By way of introduction…
I should start by saying that this blog post comes with a soundtrack, thanks to the magic of Spotify playlists.
Where I’ve been able to find the right songs or identify what was played in any way I’ve included them here.
(This is where I look sideways at Black Moth Super Rainbow – if anybody knows what their setlist was, please enlighten me somehow, as I’d like to include them in this playlist too.)
Sometimes being unwell has an upside…
One morning back in March, I was home from work because I was really quite ill. It was pretty horrible, but it had an upside.It was the day of the Southbank Centre members-only ticket release for their annual Meltdown festival. This year curated by The Cure frontman Robert Smith… which meant that there were some bands I was really pleased that I’d get a chance to see. Even better, because I’m a member, I actually had a chance to get tickets that day before they sold out.
In that first release, I picked up tickets for NIN, Mogwai and the Psychedelic Furs. Okay, I didn’t really buy tickets for the Psychedelic Furs… I bought tickets to see their support act (The Church) as I’ve been a fan of theirs since the 1990s, but the Furs are okay too and seeing them wasn’t exactly going to be a hardship.
Then, in April, the second round of acts was announced… Including Maybeshewill. Which is slightly odd, since they broke up in 2016. Apparently, a personal invitation from The Cure frontman and festival curator Robert Smith was enough to make them get back together for a one-off gig. Well, one-off except for a practice gig, anyway. So tickets were acquired to go see them, too.
Then Agam announced a gig just after the festival, which caught my attention… so another ticket was acquired!
Now, let’s fast forward to the start of the festival
15th June – The Church (supporting The Psychedelic Furs)
Before the gig
Meltdown works a bit differently to other gigs. There’s no queue, as such. You all just mill around in the very civilised Southbank Centre until it’s time to go in. This time I didn’t stay in the members’ area as it was just too hot… so I went downstairs and lingered around the 5th floor bars, striking up conversations with other gig-goers.
Conversations with a few of them helped build up my interest in the headliners, making it very clear that they’re very much a see-them-live band and good at putting on a show.
Support – The Church
As mentioned previously, The Church (website currently not working for me at time of writing – here’s a facebook link instead, in case it’s still not working) were actually the support act, but they were the reason I bought a ticket. That’s not to say I wasn’t looking forward to seeing the furs as well, but I was there for The Church.
They were, as expected, great, but with support band sound.
Support acts always have a bit of a raw deal, as they never get the whole stage and never quite get the same quality of sound as the main acts – which is fair. The venue and crew focus on getting everything ready for the main act, and the support act gets tucked in alongside.
Since they’ve been around more than 30 years, and often as a support act in this hemisphere, they knew what they were there for (to get everyone ready to see the main act) and so kept things tight and largely banter-free. They also, alas, just didn’t have the volume turned up enough – the only real complaint I have about the Meltdown festival, I think.
A great act, but this was not the optimal way to see them… although continuing to play out “Miami” as the stage crew dismantled their gear around them was pretty epic, finishing just as the final acoustic guitar was removed from its player’s hands as the last chords were played. So very, very rock and roll.
I loved seeing them, and it left me certain that I wanted to see them as a headliner. But being an antipodean band, I wasn’t sure when I’d get the chance… but we’ll come back to that!
Headliner – The Psychedelic Furs
I didn’t know The Psychedelic Furs very well before seeing them live, although I knew I’d generally liked what I’d heard. I went along with a “well, I’ll be happy to see them” sensibility, having heard they’re a good live act.
Having now seen them live: Fπ¢king awesome.
They surpassed expectations. I can take or leave much of their recorded work – if it’s playing, it’s entirely listenable, but I want to see them live again. Now whenever I listen to recordings (and I do), I keep thinking “it’s good, but it was fuller and had more impact live”.
I’m trying to pick out what the highlights were, but mostly I can only narrow it down to “the bit after they came on stage, but before I left the building”.
I want to see them live again. You should too. They are clearly a live act.
Side-gig: The Church – 16 Jun
So, as it turns out, there was a Church headline gig the very next night which was only almost sold-out.
It was actually part of a weekend-long mini-festival titled “A Weekend Crusade” at Bush Hall in Shepherd’s Bush. I’d have loved to go to the whole event, but I couldn’t manage it financially or physically and most of the events that made it up were already sold out. So I settled for the opening evening gig instead.
Had the lineup also included a set from Kilbey Kennedy (I’m also a fan of All India Radio – who provide the “Kennedy” half of that side project) then I’d have probably broken the bank to go to all of it, but there wasn’t, so I managed to resist.
