The Pop GroupEdit this event
- Manchester Academy, »
Having started out as a mere music festival for those disenfranchised with the more corporate goings on at Leeds, Reading and Glastonbury, All Tomorrow's Parties has since become something of a brand in its own right. Diversifying into both tour promotion and a record label as well as taking their festivals to a global audience, ATP are now pretty much the standard bearers when it comes to organising high level avant garde events, and this end of year extravaganza is no exception.
While some may have considered tonight's show to be a warm-up for the New Year's Eve "main event" in twenty-four hours time - London get the added bonus of Factory Floor and Shellac on top of what's on offer here - no one it seems has told either of the bands. Indeed for an outfit that never got the recognition they so richly deserved back in the day, and whose name probably encountered more confused shrugs than gleeful whoops prior to this evening, The Pop Group have little to prove to audience not entirely au fait with much of their output. Playing as a five-piece this evening, original members Mark Stewart and Gareth Sager still convey a menace and fury belying their years. While Sager introduces their arrival on stage by way of a caustic keyboard assault that sounds like a butcher's knife being plunged provocatively through the heart of Pictures At An Exhibition's progressive tones, Stewart's confrontational vocal style adds an extra visceral dimension. 'We Are All Prostitutes' and 'We Are Time' both throb and kick like a politically charged hybrid of The Rapture and Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Indeed, one can picture an adolescent Michael "Flea" Balzary switching between The Pop Group's Y and similar records of that time such as Entertainment or Real Life for inspiration. 'She Is Beyond Good And Evil', one of two dedications to Manchester's past legends - Tony Wilson being the recipient here - echoes Factory's A Certain Ratio by fusing dub production methods with rock and roll aesthetics, while the psychedelia tinged 'Thief Of Fire' - later covered by noise fiends Loop - brings their sound full circle to the band they're supporting this evening. By the end, no one is asking "Who are they?", but more importantly forming a clamour around the merchandise store. Yes, they were really that good, and lyrically umpteen times more relevant than Brother, Jessie J or any of 2011's great industry hyped pretenders.
Which brings us quite succinctly to Sonic Youth, now approaching their thirtieth year and give or take the odd drummer and additional third guitarist at various stages along the way, a band that can boast the same core line-up for the majority of its existence. Of course the name Sonic Youth is also synonymous with that of ATP, making it quite fitting that arguably New York's most influential group since their conception should headline an end of year celebration of such a disparate nature.
Notoriously difficult, and often one of the most introverted bands ever likely to be witnessed, Sonic Youth as a live experience tends to stretch from the sublime to the ridiculous and occasionally downright confusing, depending on what kind of (self)indulgent mood they're in at the time. While never a "Greatest Hits" kind of band as such, it's fair to say that their legacy has been created by way of landmark records such as 1988's Daydream Nation, their refusal to conform to such critical acclamation makes their live show an unpredictable spectacle, both bewildering and exquisite in equal parts, yet utterly compelling all the same. After all, why else would tonight's show have sold out long before this cold December evening?
Looking around the Academy it's clear to see they've amassed devotees of all ages. Throughout tonight's set various shouts can be heard for their best known songs, 'Sugar Kane' and 'Dirty Boots' in particular. It's perhaps of no surprise to anyone who's witnessed them in action beforehand that neither makes it onto tonight's setlist, or indeed anything from either album (Dirty and Goo) their respective wares sit on. Instead, material from their most recent long player, 2009's The Eternal, finds itself heavily present throughout, and while still fairly unfamiliar twelve months ago at the My Bloody Valentine curated Nightmare Before Christmas ATP, it would be fair to say now that over time, the likes of 'Sacred Trickster', 'Poison Arrow' and 'Massage The History' stand proudly among their best recordings since the halcyon days of 'Teen Age Riot', 'Youth Against Fascism' et al. 'Antenna' is poignantly dedicated to the late Ari Up and even when they do delve into their extensive back catalogue, the results are equally unexpected, EVOL's 'Tom Violence' awkwardly rubbing shoulders with the Sister couplet of 'Catholic Block' and 'Stereo Sanctity' for good measure.
Although both Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon remain effortlessly cool focal points, it's also worth mentioning Steve Shelley's tireless drum interludes, Lee Ranaldo's occasional forays into lead vocal territory and current honorary fifth member Mark Ibold's guitar contributions. When the familiar strains of 'The Sprawl' open the first part of the encore, it actually feels akin to Big Ben chiming the final strains of 2010, such is the genial atmosphere it creates throughout the venue. 'Cross The Breeze' follows to an even more rabid response, and when the band return for a second time, 1987's 'White Cross' merging stealthily into a tumultuously raging 'Death Valley 69', it's clear for all to see that Sonic Youth are far from being a spent force just yet.
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