The last time I was at the Scala was back in the 1990s when it was THE essential London cinema club for uncertificated films. It was something of a shock (tinged heavily with a wistful nostalgia) then to enter through the same foyer and hall doors to be met with what is now a nicely laid out music venue in place of the torn and dirty seats of yore. Doing my best to adjust as quickly as possible to the new surroundings, I settled on a soft seat at the rear of the hall and awaited the evening's entertainment.
The (previously unheard of) Magnetaphone announced their arrival by nearly blowing the PA in classic 'plug in the switched on, volume up synth directly into the already switched on PA system' fashion. Luckily for them this didn't damage the huge speakers but what followed very nearly did on several occasions. Partly, it has to be said, because the PA didn't seem best suited to Magnetaphone's harsh brand of 'music' - probably more at home with guitars and real drums. That there was no audience to speak of at this early hour also meant there was little natural sound dampening occurring either.
Two blokes knob twiddling. The sound they made would probably have better pleased industrial noise fans as their slab of instrumental harshcore consisted mainly of LOUD white noise, pounding beats and the odd low-fi synth. Metallic percussion joined the affray and when the bass kicked in I was glad to be sitting at the back of the venue; any closer and dark red liquid might have started seeping out of one or more of my orifices. I've nothing against white noise but the volume was simply too high and combined with the unforgiving PA it was like listening to heavy duty road maintenance without the ear defenders whilst a melodic tune from a nearby badly tuned radio drifted into range. Nevertheless, not entirely unpleasant. Far more disturbing was one half of Magnetaphone who looked like a brunette reject from Hanson. I know long hair proves you are a serious muso but sometimes a haircut really is the best option.
Label mates to headliners Broadcast, Plone haven't managed to capture the public's imagination in quite the same way but perhaps that's because the Plone sound is less 'immediate'. Certainly, there are plenty of good tracks to admire and Plone's delicious and impressive selection of analogue synths meant that their sound had that warbling valve warmth whilst still being ballsy. Having completed one track they suddenly stopped, 30 seconds into their second, "Sorry, we did that wrong!" one of them confessed. This was followed with a casual discussion, half with the other band members and half with the audience, about whether or not they should skip the cocked-up track or begin it again. The audience (already hooked) cheered to hear it again, so off Plone went once more.
Modulating Hammond organ sounds and early 80s beatbox rhythms fuelled by an 80s electropop sensibility pervaded the next instrumental. This could have been an OMD b-side circa Electricity, oddly (but successfully) mixed with a Serge Gainsbourg-ish 60s French film soundtrack. Although I'd read about Plone, this was the first opportunity I'd had to hear them. I fully expected to be receptive to their sound but this was rapidly shaping up as something altogether more impressive. There was another one of those moments when you believe that someone has been secretly peeking into your head and put together the perfect combination just for your delectation. Here it was a sublime track that combined the surreality of Wendy Carlos with the heart-wrenching melodies of Danny Elfman, all encompassed in a garland of fairytale bells. It was at this point that I made a mental note to pick up a Plone album at the earliest opportunity. Only when Plone failed to keep the kitsch element in check did they stray from the path of the wise. When they did it sounded like something the presenters of Let's Pretend would dance around the studio too. (For those unfamiliar with this kids TV programme from the 80s - this isn't a good thing.) Far better to remind one of John Barry's seminal TV theme for The Persuaders! than to sound like a poor Air rip-off.
And so to flavour of the month/can't avoid 'em if you tried/press darlings of the season - Broadcast. Being on Warp has always given any artist a certain extra push in the essential street cred stakes and none more than Broadcast seem to have benefitted from their residency of late. I first saw Broadcast fill the 'up 'n' comin' band slot at trendy retro club Blow Up sometime in 1997. Absolutely loved it. Bass player James Cargill, kindly sent me a copy of their second single (then on the Duophonic label) and I caught up with them a couple of times since. Love their first (mini) album, Work And Non Work (a collection of their early singles and EPs) but wasn't blown away by their latest - The Noise Made By People. Still, having loved them to date I couldn't miss this gig, especially after the last one sold out (a sign of their increasing popularity it seems) a few weeks ago at Dingwalls in Camden.
The new songs have been long in gestation (work on the current album began as far back as 1997!) and whilst The Noise Made By People doesn't immediately strike you as being a huge departure or change of direction, the live Broadcast have certainly moved on. The new live sound is more confident, polished and perhaps a little more knowing than ever before, but it wasn't all good news. A new drum sound - much heavier and 'produced' - was the most obvious change. But the freefall jamming and almost space rock territory of some of the new tracks was a marked and deliberate progression that I wasn't totally convinced by.
For me, Broadcast were unique in the way they blended styles and influences, now they sounded too conventional, perhaps even, dare it be said, too 'corporate'. They'd largely lost their live distinctive edge. The strong low-fi elements of old have been replaced with a more regular sound. Whether this is a result of the tortured process that eventually saw the release of The Noise Made By People, or whether this is a more conscious decision for when playing live I don't know. But based upon recent press coverage and record sales, clearly, I am in the minority with my reservations. I'm sure possibly losing one of me and picking up several thousand new fans in the process won't unduly concern Broadcast (or Warp). But perhaps this is just a chapter in the Broadcast story and the next one will be more to my liking - I don't feel too confident at the moment - but I refuse to close the book for good just yet.