The Sisters Of Mercy | The Virginmarys
21st November 2023
The Sisters of Mercy return to play Manchester with nothing to promote except themselves and nothing to declare but their own genius. Will three albums, some new songs and the odd very old song be enough for the expectant crowd? MK Bennett watches it unfold.
The Virginmarys are already ahead for the sheer chutzpah of the name, no need for a space there, and well, their hometown. They start fiercely, nearly metal but not metal, a sort of old school eighties hardcore ideal (Agnostic Front, Crumbsuckers) a bit Therapy? But also, a big spoon of the Clash, there is some potent sloganeering going on, and the crowd gave them a seal of approval, filling the arena much quicker than the average support act. Good things shall come, an unseemly noise for a duo, its a beautiful sight.
In Jeremy Deller’s 2014 exhibition, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air there’s a wall dedicated to the Midlands music map, specifically the psycho geographies of Heavy Metal, Black Sabbath, and Judas Priest. An idea that’s been hanging around for a generation or two, is that the background sound of your childhood has naturally a bearing on your music, once you start making it. It would seem the industrial noise from the factory floors of Birmingham, the pounding formulaic beat/beating of the hammers most definitely had an effect on the music leaving there, the soot-blackened heat and heart that permeated the skin of its late sixties, early seventies migrants evidenced in a subconscious state.
The Sisters Of Mercy were/are from Leeds, less an industrial behemoth, more an aggressive mill town, and the heaviness can be weighed out less in volume and riffs and more in vocal bass notes and conceptual nous. It’s telling that forty-five years after they formed, the head logo is still instantly recognizable as theirs. The goth rock of First And Last And Always, the stadium commercial rock of Floodland, where your man cannily had Goth rock Goddess and figurehead Patricia Morrison playing bass to offset any perceived removal of black shirt and sunglasses cool, and Vision Thing, where Mr. Eldritch arguably tests the resolve of the most ardent Sisters fandom with an album of off-kilter synth guitar rock, are all played in various measure, and also not with nine songs falling under other, largely but not over zealously on the songs Andrew Eldritch wrote or co-wrote.
With enough personnel change over the years it would make Mark E Smith blush were that possible, they walk onstage to an electric atmosphere, virtually sparking the air, because a lot of people have waited some time for this, its packed sardine style, the light show is a row of brilliant blue pulsing lights, there is one note from a synth, the band are literally being willed to play the best show ever, and they just…don’t.
Looking back on this with a few hours distance, it may be easy to see that expectations were a little high for a band this adored, this big in the imagination of those that adore them, untouchable to both the face-painted teenagers and the parent elders, analogue idolatry in a digital age.
We are through Don’t Drive On Ice and Ribbons almost immediately, the sound is pin sharp and perfect, but not loud enough, almost polite, not rough around the edges, and sounds like Vision Thing regardless of the album or where the songs actually from. Now much like Triggers Broom, Doktor Avalanche does not contain many original moving parts but most importantly seems to have lost a little swing. Is this the digital imitating the analogue in ever-decreasing circles or just a sound level issue, we cannot know but its adding to the normalcy, and that’s not a word that should be seen here, for them. The Sisters have never been ordinary.
More is a pickup, but there’s nothing to pinpoint why the misfiring exactly. Despite rumours, Eldritch’s voice is fine, a little Whiskey Sour Tom Waits on occasion but he has earned the right, definitively. The band are fine, though again, with no rough edges, it’s like a science fiction novel, where there’s more dystopia than science, and the band have caused the ship to sink when something almost magical happens. Like the Hotel Overlook, the darkness and the life wake up. They close the main set with a blistering Temple Of Love, cartoon ears raise themselves, and for reasons altogether unknown they start to fucking swing. Its enough to make a grown man cry.
The crowd seem stunned into silence, many die-hard gig goers seemingly forgetting how to call a band back for an encore, when a man appears playing a saxophone, the intro to Sandstorm. The variation in sound is beautiful and knocks everything up a notch, even the Doktor is immediately more lively, as they play us out with three of their best songs, Dominion, Lucretia My Reflection, and the flawless This Corrosion. We sing, we dance, and all is good again. If they could have hit this stride at the front end, it would have been the gig of the year. The Unbreakable and infallible Andrew Eldritch seems humbled for a moment, muttering a grateful Goodbye as they leave the stage.
Its with the encores you understand why they or specifically he, is held apart by his public. Forever arch and unknowable maybe, but good for some non-harmful worship duties yet.
The Virginmarys can be contacted here
The Sisters of Mercy Home page is here
All words by MK Bennett, you can find his author’s archive here plus his Twitter and Instagram
Photos courtesy of Izzy Clayton. Check out her work on Her Website and Her Instagram. All photo copyright belongs to Izzy.
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