Rock Review: Why Roni Size really does matter

You Can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you'll never stop people sniping about the Mercury Music Prize. If the judges go for the obvious option, they're accused of ignoring the cutting edge. If they pick the cutting-edge contender (ie, any proponent of dance music), they're condemned for being trendy. And if they pick a classical, jazz or folk album ... well, that never happens.

More people than usual were pleased by this year's choice - especially those who placed bets on him at 16 to 1. The "album of the year" was New Forms (Talkin' Loud) by Roni Size and his posse, Reprazent. It was undeniably the cutting-edge representative, being the first drum'n'bass album to be shortlisted, and who would argue that it didn't deserve the accolade? After all, New Forms lasts two and a quarter hours, and to appreciate it fully requires several listens. You'd have to be a brave person, with lots of time on your hands, to argue that it didn't match the work of Radiohead or the Chemical Brothers.

I should assure the wary, however, that New Forms is not any harder to listen to than a jazz record. By which I mean that it's not at all depressive or cacophonous - but now and then you do wonder when the tune's going to start. Beneath the sprays and spurts of fractured, double-speed beats are the familiar pleasures of slippery double bass and acoustic guitar, even some rapping and singing. All the same, New Forms does last 133 long, subtle, trancy minutes. I can't say I was looking forward to sitting through the live version.

I should have known better. These days, people who make records with nothing but computers can't wait to break out the live instruments when they get onstage. And all that time spent sitting and programming gives them the urge to put on a more physical, spectacular show than the guitar boys do. I'm not sure if this is a positive development of not. The Prodigy may make music like none before them, but their concerts hark back to those of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band.

At Roni Size and Reprazent's show at the London Astoria on Wednesday, there was plenty that Hawkwind fans might have found familiar, starting with the hyperactive searchlights and rolling banks of smoke, which together gave the impression that an alien mothership was hovering above us. The difference between Reprazent on record and Reprazent on stage is the difference between two of the ways you might interpret the adjective "spacey". New Forms is "spacey" in that it evokes a floating journey through the astral plane. Reprazent live are spacey in that they evoke a dogfight between X-Wing fighters. To use the technical terminology: Reprazent rock.

Their cerebral, jazzy noodlings are pumped up into a beefy, adrenalised, invigorating noise: at least one of the huddle of programmers had the sole job of convincing us that there was a squadron of jet-fighters screeching past. As for the Live Instrument Quotient, Reprazent's drum'n'bass incorporated, novelly enough, real drums and real bass. Most of the time, the chattering beats of the machines battled with pounding live rock rhythms which outwitted the last Government's anti-rave laws: these beats were not repetitive.

Purists might not have approved of the show, although they should have been mollified by the jungle history lesson we received from Reprazent's rubber-limbed frontman, MC Dynamite. His microphone headset freeing him to bounce and slide around the stage, Mr Dynamite was almost paternal in his concern that the crowd should get as much out of the show as possible. Meanwhile, Onallee, the sexy, irrepressible singer, belted out her contributions with the oomph of an Aretha Franklin. She was particularly mesmeric during "Digital" (imagine the Think of a Number theme, set to a rock beat), mystically stirring the air with her fingers, caught in a crossfire of red-and-blue spotlights. This was one of the live music events of the year. I'd recommend Reprazent to everyone - Hawkwind fans in particular.

Super Furry Animals are another band who are hamsters on vinyl compared to the fierce creatures they become on stage. On their new album, Radiator (Creation), their eccentric art-glam-pastoral rock can be too whimsical for its own good. At the London Forum on Thursday, each song was a breathtaking mini-symphony of bloopy analogue synths, eunuch harmonies and crunchy guitars (Huw Bunford is a true master of the discordant riff). It's just a pity that the five of them are so uncharismatic and - not to put too fine a point on it - scruffy. They compensated by bringing on two trumpeters in Mexican bandit costumes. But really, if you're going to sound like Roxy Music, you could at least have the courtesy to wear suits as well.

Anyone who has ever seen Loudon Wainwright III perform will know what he was like at the Union Chapel in north London last Friday (if you've only seen him on The Jasper Carrott Show in the 1980s, it doesn't count. I'm sure he'd rather not be reminded of those appearances). He rarely changes year on year, and indeed, there's little about him you'd want to change, except maybe his habit of grimacing and stretching out his tongue mid-song. It doesn't enhance the audience's enjoyment, and it does make him look as if he has contracted BSE.

Wainwright's exquisitely crafted confessional songs peer under the sofa- cushions and behind the fridges of our emotional lives. They shine a torch into the grimy corners of our hearts, exposing every ulterior motive and secret regret. On his new album, Little Ship (Virgin), for instance, there is a paean to the joys of having children snuggled in between all the songs about loneliness and ageing. Halfway through it, Wainwright undermines the domestic details with the alarmingly honest lines, "They'll treat you like a king /They'll believe anything/They're easy to frighten and lie to". This sort of thing probably explains why he bombed so badly on Jasper Carrott. Despite being an exceptionally funny songwriter, Wainwright has a deeper understanding of human sadness than a whole graveyardful of Radioheads and Nirvanas, Strangeloves and goths.

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