Thursday, 24 November 2016

Death Disco

VICTORIES AT SEA - Birmingham Sunflower Lounge

When you go to a gig, what do you expect from it? Do you just want the band to replicate the sound of the record note for note? Many fans would be perplexed if they saw a band live for the first time and got something different from what they're used to. But to a regular gig-goer it can seem pointless if the live show is totally predictable. However, I admit that I sometimes find myself in the reverse situation - coming away from a gig with a record only to discover that it doesn't capture the live sound. This was the case with Birmingham band Victories At Sea and their album "Everything Forever", released on Static Caravan in 2015. I bought the album after seeing them support Moon Duo back in July and on first listen it seemed to be dominated by synths, its polished production a million miles from the intensity of the live shows I'd seen from them up to that point.

Closer inspection revealed that live and on record, the same influences prevail - most notably early Factory Records bands and other electronic post-punk acts. It's just that Victories Of Sea use different aspects of those influences depending on the situation. Most reviews I've seen of the record make reference to New Order and if asked which album in particular springs to mind when I hear "Everything Forever", it would have to be the disco hedonism of "Technique". But there is nothing about Victories At Sea's live set that comes anywhere close to disco. Occasional nods to New Order can still be spotted but it's to their earlier, more introverted work. There are also hints at Section 25's debut LP and even abrasive textures reminiscent of early Cabaret Voltaire.

I've recently written about how the style in which a song is delivered can change the listener's interpretation. Although the lyrics could relate to a recent heartbreak, the overall feel of the album is one of optimism. Many of the songs suggest picking yourself up, making the most of the good things in life to help you move on. The lead track "Bloom", with its refrain of "So hold on..." and advice to "bury yourself in good times", could be played while getting ready for a night out with a group of friends who have convinced you that a spot of clubbing is what you need to lift your spirits. But when heard live, secondary lyrics such as "Keeping up appearances but falling down" dominate, highlighting the distinctions between expectation and reality - in relationships or life in general.

This theme crops up again on the Depeche Mode-like "Up". Opening line "Just give me air, the rush, the beat, the sound" suggests the joys of clubbing, but live there is something more menacing about it. I suddenly notice the "cruelty, despair, with no one else around", a reminder of how claustrophobic the nightclub experience can actually be. Everyone seems to be having a good time except you, it's too loud to have a meaningful conversation and you wish you'd stayed at home to work on your blog instead. This outsider feeling, the reluctance to conform with what is considered a "good night out" radiates from the band's onstage demeanour. It's clear that a lot of planning went into the record to get all the components to fit together neatly but free of the confines of the studio, the band members all seem keen to do their own thing. They barely acknowledge each other during the set and it seems that just by sheer chance the three elements coalesce to form a glorious chaotic whole. It's difficult for the audience to decide which of the musicians to focus on but at first, all attention is on frontman John-Paul White. For the majority of the set he is thrashing all flavours of hell out of his guitar, a guitar that barely gets a look-in under the slick production of the record. It also becomes clear what a powerful voice he has, sometimes hitting high notes that suggest traumas a man of his youthful age should not have experienced. His melodious delivery on the album reminds me of Stockholm Monsters' early singles on Factory but on stage there is more than a hint of Mark Burgess of The Chameleons.

The credits on the album don't make it clear who plays what and you could be forgiven for thinking that the beats are from a drum machine, or whatever the equivalent technology is called these days. But extra intensity is generated by having live percussion alongside programmed rhythms. With their regular drummer on holiday, Martin Cleveley has been drafted in from a band called Repeat Of Last Week, another act I clearly need to check out. Martin's energy reminds me of a young Stephen Morris and his performance in the classic "Transmission" video in particular.

Steven Edgehill's simultaneous handling of bass and synths has a feel of other current post-punk/disco hybrids such as Factory Floor, but also recalls much earlier innovators. This is most apparent in the pulsing krautrock rhythms of "Swim", the song on the album that has always struck me as coming closest to the live sound. Up to this point the lyrical themes could be linked to personal relationships, but there is now a realisation that much worse things are happening to the world as a whole. Although written two years ago, "We are the people lost at sea, we are the people who have lost our way" seems to have foretold the current state of both the UK and US. With society itself falling apart, attempts at either repairing or moving on from a failed relationship seem trivial and I suspect Victories At Sea may soon move into this darker territory on record as well as live.

After seven songs from "Everything Forever" and two from the EP "In Memory Of..." JP announces that this will be the band's last show for a while as they are heading back to the studio. They close the set with a new number, shown as "Aldous" on the set list. This is, I'm sure, a reference to "Brave New World" - a book I imagine to have a very bleak outlook but I must confess to never having read it. It's always a bold move to end on a new song, doubly so in this case when it's different from everything that has preceded it. "Aldous" sounds as desolate as anything on Joy Division's final album but with another 36 years of suffering thrown in.

Having seen the band live several times then listened closely to the lyrics on the album, the live set makes more sense this time around. When I mention this to JP after the show, he thanks me for reading the words as many people don't bother to do this. I know this should not come as a surprise and I realise that everyone appreciates music in their own way but with a band such as Victories At Sea, it's vital to become familiar with their many facets to get the full effect of the songs. With downloads and streaming making music so disposable, many consumers don't take the time to find the full story and I feel they are missing out. Things come full circle when I get home and play the album again, and notice that some of the anger witnessed tonight is actually present within its grooves and the guitars are actually there if you listen out for them. I only see this now the optimistic bubble has been burst. With 2016 having been such a terrible year for us all, I'm eager to see how this will inspire Victories At Sea's next set of recordings. Based on tonight's performance and the tone of the new song, I'm not expecting their second album to be a cheery affair but I'm sure it will be stunning nevertheless.

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