With Covenant headlining and Suicide Commando supporting at Infest in Bradford just two months ago I imagined that a fair few people wouldn't have bothered to travel to the annual Black Celebration to see the same main acts again so soon. Yet, although there was space to move around at the back of the two-level Mean Fiddler, there remained a healthy attendance, a good number of whom turned up late just to catch the Swedish band in the top slot. The Brighton posse were out in force since the first three bands, Freudstein, Synthetic and The Borg all hail from the southern coastal town - more known for its trendy house prices than alternative electro scene - but I'm not complaining. Having not heard either of the first two I was keen to get in early but didn't.
With Freudstein already playing in the background, a security guy on the door scrabbled with several scraps of paper covered in hard to read handwriting looking for my name. A guy and a woman came rushing in saying they were on Freudstein's guest list and that the woman (who I later realised was Liz Green, the lead singer of Swarf - another Brighton based outfit) was supposed to be guest vocalist for the band on... their next number. As we entered, Freudstein's singer could be heard saying "There's been a change of plan, we were going to have a guest vocalist on our next song but she's stuck in traffic." They then launched into another number, just as Liz Green staggered onto stage. "Stop" Freudstein's singer cried "Ladies and gentlemen... she has arrived!" (Cheers from the Brighton posse.) Having just a couple of seconds to gain her composure, Green began singing, literally a minute after walking into the building! After such a palaver, I'm pleased to report that it was worth the trouble. I enjoyed Swarf when I saw them some time ago and particularly Green's vocals. She not only has an engaging voice but delivers it with confidence. Three minutes later and her guest slot was over. Freudstein sans guest were reduced to the dreaded, overly familiar electro two piece - singer and synth player. What followed wasn't as polished nor the songs particularly memorable. Friends who arrived on time assured me that their first two numbers had been better.
Synthetic avoided the two-piece problems since their songs rely heavily upon rock guitar riffs, sothey could boast a guitarist as part of their live triumvirate. Unfortunately, the Ramones like mirrorshades wearing rocker looked distinctly at odds with the Night Porter fascist fetish of the female keyboard player and the Minni Vanilli hair of the male vocalist. Remove the cliché rock guitar riffs and you have some quite catchy tunes and songs. The declaration that "It's not rock 'n' roll if you don't break a fucking (guitar) string" proved their whilst there's no doubting Synthetic's enthusiasm they need to have a firmer sense of direction. The Borg were next on stage and displayed all the problems of transferring a two man studio outfit to a live environment. Singer Mark needs to have more confidence in their material and should not feel concerned about filling the dead air with glib comments. They only come across as nervousness and ruin the 'hard man' image. Musically, things have certainly progressed for The Borg since I last saw them in April last year. Much of the set was new to me and, for the most part, things had developed nicely. There's still an awkward tension between the beautifully composed melodies of songs like Sleep by Windows and Tortured Angel and the harsher, less convincing 'hard' tracks like I : Pervert. Again, a band that still haven't quite found a comfortable footing, but when they do it should be a vast improvement over their early Numan-influenced material.
It fell to scrap metal industrialists Leech Woman to take the festival up a gear - the vocals harder edged than I remember, but the drumming and junkyard percussion continues to fascinate and fly the flag for the old skool purists. Long may they continue doing their thing. Haloblack replaced man(i)kin who had to pull out. Still, having never seen Haloblack I was glad for the new blood. Formerly out of Minneapolis in the US, these American alt-rockers have (like compatriot Jared Louche) recently relocated the the UK. I won a Haloblack CD in a raffle in an industrial club in New Orleans in 1997 but didn't think much of it and eventually sold it on. That was sub-FLA hard electronic industrial - totally unoriginal and uninspiring. This live performance makes me question if this is even the same band. Although perhaps the most 'conventional' of this year's Black Celebrationists, what their distinctly US alternative rock style lacked in cutting edge was more than made up for in professionalism. The first band of the event to feature a full conventional drum kit, the mixed male/female vocals and accomplished guitar work made for a powerful and convincing stage presence. They had all the right moves and the musical talent to back them up. I was disappointed when it was over - seemingly very short (or did I imagine that?). Not sure what prompted Haloblack to set up base in the UK, I'd have thought there were more opportunities in the US; but if the 'big fish in a small pond' routine applies here then they should have no problem making a well-deserved name for themselves this side of the Atlantic.
Sulpher were next up and followed on perfectly from Haloblack. Their US-influenced style with added synths dovetailed nicely and they went down a storm - the dancefloor packed from front to back by now. Belgium's Suicide Commando signalled that the horizon to today's all-dayer was in sight. Having been remarkably underwhelmed by their appearance at Infest in August, I used their set as an opportunity to recharge my batteries for Covenant. A cup of tea, a Snickers and a seat on the floor by the entrance for 45 minutes was just what I needed. (Yeah I know, real rock 'n' roll stuff this reviewer lifestyle.) Suitably regenerated, I struggled to find a vantage point from which to observe Covenant. Having moshed down the front many times before, I didn't feel the urge to risk a certain crushing tonight. The set was agreeably varied and contained plenty of older tracks. Opening with Theremin from their debut album Dreams of a Cryotank set the pace nicely. What followed was a roll call comprising of many of my personal favourites: Feedback, Riot, Shelter, Helicopter and a thumping version of Go Film.
You can't have a Covenant gig without crowd rousing anthems, and so Tour de Force, Dead Stars and One World perfectly fitted the bill. With two encores taking in Stalker, Figurehead and, less obviously the b-side Babel, this was Covenant firing on all cylinders and, frankly, better than their Infest appearance. The three suited Swedish lads demonstrated that what they lack in playing live (the vast majority of music is on backing tracks) is more than made up for in shear 'performance'. They have few peers in terms of songwriting and live shows, and continue to prove why they are at the vanguard of their chosen field. Brilliant. Whilst I'm all for supporting the frail UK scene, it would have been nice to have had a couple more bands from overseas - especially since the electro scene seems to be on such a high at the moment. Still, a reliably good way to spend a day each October and good value for money given the amount of bands playing. See you next year.