Monday, 5 December 2011

30th November 2011: Pure Reason Revolution & Losers, Heaven, London

Sometime in 2007, I started reading internet chatter about a band called Pure Reason Revolution, who sounded quite interesting, but for some reason I didn't check them out. I think this was largely because prog fans I knew had been saying that I would probably like them and I therefore assumed that I wouldn't, partially because I'm often at odds with the prog scene in general, and, partially because I enjoy being contrary just for the sake of it.

I'm not quite sure, therefore, how I did come to finally hear 'The Dark Third', but when I did, I was very pleasantly surprised. I don't think I'd have considered it a prog album at all if I hadn't had it suggested to me that that was what it was. To me, comparisons ranged from Doves (the haunting opening instrumental 'Aeropause' being more than a shade reminiscent of opening track 'Firesuite' from the Doves' 'Lost Souls' album), to little known band Captain who had released an excellent alternative rock album the previous year featuring both male and female lead vocals and close harmonies. Ok, there was also a touch of Pink Floyd, something alluded to in the the title of 'The Bright Ambassadors of Morning', a quote from Floyd track 'Echoes', but the album itself featured a much harder rock sound than anything ever issued under the Floyd name, even if the tracks all ran into each other like a concept album, and there were some spacey, ethereal sections.

Does this look like a prog band to you?

As luck would have it, I managed to get into them just before the release of their second album 'Amor Vincit Omnia', an album which absolutely blew me away, right from opening track 'Les Malheurs'. Somehow, someone had created exactly what I was looking for, even though I didn't know it - a mix of the alternative / progressive guitar based sounds I'd grown up with, maintaining the amazing vocal interplay and harmonies of the first album, but mashed up with the electro / dance music I was just beginning to get into through acts like Justice and Simian Mobile Disco. 

Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, there don't seem to have been enough takers for this unique blend of prog, industrial rock and electronica, and following last year's 'Hammer and Anvil' album, the band sadly announced that they were calling it a day, with a final farewell tour scheduled for November 2011.

And so it is that I come to be walking across Waterloo Bridge on a cold November night, my first excursion out of the house since being laid up with an ear infection for 2 weeks. My ears are still fairly shot from a combination of pressure and fluid build-up, and the wind is only making it worse. I seriously start to wonder whether PRR at full volume might actually cause my ear drums to explode, and wonder a) whether anyone would help me if they did (probably not) and b) whether it would be worth it anyway, to catch their last ever gig (definitely.) 

Still, if you disagree with anything in my review, just bear in mind that to me everything sounds like a cross between streaming internet radio from 1998 and a 1980's VHS tape (maybe an old showing of a James Bond film, complete with adverts for the Rumbelows Boxing Day sale and Hamlet Cigars...), and cut me some slack.

Other than the fact that this is my last ever opportunity to see PRR live, there's one more reason why I'm risking my auditory well-being to be here tonight, and that is Losers

Ironically, this is their first ever gig (or certainly as the 4-piece band that they are this evening), and I'm nearly as excited about this as the PRR set. Losers were, until pretty recently, a two-piece dance remix outfit with comparisons to Justice (again) and Soulwax, comprised of XFM DJ and former Pepsi Chart TV presenter Eddy Temple Morris and former Cooper Temple Clause multi-instrumentalist Tom Bellamy. Their 2010 debut album, featuring everything from chilled out beats to electro-clashy tracks was a surprise hit with me, being one of those rare albums from dance acts which are actually worth listening to all the way through. 

And now they're back, with a new album on the way, and new members Paul Mullen (ex Yourcodenameis:Milo and currently with The Automatic) on guitar and Mark Heron (ex Oceansize) on drums - and they're excited to play us new material. They arrive on stage to a glitchy, electronic pulsing beat and things seem pretty much as I expected, but wait, what's this? Guitars!

L-R: Eddy Temple Morris, Tom Bellamy (sorry about your face, Tom),
 Mark Heron (in darkness), Paul Mullen

The first track kicks off and I'm instantly reminded of Soulwax when they were a real band, playing tight, new-wave indie-rock esque songs with dance sensiblities. "Proper" drums, and walls and walls of guitar sound underpinning Bellamy's powerful vocals. Not quite what I'd expected, but an impressive opening. Then things start to take a more electronic turn on the second track which opens with an impressive glitchy drum loop played entirely live. It makes me think of modern-day Radiohead, if they still knew what guitars were, and it's ace. 

