They could be secondary schoolteachers. If you saw them setting up for an afternoon's busking you would probably hold on to your change, assuming a dreary MOR rock band. But looks can be deceiving. The two men before us – the ex-Screaming Trees singer and sometime Queens of the Stone Age contributor Mark Lanegan, and Greg Dulli, formerly of the Afghan Whigs – are low-key legends in the realms of American alt-rock.
It is unlikely, of course, that the Seattle grunge rockers Screaming Trees could have been as big as Nirvana, as some have claimed. Yet Lanegan's solo records, along with his collaborations with Belle & Sebastian's Isobel Campbell, show a man now operating at the height of his powers. Similarly, Dulli has received extravagant praise for his post-Whigs projects, the Twilight Singers, a psychedelic soul outfit featuring a changing cast of musicians, Lanegan included.
Now both men have reached a third chapter in their careers with The Gutter Twins. It is far from the classic vanity project in which musical has-beens with little in common smirk at each other over microphones and feign wonder at each other's astonishing talent. No, this is chemistry, born out of darkness, pain and bona fide friendship.
The name archly alludes to their shared history of familial dysfunction and addiction – Lanegan to heroin, Dulli to cocaine. Their bond clearly runs deep – the pair shared a house, a period during which Dulli says Lanegan rescued him from his potentially fatal habit.
It's no wonder, then, that as double acts go, the Gutter Twins aren't exactly a barrel of laughs. With their poker faces and awkward gaits they're less Morecambe and Wise than glum and glummer. Dulli at least manages a hello, mumbling something about not having been in Brighton for 15 years. Lanegan, however, is a baleful presence, resolutely ignoring fellow human beings while clinging to the mic stand like a sailor clutching the mast of a foundering ship. It's probably safe to say that two decades of critical success hasn't gone to his head. Yet, even motionless and poker-faced, he is mesmerising, conjuring a heady atmosphere of melancholy and menace through a voice that sounds like Lee Hazlewood in a brawl with Lee Marvin.
Bathed in gloomy vortices of violet and blue light, one can only assume that this is The Gutter Twins' comfort zone, reduced to mere silhouettes and communicating solely through their art. Their hour-long set draws heavily on their only album, Saturnalia, a dark and elegant work that was five years in the making, opening with "The Stations", Dulli's caustic tale of Catholic guilt ("They say he lives within us / They say for me he died/ And now I hear his footsteps almost every night"), replete with orchestral flourishes and layers of organ. They follow it with the mournful "God's Children", another propulsive tale of despair with grinding guitars yet with an elegant melody at its heart. Dulli's voice may rarely attain the gloomy depths of Lanegan's but he is still in possession of a lacerating howl that delivers a fair punch to the gut.
Elsewhere, we are treated to "Bête Noire", a slice of Southern soul which raises the tempo while sustaining the portentous atmosphere, and "St James Infirmary", a bluesy folk standard about a man who visits his dead sweetheart in hospital that has been recorded by the likes of Cab Calloway, Janis Joplin and the White Stripes. A jaundiced cover of Massive Attack's "Live With Me", as sung by Lanegan, is stripped of its romantic intent, to enthralling effect. These are songs of psychological torment and murderous intensity, made all the more potent by the damaged souls singing them. Dulli has referred to the pair as the Satanic Everly Brothers. On this evidence it's not hard to see why.
Touring to Sunday