Manic Street Preachers
Lifeblood & Live @ Cardiff International Arena
January 11, 2005
Review & Photography: Steve Bateman

Released in November 2004, Lifeblood - the Manics' seventh studio album - unquestionably delivered Nicky's promise of "Elegiac Pop," yet at the same time, managed to divide both the band's loyal fanbase, as well as the austere music press.

Still, on October 8, 2004, The Western Mail published an article entitled Preaching To The Converted, which for me, presented a more considered opinion of where the Manics are now. The short extracts below, encapsulate some of my own feelings and thoughts, on the uptempo / polished melancholy of Lifeblood:

- Simon Price (Music Journalist / Author of Everything: A Book About Manic Street Preachers)
"Every Manics album can be viewed as a reaction to the one before. They're constantly switching from extroverted to introverted, and political to personal. This is an introverted and personal album… a beautiful piece of work. It's the first time they've taken big chances musically, and stepped outside the melodic rock sound - there are lots of traces of Joy Division and late '70s Bowie in there."

- Darren Broome (Worked on a MSP Documentary)
"The subject matter remains true to the Manics. I don't think they will alienate their old fans, as there's still a lot of integrity to their songwriting and politics."

- Kevin Hughes (BBC Radio Wales DJ)
"It sounds like they have rediscovered their drive and passion, and I hope there's more to come."

- Iestyn George (Journalist who has worked extensively with MSP)
"Lifeblood sounds like a record made with conviction and belief, and the key thing about the Manics, is that they now exist in their own creative world. It sounds like a band which is progressing and feeling comfortable within themselves. There are touches of grander elements of production, but it's not the Manics trying to be something they are not."

Although their least political album to date, Lifeblood is a return to form, and is the band's most consistent LP since Everything Must Go. Musically, it marks yet another reinvention and features synthesisers, pianos, digital drums and shimmering guitars - albeit in a much more restrained form by previous Manics standards.

After working on several songs in New York, with producer Tony Visconti, James admitted "I kind of went back to John McGeoch, who has been the guitarist in Magazine, and used to be the guitarist in PIL with John Lydon for a while. He became one of my main influences, because he was a guitarist that didn't seem to have much ego - he would just play in the right places and would play what was right for the song."

Likewise on this record, Nicky's lyrics have also been deliberately pared down, thus allowing the music much more prominence.

However, Lifeblood's release, has arguably been overshadowed by the 10th Anniversary reissue of The Holy Bible - the classic album which is regarded by many (MSP included), as their "Masterpiece."

Such connections to the band's past and to Richey, have resulted in Nicky admitting "We are haunted by ghosts, we're haunted by the way we looked - the symmetry - the four of us - everything was perfect." It's perhaps no surprise then, that Lifeblood's concurrent theme is death, as many of the songs deal with the tragedy of loss and with mortality.

James explained, "We chose the title Lifeblood, because the lyrics are much more introspective, and a lot of the songs are about how indefinable it is, that there is a human spirit that goes on. We just wanted to make a connection between the humanity in the lyrics, and the visual image and the title."

In discussing the lush production / exquisite sound of Lifeblood (mixed by Goldfrapp's engineer Tom Elmhirst), Nicky, minus any spiky rhetoric, reasons that "the band have never felt duty bound to anyone, other than to themselves." He comfortably concedes, "I don't mind if people think this album is quite coffee-table, I see that as a compliment."

Live, the Manics' recent performances have been reported as "some of their finest shows in the last decade," and although a controversial decision amongst hardcore devotees, the addition of extra guitarist Guy Massey, has, along with Nick Nasmyth on keyboards, helped enrich the band's overall sound.

As with all MSP gigs, there's a real mix of old and new fans - but it must be said, that the 'glitter-and-tiara' wearing fans always look fantastic!

The Departure (a Northampton based five-piece), are tonight's support act, and are hotly tipped to be one of 2005's breakthrough bands. Their angular / art-school rock, is in a similar vein to Franz Ferdinand - combining a mix of New Wave and New Romanticism, both musically and visually. The Cardiff crowd warmly receives their distinctive guitar-based sound, to which frontman David Jones appears genuinely flattered, "Thank you, you've been very kind, we hope you enjoy the Manics."

In keeping with Lifeblood's clean / sleek sound + clinical artwork, the stage monitors and mic stands are all in white, with the customary video screen used as a backdrop. Interestingly, British artist Jeremy Deller - The 2004 Turner Prize Winner and a Manics visual collaborator - created all of the short films for the video screen.

Standing in the photographers' pit and seeing all of the MSP fans at the front, makes you realise just how special the connection is, between the band and their fanbase. The anticipation for James, Nicky and Sean to walk on stage, is something to behold, and when they do appear (after the video screen intro), the cheers are vivacious and euphoric.

Nicky, who often alternates between glam and casual menswear, is tonight, dressed in a three-quarter length leopard-print coat, with black mascara around his eyes… and of course, a feather boa is also wrapped around his mic stand. James and Sean meanwhile, keep things simple, by dressing in classic black.

The set opens with If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next, after which James apologises for the show having to be rescheduled from December 13th, due to his flu. "I'm sorry, it's all my fault" he says laughing, "but I sounded like Joe Cocker."

Next up, comes the jagged dissonance of Faster. Delivered at an intensely rapid pace, it sees Nicky scissor-jumping / dropping to his knees, and James pirouetting with his guitar / screaming the incisive line, "I know I believe in nothing but it is my nothing."

