The Hives, Hammersmith Apollo, London

Excellence can be a rash move
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The Independent Culture

Without a single to promote, and with an album released last summer, Sweden's top musical export still rocked west London as if their set was fresh off the production line. Perhaps The Hives knew that they were best enjoyed in the flesh.

For a band on a proclaimed mission to resurrect rock'n'roll, the small-town boys from Fagersta had been alarmingly quiet. A couple of years after their 2001 breakthrough, The Hives had retired to record a follow-up to their last studio album, 2000's Veni Vidi Vicious (their Your New Favourite Band release was a compilation from that and an earlier record).

When the combo finally emerged last year with Tyrannosaurus Hives, it was to a lukewarm reception, as the mix of Detroit garage rock and New York punk had progressed little from their previous short, sharp shocks. Maybe that was the point, though, for having once promised a change of direction that variously took in Kraftwerk or Devo, The Hives had stuck with what they did best.

Indeed, they strutted on stage just as for their first appearances, pristine in black shirts and white suits. Even the drums and the amps in the backline were whitewashed, though now their name was spelt out in red neon behind them. Otherwise, there was no sign of change as the five-piece took up their familiar positions and plunged straight into well-drilled slabs of noise.

At the eye of the storm remained the live-wire singer Pelle Almqvist, who dominated the stage in a constant whirl of movement. It is not entirely uncommon for singers to dive into the crowd, but usually at the end of a set. Almqvist was crowd-surfing six songs in, at the climax to their unstoppable anthem, "Hate to Say I Told You So". All the while, he insisted that his fans gave as good as they got. "You've got your £20- worth after three songs!" he exclaimed. "Everything now is a bonus!" The audience clearly agreed since even people at the back of the auditorium raised their hands on cue.

As the set progressed, a subtle distinction emerged between new material and old standards. "Love in Plaster" and "Walk Idiot Walk" featured even more precision-tooled riffery. Generally, though, the band used their skills to play ever faster. In response, Almqvist's voice rose to a frantic screech that made his song introductions superfluous. It was irrelevant that "Gene Pool Promotion" was about parents, or that Almqvist laid into education on "Dead Quote Olympics".

After all, The Hives made their name on a Luddite devotion to the most basic tenets of rock: simple tunes, hard riffs and sharp creases. True, they pulled off a cover of Dion's melodramatic "Born to Cry", though only by piling on the kitsch factor as Almqvist paused to dry his eyes. Even better was when they slowed the beat to a brooding shuffle for "Demonic Plan", which the band performed as if Screamin' Jay Hawkins was fronting INXS on "Never Tear Us Apart".

Yet this did rile the more single-minded fans, for when Almqvist suggested that he slow things down he was greeted with a patter of plastic pots. "You keep missing," he exclaimed, and then ordered, "Again!", as he stood motionless to present an easier target. Thus the rabble-rouser, ever more reminiscent of Malcolm McDowell in his youthful pomp, reminded us that the band had not always been used to adulation and could still face a confrontational crowd.

It could be a useful lesson, for on this showing, The Hives were clearly stuck in a rut. People came not for the excitement of variation, but to mosh in mindless fashion and then gleefully respond to Almqvist's every command. This left little room for the group to manoeuvre and do anything other than reprise past successes. Every time The Hives put on a terrific show, they just dig their own grave deeper.

Touring to 26 April: tomorrow, Cambridge; Sunday, Liverpool; Monday, Wolverhampton; Tuesday, Norwich