It was probably unwise to go at all, given how rough I was feeling, but it was worth it. A fun gig, lots of banter and a good, friendly crowd and friendly venue… and Katrina came along too, being not entirely unfamiliar with their works. That’s always a plus!
Because this wasn’t a meltdown gig, it’s not in the playlist. The setlist can be found here, though – It was in two parts:
Part One part was largely made up of tracks from Hologram of Baal and Starfish. The latter of which is 30 years old this year, and the former of which is 20 years old this year and (regrettably) not on spotify, so not on the playlist.
Part Two was a much more general setlist, including some from the current album – Man Woman Life Death Infinity – and a smattering of others.
It was an amazing gig, and I enjoyed every moment, even if I was pretty much ready to collapse in a heap afterwards!
Mogwai (and Kathryn Joseph) – 21 Jun
Before the gig
The following Thursday, I spent a large part of my day with Mogwai turned up on my headphones – both on the train and at work. Partly to drown out other people’s loud phone conversations, but mostly getting my ears thoroughly ready to see Mogwai… who I’d been warned have a tendency to be a bit loud.
They are another “I don’t know them well but like what I know” band. I’ve heard a lot of their work in passing, and I’ve really appreciated their soundtrack work whenever I’ve heard it.
While waiting, I had my usual “on my own in the Southbank Centre members-area” problem. I tried to buy a drink and was handed two because it was happy hour at the members’ bar! Such are the perils (?) of going to gigs solo.
Even so, I started to realise what I was in for while I drank my pair of drinks – as a steady rumbling sound was shaking through the whole Royal Festival Hall building as the soundchecks progressed…
This time I didn’t really manage to strike up any conversations before going in, but once I was in the auditorium I did spend a while chatting with two chaps next to me. They were chatty, approachable and made me feel a lot less like an outsider among superfans. I didn’t catch either of their names, but thanks guys – it helped!
Support – Kathryn Joseph
When it came to time for the support act, I wasn’t sure what to expect. A two-piece with just piano+vocals and drums? Supporting Mogwai? I was unsure how it’d work… but as it turned out it worked very well indeed.
Keep an eye out for Kathryn Joseph – particularly live. To my mind, the recordings lose something, although they’re still very good. But I think the “something” that those recordings miss is what made her set really work for me.
If I was pushed to describe the set, I’d go with “Shades of melancholy Tori Amos, hints of Down by the Water era PJ Harvey and a touch of later Kate Bush”.
It’s clearly Kathryn herself who’s in the driving seat, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t call out the drummer and ambient-electronic-stuff-person, who I think is Marcus Mackay (I hope I’ve identified the correct human – please correct me if I’m wrong). His contributions were something of a differentiator, and they’re less prominent on the recordings – which I think is why I preferred the live act.
When I was in the room, the music caught me, though. It hooked straight into my brain and made me listen and feel. Powerful stuff.
Headline – Mogwai
Soon after Mogwai came on, I quickly noticed that the general upward trend in the volume levels across the whole festival was continuing. Every headline act I saw in the Royal Festival Hall was louder than the one before them – and Mogwai were no exception.
My original twitter review for Mogwai still sums it up nicely for me:
Things started quite slow, then built… and built… and built.
However much I might want to say more, I can’t think of words that do more justice than the ones above, so I’ll just leave it there.
Nine Inch Nails (and Black Moth Super Rainbow) – 22 Jun
Before the gig
I had been slightly wary of seeing Nine Inch Nails again, as I’ve been less into some of their more recent releases… but listening to Bad Witch on my way to work on the morning of the gig sorted me out. I was straight back into it, and I could really see the new material really working in the Royal Festival Hall.
Much like every gig so far in this review, I wasn’t sure about going at all. I was quite, quite ill and having to pace myself to avoid literally collapsing… but not only was I looking forward to it, I was meeting Ross there and I had his ticket. While I’m sure we’d have made it work if I didn’t make it, obligation gave me the nudge I needed to stop me flaking out.
Support – Black Moth Super Rainbow
I’m still not sure what to make of Black Moth Super Rainbow. I think I liked them, but I’m not sure.
Maybe? They were certainly something.
Given my previous experiences with NIN’s support acts, I think that counts as a glowing review, though. I’m not sure they’re a band I’ll generally listen to, but if I ever want to put a weird, melancholy, distorted, trippy soundtrack to something… well, I have more options now.
I think I can call that a positive review of BMSR, as I like music to challenge me occasionally. Personally, I don’t think they grabbed me as much as the other meltdown support acts… but that’s being a bit unfair as they certainly stood out!