Since none of the band really talk much during the gig I can't tell you what most of the songs are called, but to say it's a leap forward from the first album seems like an understatement. Here are proper, dark, heavy rock songs, but with beats and samples - most impressive being the epic 'Turn Around' which I've heard as a demo on the band's Soundcloud page but don't dare to link here as it's in a different league tonight. There are amazing harmony vocals from the 3 guys at the front of the stage to go with the amazing, uplifting music, and impressive electro-beats from Mark on the drums. 

The final track sees us back in more familiar Losers territory, with more traditional dance-y beats and a euphoric chorus, and it gets everyone dancing, but before we know it they're thanking us all for coming, Tom Bellamy makes the "L" sign on his forehead, and they're off. With 30 minutes having disappeared in the blink of an eye, I absolutely want to hear more and make a note so to do as as soon as there's an opportunity. This new album is clearly going to be one to watch in 2012.

When the lights come up, I decide to retreat a little from the stage to allow some space for the PRR faithful (and fanatical - they're passing around a 'Good Luck' card to the band, which is sweet), and move back to where I spot regular gig buddy and internet DJ extraordinaire David Elliott. (Would you look at that- he has some PRR on his latest show!)

And we've been chatting for little while when the lights dim, the spacey effects which open 'The Dark Third' album start to play over the PA... and the crowd goes absolutely mental. The gigs have been advertised from the off as featuring 'The Dark Third' in its entirety, which initially struck me as a bad idea, almost admitting defeat on their more electronic output, but I realise as the gig progresses that it's the best of both worlds. 'The Dark Third' really is a very special album, and one that demands to be heard from start to finish to appreciate it properly. And of course, the gig format also allows old prog bastards to bugger off home in the interval and leave the electro stuff to us youngsters. (I only say this because most of my friends are old prog bastards and they know I'm joking...)

Pure Reason Revolution, L-R: Chloe Alper, Jon Courtney, Paul Glover, Jamie Willcox

Right from the off, it's evident that this is going to be a pretty special gig, and it passes the goosebump test immediately the opener 'Aeropause' moves into first song proper 'Goshen's Remains'. 

Standing watching the band, I'm struck by how different they are to most of the bands I see live. The focal point on stage (or maybe it's just me) is bass player and joint lead vocalist Chloe Alper, who sings like an angel and plays a mean fat bassline, all the while looking effortlessly cool and stylish - a supremely talented musician and even cover designer of some of the band's releases. When she's not playing bass or singing, she's twiddling knobs which make birds sing, or trigger crazy sequenced synths which rattle the very foundations of the club.

Over on the stage right, main songwriter, the other lead vocalist, guitarist and occasional keyboard player Jon Courtney. Another man for whom the word 'cool' might have been invented, he plays the whole gig wearing a buttoned up jacket (looking remarkably like Bernard Sumner of New Order in the process), sings his parts with precision, and restricts his stage banter to the odd 'cheers'. It creates a mystique that I rather like and admire.

Hello, first time blog readers. I like to use my own photos, however rubbish. Sorry about that.
By way of contrast, Jamie Willcox on lead guitar is like a big, bouncy puppy in a baseball cap, cranking out his riffs with absolute joy, beaming at the crowd between songs, and being the only member of the band to interact with the audience on a regular basis, thanking us all over and over for our support with a heartfelt sincerity that brings a lump to the throat. 

And then, hidden away at the back, powerhouse drummer Paul Glover keeps everything going very precisely, no mean feat with the number of samples involved tonight, but his playing is never boring and is often the highlight of the more electronic numbers (I'm an absolute sucker for electro/ dance songs with real drum tracks...)

A Million Bright Ambassadors of Sunset?

In fact I don't think they could seem less like a prog band if they tried, and yet... here's that epic and fan favourite, 'The Bright Ambassadors of Morning', with its spacey opening moving into thunderous riffs, furious vocal interplay between Chloe, Jon and Jamie, and crowd singalong chorus. You have to see why they invited the comparisons in the first place.

The whole of the 'Dark Third' set passes in a whirlwind of gorgeous harmonies and heavy riffing from the two guitarists, and before we know it, final track 'Ambassador's Return' is coming to an end, and Paul Glover leaves the stage while the last chords fade away, soon followed by Chloe, leaving just Jamie and Jon to finish it off. It's an impressive end to an amazing first half, and the fun's only just beginning.

