The Fall, Islington Academy, London

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The Independent Culture

It has been a busy year for The Fall, what with a slew of remastered back catalogue, two radically different versions of the same new album, and the usual tectonic instability of line-up seeing drummer Dave Milner and, briefly, guitarist Ben Pritchard departing from the fold.

It has been a busy year for The Fall, what with a slew of remastered back catalogue, two radically different versions of the same new album, and the usual tectonic instability of line-up seeing drummer Dave Milner and, briefly, guitarist Ben Pritchard departing from the fold.

Now Pritchard has returned, along with the former bassist Jim Watts on second guitar, Spencer Birtwistle on drums and Elini Poulou on submarine-like keyboards. Together, they make a thick, rich stew of the band's latest sound. A recent Peel session showcased a slew of classic new Fall songs performed with all the edginess and attack of the band's best work, and with Interim, an album of new songs and "old favourites" recorded live in the studio and due for release next month, it is that hard, dense, wild sound that The Fall unleash on the audience of the Islington Academy, the first of two London shows before a tour through Europe. The band have just returned from their first-ever gigs in Moscow, and they file onto the stage to an Academy that's rammed up to the back doors with the faithful, the curious, and the inevitable.

There's no doubting the power of Mark E Smith's twenty-something workforce. They deliver a thrilling set, comprising the new songs, selections from Country on the Click, and covers ranging from The Move's "I Can Hear the Grass Grow" to the psychobilly singalong of "White Lightning". Even recent work gets reworked. "Green-Eyed Loco Man" is razored with new guitar and drum lines, and the marvellous "Contraflow" is a lot sharper than its album incarnation.

Smith is in excellent form. The amp-fiddling is at a minimum, he wears work gear with the one occult accessory, and his presence is as focusing as it ever was. Stalking in the wings, crouching at the drumkit, taking centre stage, head tilted and staring over the heads of the crowd to the back - and apparently through the door and down the stairs - or prodding an errant bouncer in the back with his mic-stand, he gives a performance of indifference that is at odds with the furious, metronomic assault of the music; and with Smith's insouciance, the effect is enthralling. The current sound of the band is massive but pin-sharp. "Touch Sensitive" and "Mr Pharmacist" have had their teeth scraped and their ears waxed, and sound newly minted; the recent single "Sparta FC" is less spindly than it was on record but just as rousing, and "Mad Mock Goth" is a mesmerising piece of crank-oiled insanity, with Smith intoning his vocals with ferocity and conviction.

It's remarkable for a band of The Fall's vintage that it's the new songs that stand out the most. "What About Us" (about one of Smith's former local GPs, Harold Shipman) and "Blindness", which may or may not be about David Blunkett, are stunning performances, and draw the biggest cheers of the evening. There are a couple of encores, with the band returning for the second time as the house lights come on. After a rousing version of "Big New Prinz", they're gone; on this form, they won't be back soon enough.

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