It was always going to be an interesting experience catching Nero live.
Not least because they are perhaps one of the year’s most unlikely music success stories (or perhaps likely if you’d been watching the inexorable rise of dubstep), but also because trying to convey a concept album in a live setting is usually something to see, be it for good or bad reasons.
This set was certainly something to see, and for good reasons too, though not perhaps the ones you might expect.
Nero came to the stage late in the evening, and the moment felt like the unveiling of something significant – a black sheet was literally pulled from the towering DJ set, revealing the glowing name of ‘Nero’ near the top. The sense that this had been a long time coming was evident as the noise reached fever pitch and the previously welcome spaces around were gobbled up so the floor became a seething, heaving mass of screaming bodies.
And then the noise started from the tower. An horrific, pulsing, wailing that warbled its way around Store Street’s cavernous walls and turned the underground car park into the Dante’s fifth circle of hell (that’s a pretty bad one too). Was this the end of all things?
Enter Doomsday, the first track-a-proper from what Nero dub their ‘concept album’, Welcome Reality, an imaginary soundtrack to a post-apocalyptic world, or at least the movie score. Surprisingly, while the concept never really translates fully on the record, all the rumbling, wailing and shrieks in a live setting invoke a strange sense of foreboding. (Peep Show fans will note I steered clear of calling it a ‘powerful sense of dread’.)
But when two solemn figures in black shades appear at the top of the tower, you can’t help thinking ‘matrix’. Shades in the dark are never cool, even when you are playing to a concept. That said, Daniel Stephens and Joe Ray, the pair behind Neo, sorry Nero, maintain an ominous presence throughout most of the night, and their minimal movement adds to the aura of the whole thing (that is until near the end when one finally cracks and come close to ruining it all with a devil horns sign).
The thunderous bass and dissonant harmonies of the dubstep inspired moments work well in the apocalyptic atmosphere, and by the time the silhouette of Alana Watson appears looming above in high heels and blowing hair, you are so involved in it all her vocals become that of a siren calling us all to our doom. While tracks such as Guilt and Promises are drenched with obvious trance and even pop overtones, they act like a light at the end of the tunnel in the live set – compared with sounding like the singles that the album’s based around on record.
Alana features on so many of Nero’s tracks she may as well be the third member of the band, and her vocals sound pitch perfect tonight. So much so, it makes one wonder if she is actually singing live. But surely she must, and presumably then, this is a significant compliment.
And bizarrely, rather than a moment of pop or trance euphoria causing any jarring tension in the doomsday mood, it is the drum ‘n’ bass moments that sit less comfortably, or at least throw the sharpest switch in mood. Perhaps this is the price you pay when juggling so many sounds, and then try as conscientiously as this to make them all mesh into something so cohesive. Whenever a typically raucous and ballsy drum ‘n’ bass moment rolls out, the entire pace shifts. Unsurprisingly however, this is when a large proportion of the crowd seem to be enjoying it most.
Nero don’t deviate from the album too much in the set. After all, not too many additional things can fit into this already bloated soundscape with ease. But what extra they do bring goes down a treat with the crowd. Their remix of Plan B’s Recluse builds and builds and builds until the venue near erupts and their take on The Streets’ Blinded by the Lights sends the heaving mass into rapture.
So how does the concept album that unifies the un-unifiable – dubstep, drum ‘n’ bass, trance, pop and yes, classical structures– stand up in a live setting? Somehow better than it does on record. Perhaps it was the grim brickwork of an underground car park or the raging heat of so many packed bodies, but it was the first time that the ‘concept’ behind the album really came through, or at least worked.
Where the growling voice saying ‘doomsday’ in the track of the same name sounds reasonably humorous on the album (and has even been compared to ‘bonkers’ elsewhere), live it sounds quite formidable. Where the sixty-odd minutes begins to drag toward the end of the CD, live, the crowd were left wanting more.
Seeing Nero live is anything but ‘welcome reality’, but it certainly is good fun.