The Chemical Brothers, The Apollo, Manchester

With all guns blazing, Superstar DJs deliver a protest soundtrack
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On last night's opener, "Hey Boy, Hey Girl", they coined the phrase "Superstar DJs''. Now Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons spend more time justifying their own existence than talking about music. Since 2002's Come With Us, the dance scene has lunged into seeming terminal decline and taken with it the superstar DJs.

Any suspicion that The Chemical Brothers would go the same way has been dispelled by their current release, Push The Button, because the duo have in two ways returned with all guns blazing. On record, track titles include "Left Right" and "Surface To Air", while they have robustly defended their chosen genre's innovative edge.

Moreover, following the introspection of Come With Us and its predecessor, Surrender's, hedonistic rush, Push the Button breaks new ground by providing a soundtrack for protest. Among its gems is, of all things, a rap about disaffected US GIs in Iraq.

Yet for rave veterans, it was enough for their heroes to turn up. Rowlands and Simons had opted to open their tour in a city that considers them its own, for these southerners bonded at university here in 1989 over a shared love of hip-hop and The Beatles.

After many years, the Chemicals have long sussed how to turn gigs into memorable events for their fans, not easy with two such unassuming front men. Rowlands looked even less distinctive, having chopped off his lank indie-kid locks.

Their favourite intro music, the Fab Four's "Tomorrow Never Knows", was flowed and looped into an ominous mantra. Their fists-in-the-air entry was typical of many voiceless producer-led acts, but now echoes their combative album cover.

Indeed, search lights pierced the darkened auditorium, though the subsequent projections of clocks and Egyptian hieroglyphics were mere moving wallpaper. Then the fists on stage were matched by giant versions on the mammoth backdrop behind.

"Galvanise" imprinted itself as their most urgent call to arms since "Hey Boy", with Middle Eastern strings and A Tribe Called Quest's "Q-Tip" to update their phonetic break beats. Later, Kele Okereke, of indie darlings Bloc Party, wailed "I want you to believe'' on "Believe's" insistent house beat. You just had to.

With elastic bass, "Come Inside" was another crisp rework of their trademark style. Some tracks from the new album, though, were pastiches of previous glories. "The Big Jump" was soon-forgotten.

One track promised to stay on set lists for years to come. Built up from graceful pulses and New Order's hazy guitar, "Surface To Air" grew into an epic that was both melodic and propulsive, blissful and wistful, a gorgeous celebration of the power of sound.

Their messages were sometimes confused, but any listeners on the hunt for evidence that dance is dead should stay clear of the Chemicals, for this two-man army continues to march onwards.

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