Six years ago, I saw Eagulls, alongside Cold Ones, supporting Cerebral Ballzy at A Nation of Shopkeepers in Leeds. Cold Ones were pretty awful but Eagulls were, to be blunt, utterly fucking gash, and I vowed never to see of hear them again if I could possibly help it. It’s a vow I’ve kept until now: there was no way I was going to pass up on Protomartyr playing practically on my doorstep as part of a co-headlining tour.
We’d been advised to get don early doors (7:30) as York (and now Leeds) perennials Fawn Spots were scheduled to play at 7:45 ahead of a 10:30 finish. In the event, I arrived at 7:35 to find a guy with a guitar, miniature keyboard and massive rack of pedals set up in front of the stage in the process of building a layered, loop-based sound that straddled post-rock, post-punk and shoegaze, with some tendencies toward whappy time signatures and general fiddling. It’s really rather good, and on the strength of this brief outing, 99 Watts from Darlington warrants further exploration.
Fawn Spots are a band I’ve spent a long time exploring, and they’ve evolved so much over the course of their career. Having stated out as a snotty two-piece reliant more on attitude than ability, their debut album, released on Fire Records was testament to their blossoming into a thrashy post-punk powerhouse. Now free of the label and into their next phase, tonight’s set showcases material from in-progress album number two. It’s a new sound again, amalgamating elements of mid-80s Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen and Julian Cope. Early in the set, Oliver’s guitar playing sounds like Marty McFly at the prom, but fortunately, it’s just one broken and one out of turn string rather than a disappearing hand to blame. A switch of guitar later, he’s back to form, and while the songs are yet to bed in fully, it’s clear the next album will be a blinder.
All of Protomartyr’s albums to date have been belters, and the reception they get shows just what an ardent fan base they’ve built with them. The kids – and they are kids – down the front are flopping and flapping uncoordinately, fringes drooping. And they know every single bloody word. It must be gratifying to see, though you’d never gauge it from the faces on the stage: three IT guys in jeans and t-shirts, fronted by their frustrated manager, a guy in his mid-to-late 30s and still in the beaten suit he wore to the office, churn out the tunes with passive expressions. If Mark E. Smith had been into US blues rock and discordant post-punk, The Fall would have sounded like this. While the deceptively detailed guitar parts are big on texture, the powerhouse drumming really drives the energy levels up, in contrast with Joe Casey’s downtrodden baritone grumblings. Repetition and dissonance are integral aspects of their angular sound, and it’s the fact they’re overtly uncool which makes them ultimately and ineffably cool.
Eagulls are bloody loud and crank out a dense wall of sound from behind a thick smog, silhouetted by stark lighting. Gone is the shambolic amateurism and apparent lack of identity of six years ago: the bands on stage are slick, confident, and it’s a straight fact that they sound fucking incredible. Immediately, The Cure and A Flock of (S)eagulls come to mind my way of reference points, and everything in their performance is immaculate. I feel like I’m experiencing first hand, at last, the spirit of gigging in 1985 (being born in 1975, I was simply too late to witness bands like The Cure and The Sisters of Mercy in their heyday.
So why am I not absolutely feeling this, one hundred per cent, to my very marrow? Because it’s not 1985, it’s 2016. While everything about Eagulls is exactly right, it’s only a replica, a reproduction, out of time. It’s convincing, but it’s a carefully-studied fake. I’m not actually questioning their sincerity or integrity here, but their authenticity. Three songs in, and the rush of seeing such an accomplished performance has full hold: by seven songs, it’s becoming apparent that for all the style – and Eagulls have all the style when it comes to presentation – the content isn’t quite on the same level. It’s the same issue as I have with Department M: it’s meticulously observed, perfectly executed but lacking in soul and conviction.
Still, they do put on a show, and are deservedly well-received. But Protomartyr were always going to be the band of the night, and without doubt, they were.