There's an interval where we all get a chance to catch our breath, and I go for a wander and learn about dodgy ecstasy tablets which are likely to kill us all if we're not careful, as well as clocking upcoming gigs by Stacey Solomon and various other X-Factor rejects. Tempting...

The best bit, of course, is heading to the Merch table to pick up the final PRR EP, 'Valour', and not one but TWO free DVDs which I get for being a loyal pre-purchaser of my tickets, although I can't help feeling like I'm depriving the band of their last chance for some merch revenue. 

Anyway, by the time I get back to the gig I've lost my spot and end up even further back in the hall, but no worries, there's more room for me to attempt to dance without being sneered at by people who actually have some coordination.

And dancing is surely what the second half is designed for, opening up as it means to go on with Jon and Chloe on the stage alone, twiddling their knobs and getting the crowd worked up with the pounding electro beats of 'Blitzkreig' from the 'Hammer and Anvil' album - a track which I must admit has never exactly been a favourite on the album, but when Jamie and Paul come onstage and start adding some serious additional edge to the sound, it starts to make sense. The same could be said of the other tracks they play from that album, particularly the blistering 'Last Man Last Round', which is so improved by the crunchy dual guitar attack from Jamie and Jon that it's almost a different track. 

It provokes such a reaction from the crowd that chants start up afterwards, and various people shout out 'Don't give up!', provoking Jamie to remark 'Yeah, but it takes us doing a farewell gig to get you all in here...', which is a fair, but sad point.

But for me, the highlight of the gig are the three tracks they play from 'Amor Vincit Omnia', especially the relentlessly pounding and complex 'Deus Ex Machina', during which Jon Courtney plays the keyboard in front of him for what seems to me like the first time in the gig but I'm sure it's not really.

And the main set finishes in absolute classic style with the 'missing' Dark Third Track (excluded from the first set due to its not being included in the US edition of the album), "The Twyncyn / Trembling Willows", which finishes the gig in the way it began, with the proggy riffs, vocal call and response, oh and the goosebumps. Oh yes, the goosebumps.

Even more impressively, Jamie Willcox sadly has some kind of failure either with his guitar or his pedals right at the start of the track, but somehow manages to carry on with his incredibly complex and tight vocal parts whilst struggling on the floor and conversing with his guitar tech about how they're going to fix it. Probably not how he wanted to end his final gig, but incredible to watch all the same. 

At the end of the track, Jamie and Chloe thank us all for coming again, and Jon slopes off quietly, leaving the audience to chant "P...R...R" for as long as it takes to get them all back on stage again, which luckily isn't very long.

Dance Diva Chloe owns the stage during 'Fight Fire'.

Early EP track 'In Aurelia' is a surprise first encore track, but couldn't be more in contrast with 'Fight Fire', the closest thing the band have to a hit single, and the biggest party song we will get all night, with Chloe front and centre stage completely owning the entire venue with microphone aloft. Surely a career as a disco diva beckons? People in the audience try to dance, but being a mix of prog fans, indie kids and electro nuts, it's a bit of a mixed bag - but hey, at least people are enjoying themselves.

And then, the real last track - 'AVO' from 'Amor Vincit Omnia', a track tinged as much with sadness as hope, fittingly for the occasion. As the band nail yet another set of flawless harmonies, ending the show with the repeated chants of 'Amor, Amor Vincit Omnia', I realise I'm witnessing something pretty special, and have a sudden pang of regret for not having made the most of this most unique band while we still had them.

When it's all over, all of the band (yes, even Jon) thank us again, inbetween choking back the tears, and Chloe promises us, intriguingly, "We'll be back in some form or another," before being carried off stage by Paul.

I sincerely hope that they are - together, separately, or in whatever guise they see fit. There's far too much talent in this room tonight to give it up completely, but even if they do, they've left behind three amazing albums which I hope one day will influence someone else to try something as unique as they've created.

Perhaps, ultimately, producing a proggish debut concept album and then following it up under the same name with two uncompromising electro-industrial albums was what undid them, but you know what, I'm blooming glad that they did. I only wish I'd appreciated them a little bit more while they were still around.

And, in case you were wondering, my eardrums didn't explode. Except with awesomeness.

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