¡Forward, Russia!: Leeds Town Hall, Leeds – live review

¡Forward, Russia!

Leeds Town Hall, Leeds

3rd May 2014

We love running around with a wristband on at these multi-venue all day festivals, but sometimes you just have to stop – like, for example, when one of your favourite bands is playing and you’ve not seen them for seven years. Cath Aubergine gets slightly emotional over the return of ¡Forward, Russia!.

“Industry Overcomes All Things” say the letters on a panel high up above the Corinthian columns and marbled panels; “Trial By Jury” suggests another (er, not today thanks). Up the imposing front steps, past velvet roped stairways and into the cathedral-esque central Victoria Hall with its intricately tiled ceiling and colossal organ pipes looking down on us, there’s a palpable sense of history about Leeds Town Hall. A history of Victorian values, of industrialists’ ambition … and of one of those mildly cringeworthy occasions, this one around a decade ago, when the national music press visits a city that isn’t London, sees a handful of emerging bands and slaps a label on it as if to mark its territory. New Yorkshire, anyone?

The Cribs did quite well in the end, Kaiser Chiefs’ Ricky Wilson found himself a career that probably never crossed his mind when he was bouncing round the tiny stages of the Faversham or the Royal Park Cellars, and apparently The Pigeon Detectives are still going, somewhere, which was something of a surprise to discover. And here? A gathering of music fans, some mid-twenties, others twice that, but all a decade older than we were when we first pulled on those striking, unmistakable T-shirts. All around Leeds today you could see them, different colours, some well-worn and faded, others fresh as if preserved, all bearing the (not so) secret insignia ¡! – the sign of ¡Forward, Russia!. The great lost band of that mid-noughties indie explosion, their brief career a meteorite burning brightly against a less volatile and generally less interesting starfield.

They played their first gig sometime in mid 2004, though their faces were already familiar in local music circles: singer Tom Woodhead and bassist Rob Canning having served in The Black Helicopters, and guitarist Whiskas in Les Flames! (clearly a big fan of exclamation marks) with Neil Hanson now of Kleine Schweine. I saw Les Flames! once, supporting The Sonar Yen – another instant new-century memory trigger there for Mancunians and more – and recall little apart from Neil ricocheting around the crowd and indeed floor like his arse was on fire. Plus ca change there, then. I was lucky enough to catch ¡Forward, Russia! on one of their first ventures outside the Yorkshire borders when Manchester’s most clued-up promoter at the time High Voltage gave them an early-doors opening slot supporting famous-for-15-seconds US indie rockers The Bravery. A rather last-minute review assignment, I was unimpressed with the headliners (I’m left wondering if anyone’s record collection actually needs them; enjoy it while it lasts, boys – wasn’t wrong there, was I?) but blown away by the openers:

“They’re loud, fast and have been together just a few months, but they take the popular post-punk blueprint and inject it with a very large dose of adrenaline. The singer, a gangly type with unruly hair, rarely stays still for a second whilst dance-spiked riffs and breezy tunes bring to mind XTC if they’d done less acid and more speed. One track is even in 5 / 4 time which has got to be the ultimate spiky beat – aided by the drummer shouting 1 to 5 into a mic as she beats her kit into oblivion…”

There weren’t a lot of female drummers around back then, there weren’t actually that many women in indie bands at all in the early 2000s, but regardless of gender, Katie Nicholls – Whiskas’ little sister, whom I don’t think was even old enough to buy a drink at the time – remains one of the greatest drummers I’ve ever seen.

Yes, this is personal. To a point. Some say reviews shouldn’t be so, but why write about music in the first place if you don’t love music? You want dry commentary, it’s probably out there somewhere, or you can skip to the set lists at the bottom. There are so many great memories wrapped up in those exclamation marks – of the summer they played a different Leeds venue every couple of weeks and the Transpennine Express became almost a second home; of the “secret” gig under the name of “Welcome Megatron”; of a ridiculous long weekend travelling round Ireland watching them on unconquered territory, while the whole country went mad for some rugby tournament and tiny venues rather less so for spiked Yorkshire post-punk.

It was less than four years after that first impression when they hung up their uniforms, tired and disillusioned. They called it a hiatus, as bands do, and you rarely see them again after that. Katie went off to university with a rather more impressive “what I’ve done since I left school” story than the gap-yahs and fast-food fryers, Tom became a sought-after sound engineer both live and in the studio, Whiskas continued to basically run the underground Leeds music scene.

