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The Modern: Glammed-up eighties-ism or what?The Modern
Suzerain
Swarf
Receiver

Underworld, London
Saturday November 12 2005


Now here's an interesting variety pack of a gig. The glammed-up eighties-isms of The Modern head up a bill of four very different bands, yet all with a vague connection in that they're all pop groups of one sort or another. If you put the assorted genres, sounds and influences on display tonight into a venn diagram, the bit where all the circles overlap would be marked 'pop'. And that's fine by me. A well-turned pop song, sparky and immediate, is a fine thing - and not at all an easy trick to pull out of the musical hat. Let's see how tonight's contenders fare.

There's a certain air of new-band nerves about Receiver, which is perhaps a slightly misleading state of affairs. Sure, the band is only a few gigs old, but frontwoman Kym BrownReceiver has a bit of previous as a solo artist in her native Canada. She released her debut album as far back as 1999, when her music comprised 'electronic soundscapes and samples', apparently.

Well, things have certainly changed in that department. Now, she's toting a Gibson SG in a manner that suggests she knows exactly how to chop out a killer riff, and she's part of a band who are clearly no strangers to the consulting rooms of Doctor Rock. Receiver crank it up and whack it out with a certain no-frills attitude, the boys in the band keeping their heads down and the noises building. It's gutsy stuff, the guitars making a mighty, astringent sound, the drums kicking it all forward. And yes, Kym does indeed know how to do that killer riff thing, even as she lightens the overall effect with her vocals, which dance nimbly around the churning music like children round a bonfire. A few extra-heavy songs hint that Receiver possibly see themselves making headway at the grungy end of the rock scene, but for my money their true metier is in the area of punchy, Primitives-style indie rock. They've pretty much got it bang-on already.

Not for the first time, Swarf find themselves in the position of being the odd band out. The only all-electronic act on a bill which is otherwise crowded with guitar bands, they ease into their set with some slowies and smoochies - a bit of a counter-intuitive move, in a way, Swarfgiven that Receiver whipped up a wave of energy upon which Swarf could've surfed their way to instant appreciation if they'd come in fast and hard with some of their uptempo numbers.

But Swarf have an uncanny knack of taking a potentially awkward situation and making it work - and here, they do it again. Little by little, the crowd pays attention, intrigued by this band that suddenly sounds so different, and looks different, too. Swarf have gone for the flower power option again tonight, but I'm pleased to note that the formal, funereal arrangements they rather incongruously used before have now given way to a veritable mass of randomy scattered colourful blooms. The stage looks like an explosion at the Chelsea Flower Show, and it all comes across as playful and fun. You see, it's all in the arrangements. As with the flowers, so with the music. By the time Swarf prod the accelerator and plunge into a substantially reworked 'Fall' - all phat analogue squelches and fizzes - there's an enthusiastic crowd getting into the groove down the front. In particular, a gaggle of teenage girls, presumably fans of one of the other bands, are instant converts to the Swarf cause. 'You're brilliant!' one of them shouts, sincerely, if a little drunkenly, in a between-song lull. Vocalist Liz does the tiniest of double-takes, and instantly recovers herself: 'Oh...thank you!' Ah, you know you're making it as a band when you get the teenage girls on your side, that's what I say.

We get a merry romp through 'Drown' to wrap things up, and Swarf leave the stage knowing they've got another good 'un safely in the bag. Unlike their flowers, which are promptly stolen by the teenage girls.

Here comes the band the girl gang particularly wants to see. SuzerainSuzerain hail from the west London hinterland of Staines - an ancient Saxon settlement, the only town ever to be named after a pile of stones, and some would say it hasn't improved much in the centuries since. But Staines is something of a cultural hot spot these days, for current indie chart heroes Hard Fi are Staines lads, and I'm sure Suzerain would very much like to grab some of that success for themselves.

And yes, Suzerain are every inch the well-groomed indie heroes in the making. The vocalist is obviously the heart-throb of the bunch, in his just-so floppy fringe and an outfit that's a style riot of conflicting stripes. The band makes a big, blustering rock noise, and they've got a big, enthusiastic fanbase cheering every move. Suzerain's fan clubThe girl gang creates a mosh within the mosh, a non-stop swirl of indie chick hairstyles, and the band powers ever onwards, big song after big song.

Trouble is, although they've got an impressively massive sound, I'm not at all sure Suzerain have the songwriting skills to go with it. At any rate, I can't pick out much in the way of hooks or choruses, those essential elements which any band aspiring to chart smasherooniedom (or at least a spot on the XFM playlist) really must have by the bucketload. Maybe I'm missing something here - hell, maybe I'm just twenty-odd years too old and the wrong gender - but Suzerain don't really do anything for me. One for the ladies, certainly. But not for me.

What do we need to know about The Modern? I can give you the essential coordinates in five words: very styled, very Kim Wilde. Here's a band soaked in the essence of 1984, a band which probably counts as its principal influences early editions of the Now That's What I Call Music chart hit compilations, rather than the work of any particular individual artist. The concept behind The Modern is simple: back to the future. Back, to be exact, to the heady days of eighties pop. The ModernThey've absorbed it all, studied every move, every hairstyle, every jacket-with-the-sleeves-rolled-up pose, and most of all they've scrutinized every nuance and note of the music. And then they've set about doing it all themselves.

If all this makes The Modern sound derivative - well, yes. Of course they are. That's the whole point. They're a one-band distillation of the 1980s hit parade, a shameless collision of Kim Wilde, Duran Duran, Howard Jones, Eurythmics, Thompson Twins....oh, and there's probably a bit of Belle Stars in there, too. It's all there in the songs, and in the band's visuals - their keyboard stands, streamlined white affairs, look like they were nicked from the set of an Ultravox video. The vocalist - glam and glacial, impeccably groomed, as if she glances into the mirror every morning and sees Debbie Harry looking back at her - is the undeniable focal point of the show, but every member of the band has their own look, as if they're already planning the Smash Hits photo spread. Fans of vintage tech might even like to note the presence of a Revox B77 reel-to-reel tape machine on stage, for that classic Human League touch. I can't tell if it's there for any bona-fide sound-generation, or if it's just a mascot, but it just goes to show - this is a band so totally into their schtick, they're prepared to get the details just right.

All the aforegoing, of course, omits one vital point. Aside from remarking that The Modern sound a bit like every eighties chart star you can think of, I haven't mentioned the music. Trouble is, once you've noted the band's period influences, so meticulously paraded, so convincingly recreated, I'm not at all sure that The Modern The Modernhave much in the way of their own musical ideas to offer. Certainly, watching the band go through their paces with confident, professional verve, I'm not struck by any particular song from their set which makes me think, 'Aha - now this is a good one!' It all sounds decent enough, but it also sounds like much of an eighties muchness.

I wonder how The Modern would fare if we really were living in the eighties, and they were having to mix it for real with their influences? Deprived of the novelty factor of their concept and image, would their songwriting hold up? I have my doubts. We'll leave the jury out on this one, until I can see the band again, and maybe absorb a tune or two. As it is, on the way out of the venue, the song that's running round and round inside my head is Kim Wilde's 'Kids In America' - and that's strange, since that song was not played by any band, or the DJ, at the gig tonight. This must be the suggestive power of The Modern's retro obsession at work, which is interesting in itself, I suppose. But how much better it would be if the song in my head at the end of the night was one of The Modern's own numbers.

 

Essential Links:


The Modern: Website | MySpace

Suzerain: Website | MySpace

Swarf: Website | MySpace

Receiver: Website | MySpace

For more photos from this gig, find the bands by name here.

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  Page credits: Review, photos and construction by Michael Johnson.
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