Pop Will Eat Itself @ O2 Islington Academy

Saturday 22nd Oct 2011
Review by Veronica Murphy
Photography by Linda Heron

On the way to the gig I couldn’t help but feel 14 again! Nostalgia smacked me in the face like a custard pie and I remembered how on the day of Poppies gigs we would pass notes during science lessons at school discussing if we should wear a PWEI t-shirt of if we’d make more of a statement choosing, say, NIN or Senseless Things to show how ‘broad’ our musical tastes were. The (bunked) train journey would have been spent trying to guess the setlist or seeing how many other fans we could spot.

Tonight on the Northern line to Angel I did try to work out who might be a Poppies fan but it was difficult, perhaps because they chose such a small venue with a capacity of only 250 so the chances were somewhat slimmed.

The intimate atmosphere made the O2 Academy a great choice of venue, if a little packed, and I often think you can tell a lot from a crowd by their reactions to the warm up songs. FNM’s “We care a lot” sent them nuts and certainly confirmed what most of the receding hairlines had already hinted; this might be a tour to accompany new material but there were no 14 year olds here this time.

Choosing to open the show with “Back 2 Business” was an intentional gesture to PWEI’s purpose here tonight, only reinforced by Graham Crabb’s opening words to welcome us to “ Pop Will Eat Itself Mark II”. I wasn’t expecting him to describe with such a term, but on reflection it does seem this is more evolution than reformation.

2011 marks the band’s 25th Anniversary yet puzzlingly almost all the material on the new album (“New Noise Designed by a Sadist”) were tracks originally written and recorded for Vile Evils, the band Crabb started in 2005, when the original PWEI reunion failed to take-off despite some well-received comeback gigs.

So, second track in we shouldn’t have been fooled into thinking that there was going to be a big nod back to the past when they played Wise Up Sucker! We all knew that this was a show to accompany the release of a new album and it was certainly not a (re-)reunion show, as the only member of the original line-up was Graham Crabb, founding drummer and then, from Box Frenzy onwards, co-vocalist with Clint Mansell.

Crabb’s enthusiasm matched by ex-Gaye Bikers on Acid frontman Mary Byker’s equally lively pogo-ing, made for an energetic show from the front. The drummer was Pitchshifter’s Jason Bowld and his power and style certainly fitted in with the PWEI sound. I couldn’t help but feel that the others – Tim from Sulpher on guitar and a dreaded guy who certainly looked like he’d been there first time round on bass – were just there to get through the songs and pay the bills. I couldn’t fault their skill but I didn’t feel they showed much passion for any of the songs, be they old or new.

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I would have considered PWEI ahead of their time with their use of sampling and (god, I am so sorry to sound like an XFM DJ here) rock-electro crossover noise. The new album does have its PWEI moments, and the material was well-received live, but it lacks a cohesive sound which would help them make their mark. When they try too hard, it doesn’t work.

”Wasted” sounded like something from a 6th Form Battle of the bands night, and whilst “Chaos & Mayhem” did sound great live, on record it edges towards the radio-friendly. It seems they are still trying to find a balance between re-visiting the past and creating something new.

The original PWEI wrote the songs that they wanted to write, not ones that might have earned them album sales. Lyrically, there is nothing to match the concept of Def Con One. Musically, there is no Bulletproof. But there was something in the atmosphere tonight that made me feel Crabb isn’t just trying to re-hash the past. Indeed on many of the songs the lead guitar was distinctly more raw than I ever remember, but I liked it.

I’m not writing them off just yet, and if they can find their sound as a new 5-piece then brand new material has the potential to be interesting. And I don’t blame them for trying to write a few singles which might find their way onto commercial stations like XFM because it would be a younger fresher audience who would hear the new material without the nostalgia for PWEI’s past. Perhaps Crabb has seen the future and this is how it begins…

Visually, Crabb and Mary certainly delivered what the crowd wanted right down to their choreographed chest bumps and high-fives. The band avoided putting any new songs back to back, which was a wise move as the energy down the front certainly subsided (but by no means disappeared altogether) during new tracks. But perhaps this was also for health and safety reasons – after all, 40 year olds can’t withstand a moshpit like their 14 year old selves did.

Their Law was a really great way to finish the set; it made reference to neither the old PWEI nor “PWEI Mark II”, being a collaboration with the Prodigy from 2005. I left having really enjoyed myself but the songs imprinted in my mind as I made my way back to the station were not on tonight’s setlist, and they were same ones I would’ve reeled off on the journey there all those years ago….. Can U Dig It, Def Con One, Karmadrome, Bulletproof, Beaver Patrol….

It would’ve been nice to have had a bigger slice of the nostalgia pie tonight, but I was happy to settle with the low fat portion for now. Here’s hoping PWEI mark II can beef up their new material and give us something a bit more substantial in the years to come.