The rumours started, as they tend to here in the mid-2010s, with a flurry of activity on hitherto barely used social media accounts (it was all Myspace and forums back in their day – remember that?) – then the announcement of a special one-off reunion in honour of the Brudenell Social Club’s hundredth birthday. I was away at ATP, many others simply failed to get tickets; oh well we said, forget it we said, leave them in the past we said. I almost even believed it myself, until news of this second “one-off” – which genuinely was unexpected – almost caused an audible shriek of delight. Followed by panic – how big exactly is this Town Hall? Why does it have to be at a wristband festival as opposed to a gig for which you can buy normal tickets? How early do we need to get there to make sure? What if the bands on before them are shit and we’re missing good stuff? Is there a sneaky side door just in case? As it transpires, of course, the place is enormous, There probably would have been a sneaky side door had we needed one, though we may well still have been lost in there now if the expeditions to locate the toilets and the one bar serving draught are anything to go by. The bands? Well you’re always missing good stuff at wristband festivals, that’s just the way they are – Yuck, Los Campesinos! and Fat White Family are all playing in the university venues this evening, and any number of potentially great bands we’ve never heard of across the city – but you’d struggle to find better than the two great supports they’ve lined up for us here.

Lanterns On The Lake are the sound of northern latitudes. In reality they’re from not too far north of here, Newcastle or thereabouts, but they’re gazing out across that wild north-eastern coastline towards Arctic skies and frozen tundra. Their sound is a meeting of fragile, crystalline English folk and sweeping Sigur Ros landscapes; even Hazel Wilde’s voice has echoes of the sea, though tune in more finely and the reality of life in a northern city in these times of austerity darkens the dream. Just five strong, there’s still something almost orchestral about the way their pieces fit together to paint these pictures: the guitar atmospheres, the flights of violin. ‘Until The Colours Run’ , the title track from their recent second album, is fantastic here with lights in every hue dancing around the walls of this majestic building. Some of their more spectral moments are lost in crowd babble (yes, lads behind us, we’re excited about ¡Forward, Russia! too but how about a nice cup of shut-the-fuck-up in the meantime, yeah?) but you’re always going to get that playing to (largely) someone else’s crowd.

There’s a fair proportion of ¡Forward, Russia!’s crowd, though, that’s also I Like Trains‘ crowd. Back in the day the two bands played on the same bill on numerous occasions, and given that this was the era of internet forums you’d see a lot of the same usernames across both of theirs, so in a way it seems only right for Dave, Guy, Simon, Alistair and more recent acquisition Ian to warm up for their old friends. Not exactly known for the cheery demeanour of their work, they call it right opening with “A Father’s Son”, one of their more upbeat tracks which I always thought had something of a Chameleons feel to it – something that’s even more apparent a couple of songs down the line in a new track getting its public debut this evening (working title / setlisted “Prism”) which bodes very well indeed for album number four.

Yes, four. No idea how far along the road it is right now, but still, not bad for a band whose early repertoire of murder ballads and tales of unfortunate historical figures set to funereal goth-tinged post-rock-indie had them marked as a potential one-trick-pony even by people who really enjoyed the trick. (And let’s face it, if you’re going to have a kind of theme then that’s a pretty good one). Watching and listening tonight, at times I try and assume the mantle of someone who’s not seen them since their last appearance supporting ¡Forward, Russia!, at the Cockpit back in summer 2006 (a West Yorkshire mega-bill which was also the source of that picture of That Fucking Tank in their undies we like to roll out now and again here) – it’s quite a body of work they’ve gathered since then, and quite a few tricks too. The pulsating, electronically-enhanced “Mnemosyne” with back projections of atoms and asteroids, the elegiac beauty of “Terra Nova” detailing the final, rueful thoughts of Robert Falcon Scott as the three guitars twist high up to that lofty ceiling: two very different stations on the I Like Trains journey, but both sound greater tonight than they ever have. “Thank you for choosing I Like Trains” deadpans singer Dave Martin in the manner of those recorded messages you get on actual trains, introducing final song “Reykjavik” – and as its traditional post-rock three-guitar pile-up reaches its climax, some extra words slip into the mix: “Turn your ships around, we are all armadas now”. A tantalising taste of things to come…..

The stage is empty, but lights flicker and there’s a repetitive Nintendo-like keyboard riff coming through the PA – just the way it always used to be, and then they’d bound on in their uniform T-shirts (black insignia on white – the “replica kits” for fans available from the merch were always dark and usually coloured) and Tom would grasp the microphone in both fists and sing the opening words of “Thirteen” and then the rest of them would crash in and he’d be bouncing off anything and everything, almost breathless, until he got to the chorus and then the microphone cable would be wrapped around his neck and his wrists and the crowd would erupt and… well, the crowd doesn’t erupt quite as it used to; never mind the ten years older thing there’s also the we are in a dead posh building thing, but everything else is exactly as it was, a time capsule in musical form – and a bloody great raucous little tune. Their breakthrough single and perennial set opener, it’s still one hell of a starting pistol.

