I’ve been to two concerts this week: one incredibly good, the other a bit disappointing. It’s prompted the thought: how many indie bands were at their best with their first album? All those ideas that built up over their youth channelled into that first full expression of what they are about. All the energy and passion that comes with having something to prove. And then the confidence builds, more people come to see you, you get better equipment, even your own roadies! And you go into the studio again… and you spend more time refining the sound, you sing about the trials of tribulations of being on the road, of fame and depression. And sometimes it’s better than the first album, but quite often it’s lost a bit of that original spark. The so-called difficult second album – which is sometimes followed by that difficult third album, before you then declare that you are going back to your roots. And so on. In fact, a lot of bands have disbanded by then – they shine brightly for just a short while, and we remember that burst of creativity, unsullied by the challenges of reinvention (or repetition), with affection.
The Stone Roses, The Strokes, Arctic Monkeys, Kaiser Chiefs, Royal Blood, Jesus and Mary Chain, Glasvegas, Foals: just a few of the bands I’ve liked over the years which fit the description. And amongst current favourites, Chvrches may not surpass “The Bones of What You Believe”, and likewise Wolf Alice with “My Love is Cool”. Honeyblood bucks the trend with the second album, “Babes Never Die” looking to be Stina’s masterpiece, though arguably the first, “Honeyblood”, captures the essence of her songs most authentically.
Of course there are many exceptions – take Radiohead as an exemplar of constant and successful reinvention. And it also depends on when you discover a band, of course. If you are there at the beginning, then what attracted you to them initially sets the bar. If you come to them later, you might see that as the essence and the earlier stuff as a journey to that point. The joy of discovery is a big part of enjoying music and live performance and it is often hard to better that moment.
So what I’m about to describe in respect of the two bands I saw this week – The Murder Capital and Gengahr – is probably as much about where they are in the cycle of discovery and development as anything else.
The Murder Capital – SWX Bristol, 19 February
The Murder Capital were my band of 2019. The best live performers and makers of my favourite album of the year, “When I Have Fears”. The dark, brooding power of the album translates into an intense and exhilarating live show. There’s a sense of theatre about the band’s performance, in particular the singer James McGovern, who delivers his words with menace and swagger.
I saw the band three times last year: all at festivals, culminating in the awesome performance at End of the Road. I thought that would be hard to beat, but at SXW this week I thought they were even better. They are on the upward curve still, basking in the glory of an acclaimed first album and a sell-out tour, growing in confidence and proficiency. They crashed into the show with a blistering “More is Less”, followed by an excoriating “For Everything”, with James inviting the willing crowd to sing the chorus. We then moved into the suite of slower songs, bristling with that power and menace in “Slowdance 1 and 2”, poignant and glowering in “On Twisted Ground”, “Green and Blue” and “Love, Love, Love”. To think I thought “Slowdance” was a bit of a dirge at Latitude! Now, with the benefit of familiarity, I find it captivating, especially the astonishing guitar work in part two, which was spine-tingling at SWX. “On Twisted Ground” was beautiful, with James and bassist Gabriel Blake spotlighted against the darkness. It’s the song that most reminds me of U2. Its poignancy was heightened by the dignified speech James made after “Slow Dance 2” lamenting the UK’s departure from the EU and calling for togetherness. He had the audience with him on that.
And then, after the brooding and reflection, the boosters were put on again for the final two songs: “Don’t Cling to Life” and “Feeling Fades”. Pure exhilaration. A sense of celebration. A band at the peak of its powers.
But is it the peak? It’s hard to imagine in the case of the Murder Capital. I’d venture they have a lot more to say. And you know, they could be the next U2, without quite so much of the bluster. But even if this is their best shot, “When I Have Fears” their finest album, it will really be something to remember them by.
Gengahr – EartH Hackney, 21 February
It hurts to say this, but Gengahr might be fitting the first was best description to a tee. For me that is, because they have just finished their most successful tour to date with a sell-out show at EartH. Local territory for the band – it must have been a wonderful homecoming. They have their most successful single ever, “Heavenly Maybe”, on the Radio 1 playlist, as well as on 6 Music. I’m very pleased for them – they deserve it. Only trouble is, for me, that I’m not so keen on their new album, their third, “Sanctuary”.
Let’s start with the positives, though. I loved their debut, “A Dream Outside” and it was my top album of 2015. There was something different about them: lovely but slightly off-kilter melodies, Felix Bushe’s distinctive falsetto and, best of all, John Victor’s bursts of incandescent guitar. The song that first drew me in was “Powder”, but the whole album was a delight, especially signature tune “She’s a Witch”, the rumbling “Heroine” and the wistful “Lonely as a Shark”. Album two “Where Wildness Grows” in 2018 was a bit of an overblown beauty. Layers and layers of sound, but with those guitars still busting out, especially on the magnificent “Carrion”. Strangely they didn’t seem to tour that album much, though I did catch them playing a small show at All Points East which absolutely rocked.
And so to “Sanctuary” and the show at EartH, in which it featured heavily of course. I have to admit that I was a little underwhelmed by the album. It seemed blander, more mainstream indie-pop than the previous efforts. I likened it to Two Door Cinema Club and Bombay Bicycle Club – likeable but, for me, rather lightweight bands. Music for a different generation – both are really popular with indie-loving 20 and 30 somethings. It struck me that Gengahr were adapting their sound in a bid for a wider audience. Absolutely nothing wrong with that – good luck to them. Getting onto Radio 1 gets you a much wider reach and a younger audience. But most of those magnificent guitar breaks have gone and none of the tunes have really got into my head (not yet, anyway).
That feeling translated to the show at EartH. For me, it never really took off, apart from a brief burst of energy with “Heroine”, until near the end with “Carrion” (though the sound was rather muddied) and “She’s a Witch”, which oddly felt a bit out of place. Perhaps I was just a bit jaded by then; but its status as the signature tune seems to have been usurped by “Heavenly Maybe”, which was kept back for the encore. That one certainly got the most joyous reception from the crowd. It’s a catchy, quite funky pop tune. Not the first time they’ve employed the funk – there’s a bit of it on the first album. But as they have made a breakthrough with that sound, I guess it will feature more in future. Not much chance of “Powder” getting an airing!
As I sat down to write this piece, I reappraised the gig in the cold light of a new day. Had I been a bit harsh? Was it because I enticed my mate Dave along with a promise that Gengahr are ace live – great guitars (as well as the prospect of some excellent tapas at Escocesa in Stoke Newington) and there weren’t many fireworks? Was it because they have moved on and I haven’t? Or have they just blanded out in the search of a wider audience? All of the above, I think.
You can’t win ‘em all!