It's fair to say there hasn't been this much anticipation surrounding a Manic Street Preachers tour in eighteen years.
Then, the shows in support of fourth album Everything Must Go and the first since guitarist Richey Edwards disappearance saw them embark as a three-piece. Now, with Edwards' masterpiece and legacy The Holy Bible due to celebrate its 20th anniversary in August, rumours have been rife since last year when bass player Nicky Wire stated his intention to play the album in full at Glastonbury in 2014 that the setlists may be slanted towards that record. Having also gone on to describe forthcoming album Futurology as "The Holy Bible's bedfellow", the band then took to Twitter during rehearsals to drop more hints, with 'Yes', 'Archives Of Pain' and 'The Intense Humming Of Evil' all being mentioned at various points.
Without further ado, Drowned In Sound's resident Manics obsessives Marc Burrows, Dom Gourlay and David Edwards embarked on a mini-road trip of their own, taking in five of the band's eleven UK dates between them.
Here's their take on events from each night...
Leeds First Direct Arena - Friday 28th March
Having overtaken Manchester this side of the millennium as the north's premier musical hotbed, it's perhaps quite fitting that the Manics first show of 2014 kicks off in Leeds. As a city it's enjoyed a substantial amount of economic growth over the past couple of years, tonight's venue being one of the results of such investment. The First Direct Arena only opened its doors for the first time in July of last year, yet already the 13,500 capacity building has played host to Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen and Elton John during its brief existence.
Of course one downside to arena-sized venues is the lack of intimacy. Another being that two-thirds of the room is seated. Which includes yours truly, albeit fortunately perched on the front row in the central block. Beforehand DiS bumps into Eagulls manager, who informs us the band were hand picked by the Manics themselves. The decision to go with Leeds current favourite sons as openers pays dividends. 'Nerve Endings' shreds ears, 'Moulting' attacks the senses, 'Yellow Eyes' creates a maelstrom and closer 'Possessed' provides a fitting climax to their visceral half hour introduction. Well received by all present, it's a triumphant homecoming and one that provides ample preparation for their impending rise to playing rooms this size on a regular basis.
Before focusing on the main event, it's worth mentioning the backing visuals provided by film maker Kieran Evans. From the collection of quotes and images projected from the screen prior to the Manic Street Preachers arrival to the accompanying shots and footage throughout, Evans has created a striking montage befitting of an image conscious band like the Manics. When James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore do appear, immediately launching into a ferocious 'Faster' pandemonium ensues. And that's just the seated areas. 'Your Love Alone Is Not Enough' comes next followed by 'Motorcycle Emptiness'. By this point it's fair to say the whole room is ecstatic. It isn't long before the first of two new songs debuted this evening is aired. 'Europa Geht Durch Mich' (translated as Europe goes through me...) sounds like a krautrock version of Sweet's 'Blockbuster'.
Next up is a welcome return for 'Love's Sweet Exile', the Generation Terrorists staple last heard live on these shores at the 02 in December 2011. When James Dean Bradfield introduces 'Rewind The Film' as a song featuring his good friend from Sheffield it's met by (we'd like to think) playful boos from the partisan audience. 'You Stole The Sun From My Heart' and 'If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next' serve as timely reminders that the Manics have bonafide hits in their armoury before the band leave the stage for Bradfield's solo acoustic slot. A rare outing for 'Black Dog On My Shoulder' gives way to 'This Sullen Welsh Heart' before he's rejoined by Nicky Wire - now wearing a sailor's outfit - and co. Paying tribute to Richey Edwards, Wire then strikes up the intro to 'Archives Of Pain' and grown men are reduced to tears. One of The Holy Bible's most acerbic pieces, it's welcomed here like an old friend returning from national service.
The second newbie and title track off the next album 'Futurology' comes next. Similar in structure to the Manics own 'Stay Beautiful' and The Clash's 'Safe European Home', it doesn't quite make the same impact as 'Europa...' on first listen but still makes us yearn for the new record nonetheless. The explosive salvo of 'Revol' and 'You Love Us' meld gracefully into a rousing 'Tsunami', while Bradfield playing the theme tune to former BBC institution 'Sportsnight' as a metal-style riffarama to introduce 'Motown Junk' is another highlight. Finishing on 'A Design For Life', by which point the entire audience are on their feet, tonight's show is exemplary in every way. From the setlist to the band's energetic performance not to mention an enthusiastic crowd. They've clearly got the bit between their collective teeth, which can only bode well for the rest of the tour.
Leicester De Montfort Hall - Monday 31st March
It's the third night of the tour (and Drowned In Sound's second) and already, talk in the Marquis Wellington around the corner from the venue centres around possible setlist inclusions for this evening. Saturday night's show in Cardiff saw a couple of changes from the inaugural gig in Leeds including a welcome return for 'From Despair To Where'. Nevertheless, most of those we speak to seem blissfully unaware of the band's output pre-Everything Must Go.
