It was a night of new beginnings in Birmingham on Thursday. A new venue, a new band and a new direction for the city’s biggest indie export of recent years. So as I approached the crowds of Editors fans, special guests and media-types queuing to get into the relocated 02 Academy for the first time, I could tell expectations were high. Thankfully, not many left disappointed.
Getting in to the main room, my first impression of the Academy was surprisingly one of recognition. It looks like a souped-up, altogether more plush renovation rather than a wholesale re-design. The three-sided balcony is still there, the squarish main floor is still there (stickiness aside) and the general layout was very familiar. But it was the new additions that caught the eye. Tiered seating on the balcony increased the capacity, comfort and view for those upstairs, and the bars on either side meant queues for a drink were minimal. Hopefully most people weren’t here to marvel at upholstery though, there were bands to see.
It fell to The Northwestern to open the night and give the stage, and the new sound system, its first proper workout. As they started up their chugging indie, the lead singer’s vocals immediately reminded me of post-rockers Hope of the States. This is no bad thing. But the similarity was so striking I found myself considering The Northwestern as rip-off merchants. Then I realised. The singer was former Hope of the States frontman Sam Herilhy doing a fine impression of himself.
This realised, I enjoyed The Northwestern more, despite not too much to shout about in terms of their performance and the same concerns about Sam’s slightly whiney, American-style vocals. Some nice controlled feedback and escalating crunch showed promise, but as a straight-up guitar band, they might struggle to stand out in the sea of keyboards and ironic sunglasses that have invaded the charts.
As second act Bombay Bicycle Club took their turn I could see more benefits to the new surroundings. The bands seemed closer to the audience, the lights were more dynamic, and the sound system was a big improvement, especially for the bass and drums, over the old room’s often questionable quality.
BBC, as I’ll dub the band, used the more intimate feel to their advantage, jumping and jerking around the stage and feeding some energy into the audience. Their ramshackle style had some nice touchs like shifting rhythms, interlocking guitar lines and some mad manoevres from the ever-so-slightly geeky frontman. Their squirming, off-kilter indie might be a little too hard to pin down at times, but they certainly got the crowd on their side by the end, earning a fair few cheers after their riotous climax. It was hometown lads Editors that everyone was here for though.
From the off, Editors’ new direction was apparent. Sweeping synthy soundscapes and New Order-esque drum machines have replaced the echoey, clattering guitars creating a more brooding, atmospheric take on the epic misery Editors specialise in. It wasn’t long however until the guitars were back in action and the more familiar Editors riffing came into play. Ripping through ‘Lights’ from debut album The Back Room, Editors regained the energy and impact rarely achieved with a keyboard.
The Back Room’s ‘Blood’ was another highlight, showcasing the black-clad band’s talent for a big chorus and a razor-sharp guitar line and getting the audience jumping under the red lighting and flashes of strobe. After this, people seemed to warm to the dark 80s vibe and accept the organs and blasts of industrial electronica, especially when the big choruses of the earlier tunes found their way into the new stuff. Tom Smith proved he could move out of his Ian Curtis vocal style between fits of jumping around and climbing the drum riser too.
Editors may have shined brightest tonight when wielding guitars on songs like ‘Munich’ and ‘Bullets’ rather than pressing keys, but given time, their new direction might just prove a smart move. For everyone packing the new Academy to the rafters, it was an exciting start to city’s latest music mecca. Let’s just hope they get that floor sticky again. It’s just not the same otherwise.
Words: Ian Ravenscroft
Photos: Steve Gerrard