Dark Passion Fray

01/05/2008 § Leave a comment

I pity the individual forced to live within the dystopia of Birmingham. Its raison d’être is to visually and emotionally affront. Driving down to see Nightwish a couple of days ago, I couldn’t help feeling that the band were playing in one of the country’s most contaminated pores. It’s not just the structural design of the place that’s dislikeable, but the essence. Wretchedness lurks round every corner, leaping onto the backs of the natives who unthinkingly dress in blue and white as if it’s part of the uniform.

It probably is. At least, it is if you don’t want to get several shades of waste matter booted out of you. To live in Birmingham you have to have your class receptors detuned – wealth, style, opinion, chic, they’re all outmoded concepts here; either that or they were driven brusquely from the spaghetti junctions at the sign of the first Poundstore. Even finding a restaurant on the parade is impossible, or certainly one where the organic matter isn’t compressed inside a bun. The people in Birmingham have taken on the features of the culinary material they ingest – spherical, doughy and with absolutely no taste.

Places like these exist all over the world but it’s hard not to feel some level of empathy for those who have been punished by karma to live there. Dante would have given such cities an entry below the Eighth Ring of Hell, Traitors and the Fraudulent being banished to Lichfield or Moseley. Kowloon’s Walled City could have taken linear notes from their physical and social architecture. They hum with a sense of threat and uneasiness, their inhabitants being little more than symptoms of their own disease, microbes that can be eradicated in the name of solving the greater problem.

But not everyone is at its mercy. The younger generation attending the Nightwish gig clearly didn’t suffer from the same affliction of boredom, bitterness and torpor as the older townsfolk. Giving out promotional CDs to the queue of beaming teenygoths was a surprisingly enjoyable experience whereas in London, the offer of free music was met with disdain and disbelief, the queue members eyeing me up with suspicion, left hands resting on the emergency dial keys of their mobile phones. People would actually refuse the free CDs, as if by accepting them they were part or party to some seedy network of underground salesmen attempting to palm off their samples at any opportunity. For the Birmingham lot, the offer was accepted with rapture. People were excited, interested, intrigued and glad to see something new coming their way. The free music generation can’t get enough of the stuff, whereas quite a few of the older, jaded Londoners looked down their noses in disparagement.

The situation was the same inside the Birmingham venue. It was a strange place – a two-tiered warren with rooms off rooms, dimly lit and painted black on every surface. The wheelchair crowd had been shunted to the front of the second tier, looking almost apprehensive of the event about to take place. Putting them in direct view of the audience of a thousand energetic, functioning teenagers is surely rubbing salt into the wound. If I were one of the poor unfortunates on the second floor, bound to a cattle grid on wheels for eternity, watching the rippling, seething mass of youthful bodies below me I’d want to roll my last. No wonder crowd surfing was banned in the venue.

Nudging my way downstairs I managed to get a semi-decent position behind some girl who was so short it was a shame that she hasn’t been forced into the circus. She was lucky to see anything over everyone’s heads, so she attempted to remedy this by jumping up every few seconds in an effort to glimpse whatever was happening on stage. With every fresh bounce I could feel myself getting more irritated and overcome with the need to pull her to the side and explain the pointlessness of her ineffective endeavours, as if a half-second glance at some fuzzy characters on stage justified the effort it required or her position as an audience member. However, when the lights went down and the intro tape started, something very strange happened. Everyone got excited – very excited. This, for me, was a long-forgotten experience. I’m used to people getting eager and animated at gigs, but it’s been a long time since I was in an audience that felt a genuine thrill to be there. It was clear that for so many this was not just another gig but a very special event, and for once it was the spectators creating the atmosphere at the beginning of the show rather than the band.

The more gigs you go to, the more bands fill your database. The more exposure you have to whatever scene is your passion, the more desensitised you become. I remember my first ever gig at the Brixton Academy in 1995 felt similarly incredible. To be able to see a band who I extolled play live – the actual band members onstage, the light show, the songs I loved – was a totally enveloping high. But the more bands you see, the less special it becomes. You turn into that person who, rather than jostling close to the front of the stage and singing every syllable of the lyrics, stands near the back picking holes in the performance many heartbeats ahead. Passion for your chosen genre turns you into someone more fastidious, more finicky, until only the very best by your own terms will have a chance of recreating the wonder you originally felt.

As far as female-fronted metal goes, the job was even easier before the scene exploded. Even in 2003 it wasn’t a quarter as popular as it is now, and now it isn’t as popular as it will continue to be. However, as more carbon copy Gothic metal bands emerge, it will take more to imbue the same sense of zeal and revelry within the long-term fan. The popularity of Gothic metal has ended up mercilessly redefining it as anything with clean female vocals that isn’t progressive, folk or doom. It has ceased to be an entity in its own right, but has ended up as the reject bin, the fallout category for anything the other subgenres are not. And as this continues, a lot of the older fans will get more and more cynical.

I’m probably one of the most guilty of such an accusation, and while being so has its merits, Birmingham helped me to remember the appeal of the live act and the awe of the occasion. Exposure to anything for too long can gag your emotions, deadening the neurons and axons that fizzed when the first dream band took stage in front of you. If we could remain a little more openminded, it could be possible to snatch some of this back from the part of us that primarily removed it. Birmingham demonstrated two things – that there is far more to it than the grey, breeze-blocked mediocrity that comprises its unimaginative structures, and that it really is the fans that make a band, not just the music.

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