Von Südenfed @ Heaven
London Heaven. 18oct07.
A cult of personality, a strong one, can hook a blue whale like it’s a bag of feathers. The trouble is it can also blot out the sun. Any project that involves Mark Edward Smith is likely to be affected at both ends of the scale. With his day-job too, a Fall line-up these days essentially being MES + present spouse + assorted extras. Americans with hats and beards? Blokes pulled out of a Salford boozer? An elderly relative in the rhythm section? One can never be quite sure what will await, such is the reputation of MES as the brakeless, careering motor of The Fall’s revolving door, and such is said personality cult built on.
Without doubt, I am the perfect example of one who follows the Smith train whether it’s sticking to the rails or crashing through embankment hedges. However, when I heard MES would be working with German electronic duo Mouse on Mars the idea of his lyrical vision, not to mention his gurgles, growls and gargles that often bark out apropos of nothing amidst intro or instrumental break, being allied to some tasty beats, it went much further than blind faith. I was pretty certain the fruit of their union would instantly sew up my ‘best of 2007’ nomination six months in advance of December’s deadline. Upon receipt, ‘Tromatic Reflexxions’ was certainly no disappointment. My album of the year, just as I’d imagined.
I mention blind faith, but that’s not strictly accurate, as I like to think I can appreciate flaws in both output and performance. For instance, the ‘Interim’ LP put out a couple of years ago really was just filler (I guess it had the decency to titularly advertise itself as such) and their appearance on Later with Jools Holland in 2005 is best forgotten. Indeed, gigs can be very hit and miss, but then these things can be subjective. Fall fans as a whole appear to use the internet forums set up for us to discuss more what we dislike about the Fall’s vast output than what we actually like. Then there are those who don’t get it at all, the ‘drawling’ thing I mean, but I see it as much more than that – it’s instantly identifiable vocalisation and it’s a sonic drug I find difficult to pinpoint the hook within, or wean myself off. Without doubt, MES rolling a solitary ‘R’ or yelping a ‘WHUP!’ by way of punctuation has infinitely more soul than a painted popstrel warbling through their range. It’s been known to give me goose-bumps, but then Mark E. is quite an imposing character generally.
Being the undoubted commanding force in the Fall, you imagine MES manages his team like Captain Beefheart running a Scout troop (locking people up in sheds, that kind of thing), but with Von Südenfed, you get a new feeling of equality. The three members appear on a par both in terms of size, and latitudinally, on the record cover, with Mark Edward looking less gnarly and aged than usual, coming across quite the cheeky scamp in fact. Perhaps a return to the electronic experimentation that characterised the Fall’s mid-90’s output has taken a few years off him, and even brought him to heel.
During Fall gigs, his band mates have long got used to him fiddling with their amps and crashing index-fingers down on keyboards. Considering the amount of buttons and knobs available on the table at the back of the stage tonight, it should be a Christmas afternoon playtime for our Mark, but he appears more restrained until the final quarter, when he cuts mischievously loose. Certainly, the wandering on and off stage that has characterised many a Fall gig hasn’t been curtailed for this collaboration, despite the low-profile of Andi Toma and Jan St Wener at the rear which leaves the stage distinctly uncluttered and thus could be mistaken for a summer fete PA, albeit a rather dark, underground one.
For that reason, the cult thing I mentioned earlier and the fact that live electronica is generally not much of a spectator sport, it is difficult to take your eyes off the vocalist. Of course, there are plenty of times he takes the choice away from us, by shuffling back in the direction of the dressing room with microphone still glued to the side of his cheek-chewing grimace. Otherwise, MES is unjustifiably mesmerising, an undoubted presence in any room he stumbles into.
Whether he be reading lyrics from a hefty, semi-shuffled ream of papers, seemingly grabbed from a busy middle manager’s filing out-tray; staring out into the crowd like a benign dictator sinking into senility; or dancing in the far corner of the stage like a hen night Auntie tottering along the edge of a pavement, our gaze remains fixed.
As such moments where the union works less well tend to be accentuated – where the beats drown out the more intricate lyrical missives or where the singer has to try, with all the sureness of foot of a vertigo-ridden pensioner on community service litter duty, to retrieve lyric papers that have slipped and scattered across the stage. At these times the sun, albeit briefly, is blotted out.
However there are plenty of hooks to drag the show out of any holes it might teeter over. Indeed, it works best when kept simple, MES intoning the more memorable lyrical hooks from the album in forceful repetition. Lines like “I am the great MES” (rather wonderfully, he flicks through his lyric stack before going for that one), “I am the DJ tonight” and “the German fear of the Österreich”, all commanding and locking in with the caustic electro-grooves that sound great blasting down Heaven’s tall tunnel space. For this reason, single ‘Fledermaus Can’t Get It’ gets a great response that is more to do with the confidence with which it is performed, rather than mere recognition.
Possibly over-extending this theme, “Slow down Ronnie”, a lyric from a recent b-side, is intoned over the last two songs of the main set and then the encore, only the latter of which is actually ‘Slow Down Ronnie’. Still, it’s always been Mark E. Smith’s nature to treat the stage as his primary school sandpit, and that’s what makes anything he is involved with such an exciting proposition. There genuinely is no telling how it’s going to go, but the one guarantee is that it will be fascinating, whatever happens.
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