Tonight's show was only recently announced, with the headliners reappearing after a long hiatus, and so the venue isn't quite sold out. The turnout is pretty respectable, though, and that gives the local support bands a sizeable and attentive crowd to perform for.

Golden Section are first on, serving up a hefty plateful of intelligent pop with rock and electro flavours. They're a well-presented bunch of lads – dressed in dark shirts that your mother might approve of, but with some subcultural style on the side – and they have a very professional stage presence. They banter well between songs, and perform with energy and precision. Their music features real drumming in tandem with electronic percussion, and guitars paired with synthesizers; add some clear strong vocals, which sound as if they've been trained professionally and are cleverly arranged into the structure of the songs; now embellish with cunning flourishes and details that emphasise the professional attitude of the band - these songs haven't just been practised, they've been polished. It's a synergy, the sum of the parts adding up to something greater than its components, and it's remarkably hard to put them in a convenient box – apart from the box marked “could really go somewhere”.

Next up are recently-formed local super-group Cut The Blue Wire, five youngish lads taking to the stage to a haunting Floyd-esque synth wash. Then, suddenly, two bars of staccato hand-clapping - and the rest of the band kick in. The keys fill the space a second guitar would normally take, allowing the guitarist to sit his sound further back in the mix and lending an unusually listenable edge to music that definitely has its roots in the emo scene. But it's emo by way of prog rock and pop music; the dynamics and soaring vocals hint at a certain self-mockery, as if they're not taking themselves too seriously, while the drums batter out tight freeform patterns and keep everything locked together. Full of neat little stops and drops, the interplay of the vocals and the rhythm section demonstrates a willingness to look beyond the “verse-chorus-verse-screamy bit” structure of the music they're building on top of; with a little more space to breathe here and there, and a bit of diversity of sound, this could turn into a fine set. The performance is energetic, though not yet flawless, and the between-songs spaces are punctuated by confusion over which song is next on the set list – although that may just be part of what seems to be an elaborately ironic performance. Post-emo pop? Pop-progmo? This is a sound waiting for a catchy name to be pinned on it; hopefully that sound will mature and strengthen before the name tries to bleed it dry.

After what seems like a long wait, Nine Black Alps finally appear at a little past 10 o'clock, and begin their set with little preamble. It takes them a few songs to get properly warmed up, and singer Sam Forrest's voice sounds a little ragged at first, but soon they're belting out catchy three-minute walls-of-sound with little ceremony and seemingly less effort.

More than a decade down the line, and finally freed from the burden of being a 'movement', the grunge sound has had a chance to grow up a little, and can now concentrate on speaking its own mind rather than that of its audience. The result is bands like Nine Black Alps, who take the juxtaposition of loud and quiet passages and the fuzzy distortion that are the hallmarks of grunge, and make them into songs that seethe with raw energy while retaining an accessible, almost sing-along edge - they have choruses to kill for. But it's still very authentic - if you closed your eyes, you could be at a gig sometime in 1992. Listen to that simple backbeat, those effect-drenched chords; to the untrained and powerful singing, and the sound of a guitar being played with a drumstick. It's a marked contrast to the elaborate architecture of the support bands, and to the angular music that currently dominates the charts.

But like the sound they pay homage to, Nine Black Alps have grown up somewhat. The new material, while no less lively than the songs from the first album, is notably less full of piss and vinegar, showing a new mature approach to lyrical material and songwriting which may alienate a few fans of the early stuff at the same time as garnering new appreciation from people who previously passed them over. The performance is lively, but stops short of being genuinely frenzied – perhaps it will take them a few shows to get back into the groove of playing to live audiences. But to judge by the reaction of the audience, the return of Nine Black Alps is no disappointment to their established fan base, at least as represented here tonight. Along with a handful of other bands across the planet, they're heralding a possible return to the simple unpretentious aesthetics of the early 90's – and from where I'm standing, it's not come a moment too soon.


The photos that accompany this article were taken by Stuart Leech










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Commenting On: Wedgewood Rooms, Portsmouth, 6/5/2007 - Nine Black Alps








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