Admittedly, I should have got this review together a while back … but sometimes life gets in the way. Instead, consider this as much a heads-up to two of my long-playing highlights of 2022, each deserving proper recognition. Besides, with just two Blancmange dates remaining on the tour, surely I can’t be accused of plot-spoiling at this late stage. It’s not as if we’re talking a production of The Mousetrap.
Lancaster’s Kanteena was a new venue for me, and a cracking one at that, its quirky sense of character in keeping with the spirit of the acts passing through on this occasion.
There was a laidback feel on arrival, so much so that there was no one on the door at that point (we did have tickets, honest), reminding me of one of the few previous occasions that happened to me – for Emmylou Harris’ Red Dirt Girl tour visit to Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, late 2003. As if the fact we’d shown up was enough to suggest I had legitimate attendance.
Also, for a second live show running I was too busy talking (to the merch team this time) to realise the support set was underway. And that’s embarrassing for someone for whom people chatting during a live set really gets his goat. As it was, there would be a fair bit of that on the night, Blancmange’s main man Neil Arthur somewhat pissed off about it. But it didn’t detract too much for those of us in the thick of it out front. What it must be like though to have that much ready cash that you can afford to go to a gig then babble away to your mates mid-performance. Worse still, in this case, proclaim, ‘Play one we know’ while the headliners weave their way through a winning set. Ignorance.
While the dancefloor before them seemed largely empty for much of their tenure, Alice Hubble and fellow London-based live show co-pilot, Tom Hilverkus (previously half of Lower Saxony’s The Happy Couple), soon somewhat nonchalantly seized our attention.
Alice, real name Alice Hubley, was previously half of Arthur and Martha, described by her London-based Happy Robots label as ‘cutie krautrock or tweetronica, using toy/playground electronic gizmos, battered old Casios and Korgs and cheapo drum machines to create gentle, tinny yet poignant pulsebeats that move their achingly pretty, minor-chord melodies along.’ And it’s clear those qualities carry through to this project, much of her impressive set drawn from second LP, Hexentanzplatz, its title continuing that Saxon link (and I’m not talking Biff Byford’s metal outfit), its singles ‘Power Play’ and ‘My Dear Friend’ – among tonight’s highlights – having received BBC 6 Music airplay of late. The same goes for earlier 45, ‘Goddess’, somewhere between The Cure’s ‘In Between Days and New Order’s ‘Temptation’ for these ears, Alice’s sweet vocal setting it apart.
My eldest daughter, joining me on the night, reckoned she was getting a druid vibe, and I kind of got that. If druid electronica is not already a genre, maybe now is the time. As a first-time live attendee without access to a setlist, I can’t be sure of the specific numbers, but I’ve had chances to wallow in the latest LP since, a trans-Pennine road trip proving perfect for a cinematic outfit capable of evocative soundtracks, a journey from Tebay to Scotch Corner neatly framed by Hexentanzplatz and its bonus tracks, not least the sweeping, majestic title track and its ‘Oh, what a beautiful mountain’ line.
At times, I got Debbie Harry reborn in an early ‘80s New Romantic band, while on ‘Numb’ there’s something of the other-worldliness of Tubeway Army, a gateway for many of us into that world. As for the gloriously climactic ‘Gleichfalls’, that’s part New Order, part Public Service Broadcasting, a great way to end the LP in question, even if three extra numbers add something else again, not least the disco stomp of ‘Lux’, the sweet hippiedom of ‘White Horses’ and ‘Willow’s Song’ fusing with a Bronski Beat backing, and trance-like trip-hop finale ‘Midnight in Paso Robles’, with its rather lovely false ending.
As for the headliners, their latest LP, Private View, also formed part of that later personal road trip, and again fitted the bill perfectly here, album opener ‘What’s Your Name’ also the starting point on this occasion, followed by two eminently danceable numbers written four decades apart, the 2022 composition up first, ‘Reduced Voltage’ a contender for single of the year, its ‘Boy, am I tired’ line all too resonant lately, its vibe somewhere between Bowie, John Foxx, Grace Jones, and … Blancmange.
For while Neil Arthur has always ploughed forward, there’s always a healthy regard for Blancmange’s past, and 40 years after its arrival, Happy Families still gets the exposure it deserves, evergreen floor-filler ‘Feel Me’ never disappointing, leading to the more dreamy ‘I’ve Seen the Word’, 2020 LP title track ‘Mindset’ then reminding us of more recent accomplished output, but again with a resonance to where it all began, Commuter 23’s ‘Last Night (I Dreamt I Had a Job)’ and Wanderlust’s ‘Not a Priority’ also hitting that high benchmark.
In fact, there was plenty of evidence here for those only now getting up to speed with Blancmange’s reformation works of just how good a compilation we could get from later years alone. What say, London Records, now you’ve got them back on board?
Joining Neil this time were Chris Pemberton (keyboards/‘crazy synths’) and Liam Hutton (electronic drums), both on the money from the off with old and new material alike. Speaking of which, ‘Waves’ will always be in my all-time top-20 (there are probably 40-plus songs in there any given week, but that’s not the point), while Unfurnished Rooms’ ‘What’s the Time?’ would be among my first choices for that ‘somehow not hits’ compilation. Deep (well, who’s ‘the most invisible’ person you’ve ever known?), pensive (‘list all the things you’ve never said’), yet capable of bringing smiles to faces and a swivel of hips on the floor.
The somewhat pensive title track of the new record was next, a brief diversion back to Memory Lane allowed for ‘That’s Love That it Is’ before we headed to a trading estate in Altrincham for 2017’s ‘We Are the Chemicals’ – another filmic number dripping in imagery, always good to hear – then made for an equally atmospheric ‘Take Me’ (and I don’t just use that description because I’m reminded of Joy Division classic ‘Atmosphere’), the new record’s rather splendid finale.
Further Mange Tout cut ‘Game Above My Head’ provided another rummage into the back-catalogue, ‘Blind Vision’ not far behind, the oh so poignant, of the moment ‘Some Times These’ between them, a ‘Heroes’-like number (and let’s face it, Bowie is never far off Blancmange’s creative process) serving as yet another reminder that this is no ‘80s tribute act, the quality still very much intact since Stephen Luscombe stepped back.
As for the final two choices … no surprises there, ‘Living on the Ceiling’ having the place properly pulsing before they returned for ‘Don’t Tell Me’ following Neil’s genuine address to the assembled, sharing the love with some well-chosen words before that mighty last number, enough to make me think it was as much a subtle reference to Stephen as it was to everyone who’s stayed close to the band all these years.
Blancmange’s Private View tour ends this coming weekend with dates at The Venue in Worthing (Friday, December 9th) and Islington’s Assembly Hall (Saturday, December 10th), with Sheffield’s Stephen Mallinder (of Cabaret Voltaire fame, his other projects including Wrangler, alongside Neil Arthur’s co-conspirator Benge) on fine form in the support role at present. For more details, check out the band website and follow Blancmange via Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
And for this website’s most recent feature/interview with Neil Arthur, and links to our previous feature/interviews and Blancmange live reviews, head here.