ROCK / A different tack: Giles Smith reviews Marc Almond at the Royal Albert Hall

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The Independent Culture
FOR his first London appearance in over three years, Marc Almond chose the Royal Albert Hall - a difficult venue in which to stage rock and certainly a risky place to pitch camp. Still, to judge by the standing ovation at the end, somehow he didn't get blown away.

Black hair sculpted into a stubby quiff, Almond is pop's Pee Wee Herman and as tacky as a tip- up snowstorm ornament. Since his time in the duo Soft Cell (whose 'Tainted Love' and 'Say Hello, Wave Goodbye' were remembered here), he's been mining a dodgy vein of cabaret-style sleaze. If his albums were ever forced to come with stickers on them, these would not warn you about explicit lyrical content (Almond is rarely plain rude); they would simply say 'Now Wash Your Hands'.

At the Albert Hall, we got three-hours of this sticky stuff and left needing a shower. Titled '12 Years of Tears', the show went right across Almond's career, but dipped most deeply into The Stars We Are album and the recent Tenement Symphony, his biggest commercial success in ages. Synthesisers juddered and an entire orchestra bowed and blew at the back until the sounds meshed and became thunderous.

But if the show was tough on the ear, it was utterly ruthless on the eye. Almond had an extensive catwalk on which to pout and thrust, and a wardrobe apparently picked at random in a mail order catalogue from hell. There was the sparkly floor-length dressing-gown in which he came on, accompanied by two, er, delectable assistants. There was the gameshow host's suit in nasty navy. There was the shiny, gold construction which was, in essence, a Christmas tree bauble with armholes.

And then there was the sex show chic - the gruesome see-through top and the all-leather, nights-in-Berlin wear. Most of these items of clothing existed chiefly so that Almond could fling them away at some point, or, in the case of the leather shirt, so that one of a team of muscular dancers could kneel down before him and tug the zip from throat to navel. Ooh-er. Later, perhaps the same dancer, but this time wearing boxers and revealing a pair of thoroughly oiled thighs, slyly removed his female partner's sequinned bikini top. Ooh-er again.

You could argue that Almond pulls off a tasteless shirt and a spangly jacket far more efficiently than he pulls off a decent vocal. His voice is at once bland and distinctive and thus the perfect accompaniment for synthesiser pop. But when he slows things down and tries it on as a low-life, night-club chantoosie, his inflexible vibrato suddenly sounds exposed. That said, his first encore was the show's best moment. He sat on a stool and sang 'What Makes a Man a Man', in which the task of getting across a crowd of imposing words stopped him noodling around with the melody.

Presumably in the aim of cost efficiency, the show was being filmed. This meant you had to put up with the presence of a camera on a metal beam which performed angular raids on the stage, like a piece of machinery from a computer-controlled car factory. Worse, the houselights kept rising so the cameras could record the audience's reactions - some bafflement at first, followed by noisy delight and culminating in that standing applause. Nobody seemed to mind that they had, in effect, shelled out pounds 12.50 for the privilege of being an extra.

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