thu 01/10/2020

Marc Almond, John Harle, The Tyburn Tree, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Marc Almond, John Harle, The Tyburn Tree, Barbican

Marc Almond, John Harle, The Tyburn Tree, Barbican

The musical undead walk amongst us in this prog-rock evocation of dark London

Harle and Almond: devilish duo

On paper this sounded promising: a gothicky song-cycle of historical London and the dark, seamy side of the city, performed a stone’s throw from where they do Jack the Ripper tours. Lead performers were Marc Almond, whose distinctive voice we have loved for 30 years, ever since his pervy soul debut with Soft Cell, and John Harle, a more than useful jazzy classicist who is often original and known for his TV theme tunes. Thown in the mix was some Iain Sinclair psycho-geography.

On paper this sounded promising: a gothicky song-cycle of historical London and the dark, seamy side of the city, performed a stone’s throw from where they do Jack the Ripper tours. Lead performers were Marc Almond, whose distinctive voice we have loved for 30 years, ever since his pervy soul debut with Soft Cell, and John Harle, a more than useful jazzy classicist who is often original and known for his TV theme tunes. Thown in the mix was some Iain Sinclair psycho-geography. An intriguing combination with a positively reviewed album The Tyburn Tree, of which this show was a presentation. What could possibly go wrong?

What we had was the musical undead, walking vampire-like amongst us. Most of us had thought that the prog-rock concept album had had a stake plunged through its heart by the vigorous brevity of punk, with any possibility of revival nailed by This Is Spinal Tap, 30 years ago. Despite being an old punk, I do actually have a soft spot for some prog – the lunacy and poetry of Van Der Graaf Generator’s Pawn Hearts, the sheer originality of Magma’s Mekanik Destructiv Kommandoh, the whimsy and weirdness of bands like Comus. This however, brought to mind justly forgetton bands like Gentle Giant and Greenslade, the more earnest ones where grandiosity moves into passages of plodding rock.

They are in good company, anyway – Lou Reed’s worst album may well have been his settings for Edgar Allan Poe

The adventurousness of Almond and Harle is, however, to be admired – they could have both carried on doing the thing they know people like forever, and this was an ambitious experiment.They are in good company, at least – Lou Reed’s worst album may well have been his dreary, pretentious settings of Edgar Allan Poe. 

Modern pop with a prog element like Muse is at least funny in places, and fizzes along as the band know the songs backward and they aren’t conducted. Perhaps because of this, the attempts at funky guitar and rock passages last night felt wooden.It's likely that once the musicians really know the piece it will flow better. 

There was at times a crushing literalness at play – a women is in despair, cue wailing wordless soprano (Sarah Leonard, an excellent singer, regardless), crows are mentioned, we get cawing and so on. There were the tropes of a hundred B movies – doll’s house/toy noises to evoke the sinister, circus waltzes at a hanging, nursery rhymes to suggest the psychotic. We have been there and done that, many times. What it almost is, and could be, is a dark, chilling cabaret in which the melodrama and clichés work for the show rather than against it. A video backdrop was the equivalent of visual muzak and served no obvious artistic point. 

It could have been much camper and worked, and maybe it really was some new kind of camp that I didn’t pick up, in which case I have misjudged the show. Or it could have gone the other way and been more austere and considerably more effective. As it was, it was overblown and tedious.The use of William Blake for a couple of songs seemed in this context an attempt to give the show a poetic gravitas it didn’t live up to, despite, or probably because of, its apparent desire to be musically overwhelming. I did find myself thinking that if Ricky Gervais or Steve Coogan were to invent a prog-rock band for a TV series it could well sound something along these lines..     

It was a first night and the sound needed tweaking, to put it kindly, and Almond, dressed in priestly garb, took a few numbers to get into gear, none of which helped. The most frustrating thing was that there were several moments which suggested there was an atmospheric and evocative show buried under several layers of musical gloop. On “Ratcliffe Highway” Almond plaintively sang of murdering a prostitute, going to the river and the gates of hell opening up in the mists. Iain Sinclair’s lines about Moorgate, Cripplegate, Aldgate and the dark Thames did stir up ghosts of the past.

It is only fair to report that about a third of the audience gave this a standing ovation and there may well be a demand, once they sort the sound out, for this kind of stuff in places like Serbia and Denmark that are untainted by English cynicism and our fatal attraction for the cool. “It’s like Marmite” said the press officer. Never liked the stuff myself, but apparently plenty do.

