LIVE: NME Awards Tour 2016 @ O2 Academy

The NME Awards Tour is always exciting. It gives a collection of new acts with bigger names such as 2015’s line up consisting of Palma Violets headlining, with The Wytches, Slaves and Fat White Family also playing. Diverse music events, with a name such as NME attached to them, always draw a melting pot of an audience. This year Bloc Party headlined the NME Awards Tour, with Bugzy Malone, Rat Boy and Drenge before.  Back in 2008, Bloc Party were the first band I saw live. After eight years of time passing, seeing them again – especially after their recent, turbulent history – was a nostalgic event.

Last year was massive for Grime, with brothers Jme and Skepta running the show, and Stormzy’s rush for Christmas number 1 with ‘Shut Up’ proving a revival for the genre. Grime artist Bugzy Malone is best known for his back-and-forth verbal warfare with Chip (formerly Chipmunk). One of his diss tracks, which targeted Chip, was his Fire In The Booth session with Charlie Sloth on 1Xtra, which is the most viewed Fire In The Booth of 2015. NME’s embracing of Grime, by including Bugzy Malone in the line-up, shows a willingness to reach artists on the peripheries of pop, and creates a platform to hold Grime’s significance as an icon of England’s music culture.

Another voice of English music culture comes from newbie Rat Boy. The front man and mastermind behind Rat Boy is Essex teen, Jordan Cardy. The themes of Rat Boy’s music are of anti-state passions and stories of financial hardship. It is often described as pop-punk.

This could be seen as the irony of it – reflecting the angst and feeling of anarchy that naturally drives a teen’s being– maybe I was just losing touch

Cardy bounded on to the stage wearing what looked like painter & decorator overalls and luminous yellow rimmed sunglasses, while his band modestly took position on stage. The introduction to their opening song, ‘Move’, sounded like a hypnotised Prodigy piece, before slinging himself in to the repeated, ironic line ‘You know I never say the same thing twice.’ There is hip-hop influence hidden in his aggressive lyrical delivery, which is melded with industrial, lo-fi instrumentation.  He bounced on bent knees in the signature in-your-face performance pose, while singing to the front-rowers, whose demographic was teenage. During ‘WASTEMAN’, Cardy graced his guitarist with his yellow sunglasses. Rat Boy’s most known song ‘FAKE ID’ closed the set – a tale of a bouncer rejecting him for using someone else’s ID, then getting mugged. The later part of the narrative of this track gives voice to those who are ‘tryna act cool’ at school, telling of some odd conflict: ‘Us against them, just you and me.’

After Rat Boy left the stage I was left feeling a little sullen. This was the band that DIY Magazine picked as their One to Watch of 2016. Although compared to Jamie T for his anecdotal retellings and London drawl, Rat Boy’s performance was a display of scatty, pulp music. This could be seen as the irony of it – reflecting the angst and feeling of anarchy that naturally drives a teen’s being– maybe I was just losing touch.

Drenge brought it back. The Loveless brothers are a band that draw a crowd and keep them clenched in their fist from beginning to end. Their punk-rock energy that they conjure as a simple two-piece (three-piece when touring) is not seen as common in recent years. However they do play slower, yet captivating, songs. When they were on stage, Drenge eased the crowd in to a gentle rendition of ‘Fuckabout’.

The intense set certainly proved that Drenge deserved their place as sub-headliners. The grisly ‘Bloodsports’ jumped about with the hammer-ons from Eoin’s fret-dancing, while his brother Rory hammered away the fearless drumming rhythm.  The final song from their short but bolstering set was ‘Let’s Pretend’.  The outro of the song is an extended instrumental and comes after Eoin yelps ‘Yeah baby, let’s pretend!’ similar to how Pixies’ Black Francis does. Eoin hushed the crowd and dampened his guitar to allow Rory to thunder the remaining bars of the song before playing the feedbacky guitar out too. The band stepped off the stage, leaving the audience flustered and read for the 90 minutes of the headliners.

This year’s NME Awards Tour marks Bloc Party’s first UK live shows since headlining Latitude in the summer of 2013.  Bloc Party are a band that successfully held it together. Following the departure of drummer Matt Tong in 2013, an ‘indefinite hiatus’, and the departure of their bassist Gordon Moakes early last year, the band were left on thin ground with open wounds. But, the sutures were pulled tightly together when new bassist Justin Harris and drummer Louise Bartle joined and the band had the new album, HYMNS, in their armoury, which was released late January. They had a comeback brewing.

Bloc Party’s new album has been received with mixed reviews, but that didn’t matter for the NME Awards Tour show

They stepped on to the stage to the swagger of ‘The Good News’- the fourth track off the new album. Front man Kele Okereke wore a snazzy short-sleeved shirt, decorated with golden diamonds and carrying a wide, rapturous smile. His hair was tied back; he was ready to be back on stage.  ‘Only He Can Heal Me’, also from the new album, followed. Kele’s solo work sounds like it had some inspiration to their new songs, with the tremulous keys saturating the sound.

The setlist was not exclusively songs from HYMNS. ‘My mercury’s in retrograde’ introduced Intimacy’s first single ‘Mercury’, with Kele’s solo vocals launching the song and was received with a resounding bellow from the crowd. Another crowd-pleasing classic came from ‘Banquet’. The sweet-sounding guitar and Kele’s crooning, romantic voice hark back to 2005, the year of Silent Alarm and a major post-millennium milestone in UK music.

The penultimate song to their main setlist was the jarring riff of ‘Octopus’, followed by ‘The Love Within’ – the atmospheric first single from HYMNS, with atmospheric, EDM modulation as the main weighty hook of the song. The red-blue-yellow-green colours off Four’s album cover lit the back of the stage as the song played out. Bloc Party left the stage and hand-clapping began.

The band returned, knowing that they had abstained from performing their three most anticipated songs. Smart setlisting. They returned to stage with the broody track ‘So Real’ from the new album. The trance of ‘Flux’ erupted in the room. The lights burst into bright convulsions as the sharp synth shots while Kele bawled the chorus: ‘we were hoping for some romance.’

‘Helicopter’ came before their final song ‘Ratchet’. The vigour of the band for this track creates a rush towards the front of the stage, and moshpits form. This is the first song on which Kele proves himself capable of rapping. The verses are rapid and aggressive, but he does not miss a beat. This song was made for a raucous performance, with lyrics such as ‘When I get fucked up / When I get half cut / Gonna make them prang, get rowdy’ and a bluster of ‘Get ratchet!’ that filled the room after an intense build.

Bloc Party’s new album has been received with mixed reviews, but that didn’t matter for the NME Awards Tour show. The setlist that they curated was a crowd-pleaser. A tour with the name HYMNS is not needed when they electrify with what they demonstrated in Newcastle.

Watch this YouTube playlist to relive the NME Awards Tour experience:

Connor McDonnell 

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