thing. What you guys wanna hear?” Then he promoted their new album Songs For Imaginative People and encouraged people to buy it. “You know we’re not making much money in this tour” he confessed jokingly, before ending with ‘Human’ and ‘Free’.

Acknowledgment must go to the band and the crowd for a great night full of good music, friendly atmosphere and cool rhythms straight from New York.