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Earlier this year, Gene Simmons, lead singer of Kiss, proclaimed that “rock is finally dead”. A bizarre statement given that rock music accounted for over a third of album sales in 2013 and this year has seen the release of a number of high selling rock albums, most notably for Springsteen and alt-J. However at the Manchester Apollo it was hard to believe rock music was anywhere near its final breath.
Emily’s Army opened up the night, with a dynamic, energetic set of 4 chord songs and sing along choruses. The songs were fun and very listenable and the band looked to be sincerely enjoying their time on stage. With Billie-Joe Armstrong’s son, Joey, on the drums, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between Emily’s Army and the late 90’s pop-punk scene, most notably New Found Glory. However, there are hints of indie rock in there; influences from the Strokes and Sonic Youth are evident in the music. Overall a young band that shows a lot of promise; especially with the backing of Green Day’s legendary front-man who produced both their albums to date.
Next came the biggest personal disappointment of the night, a cringe worthy white bread performance from one of punk rocks cult heroes, Pennywise. The band proudly boasted that they’d been “doing this for 25 years” and boy did it show. Each song blurred into the next, lacking the charisma and the melodies to make this anything but a forgettable performance. They sounded dated; a failure to progress from that late 80’s/early 90’s sound means that there is nothing to differentiate them from the 100 or so young punk bands you can go see in any major city every night of the week. The talent is obvious, the execution: dull. A cover of Bad Religion’s ‘Do What You Want’ and the band’s own ‘Fuck Authority’ went some way to resurrecting the show, but lead guitarist Fletcher Dragge’s insistence on littering the gap between each song with generic rock sound bites like “who loves beer?” and “this is for everyone that smokes weed” made the whole thing difficult to watch. Meanwhile the band hopped around the stage, in a way a 13 year old boy would be embarrassed to be caught doing . Pennywise felt reminiscent of the kind of rock band you find in every old man’s pub on a Saturday night; middle aged men attempting to capture their youth by playing pretend rock gods. Later on, Tim McIlrath claimed that without Pennywise “there would be no Rise Against” – undoubtedly a legacy Pennywise should cling to.
Once the crowd had captured their breath and/or woken up from Pennywises’ performance, Rise Against took the stage. This is a band with an army of adoring fans across the globe, a critically acclaimed discography and recognition from the major stalwarts of punk music. Undoubtedly Rise Against’s greatest achievement has been to straddle the line between commercial success and punk-rock “integrity”: a top-10 album in the United States, sold out tours, but still the view from the gate-watchers of punk rock that they haven’t “sold out”. During one of Dragge’s speeches he praised Rise Against to the sky; insisting that unlike other bands who’ve been “led astray by money and fame and all that bullshit” they’ve managed to stay true to that ever ambiguous punk rock ethic.
From the opening riff of ‘Ready To Fall’ to the last scream of ‘Savior’, Rise Against delivered a breathless, precision-engineered performance, blasting their way through the highlights of a 7 album discography. The energy the band played with was incredible, reflected in a crowd that at all times felt ready to explode into an all-encompassing mosh pit. Early on the crowd threatened to spill over the barrier, but a delivered message from lead singer Tim was enough to relax people enough for the gig to continue. Undoubtedly Tim’s role as front man is the defining aspect of Rise Against; a charismatic and energetic vocalist who somehow treads the line between rock God and everyman. Evocative and heart-felt lyrics provide a definition to their punk-rock angst and anger, encapsulating the desperation and immediacy that so often evades punk artists. Political songs can often feel clichéd and preachy, but Tim sings and writes with a sincerity that is impossible to reject. In the encore when the band played crowd favourite Make It Stop, the emotion within the room and on the stage was clear for all to see.
Rise Against’s own form of melodic punk was enthralling; Principe and Barnes provided a text book rhythm section, projecting energy to a willing crowd and for Zach Blair’s incredible guitar work. The whole performance served to demonstrate the justification for their leading role in punk music, as well as the chemistry of a band that’ve been playing together for over ten years. The band, however, do suffer from the Pennywise syndrome; towards the end of the main set songs did begin to blur together. Their reliance on 3 instruments undoubtedly limited the performance; songs began to sound stale and anyone but dedicated fans would struggle to differentiate between them. Serving only to prove this point, the highlight of the gig came during the first encore when armed with nothing but an acoustic guitar, McIlrath delivered a beautiful performance of the classic ‘Swing Life Away’ and a new track ‘People Live Here’ both bubbling with typical Rise Against lyrical honesty. The atmospheric lighting and the participating crowd produced a spine chilling moment.
Rise Against provided a stark reminder that rock music is alive and kicking and that there is still a lot to come from them as a band.