Ah, the showbiz rollercoaster. Don't you just love it.
Front Line Assembly might possess plenty of industrial scene kudos, but from the looks of things tonight they no longer have a particularly big fanbase. The Electric Ballroom is barely half full. The crowd hardly stretches to the mixing desk, stationed half way up the dance floor. It's a far cry from the band's mid-nineties heyday, when I recall they sold out the Astoria, one of London's main theatre venues.
Back then, of course, industrial was on the rise. The likes of Nine Inch Nails had taken what was previously an underground genre mainstream, and although some would say they'd achieved this by dumbing the original concept down to nothing more than an aggressive, technology-driven brand of rock, the end result was not in doubt. Industrial - 90s style, rock style - was big.
Front Line Assembly never quite scaled the heights of Trent Reznor's mob, but they certainly hit some paydirt of their own in the 90s - and, of course, having some genuine old-skool credentials (principal member Bill Leeb was once in 80s industrio-pioneers Skinny Puppy) didn't hurt their chances at all.
But here we are in the twenty-first century, and the scores on the doors say it all. Things have changed.
What the hell. A gig is a gig, so let's put the number-crunching to one side and pay attention to the bands.
Trauma Pet are touting their new, rocked-up incarnation tonight. Once, they were an electro-duo; now they're a full-on rock outfit, drum kit and everything. That's a pretty drastic shift, but the band seem to have pulled it off. Trauma Pet make a convincing rock band, and if they're a little frazzled by circumstances tonight - late running and schedule changes mean their set is cut to a mere two songs - they show a fine ability to rock it up to the max from a standing start.
Apparently, this gig was supposed to launch the band's new single and matching video, but as things turn out there's no time for such extravagances. Just pow, pow, and off. Frankly, I think the band would've done better to launch their new product at a gig of their own, rather than in tonight's lowly opening slot. Here, even under the best of conditions, they can only be a footnote to someone else's story. Ah, well. Trauma Pet aquit themselves well in distinctly less than ideal circumstances, so we'll call that a result.
Mechanical Cabaret seem to be turning into London's universal support band. They crop up here, there, and everywhere, frequently holding down a mid-bill position. That's not to be sneezed at, of course, because a support slot is better than no slot. But it's becoming rather noticeable that the band never quite make it to the top.
Back in 2005 I recall catching Mechanical Cabaret at this very same venue, supporting Suicide: two years later, here they are again, supporting Front Line Assembly. How's that for a case of always the bridesmaid, never the bride?
Perhaps the reason for Mechanical Cabaret's permanent berth in the support zone is that for all their winning ways with amiable sleaze-pop songs, and for all vocalist Roi's disarming charm, the band has never quite come up with a killer floor filler. Sure, many of Mechanical Cabaret's songs have a neat-o mid-tempo groove, and Roi is an effective frontman - declaiming the lyrics like Marc Almond's disreputable brother, draping himself over the mic stand as if giving the front row their own exclusive pole dance. So far, so groovy. But the band have never really come up with a no-shit hit, a song which works that essential 'Dancefloor - NOW!' magic on Johnny Punter, a song which functions as a career kick-starter, that focuses attention and helps all the rest to happen.
They could still do it, of course, although as time slips by the fact that they haven't done it becomes ever more apparent. I'm sure Mechanical Cabaret will continue to entertain us with their likeable brand of electro-sleaze - but they surely must cast covetous glances at that elusive headline spot, so near and yet so far.
We were talking previously about the 90s industrial scene, but now let's go even further back in time. Portion Control first emerged in the 1980s, and share with the likes of Throbbing Gristle and SPK the status of industrial pioneers.
It perhaps seems churlish, then, to remark that their present day incarnation is a little underwhelming. One bloke stands at the back, behind a laptop. Another bloke, clad in an orange leisure jacket and looking disconcertingly like Shaun Ryder of the Happy Mondays, does his own strange dance up front, rolling his shoulders like a boxer while barking out lyrics in the approved shouty-crackers style. Behind the band, home movies flicker - London street scenes after dark, mostly. This footage would, doubtless, seem exotic and cool anywhere else, but here in London itself, where everyone present is on familiar terms with those exact streets in real life, it all falls rather flat.
The beats roll, the rhythms crash. Portion Control know how to get a good beat on, I'll give 'em that. Their programming is slick and effective. But these ain't the eighties any more. Programmed beats and shouty vocals are hardly radical these days, and ultimately I think Portion Control have ended up in the same awkward position as many other former trailblazers who stuck around to see their trail become a well-trodden path. What do you do when everybody else catches up?
With squalling guitars and copious quantities of on-stage smoke, Front Line Assembly are clearly playing the rock god card tonight. From out of the billowing clouds Bill Leeb emerges, like an industrial messiah beaming down from heaven, an impression only slightly marred by the fact that he looks disturbingly like Charlie Harper of the UK Subs.
But does he bring salvation? He certainly brings a full metal racket. 'Let's get this party started,' he remarks in purposeful tones, and it all cranks up. Front Line Assembly are not at home to Mister Subtlety tonight - it's a full-on blast right from the start. Bombarding the audience with fearsome beats and barrages of guitar, the Front Line Assembly sound certainly ticks all the right industrial-rock boxes.
In a way, it's a nostalgic experience: this is what the industrial floor at the Slimelight club used to sound like a decade ago, back when industrial was touted as the coming thing, and denizens of the Slimelight's goth floor were routinely derided for being wedded to the past.
There's irony for you. Now it's the formerly cutting-edge industrial sound that comes over like history. Still, the fans at the front mosh mightily as the FLA juggernaut roars and thunders and crunches its gears. The band may have become something of a niche phemomenon these days, but at least the inhabitants of that niche are as enthusiastic as ever.
On the way out, I reflect that this was a bit of a disappointing gig. Sure, all the bands delivered the goods. They all did their stuff with suitable quantities of fire and commitment. Nobody slacked off or simply went through the motions. And yet I can't shake off the feeling that tonight was a bit of an underwhelming experience.
Line Assembly were suitably loud and aggressive, but it's pretty obvious
that their time is passing and the scene from which they sprang is dwindling.
Now all they can do is rage at a receding tide. Portion Control racked
up their beatz 'n' shouts effectively enough, but then everyone's doing
beatz 'n' shouts these days. Mechanical Cabaret's sleazoid electro-grooves
were as entertaining as ever, but they've been touting that stuff around
the circuit for years now, and stardom has stubbornly refused to happen.
In a way, Trauma Pet - for all the problems they experienced tonight,
and notwithstanding their two-song set - looked like the best bet out
of the four bands. All the others, in one way or another, are living on
past glories. Trauma Pet looked, incongruously, like a band with a future.
more photos from this gig, find the bands by name here.