When we arrive at the venue the migraine-inducing sound of a fire alarm greets us. Everyone is told to evacuate the building - although very few do - as word filters through that a blown amp on stage has triggered a small fire behind it. Twenty minutes or so later, order is restored and the auditorium starts to fill once more. Which is perfect timing as far as tonight's support Wolf Alice are concerned. Having caught them opening for Swim Deep six months ago, their albeit promising show was also a tad formulaic. Tonight, however, they're an enticingly different beast altogether. Singer Ellie Rowsell exuding an air of confidence throughout, songs like 'Blush' and 'Moaning Lisa Smile' take their influence from the early nineties grunge and shoegaze blueprints, while 'Fluffy' is Pixies do Britpop if such a combination were to exist. By the end we're won ever, as, it seems, are the majority of those in attendance. So far so good.
From the outset, it's clear this audience may be a little more challenging than the Leeds one three nights earlier. Opening once again with 'Faster', it doesn't quite receive the same level of adulation, although a resounding 'Motorcycle Emptiness' spurs the masses into life. As does 'Europa Geht Durch Mich', DiS finding itself singing along with the words emblazoned across the backdrop, "European dreams, European screams" indeed. Then, out of the blue, James Dean Bradfield strikes up the distinctive opening chords of 'Stay Beautiful', which seems to be met by a mixture of ecstasy and bewilderment from what appears to be a much older crowd than the one in Leeds. Our excitement even ruffles a couple's feathers near the front, their fingers wagging aggressively in our faces aptly on cue for the "Why don't you just fuck off..." refrain of its chorus.
From there on in up until Bradfield's mid-set solo slot, the set mirrors that of the previous shows, the biggest receptions undoubtedly reserved for "the hits". 'From Despair To Where' provides a charming interlude, Bradfield even stopping the song before its final chorus in an attempt to buoy the crowd into participating. As on the other nights, 'This Sullen Welsh Heart' gives way to the band's return and 'Archives Of Pain', Wire once more having changed costume. 'Masses Against The Classes', the band's other number one single sounds vital and invigorating, even if its inclusion comes at the expense of 'Revol'. '30 Year War' and Kieran Evans poignant accompanying film depicting the 1984 miners strike augments their status as possibly the last politically aware band of their (or the next) generation. Closing with 'Motown Junk', this time pre-empted by Bradfield's riff homages to The Skids 'Into The Valley' and The Cult's 'She Sells Sanctuary' sets the scene for the now familiar finale that's 'A Design For Life'.
Performance-wise, flawless once more. However, tonight highlighted the diverse demographic which constitutes Manic Street Preachers fanbase on more than one occasion. As the saying goes, you can't please everyone all the time. Nevertheless, it's probably fair to say tonight's set would have been received more enthusiastically elsewhere on the tour.
Manchester Apollo - Tuesday 1st April
There’s a certain joy present when going to Manchester Apollo, with the grand old former cinema acting as arguably Manchester’s best venue for seeing bands of a certain stature, with The Academy being prone to sound issues and the Phones 4U Arena being too large for any true intimacy. So it’s the perfect place to see Manic Street Preachers at the point in their career where they consolidate their position as one of Britain’s most interesting and most cherished bands. Now stretching towards their thirtieth anniversary after their initial promise to release one album and then split up, last year’s Rewind the Film arrived as their eleventh long player – another stylistic turnabout for a band given to changing course at will. And despite some lukewarm reviews it has clearly hit a note with many long-term fans, as the surprise opener ‘Show Me the Wonder’ (changed from the visceral ‘Faster’ the previous evenings) is greeted with a tumultuous wave of singing from the massed ranks stationed at the front. Augmented by brass and second guitarist Wayne Murray, the sound is thick, sumptuous and richly textured; taking ‘You Stole the Sun from My Heart’ into a different league live.
But where it all kicks off is when ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ arrives – one of British music’s truly great singles – and followed by a spiky ‘It’s Not War (Just the End of Love)’, there’s no looking back. New track ‘Europa Geht Durch Mich’ has a ragged stomp underlying a somewhat Krautrock-influenced edge, while ‘Stay Beautiful’ and ‘Everything Must Go’ are greeted with an intoxicating swirl of joy and adrenaline from the crowd. A quick word – often Manchester audiences watching 90s guitar bands can be somewhat trying and boorish, but tonight the crowd are motivated, responsive and in superb spirits. Combined with the band on blistering form, it’s a glorious combination of emotions and energy.
For months, the band have been hinting at showcasing more tracks from their magnum opus The Holy Bible, in honour of its 20th anniversary this year. This promise is duly delivered upon with a trio of ‘Die in the Summertime’, a deliciously brutal ‘Archives of Pain’, though the best moment of all is a stunning, tender and deeply moving ‘This is Yesterday’, delivered starkly and simply by James Dean Bradfield with only an acoustic guitar. Nothing is said directly by band or crowd, but many of us have the long-lamented Richey Edwards in our minds at that particular moment.
