Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Islington Academy, May 8

The smaller upstairs section of Islington Garage is still pretty dead around 7:30pm. There's a weird Tim Burton version of Michael Jackson with Robert Smith hair lurking in the corner. For a second, I wonder if it's Orange singer Joe Dexter. Nah, the guy in the videos looks way cooler than that. Subtler. More stylish - I mean, he's friends with Tim Armstrong. This guy looks like an over-compensating Nutcracker Prince/Joe Dexter groupie that got got the look wrong...

Meanwhile, there's an intense young dude on stage playing ska to a backing track. It's pretty weird. The midi-sounding repetitive backup music (simple drums, same two bass notes) makes it sound like he should be playing a mall with a cymbal on his back and a pet monkey. Only it's much darker than that. His up-tempo, Desmond Dekker-sounding numbers are peppered with titles (and choruses) like "Ain't Got No Soul" and "That's Why I Hit the Bottle".

The empty hall and the intensity of Robb 'The One Man Ska Explosion' Blake's angry ballads makes it a pretty awkward scene to swallow. And to make matters worse, in-between songs Blake banters like Salisbury's version of David Brent, going on about "all the real musicians" coming up next. "I've got some CDs on sale", he says. "Buy them, steal them, whatever... They're only five pounds. Go on. Just enough for the train ride home..."

Using the back of the room as a kind of awkwardness buffer, I'm stirred to my feet by the post-hardcore, punk-rock growls of Hearts Under Fire. Without laying eyes on them, they sound like a young Thrice (maybe more Aiden in the end). And I'm actually shocked when I get up and lay eyes on four chicks - I just wasn't expecting it.

Lead vocalist Mary O'Reagan has a powerful voice that sounds best under duress, tailing off in a series of powerful screams and note-perfect power melodies. Drummer Lexi Clark keeps things tight and interesting at the back. And guitarists Nicky Day and Steph Forrow keep things tidy in the shadows. But the bass is way too loud, overpowering everything else on stage. And overall, Hearts Under Fire's fast, edgier songs sound much better than their slower ones, that skirt that dreadful Evanescence, relationship power-rock sound - their new single's called "It's Not Me, It's You".

Suddenly, Tim Burton's Michael Jackson doodle emerges from the cobwebs and hits the stage. It is him! I'm genuinely shocked. This is a guy Tim Armstrong signed when he was 16? He looks more like one of the kids that didn't make the Mickey Mouse Club. Or the kid that tries so hard to fit in it's actually a bit creepy. I still can't believe this pointy-footed urchin covering amps with Union Jacks and wrapping microphones with faerie lights is the same guy.

After a long change over, Orange kick off with new single "Everything I Need". And straight away, their performance is alarmingly unimpressive. The sound is terrible. The sound-guy has to be a bassist, because again, the bass is the loudest thing on stage. Unfortunately, it can't hide Dexter's inability to hit a note.

At one point, guitarist Perry Laddish takes over lead vocals and suddenly the band sounds half decent. Which leads to another pretty awkward moment when, after the song, Dexter says to Laddish, "Sounds like I've got some competition after that performance Perry". Meanwhile, tumbleweeds crash into each other on the empty dancefloor.

On stage, Dexter's just such an unlikeable character. He doesn't reign in his performance at all to compensate for the small turn out, terrible sound and weak performance. Instead, he raises his arms like Jared Leto on a mountain top and winks and pulls these stupid faces like he's playing to a stadium full of 13 year old girls. It wouldn't matter so much if the dude could sing.

After Orange I'm pretty shell-shocked and don't stick around for much of New Riot's set. But straight away, their fun blend of party-starting ska-punk sounds like a million bucks. Suddenly, playing after Orange doesn't seem so bad. They remind me of old Less Than Jake, Mad Caddies and Zebrahead. Tight, in tune and ready to riot.

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