Secret Gig 21: OCCUPATION – ‘A GORIER DAY’
Holmfirth, West Yorkshire
When you find yourself dressed in combat gear and smeared in badly applied camouflage facepaint, legging it across a cricket field somewhere in Yorkshire pursued by zombies, you know you’re not at your average, everyday gig. In fact, when you’re flailing just around mid-wicket, with pint in hand and an air-raid siren howling that the undead are on their way, the thought tends to occur: what the fuck is going on here?
Welcome to Embrace’s 21st Secret Gig – the aptly titled ‘Occupation’ – wherein a small, quiet town in West Yorkshire, famously the location of the sedate northern comedy Last Of The Summer Wine, is transformed into a hideous re-enactment of a George A. Romero film. In this scenario, Compo is more de-Composition, and the last of anything seems to be a writer’s whine as his beer flies in his face and he flings himself for six over the boundary.
Embrace have been staging these secret gigs for almost as long as they’ve been around – an impromptu series of increasingly bizarre concerts that test the true devotion of their fans. After a prolonged period of absence, you might suspect the ardour for the band has dissipated. If you thought that, you probably don’t know an Embrace fan; this lot are rabid. Today, pretty much literally.
This time around, factions have been devised; instructions are for half of the devotees to get absolutely gruesome and make like they’ve just risen from the dead; the other half – into which yours truly has been allocated (cheers, Danny) – are told to camouflage up, and get chased all over the town like militaristic chickens by blood-soaked flesh-eaters.
Yes, it’s the copses verses the corps in a bizarre game of tag – we, the army, have been branded with a sticker which they, the armless, have to retrieve.
Having evaded the initial corpse invasion by hiding out in a copse by the side of the main road – not before playing Mulberry-bush chase-me shit with the whole of zombiedom around the public toilets – I eventually stroll out with victory beaming through my grease paint, only for a casually passing girlie ghoul to de-sticker me with a swift swipe of her grisly hand, despite a feeble attempt to hide it with my pint of lager.
Passing members of the platoon who’ve also been deaded are a consolation. And as fallen troops who’ve been kettled by the cadavery, we head for the centre of this small town, all clad in military gear, facepaint and mostly exhibiting the tally marks that is the new album’s motif.
Suddenly, Holmfirth is besieged by the Tallyban.
And thus captured, we military folk are shepherded into the venue’s courtyard where we’re inducted into the ranks of the undead, our faces being caked in ghoulish white and our mouths bloodied (not literally – thankfully, the bouncers aren’t applying the effects). Once made-up, it seems the undead look is definitely more me. And it’s so now (or should that be once-was?)
The make-up is pretty cool – a nifty touch-up job from the staff on hand – but the effort made by some who actually turned up as zombies is quite exceptional. A shout-out to Kiwi lass Linelle is required here, done up as she is in a friend’s wedding dress, torn to shreds and bloodied, while carrying a severed head – presumably the groom – and generally eliciting an air of eerie disquiet.
The fact that I, as writer of the band’s biography, get spotted a few times, even as I’m done up like Tom Savini’s savage Savoy cabbage, leaves me in deep consideration about my general appearance. Maybe it’s time to ditch the ‘got out the wrong side of the grave’ look?
Inside the venue, this historic pre-war converted picturehouse is now, in its new incarnation as a music venue/charnel house, bestrewn with cordon tape, warning signs and red lights worn and brandished by around 700 zombified Embrace fanatics. It’s come a long way since 1913, for sure.
Having purchased my own special Embrace red glowstick – from keyboardist Mickey Dale, who’s manning the merchandise stall – it’s up to the balcony where the view of the undead red army below is as surreal as it is spectacular.
Starting things off with album opener Protection, with its ominous, siren-like electronics – a sonic, post-apocalyptic air-raid – is a pretty apt place to start. Singer Danny McNamara, stage front in orange boiler suit, hits the first notes of the apposite first line “It wasn’t perfection I was expecting” with some hesitancy. Soon after, he warms up – the resonance evident in the recording filling his lungs, and suddenly this small former cinema is filled with a Cinemascope vocal, made all the more epic by Richard McNamara’s choral mountaineering.
In fact, pre-gig rumours abounded that Richard had contracted tonsillitis and there were doubts about his vocal range – or even whether he’d be even able to perform. If the rumours were true, it certainly doesn’t affect his performance – his impassioned rendition of EP gem Decades being one of the highlights.
In fact, all tracks from the Refugees EP, the first release from the band in seven years, are played out tonight. Possibly their greatest EP ever – from a band renowned for its EP brilliance – this collection of tracks are more companions to the album than mere throwaway tracks. Here in the Picturedrome, the undead mongregation are going crazy for these songs, marking as they do the band’s glorious resurrection.
Tonight, the new album is played out in its entirety. And even though still unreleased, the reaction is nevertheless an ardent and rabid one from a crowd for whom that same description can be applied. Of course, your correspondent has heard the album, and for the most part, the performance is a faithful, incendiary enactment of the new material – particularly brilliant new single Follow You Home, which seems to have unearthed a new sing-along chant with its “Aaah-ohhh, aaah-ohhh” refrain, which is reprised quite a few times, the crowd becoming instantly infected by its almost hymnal call-to-arms.
Sandwiched in between the new material, Embrace play to their greatest strengths – the likes of the glorious Ashes and a rousing rendition of All You Good Good People – it becomes clear this band’s return, even after such a prolonged absence, is pretty seamless. Suddenly, it’s as if they’ve never been away, and the new tracks effortlessly meld themselves with older classics, nestling with a certain familiarity while still pushing the development and evolution of the band’s oeuvre further still.
Case in point, preceding single Refugees is the perfect crossover point, a wake-up call that couples the quiet contemplation of its verse with an explosive chorus that, tonight, threatens this venue’s frail 1913 foundations – not just with the untainted, unrestrained vocals of Richard but the euphoric, red-rod waving stampede of hundreds of reanimated, loved-up, emotionally pregnant undead believers. Truly, you’ve never seen such a jubilant collection of corpses.
On this kind of showing, Embrace really expose not only what they are about, but also what they instil in their fans. This is music for whom, as befits the band’s moniker, is something to hold on to for dear life. An Embrace fan is not merely an enthusiast; this is a group for which, in keeping with both of today’s army and zombie themes, people live and die for. And, um, are brought back from the grave for.
Musically, Embrace just seem to have that uncanny way with melody – they pretty much hit the target every time, and have a knack for soundtracking the soul; lyrically, there is something a lot deeper – these words speak on a fundamentally humanistic level, reaching places of the heart into which many other bands can’t (or won’t) delve. When Danny intones: “Everything that matters is broken, lost and shattered” on At Once, it’s impossible to not be drawn in; tonight, the haunting rendition leaves the undead aptly breathless.
Finishing with their perennial grand finale The Good Will Out (of which we’d heard rumours they would no longer play live), the resurrection is complete and, by the end, the congregated afterlife are howling, rapturous, looking like death and loving it, in reanimated synchronicity as the night of the living dead draws to a close… and the dawn of a new Embrace arises.
The good has come back.
* An alternate version of this review will be published in Record Collector magazine in the UK and Filter magazine in the US