“A lot of you are here because you knew the band that these guys were in before,” says No Devotion frontman Geoff Rickly to a packed Islington Academy. “You literally saw one of the worst f***ing breakups of all time."
It is two-thirds into the transatlantic band’s first ever London show before the gangly New Jerseyite addresses the world’s biggest elephant, looming heavily over the modest-sized room.
The five musicians on stage beside him used to fight under a different banner – one now irreversibly tainted by the actions of their singer, the convicted paedophile Ian Watkins. Welsh rockers Lostprophets had built a huge name for themselves – not to mention an adoring young fanbase – in their 15-year career, achieving number-one albums, headlining arenas and becoming darling “edgy” faces of mainstream radio. This was all brought crashing down when Watkins pleaded guilty to a string of sickening sex offences and was jailed for 29 years in December.
This crashing down is encompassed tonight in “Death Rattle,” a short instrumental interlude Rickly tells us was written after the breakdown of Lostprophets. The five Welshmen – guitarists Lee Gaze and Mike Lewis, bassist Stuart Richardson, drummer Luke Johnson and keyboardist Jamie Oliver – launch into a brutal post-rock crescendo as black and white clips of building demolitions are projected on to a big screen, providing a backdrop to the most cathartic point in a set in which both tensions and emotions run high.
It was clear when Watkins – the Voldemort figure lying heavy in the air, though never mentioned by name - was jailed that the band were never going to be able to perform in the same way again, but make no mistake, No Devotion are in no way Lostprophets in all but moniker and singer.
Rickly, himself the former frontman of influential east coast post-hardcore group Thursday, provides the complete antithesis of Watkins, his elastic, interpretive onstage flailing as far away from Watkins’ cocky , rock star posturing as his distinctive, airy vocals are from the former singer’s clean, radio-rock tones. No Devotion’s sound as a whole leans far more heavily on moody Eighties post-punk and electro-pop than either Lostprophets’ shiny, accessible pop-rock, or Thursday’s technical, yet thrashy emo.
Set opener “Night Drive” sees echoed guitars join forces with piping synths to give way to driving rhythms and a chanted chorus, while “I Want to Be Your God” is sweeping and dark, displaying Rickly’s vocal range in its simple, yet never poppy, refrain. The cinematic nature is instilled in each track with changing montages on the projector screen. Splodges of technicolour bombard the canvas during “10,000 Summers”, a track Rickly confirms will be the next single and which provides a springboard for a subtle dig at the scorching, if not brief, British heatwave we’re experiencing outside the air-conditioned venue.
After coming on arms around one another to shouts of “C’mon, boys!”, there’s a real sense of camaraderie and homecoming between fans and the band, and while Gaze and Lewis struggle to shake off a visible anxiety about their return, Richardson bounds his athletic form around enthusiastically and shares many an-ear-to-ear grin with Oliver and drummer Johnson at the back of the stage.
With the exception of an emphatic Valleys-tinged “thank you!” from Richardson, the American is left to do all the talking – a task that he takes up with gusto. Telling us how it was not he who saved his bandmates, but them who “picked him up like a brother” during a period of deep depression over a breakup, he launches into an intense, over-dramatic diatribe about the nature of heartbreak and music being his saviour.
“We wrote this not as a pop song,” he says, introducing first single “Stay”, one of only two tracks heard by the audience before tonight, making the huge turnout all-the-more commendable.
“It’s a song about… how f***ing blinding [heartbreak] is, how it takes up your whole life and it spits you out and it makes you into nothing,” he says earnestly. “It makes you f***ing scared and f***ing tired and it tears you up.”
Cynics would call it an act, but if so, he’s a convincing thespian.
Despite Rickly’s pledge, “Stay” is the poppiest moment of the set, with a pounding bass riff and whispy synths conjuring images of neon lights and smoky clubs in the 1980s, before the euphoric singalong chorus kicks in. Emotionally raw, yet melodically commercial, this is what Robyn would sound like if she ditched electronic pop for moody rock and roll.
Finishing on the looming and noisy “Grand Central” (an American singer allows for more glamourous lyrical references than the “the 12:40 to Ponty”), Rickly apologises for the snappy nine-song set, but insists it’s because they’re “just getting started”.
If Lostprophets were burned to the ground by the horrific acts committed by Watkins, then No Devotion, led by Rickly, are the phoenix from those ashes, and this triumphant return shows a strong foundation to start building from again.