If Ricky Gervais or Steve Coogan were to invent a prog-rock band for a TV series it could well sound like this

rating

Editor Rating: 
2
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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Comments

We're you at the same show as me....?! There was a full crowd standing ovation at the end... Or did your ten minutes of attending, not see this?

I share the reviewer's assessment of the evening. There may have been a standing ovation, or it could have been the audience rushing for the exit. In the circle, people were leaving in droves throughout the show. There was a party of six in the row in front of us. About halfway through the second half, five of them left, saying to the one remaining chap, "Text us if it gets better." It didn't and he left after another two numbers. I also found the sound mixing terrible. It was hard to hear Marc Almond, let alone make out the lyrics - important in this show. The soprano's mike was so loud it nearly gave me tinnitus.

Totally agree with this review. I think the album itself is a masterpiece and Almond's best work in many years. However, the show last night just didn't work, primarily as the sound levels were so appalling and Almond's vocals were totally lost in the 'mix'. Nice to note also that among all the predictable gushing on his twitter page, (oh, Marc you were so WONDERFUL, love you!!! xxx, etc, etc), at least one person has the guts to point this out also.

Sadly, I have to agree with this very fair and measured review and with Anonymous. I'm a huge Marc fan and came along expecting to love the show but on this occasion, I felt he'd missed the mark. A song cycle needs a sense of shape and narrative, which the show didn't have. Marc was partly in character, dressed in priests robes, but this prevented him from engaging with the audience on his own terms, as he usually does so brilliantly. The band were overbearing and yes, the sound mix was terrible. There was not a "full crowd standing ovation" but as the reviewer rightly says, a percentage of the audience did love it. That's great but in my view, it just didn't work.

I couldn't agree more with this review. It was such a disappointing evening. It just seemed to miss the mark by such a long way - lack of atmosphere, lack of delivery (you really could barely hear Almond over the prog rock). There seemed to be clear evidence of a headline tussle between Harle and Almond - albeit now unspoken - and in doing so neither championed. From where i was seated - many left. Yes, some did stand at the end but in my view more from sheer relief that it was over.

As someone who is a big marc almond fan, I was disappointed that marc was nowhere to be seen in the first half, just the ramblings of a mad man prancing around the stage and making far too much noise for my liking along with his singing accomplice who was screeching alongside him together with every conceivable musical instrument known to man (to be honest the music was quite good in places) . Mark appeared in the second half dressed in full priest garb (would expect nothing less from marc) and the music score didn't do marks wonderful voice justice to begin with and half the time you couldn't hear him as he was drowned out by the appalling acoustics, however there were touches of genius and I enjoyed his rendition of London bridge is falling down and the song about murdering a prostitute also ian sinclairs poetry helped save the evening but most the time I got the impression John Hale was cleverly disguising the fact he was slyly promoting his modernist crime drama theme tunes to the hilt, I almost expected Luther to jump through the heavily underused projector screen to rescue marc and the poor woman singing her heart out and make a quick getaway on a horse and cart bound for the nearest pub that wasn't going to charge you £15 quid for 2 glasses of wine.

As a long-standing Marc Almond fan, 32 years woman and girl, I was willing last night's effort to be a success. For me it was an ill-conceived, shambolic dog's dinner. Grateful to be wearing a dress with a polo neck so I could hide my face in it from time to time when things took a particularly bad turn.

I have some stuff by John Harle, from several years ago, and have a lot of time for Mr Almond. However this was really quite tedious and the sound was appalling. It was just some sort of mish mash of 'prog rock' with sound bytes. I kept thinking that I was at a King Crimson concert in the 70's! It could have been so special, great shame.

Here we go again, another chance for all Marc Almond haters to stick the knife in again. I often wonder why people go along to see Marc in what ever he is doing when they obviously dont like him. The Spectacle was always going to be interesting and fascinating with the collaboration between Harle and Almond and it didnt disappoint. The sound, yes i agree could and should have been better. What do sound people get paid for? Marc`s voice was compelling and he delivered in no uncertain terms. A bit more money spent on a gory back drop would have I think, been a bit better. The performance deserved the Standing ovation it received. The audience were left wanting more. BRAVO, lets hope there is more in the pipeline.

 Anonymous: Don't think the commentators, certainly not me, are "Marc Almond haters" as I said, I, and the others no doubt,  have loved his distinctive voice. But we were all disappointed (you are in a minority of one as things stand) It was, as the Evening Standard said, a pretty horrible evening. Yes, the sound was bad.  And as I also said - maybe a third gave it a standing ovation - quite a few people walked out, though. Incidentally, do check Joe Mugg's review of the album on theartsdesk - he liked it and gave it a four star rave.

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