I find myself at the Birmingham Institute once again for an event that leaves me with a sense of excitement and trepidation. Tonight I get to witness THE SISTERS OF MERCY live for the first time. I have an extensive collection of their records and CDs acquired over decades, including some rather rear pieces of vinyl, so they clearly hold a special place in my heart. The Institute is a grand old building that poses an interest backdrop to the (hopefully) monochrome cool of Andrew Eldritch and Co. The Sisters of Mercy are a divisive band. It is hard to find a rock night where you will not hear Temple Of Love or This Corrosion at some point during the evening. That said they have a questionable reputation as a live band with suggestions that Mr Eldritch is merely topping up his bank account, fueled perhaps by the fact that the Sisters have not released new music to the general public since 1993. Despite this they evoke a passion among their fans clearly demonstrated by a healthy turnout tonight. Eldritch recently suggested that he would release a new record should Donald Trump be elected president of the USA. This suggests that there may be fire in the belly of this gothic Godfather yet. Time will tell.
Tonight we are treated to a quality support act in the form of THE MEMBRANES They are another band I have never seen live and am eager to see what these Lancastrians have in store. The Membranes have a history dating back to 1980 that commands the respect of many bands that have followed in their wake. The three piece hit the stage with a gleeful abandon that has to be admired. Attention is immediately grabbed and held throughout their set which includes songs both new and old. We are informed that this is their first gig in the area for several decades, the last being ‘over the road’ which I take to mean the old Irish Centre. The vigour at which all three members attack their set belies this fact. They stomp and strut, posture and leer, thrust and shimmy in a manner that is both sinister and entertaining. Their brand of noisy horror punk goes down a treat, with the crowd loving the engaging performance and quality music. Frankly, THE MEMBRANES are just fucking cool and I want a t shirt NOW. This would be a hard act to follow for any headline band.
While The Membranes performed brilliantly under perfunctory venue lighting and not an ounce of dry ice, no one is under any doubt that things will be different for THE SISTERS OF MERCY. There is a scene joke that you never really see Andrew Eldritch perform because there is always way too much dry ice. The light’s dim and a seeming army of smoke machines groan under the pressure of recreating a pea souper which is quickly carved up by pan and scan beams of cold light.
Thankfully we can actually see glimpses of the band tonight, in the form of a laptop guru, two guitarists and of course commander Eldritch. Things start off in a promising fashion with the guitar heavy More, Ribbons, Dr Jeep and Detonation Boulevard, all culled from the 1990 album Vision Thing. This album was noted to be more rocky than its predecessors and this very much appears to be the angle that the 2016 incarnation of the Sisters live act are taking. Whether or not this is a good thing is debatable at this stage. The guitars are very high in the mix, at times obscuring Eldritch’s deep croon and generally overpowering the bass lines which the songs so often rely upon. As the set progresses through the older material the debate very much falls on the side of ‘turn those bloody guitars down’ as the minimal cool of Alice and Marian is swamped by what I can only describe as ‘love metal’ versions of these classics. You can sense the shuddering of the old school section of the crowd.
As a virgin to the Sisters live experience I am treated to their oft played unreleased tracks Crash and Burn, Arms and Summer. If a new Sisters album is forthcoming these are strong tracks worthy of inclusion. The set progresses with some songs faring better than others, No Time To Cry works rather wonderfully while Dominion/Mother Russia struggle under the battling dual guitar attack. This is very much the essence of tonight’s show. The band clearly possesses two talented and charismatic guitarists, one of whom could be a clone of Mr Eldritch from what little I could see through the haze. However, these two presences may as well be axe wielding sentinels barring the way to the front of the stage, only letting uncle Andrew through for fleeting moments before he retreats into the smoke once more. The overzealous fret wanking becomes somewhat tiresome and only serves to dispel some of the unquestionable magic held by much of the Sisters back catalogue.
Encore number one restores a little hope as Something Fast sound bombastic and emotional. However, perhaps the Sisters finest moment, Lucretia My Reflection is turned into a weak and staggering shadow of its former self, a trough only dug deeper by the fact that an up tempo and driving version of Vision Thing sounds rather good. Encore number two includes First and Last and Always and Temple of Love which are delivered in a frantic and rock guitar heavy fashion before the lush organ intro to This Corrosion heralds the beginning of the end of the set. An undeniable classic, this fairs a little better and it is hard not to sing along and grin in a most ungoth way until the lights fade and the fog disperses. However, ultimately, the evenings performance feels unfocused, misguided and a partially missed opportunity. I suspect the talent that made Eldritch such an essential part of the 80s and 90s alternative music scene is still lurking in the fog somewhere, and I’ll keep hoping that a new release will happen and perhaps bring with it a series of more solid live performances.
Tonight, THE MEMBRANES stroll easily home with the performance of the evening award.