The North Wales coast feels, even to a Welshman, like a foreign country. On one side, the foothills of Snowdonia and, to assert Plantagenet power over the savages who lived among them, spectacular castles. On the other, a strange mix of the half-finished and the abandoned, the frontier town and the ghost town.
Along the branch line between Chester and Llandudno is the most surreal sight of all: a huge rusting pleasure cruiser. The Duke of Lancaster, which used to sail to Scandinavia in silver-service luxury, has since spent time as a dry-docked amusement arcade and bar, but now exists only as a jarring juxtaposition to those who see it.
As a visual metaphor for a rock band approaching middle age, there is none better than that of a former "fun ship" in a state of dereliction. For Manic Street Preachers, who display no desire to "go gentle" into Dylan Thomas's good night, it would be wholly inaccurate.
This is the landscape in which James Dean Bradfield holidayed for his recent 40th birthday. He's come back with his band, but not with celebration in mind (at least, not at first). "The feeling," he tells a packed Venue Cymru, "is like you've come to an art lecture, and you're expecting the party with chips after."
The "art lecture" is a start-to-finish rendition of the Manics' ninth studio album, Journal for Plague Lovers, a record which, as you may already have heard, is not a run-of-the-mill release (with all its lyrics deriving from a folder handed by Richey Edwards to his bandmates before his disappearance in 1995). The "party with chips" is the second set of classics and crowd-pleasers. And, with all due respect to James, he's got it the wrong way around.
A parade of Manics hits? Heard it a hundred times. Journal for Plague Lovers, however, is the kind of record no major rock band has made, or dared to make, for more than a decade. A unique and brave endeavour, it was a case of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't. There will inevitably be those who accuse the Manics of having run out of creative juice, and of exploiting the memory of their missing member. The fact is that the result is an exhilarating listen, revealing that Edwards was improving all the time as a writer.
Edwards has been an absent presence at Manics gigs ever since 1996, his position stage-right pointedly kept empty, and more so now than ever. It's truly heartening to see this man's genius recognised once again, and back in the public eye.
The project was always gonna be a kill-or-cure gamble, and the coin's fallen the right way up. Plague Lovers has revitalised the band, and everything about them, from Bradfield's voice as he announces "We are Manic Street Preachers", expresses flinty intent.
Whoever's doing the sound mix on this tour deserves an award, because they've perfectly captured Steve Albini's unforgiving, airtight studio sound. "Marlon JD" scours the nerve-endings, and Sean Moore's brilliantly brittle drumming on "She Bathed Herself in a Bath of Bleach" and "Doors Closing Slowly" almost constitutes a lead instrument rather than a mere rhythm track.
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The one deviation from the disc version is "Facing Page Top Left", which is played solo by Bradfield on acoustic guitar, without the Welsh harp. It's Bradfield, more than ever, who's carrying the show, even if he makes a mess of the intro to the astonishing "All Is Vanity". This is through no fault of his sidekicks. Nicky Wire suffered a prolapsed disc in his spine while filming Later with Jools Holland, meaning this tour is going ahead despite medical advice, and definitely meaning no star jumps.
For him to sing "William's Last Words", though, requires a superhuman effort which goes beyond the merely physical, requiring Wire, in his only vocal on the album, to channel Richey's heartbreaking line "You were the best friends I ever had ..."
The second half sees Wire on his knees, until someone brings him a chair. The talk of calling a mountain rescue helicopter is only semi-humorous. The oldies – "Motorcycle Emptiness", "Faster", "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next" (used without permission by a spectacularly point-missing BNP) – fly by, via a somewhat laddish lull with "Australia", "Autumnsong" and "You Stole the Sun", to the traditional finale of "Motown Junk" and "A Design for Life", but not quickly enough for the pain-crippled bassist, who can't even drag himself to the mic for his few lines in "Your Love Alone Is Not Enough".
Nicky Wire may be hobbling like a wounded war veteran, but Manic Street Preachers are walking tall.
There's a simple reason why Franz Ferdinand, Goldfrapp, Lykke Li and CSS have been clamouring for a Metronomy remix. It's because, unlike most remixers, Metronomy – being first and foremost a rock band – understand the workings of the rock song. And their own dance-rock hybrids, notably the gorgeous single "Heartbreaker" and the Supertrampy "A Thing for Me", justify the fuss.
The cruel fact is that, like fellow rockers turned remixers Soulwax, Metronomy – which is essentially a vehicle for Totnes-born Joseph Mount – can't quite translate their studio excellence to live performance. If you could sell charisma as an elixir, Mount and Metronomy would be lining up at the soup kitchen for the needy.
Close your eyes, though, and they're great. Preppy, bespectacled new bassist Gbenga Adelekan augments Oscar Cash's majestic synths by adding top-string melodies reminiscent of Peter Hook in New Order's golden period.
It only goes to show: sometimes, if you want to be appreciated, the best thing you can do is not be there at all.
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