It’s probably also the only time you’ll hear the words “tegument” and “politburo” in a pop song. You see, ¡Forward, Russia! were always so much more than most of those mid-noughties spiky-spiky indie-disco acts, even when that was largely the company they were keeping. Tom Woodhead’s lyrics still blow my mind today, even if I’ll freely admit I haven’t the faintest idea what he’s on about a lot of the time. Both albums came with a lyric sheet, and not since my teens had I pored over songwords to such an extent, looking for clues whilst admiring his oblique poetry and the sheer scope of his mind. And when the first album era of numbering songs in the order they were written in lieu of titles came to an end, even the titles intrigued: “Don’t be a Doctor”, “Gravity & Heat” are both played tonight (“Fosbury In Discontent” isn’t, but if we’re talking uniquely bewildering names…). I’d wondered what sort of a set they’d do: it’s no secret that the leap forward in the two years between albums was too much for some fans, as short sharp shocks of punk-funk were replaced by progressive epics from which even the band, at times, appeared to want to distance themselves a little. It would have been easy to just bang out the first album in full – seems to be what everyone’s doing these days anyway – but I’m so glad they didn’t. Maybe this is one step too personal, but 2008 was a particularly dark time and this album with its raw bloodied imagery and overwhelming air of catharsis was a valued companion.

Enough of that anyway, there’s a gig to get on with. “Bring that Jolly Roger on home”, as the verse of “Seven” goes – no, me neither, but fuck it, let’s dance. There’s flying beer. There’s Kleine Schweine Neil pissed out of his brains trying to start a moshpit. And then there’s one of the greatest sequences of music one could wish for. The brash, punky singalong of debut single (and later reissue) “Nine”. The incredible “Sixteen”, with Tom and Katie trading lines of sadness and regret before the whole thing explodes, her shouting numbers at him like some psychotic drill sergeant while beating her kit into oblivion – was this the song I was referring to in that early review? – while his voice clambers octaves, his eyes wild as ever. And finally, and finally… if you’re going to burn out fast, then there could be few better ways to go than this. A song that’s so momentously, spine-tinglingly stunning it leaves you wondering what could have been, yet understanding that there won’t be any more: “Spanish Triangles”, the last track on the last album which just sounds like the end of everything. It also, at the time, sounded as much like I Like Trains as it did ¡Forward, Russia!, with a slow-building tower of guitar effects and those final words laden with gravitas: “Turn your ships around, we are all armadas now”. Again and again. The guitars swirl – there’s an extra guitarist on stage with them now – and the drums seem to come from everywhere, and the lights and the noise there must be – I don’t know because time’s stopped – fully five minutes of this, crashing and spiralling ever higher… and then they’re gone. Snap your fingers and we’re back in 2014.

If this is the last we see of them, then what a way to go out. We don’t know, though I can’t see them milking it too much, becoming one of those self-tribute acts traipsing out the oldies to ever thinner crowds. Lives have moved on, and they always seemed to have way too much self-respect for that treadmill anyway. And me, I never want to become one of those people for whom music is synonymous with nostalgia; I still hope an unknown opening support band will blow me away (though I’m resigned to the fact that this is less likely with each advancing year). But tonight the middle-aged were young again, the twentysomethings were teenagers falling in love with live music for the first time. They say the past is another country – and it’s true: the country in question being Belgium. As in, I usually have a great time when I visit, but wouldn’t actually want to live there.

~
 

I Like Trains set list

  • 1. A Father’s Son
  • 2. Mnemosyne
  • 3. The Shallows
  • 4. Prism
  • 5. A Rook House For Bobby
  • 6. Voice Of Reason
  • 7. 451 (AKA “We Used To Talk”)
  • 8. Terra Nova
  • 9. Reykjavik

¡Forward, Russia! set list

  • 1. Thirteen
  • 2. Don’t Reinvent What You Don’t Understand
  • 3. Don’t be a Doctor
  • 4. Twelve
  • 5. A Shadow Is a Shadow Is a Shadow
  • 6. Seven
  • 7. Gravity & Heat
  • 8. Sixteen
  • 9. Nine
  • 10. Fifteen, Part II
  • 11. Spanish Triangles

All words by Cath Aubergine, more writing by Cath on Louder Than War can be found here. Photographs by I Like Trains with thanks – visit their website here.

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