Manic Street Preachers, Wembley Arena, London

Preaching to the sceptical
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The Independent Culture

When the Manic Street Preachers arrived in a torrent of publicity 12 years ago, it was easy to dismiss them as daft, self-aggrandising Guns N'Roses fans. But there was more to these angry young men from Blackwood, South Wales, back then. They embraced and manipulated the reality of the rock band as product, making their image, record sleeves and interviews as important as the music itself. Even the trashy pop-metal of their debut, Generation Terrorists (would that title be allowed nowadays?), could be seen as a tactic to bring their ambitious lyrics to as wide as possible an audience.

When the Manic Street Preachers arrived in a torrent of publicity 12 years ago, it was easy to dismiss them as daft, self-aggrandising Guns N'Roses fans. But there was more to these angry young men from Blackwood, South Wales, back then. They embraced and manipulated the reality of the rock band as product, making their image, record sleeves and interviews as important as the music itself. Even the trashy pop-metal of their debut, Generation Terrorists (would that title be allowed nowadays?), could be seen as a tactic to bring their ambitious lyrics to as wide as possible an audience.

James Dean Bradfield would set Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards' words to music with zero regard for scansion. This has barely improved, as such supposedly anthemic hooks as "th A mass ES against the classes" remind us tonight. But it could also be seen as a virtue - a kind of meta-rock challenge to the sentimentality of "songs", as on 1994's near-unlistenable The Holy Bible. And just occasionally, the poor pronunciation could produce exotic six-minute singles that turned youth's romantic nihilism into something beautifully grand... No, they never bettered "Motorcycle Emptiness" - an ineptly souped-up version of which is the closest this gig gets to a highlight.

The other standout track on Generation Terrorists is "You Love Us". The irony may be accidental, but for any rock band to bark those words at its adoring crowd is surely a fantastic idea. The band do their best to ruin the song, though - bashing it out early on, with Bradfield refusing to give the word "us" the menacing sadness that makes it sound so great on record.

The song's irony is only enhanced by the facile, manipulative material in the rest of their set. For, over the years since 1995, when Richey Edwards disappeared, the band seem to have lost sight of everything that made them interesting. Edwards was no musician, but he designed the Manics' all-important image.

The remaining members say they've grown up. But while there was an air of immaturity about their earlier work, it had an intelligent self-awareness that has now gone, along with the spirit of provocation. The band continue to profess a socialist stance - they used Cuba to promote 2001's Know Your Enemy - but the lead single from their latest album, Lifeblood, is a limp paean to Richard Nixon ("people FORget China / AND your war on cancer"), dependent on cheap synth sounds from an additional keyboard player.

Epic rock anthems are the Manics' stock-in-trade now, but bar some basic video backdrops, they don't go the whole U2 hog and put on a proper show - residual delusions of punk, perhaps? Effectively, you get the worst of both worlds. It's just the three band members plus two extras - with the same guitar sound and the same bark/howl alternation from Bradfield's limited larynx throughout. Even if they put a bit more effort into its performance, there is little that could save the bulk of Lifeblood from sounding like turgid, tuneless AOR junk.

The Manics' CD booklets are often adorned with literary quotations that bear little relation to the mediocre commercial rock inside. A more appropriate citation might be this, from Noël Coward's Private Lives: "Strange how potent cheap music is..."

The Manic Street Preachers play Glasgow SECC (0870 040 4000) tonight; Birmingham NEC (0870 909 4133) 16 December; Manchester Evening News Arena (0870 190 8000) 17 December

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