Alongside Elektrofest, Black Celebration is Flag Promotions' annual, one-day, dark electronic music event. This year's line-up changed at the eleventh hour when American outfit Spahn Ranch had to pull out, The Nine coming in lower down as the bigger bands shuffled up the billing. This was a shame but what remained was still a line up of distinction.
Eight hours of electronic music began with I.O.N. It had been over a year since I last saw them in a small pub in Camden. A lot had changed in that time. This was a rejuvenated I.O.N. complete with, for the first time, a female vocalist. Their dance-like vibe combined with ballsy guitars and the strong occasional vocals created a dynamic that was otherwise lacking in their somewhat 'static' stage presence. But of the smaller bands on today's bill, I.O.N.'s was the most impressive leap forward.
Hydra is a two-piece techno offspring of traditional industrialists Leechwoman. Although utilising much of the same junkyard percussion as their better-known larger family, this was garage of the backyard kind but with a rumbling, almost funky tip to it. Turning their backs on the tired and dull-to-watch vocalist and synth-player two-pieces that frequently crop up on the electronic scene, Hydra's live set up consists of a vocalist/guitarist and drummer (utilising a variety of oil drums, gas cylinders and washing machine interiors). Anyone who has had the benefit of seeing Leechwoman play live will know just how impressive that drumming can be. The gritty black and white slides didn't really compliment the sound, looking like leftovers from a Leechwoman set; used almost as if Hydra felt compelled to toughen up the presentation slightly. They need not have worried. For my money Hydra are better than the band than spawned them. Leechwoman will always be a niche interest act but Hydra could have the right stuff to a wider audience.
Next up were man(i)kin whose brand of technoid industrial beats was just the thing to kick Black Celebration II into a higher gear. If the cheers from the audience packing out the dance floor were anything to go by they'd got it right. Featuring a new drummer, tonight gave the band the chance to plug some tracks from their forthcoming Sacrament EP (with remixes by Covenant, The Galan Pixs and, incidentally, one by DSO project band Wave). Always pushing their tracks into new territory live, man(i)kin gave an absolutely blinding performance. Machine gun drumming (they've got two drummers), acidic bleeps and strong melodies - it's a compulsive combination. Not forgetting the title of this event, man(i)kin also performed a convincing cover of Depeche Mode's Question of Time, which went down a storm. I've lost track of how many times I've seen this band, but this was one of their best - possibly their greatest gig yet. I know I've said it before, but if you've yet to see them live then waste no more time and catch them just as soon as you can.
Hard edged synth pop is The Nine's speciality and like the other smaller bands on today's bill, they've really come on in the last twelve months. The recent addition of a live guitarist has helped considerably and talented lead vocalist's persona becomes increasingly confident as does their music. Although unashamedly influenced by 80s synth pop, The Nine wisely add a tougher, at times overtly aggressive punch to their songs that contrasts (but works well with) the melodic but strong vocals. Hard Corps beats and basslines roll out beside irresistible light synth hook lines. Rage from their new album proves that they are never constrained by their influences and aren't afraid to rock. Infectious choruses (such as My Fallacy) and hard-to-forget melodies are their forte and few do it as well at the moment as The Nine.
Sweden's Project X were the first foreign outfit on stage and I was keen to hear them again as their set at this year's Infest festival had to be cut short due to the lead vocalist losing his voice. It was somewhat ironic then that of all eight acts on the bill I caught the least of Project X (a combination of having to eat to sustain my energy levels and chatting with friends). Akin to mid-period Front 242 but with a different, harsher vocal style, Project X are proficient at what they do, but it lacks a distinctive edge.
Taking the event into darker realms were the ever inventive Attrition. Often unpredictable, tonight Martin's Bowes and co. gave a relatively 'measured' performance by their standards. I was entering that twilight zone period of the evening when all I really wanted to do was lay down in a dark, quiet room. Not the sort of mind set required to gain the most from Attrition and I must confess to being disappointed, but this was probably more down to my fatigue than the band's performance. After grabbing a few snap shots, I decided to take in the remainder of their set from further back. Squelchy synths and dramatically contrasting male and female vocals are Attrition's live trademarks as are their songs undergoing substantial remix treatment (always making their gigs good value). The set stopped at several points along their fifteen year career, but I've always had a soft spot for their 80s stuff and the versions they delivered today still worked wonders.
I made a point of taking it easy during Attrition's set as the main interest of the event was due on stage directly after them - Germany's haujobb. It had been some years since they last played in the UK and I'm pleased to say yours truly had a hand in getting them onto the billing for this year's Black Celebration. This was the band's first UK live date since their amazing performance at the Powerhaus in London in 1997. haujobb were the first industrial band to push the boundaries of the genre into previously unexplored territory by incorporating drum 'n' bass and even jungle influences into their compositions. More recently they've delved deep into the ambient idm (intelligent dance music) scene. With a new album due next year it was difficult to predict what tonight's gig would deliver.
The live set up comprised of Daniel Myer (vocals), Dejan Samardzic (keyboards, mixing, etc.) and someone called Klemens on live drums. Myer had chosen to deploy the band's more dance floor friendly tracks - only mid and hi BPM numbers throughout. The audience responded appropriately and the floor, packed from front to back was heaving with motion. They delved back far into their past but there was nothing from the chilled-out (at times almost frozen) ninetynine - at least not in any immediately recognisable form. The direction understandable for it delivered what many were probably here for, but it would have been nice to have heard one or two pieces that displayed haujobb's more measured approach. There was a sneak preview of some new material. This was reminiscent of the mid-tempo, d 'n' b type territory of earlier releases. Of course, the moody atmospherics that make the haujobb sound so special were present throughout but were inevitably less forthright than the beats. It was great to hear classics like Anti-Matter live again and one can only hope that we don't have to wait so long until the next time.
Finally, VNV Nation took to the stage to close the event with a bang. Accompanied (at last!) by some terrific back projections, this was another tour de force performance. Singer Ronan Harris seemingly having a great time and, as always, demanding that the audience respond as much as humanly possible to the efforts on stage. The sea of black-clad people did and it wasn't long before everyone on the lower level (the Astoria 2 has a mezzanine) was waving arms and singing along on cue, the ceiling practically dripping with sweat. A familiar selection of tracks from the last two albums populated their set and a couple of encores were gladly provided. The projections, a mixture of very cool CGI and black and white footage of warn torn landscapes shrouded in smoke, added another dimension to VNV Nation's live act and full credit is due to those who designed and executed the myriad of images and texts.
Even though the day went ahead with a different line up than advertised, Black Celebration II was a total success. The attendance was greater than last year and there were even more dealers tables and merchandise stalls where one could (and did) spend lots of money. There were no discernible technical problems and the programme was on schedule for the entire day - a perfectly organised and impressive event (better still than last year). Put simply, Black Celebration is the UK's premier electronic music festival, and anyone with a passing interest would be crazy to miss it.