Placebo gig review: New material fails to match the best of 20-year anniversary retrospective

02 Academy, Sheffield

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The Independent Culture

With Placebo using this tour to celebrate their 20th anniversary it suggests the band is likely to delve deep into their seven-album discography for a career-spanning, crowd-pleasing, set. However, the group’s choice of opening music seems to suggest otherwise.

Old favourite 'Pure Morning' is not played live by the band but instead through the P.A in the form of a recorded Sigor Ros mash-up. 'Pure Morning vs Svefn-g-englar' is the closest the crowd are going to get to the original song being played tonight as it becomes clear the group are not going to be delving too deeply this evening. 

A good chunk of the set relies heavily on the band’s latest 2013 release Loud Like Love which is interspersed with slightly older, more riotously received, material such as 'Special Needs' from 2003’s Sleeping with Ghosts. When these songs are placed side by side, the newer material struggles to stand its ground somewhat, feeling a little one-dimensional and lacking in evolution in the decade-long period that separates them. In fact by the middle of the set they become utterly bogged down in a run of tracks that feel as occasionally inseparable as they do forgettable.

Brian Molko’s voice still has that unmistakable tone that has lost none of its unique Marmite bite over the years, and during a charged 'Space Monkey' it feels as powerful as the music backing it. Live, the group are at their most interesting when they exist in a middle ground between two of their clear influences: the 90’s grunge anthems of the Smashing Pumpkins and the industrial electronic clatter of Nine Inch Nails. When operating in this territory with a notably heavy, and occasionally grubby, sound the band seem most alive and arresting, such as on 'Meds' or 'Special K', the latter not being a reference to the popular British breakfast cereal but to the drug ketamine, and written back in the band’s more hedonistic and openly drug-experimenting days.  

The aptly titled 'Begin the End' opens the four-song encore, yet it’s not the most explosive of returns to the stage and the momentum they left the stage in some minutes ago now seems rather stifled. However, this is swiftly followed by the group’s long-standing cover of Kate Bush’s 'Running up that Hill' which soon reinstates any lost drive. Placebo’s version is coated in thick, sputtering electronics and creepy, insidious tones emphasised by Molko’s stretched out piercing vocals. It’s credit to Kate Bush that even when creating some of the most unique and innovative music of her career, she still seamlessly left an irresistible pop component coursing through its core; it’s also credit to Placebo for extracting that and placing it in their own sonic context which, against the odds, works very well. 

The group close on a pair of songs from Meds and then join hands for a theatre-like bow as they commemorate a twenty-year career of highs and lows with a suitably emblematic performance tonight.