Headline – Nine Inch Nails
As for NIN themselves, I really enjoyed the gig. I still don’t really get the back half of “Great Destroyer”, and generally wish it was shorter… especially as I think it’s longer live than on the album. But everything else was solid, wall-to-wall catharsis in musical form – including covers of both Bowie (I’m Afraid of Americans) and Gary Numan (Metal).
Trent Reznor was also in a more talkative form than he’s been at past gigs I’ve been to, as well – which was actually pretty cool. Hearing him put context to “The Fragile” really added something, especially as they proceeded to play huge chunks of it!
As for the new material; other fans might be questioning it, but I’ve really been enjoying it… and it really did work live and in the venue, too. I’d have preferred it if they’d had an actual saxophonist for “Play The Goddamned Part“, though – just to see the looks on people’s faces!
It was also good to have company for the gig, too – thanks Ross!
Maybeshewill (and ILikeTrains) – 24 Jun
Before the gig – Pumarosa
Katrina and I arrived in good time on Sunday to see Maybeshewill as my final Meltdown gig. It was a blindingly hot day – weather statistic say it was only 24 Celsius but it felt a lot hotter!
We tried going up to the members’ area of the Southbank Centre to wait beforehand, but the sun-facing, two-story windows made that a little less than comfortable.
So we spent a little while on the fifth-floor balcony instead, watching Pumarosa perform for a while. Then we hid from the evil day-star in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall – still able to hear Pumarosa, albeit less clearly.
They were another case of a band I didn’t plan to see, but where I came home as a fan. Priestess has ended up featuring quite strongly on my recent listening roster… and I tracked down their setlist and added it to the playlist as if I’d gone to their gig on purpose!
They also get massive respect from me for just being able to survive playing under that scorching sun.
Support – I Like Trains
I’ve quite liked I Like Trains in an idle kind of way for a while… they’ve never quite been a band I was in the mood to listen to, but I could always appreciate them when I did.
With an intro like that, you’d think I didn’t enjoy the gig, but you’d be wrong. Their vocals may be quite maudlin and inclined towards the pessimistic… but in terms of sound, once you’re in the venue with them they are engaging and actually even uplifting at times.
Musically, that is. I don’t think I can ever accuse
I Like Trains of being lyrically uplifting, given their frequently dark subject matter. Take Mnemosyne, which is musically compelling and uplifting, despite more than slightly bleak when you actually stop and pay attention to the lyrics.
Headline – Maybeshewill
I was introduced to Maybeshewill by the chap who’s now my boss’s boss at work. I didn’t really get into them so much at first, but when I came back to them a little later I was suddenly a convert. I think that some of my problems with them came because a lot of their earlier releases were joint releases or collaborations with other artists, and the other artists weren’t my cup of tea. Once I got past that, I was sold.
As mentioned previously, they actually disbanded in 2016 and this was a bit of a reunion gig. Other than a warmup gig, it was also their first gig since breaking up. As such, I think there may have been a couple of bumps… timing being slightly less tight or (on one notable and lampshaded occasion) forgetting the order of their setlist!
“This is Critical Distance”, “No it isn’t!”
In all cases, they recovered nicely and pulled everything back into line for their own brand of powerful, upbeat instrumental rock. Nobody else really does quite what they do, or at least, not in a way I’ve heard and in a way that I’ve liked.
They were joined on stage by brass and string sections, which also really added something. It maintained and even increased the depth and richness of sound that’s there on some of the recorded tracks on the albums, but would otherwise be hard to reproduce on stage with sampled audio.
The Gig That Got Away – Agam
Alas, my illness finally caught up with me, and I had to bow out of going to see Agam. I was gutted, but it was the right call. I’d been looking forward to hearing them perform their brand of Carnatic Progressive rock. It’s not a combination that I’d ever have expected to see, but it really, really works.
I also hear that they’re really good at working with audiences, helping them to understand how and why their music is the way it is, and teaching them how to sing along.
If I get a chance, I’d still like to see them.
A Final Note
To finish on a more positive note, over the course of Meltdown 2018, I went to gigs to enjoy particular bands, and I did enjoy those bands… But I was also blown away by the bands I *didn’t* set out to see!
I went for The Church and discovered how good The Psychedelic Furs are live.
I went for Mogwai and discovered Kathryn Joseph.
I went for NIN and was confused (in a good way) by BMSR.
I went for Maybeshewill, enjoyed iLikeTrains and discovered Pumarosa.
The support acts were amazing and well suited to the main acts, while also being different enough to stand out, which is a sign of some excellent festival curation.
Well done Robert Smith!