NME Awards: Maximo Park / Arctic Monkeys, Brixton Academy, London

Maximo trump Monkeys' funk
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The Independent Culture

In the acres of newsprint expended on Arctic Monkeys as they've shot to the top, few seem to have paused to wonder what it's now like to be one. On tonight's evidence, it's uncomfortable and frightening. Through little volition of their own, it seems, and in little over a month, they've changed from a fervent cult into a national phenomenon. Suddenly, instead of loyal fans, this largest gig of their career sees them looking out at strangers. For a band whose brilliance lies in picking through the dreams and disappointments of mundane life, the view from the top must be almost sickening.

The other three bands on this NME-sponsored bill have their own problems, of course - namely, that no one knows they're here. Mystery Jets' appealingly ramshackle, ideas-strewn set, and the striking novelty of the singer's dad on drums, goes down well. But the geeky alt.rock of America's We Are Scientists seems pointless, about as alternative as the haircare product co-sponsoring tonight. Which leaves the headliners, Maximo Park. And the Monkeys.

They walk on without ceremony and, as on their album, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, the first words of singer Alex Turner puncture expectations: "The anticipation has a habit of setting you up for disappointment in the evening's entertainment." A few wild-eyed figures leap past me towards the front, but there's no hysteria here. Away from the moshpit, in fact, the atmosphere barely counts as rock'n'roll. Even the fire-engine-siren guitar of their glorious No 1 "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" only triggers ordinary excitement. "There's an awful lot of people here today," Turner notes nervously. His loyalists at the front still heartily sing every word of "When the Sun Goes Down" for him, relishing its articulate disgust at men trawling for prostitutes, but their intensity dissipates halfway to the back.

"Perhaps Vampires Is a Bit Strong But..." then lacerates such hangers-on. Like so much of the Monkeys' debut, from its title down, it's almost paranoiacally defensive, getting their retaliation in first against shadowy enemies. More effectively, it sees them loosen up from a one-dimensional, slamming punk start. By "Fake Tales of San Francisco", they're brassily forceful, with a fuller sound that ripples through the crowd. But Turner still mentions he's "scared", stumbling over his few words between songs. "When everyone's listening, it's hard to think of something to say," he explains, suggesting future problems for his art. He seems almost relieved to leave their biggest ever gig. His brilliant lyrics of clear-eyed, everyday disillusion have barely registered. They're what he'll hope to hang on to, when the media storm clears.

Maximo Park's more conventional climb to the top has, by contrast, served them well. They were second on the bill to Kaiser Chiefs the last time they were here, and a distracting neon light show signals the big time. But their singer, Paul Smith, remains a gawkily urgent presence, with lyrics of provincial longing that dare to dream more than Turner's. The push and pull between leaving an ordinary life and celebrating it animates him, like a latter-day Billy Liar. "A Certain Trigger" sees him declaim from a book, pointedly literate, dealing in ideas of feeling. "Kiss You Better" is a song against submission ("Now is not the time to lose your voice/ Everyone should have a choice"). So is "Apply Some Pressure", which should be their anthem. The band, playing with a sense of space and edgy tightness throughout, surge to Smith's defiant chorus of release (" What happens when you lose everything?/ You just start again"). It's the night's most dramatic and cathartic moment. When Smith leaves, he seems to be wiping his eyes, moved to be up there. Arctic Monkeys, so shell-shocked now, may one day feel the same.