It felt appropriate that for the opening few moments of The Fall’s gig at The Metro Theatre lead singer Mark E. Smith could be heard but not seen. After all, his unique tones have remained the band’s only real constant over the years. As members have come and gone and styles have been adopted and then promptly discarded, that howl has been the staple, the whiskey-soaked words providing the fulcrum for a group once described by John Peel as ‘always different, always the same.’
The latest iteration of The Fall – with Smith’s wife Elena handling keyboard and vocal duties – certainly seems to be one of the most functional. There was none of the onstage friction that has occasionally dogged the band in the past, and indeed all concerned seemed to be having a genuinely good time. Dressed in a suit jacket and open necked shirt, Smith wandered around the space, customarily fiddling with his bandmates’ equipment. Though this behaviour has resulted in some on stage punch ups in the past, none of the other players seemed to mind in the slightest, and continually shot each other warm smiles.
The band’s rhythm section was something to behold, and provided the bedrock for the gig. Blistering drum tattoos held the piece in place, as songs unfurled in slow, hypnotic patterns. Tracks like Bury, Wolf Kidult Man and Dedication Not Medication took on cathartic properties, finding power through repetition.
That said, though it might be a cliché to complain about a band favouring their newer material, no one could blame a long term fan for being slightly disappointed with the setlist, if not the execution. The majority of the set was taken from two of the band’s most recent albums, the admittedly powerful Sub-Lingual Tablet and Your Future Our Clutter, and though some of the songs are among the best Smith has written over the last decade, the non-appearance of classics like How I Wrote Elastic Man, Totally Wired and The Classical was significantly felt.
But such gripes are minor. As Smith stalked the stage, spasmodically jerking his microphone into his bandmates’ faces so they might bark out choruses, he grew increasingly hypnotic. By the end of the seventy minute set, he had completely transformed, and as his guttural voice got deeper and deeper, the whole room seemed to draw closer to him. He is as engaging a frontman as any other of recent memory, and particularly throughout the set’s last two numbers appeared to be channelling a very significant force.
He didn’t really speak to the audience. But he didn’t have to. The songs, as knotted and harsh as they are, burst with humanity and with power, and the deeper we got into the set, the stronger the emotional content connected. By the time Smith and his cohort returned for a lengthy encore, we were deep below the surface; exploring virgin territory; finding ourselves oddly and strikingly moved.