The drive to the finish is headlong and celebratory. New song ‘Futurology’ is ragged and nicely trashy, but is then almost knocked down by a breathless duo of ‘The Masses Against the Classes’ and ‘You Love Us’. By the time we reach the closing duo of ‘Motown Junk’ and a triumphant, resonant ‘A Design for Life’, the Manic Street Preachers have once again reminded us that they remain a band impossible to be pigeonholed: now in a position where they can reach back across so many aspects of their long and notable career in order to bring together a show that neatly encapsulates their rollercoaster career – from outlaws to stadium stars, to and fro, never standing in any one place for too long. Though they may have intended the title of their 2011 singles compilation record with a smidgen of tongue-in-cheek, there’s no denying that amongst fans of a certain age – growing up in or around the 1990s – the Manic Street Preachers remain National Treasures for so many people across all parts of the British Isles. Long may they stay happily disenfranchised with the world – their continuing need to strive, step out of the shadows and perform is our gain.
Wolverhampton Civic Hall - Sunday 6th April
A Sunday night in the Black Country might not epitomise rock and roll but for the 1800 hardy souls crammed into Wolverhampton's Civic Hall it's the highlight of their weekend. If not year. Certainly a far cry from the lacklustre audience in Leicester six days earlier, there's already a sense of anticipation long before either the Manics or support act Wolf Alice enter the room. Most of the standing area occupied, a sense of "we shall not be moved" prevails, whether it be for the bar (no surprise really at £4.50 a pint!), toilet area or otherwise.
By the time Ellie Rowsell and co. take the stage, it's a welcome sight watching them play to a receptive audience clearly intent on devouring every second of their thirty minutes in the spotlight. Opener 'Fluffy' rips through the room like a Britpop tornado while the songs aired off forthcoming EP Creature Songs display a taut, concise edge. Tonight is Wolf Alice's last show with the Manics on this tour and before the end of their set, the band humbly thank their hosts for such a momentous opportunity. With applause ringing out long after Wolf Alice depart the stage, it's clear the pleasure has been all ours, too. Ones to watch in the future, for sure.
The Manic Street Preachers setlist lottery has been an interesting conundrum on this tour, and tonight is no exception. 'La Tristessa Durrera (Scream To A Sigh)' opens the set this evening, while the inclusion of 'Die In The Summertime' once more also raises many an eyebrow. 'Europa Geht Durch Mich' is also becoming something of a fan favourite now too, many of whom can be seen bellowing its Anglo-Germanic dialogue word-for-word. Someone nearby mentions The Skids halfway through 'Futurology' and although it's perhaps not as obvious a reference point as The Clash, they're clearly a band whose influence remains prominent in the Manics psyche judging by their warm-up music between bands, with no fewer than two songs ('Working For The Yankee Dollar' & 'Into The Valley' for those asking) making a nightly appearance on the playlist.
Back to matters at hand, James Dean Bradfield throws a spanner in the works of sorts by changing the set during his solo slot. Making reference to photographers taking snaps of the setlist then tweeting about it afterwards (at this point DiS are making no comment!) he rallies against the spoilers by introducing an impromptu 'This Is Yesterday', which sounds mournfully poignant yet befitting of such an occasion. 'From Despair To Where' and 'This Sullen Welsh Heart' follow once more before the band's return preempts a now familiar run through 'Archives Of Pain'.
The latter third of the set delves into the back catalogue once more ('You Love Us' and 'Motown Junk' respectively), brings us back up to date with a sprightly 'Show Me The Wonder' before perfunctory closer 'A Design For Life' once more provides a rousing finale. As with the previous shows on this tour so far, tonight exemplifies why even now, some twenty-eight years after their initial formation, the Manic Street Preachers are still held in such high regard. A national institution, and one that shows no signs of fading past its sell-by date any time soon.
Brixton 02 Academy - Friday 11th April
The first of two nights at Brixton, site of many vintage MSP performances, is textbook Manics fare. Nicky Wire is on great form, pushing through his dodgy knees to deliver the occasional star jump in ‘Europa Geht Durch Mich,’ the best received of tonight's three new songs, and practically headbanging through ‘Die In The Summertime’, introduced with a tribute to the nearly-two-decades departed Richey Edwards and a snippet of lyrics from ‘Donkeys’, causing a small ripple of excitement from the hardcore who briefly thought the old b-side was getting a rare outing. The Holy Bible itself was as well represented as any of the bands 12 (twelve!) albums tonight, also giving us ‘Archives Of Pain’ and ‘This Is Yesterday’, with Wire and James Dean Bradfield discussing the possibility of full Holy Bible shows later in the year (“I’ll have to learn all of those fucking basslines” says Wire, “yer, but I’ll have to learn all of those fucking lyrics again” retorts JDB).
Most noteworthy this evening is the premier of a new song, ‘Let’s Go To War’, a taught, PiL-esque stormer with a killer hook that, along with the electro-stomp of ‘Europa...’ and the anthemic title track with its Wire-sung chorus, suggests the upcoming Futurology could be the strangest and strongest Manics album in some years, though it’s fair to say the Brixton crowd is politely attentive to the newer numbers, though little more than that. That said this was an enthusiastic audience throughout, belting out the refrain to an acoustic ‘From Despair To Where?’, enthusiastically delivering a whole verse gifted instrumentally for a singalong in opener ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ and giving the closing ‘A Design For Life’ its usual, impassioned last-night-of-the-fucked-up-proms glory. As good an MSP show as you’re likely to see.