1985 meanwhile, is a nostalgic evocation of a lost time, and contains lyrics such as, "In 1985, my words they came alive, friends were made for life," and is littered with references to historic happenings of that year, including Torville and Dean, The Civil War, and Morrissey & Marr. Along with hook-laden choruses, this stirring anthem is drenched in melody, and easily ranks amongst the very best songs of the band's career.

After No Surface All Feeling, a new anthem, Empty Souls - which features the jarring but powerful line "Collapsing like the Twin Towers…" is, thanks to its piano-led riff and pounding drums, another classic in its own right.

14 years on, the iconoclastic / confrontational nature of You Love Us, remains firmly intact, and with its brash lyrics and crunching guitar, it still offers a perfect slice of vitriolic punk rock. It's also a true joy seeing Nicky with his mile-wide-smile, singing along to every word (as he often does), without any need for his mic.

Taking to the mic to speak, Nicky asserts, "McAlmont & Butler stole the title of this next song, and had a big hit with it, but ours is the better song!" It is of course Yes.

The Love of Richard Nixon is the black sheep of Lifeblood, and for some fans, wasn't the most obvious choice as a comeback single. But I happen to think it's a very infectious song, especially the way in which the cold electronica music / James' low vocals, are set free on the catchy chorus. The Flying V solo is also very cool.

Nicky famously said, "If Radiohead are Kennedy, then the Manic Street Preachers are Nixon: the ugly duckling who had to try 10 times harder than anyone else." Therefore, the Nixon sample at the end of the song "I have never been a quitter," possibly echoes the Manics own sentiments on their continuation as a band.

Next comes Kevin Carter, followed by La Tristesse Durera - which in 1993 was described as the "last great baggy single," and remains a crucial fan favourite to this day. Not only does it have a cracking bassline and guitar solo, but it also showcases just how much emotion James has in his voice when he sings. Before the song however, James tells us that at school, both he and Nicky "were rubbish at French," and that we'll "have to forgive his pronunciation." But Nicky argues that he himself, was "definitely good at French," to which James laughs and disagrees.

Australia's longing for escape is, thanks to its music and melody, extremely uplifting - as it soars with such effortless ease.

In stark contrast to the new material tonight, the dark / disturbing songs from The Holy Bible (coupled with James' beleaguering vocals), sound even more bleak and furious. Introduced by Nicky as "written by the great one - Richey," we are then sucked in and spat back out again, by the harrowing desolation of Die In The Summertime.

Continuing on from Solitude Sometimes Is and The Masses Against The Classes, James performs an acoustic number on his own, as has become tradition at MSP shows. "This is where everyone thinks I'm sensitive, and that I need love and attention," he says smiling. Though sparse, Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky is both delicate and fragile, and thanks to James' calming voice, has a dream-like quality.

When Nicky returns to the stage, he's wearing a white top, a Welsh Flag mini-skirt, diamond Pringle socks and retro Puma trainers… as only he can!

A fan then shouts out a request for Sleepflower, to which James smiles and replies, "You have extremely bad taste." Following You Stole The Sun From My Heart and This Is Yesterday - which James labels as "one of our favourites from The Holy Bible." Nicky then informs us that the next song, "Is about playing cricket, playing football and drinking Corona, but most of all, it's about Richey," which receives tremendous cheers.

Decorated with swirling harp and harmonica, Cardiff Afterlife is extremely poignant and affecting, as it addresses the band's eternal anguish, following Richey's tragic disappearance. With lines such as "And yet I kept my silence, your memory is still mine" - it is indeed a beautiful tribute, and is in many ways, about the Manics reclaiming Richey.

The images on the video screen behind, show the whole band together, and as much as they're celebratory, they're equally as touching. Nicky recently described this situation as, "The dangling man syndrome - you've got hope on the one side, and clarity or closure on the other, and sometimes you want closure, but to get closure you have to kill hope."

Tonight, James' ever-changing band intros are, for Nicky, "The New Prime Minister of Britain" and for Sean, "The New Welsh Minister for Sport." Then it's back to business…

Early MSP material is renowned for capturing the full disillusionment, frustration and anger towards modern politics and society, in a truly revolutionary spirit. So tonight, the nihilistic Motown Junk, is a welcome addition to the set list. Nicky even stands centre stage towards the end of the song, taking over James' mic and singing the final chorus, before shouting (and I mean really shouting), "We live in urban hell, we destroy rock and roll."

This is a very special moment, as it's so unexpected - even James is taken aback. "I've never heard anyone shout so fucking loud in all my life! I never knew you had it in you!" he says laughing / rubbing his ears. As you would imagine, the crowd's ovation is immense.

I Live To Fall Asleep, with its subdued / skeletal beauty and aching gentle surrender, gives way to 2 all-time classics - Motorcycle Emptiness and A Design For Life - which when delivered in such full splendour, are proof positive, that something's just keep getting better with age.

Finally, James wishes us all "a brilliant 2005" and says "Cardiff, you look beautiful and you sound beautiful, we'll see you in April - love you once, love you twice, love you thrice, goodnight." The Manics then leave the stage waving goodbye.

James, Nicky and Sean, have without doubt, been greatly inspired by the Descartes quote "Conquer yourself rather than the world" (used on the Lifeblood sleeve) - as it seems that's exactly what they've done. As The Guardian wrote, "At the start, the Manics believed fervently in the idea of The Band: an entity that transcended its individual parts - even with one of those parts missing, they still do."

A very special thanks to Claire @ Hall or Nothing + to Rosey for all of their time and help, and to the Manic Street Preachers + their management / security. Stay Beautiful.

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