Marc and the Mambas, Royal Festival Hall, London
Elizabeth Fraser, Royal Festival Hall, London

An imperious Marc Almond strides on to the stage, strikes a pose, then leaves everyone convinced that they have seen something special

In 1982 and 1983, while Soft Cell were artfully falling apart, Marc Almond was living with his pet snake in a still-sleazy Soho, sneaking out after dark to hang with the Goths at the Batcave. Mentally, however, as he recalls in his autobiography Tainted Life, he was residing in a "tranquillizer universe and smack heaven". In this state he launched his first side-project, an ad-hoc collective called Marc and the Mambas, whose untitled debut consisted, he admits, of "the deluded ramblings of self-indulgence fuelled by too much acid".

Their second effort was something else. Far from running on empty, the drug-damaged Almond followed the road of excess all the way to the palace of wisdom. Taking the torrid passions of Spanish culture as its inspiration, Torment And Toreros is a double album of which Almond remains proud.

His label Phonogram considered it commercial suicide, and it received mixed reviews – Almond attacked one Record Mirror critic with a whip – but a young Antony Hegarty praises its courage in his introductory speech at the Southbank, and tells us it was "a blueprint for me, as a queen". When Antony was approached to curate this year's Meltdown Festival, a staging of Torment and Toreros was the first idea that came to his mind.

And so, to the sound of thundering timpani, an imperious Almond strides out in Andalusian sombrero, black silk kimono, and Cuban heels. He throws a flamenco pose, and stamps into a show which leaves everyone feeling that they have seen something very special.

A sculpture of a bull's head waits atop a grand piano. Early in the first act, during Jacques Brel's "The Bulls" he will wear it as a mask while, overhead, images of dancing senoritas alternate with photos of slaughtered bulls. Though opposed to animal cruelty, Almond is both repelled and attracted by the horror of a bullfight and the raw sexuality of its symbolism. Torment and Toreros draws parallels, implicit and explicit, between matadors and military massacres, prostitution and addiction, masturbation and suicide.

It's an album that revels in squalor. "Don't forget, little snakes," Almond wrote on the sleeve, "if you're going to wallow, wallow deep." There are such lines as "The entrance to your heart is just another old hole" ("Little Book of Sorrows", for which Hegarty joins him in a stunning duet). And, on tracks such as "A Million Manias", it's painfully self-aware: "The taxi driver starts to sing one of my songs/The one I like the least/He says 'That's the only one I like'/My face cracks …".

Soon after the making of Torment and Toreros, Marc Almond temporarily "retired". Nights like this make you grateful that he reconsidered.

Step into any of a million lamplit student bedrooms in the 1980s and you'd hear the music of The Cocteau Twins, hanging in the air as heady as incense. The Scottish trio's sound was based on the alchemy between Robin Guthrie's emerald cascades of reverbed guitar and the enraptured voice of Elizabeth Fraser, her unintelligible, seemingly nonsensical syllables flowing in ecstatic peals.

In the 15 years since The Cocteau Twins disbanded, Fraser has been a reclusive, stage-shy figure. Barely illuminated by an autocue tablet, her hair, no longer russet, is now as silver as her skirt, and smoothed down into a pageboy crop, giving her the appearance of a nervy deputy headmistress at the annual ball.

In front of an adoring and strangely rowdy Meltdown crowd – she's handed bouquets, but also receives at least two loud marriage proposals and a simple, quizzical "Where have you been?" – she delivers a set split 50/50 between celebrated past and solo present. Her voice is timorous, creating a nightmare but still possesses a dazzling range. One whoop, on "Suckling the Mender", skips way past top C. The problem is that her band, all former members of Spiritualized, never replicate The Cocteau Twins' bejewelled majesty, but rely on watercolour washes of synth and the kind of drumming you hear in a History Channel documentary.

The new stuff has its moments. "Make Lovely", with vampiric ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett guesting, is almost a madrigal. And classics such as "Cherry Coloured Funk" and "Donimo" scale their old heights. But "Pearly Dewdrops Drops", the Cocteaus' closest thing to a hit single, falls flat.

The religious experience expected by her devotees never quite materialises. Perhaps Fraser has forgotten what Marc Almond has always known: if something's worth whelming, it's worth overwhelming.

Critic's Choice

The festival season jogs on, and next weekend the Welsh hillsides will echo to the sounds of Dexys, Mogwai, Van Morrison, Metronomy, Feist, Scritti Politti and dozens of others at the Green Man Festival, Glanusk Park (Fri, Sat, Sun). Meanwhile in the Midlands, Summer Sundae brings Katy B, Adam Ant, PiL, Patrick Wolf, Billy Bragg and tUnE-yArDs to De Montfort Hall & Gardens, Leicester (Fri-Sun).

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones