Pleasure is Still the Principle for Numan

Gary Numan

As much of a pioneer as Gary Numan has been in electronic pop, New and Dark Wave, post-punk and gothic industrial, I wish I could say with indisputable confidence that the Hammersmith, Englander has never been one to follow trends or expectations. But in 1992, he did exactly that. An ill-fated funk-and-jazz infused album, Machine + Soul, sent him into a career low that nearly drove him to retire from music; the album was mostly intended to fulfill contractual obligations and debt, which I suppose are more honest modi operandi than capitalizing on trends for the sake of doing so.

But with Numan’s fall came a resurrection. He rebounded with a string of some of his most acclaimed releases in two decades. Gradually, adulation for this latter period output stabilized, but the most important thing is that since Machine + Soul, Numan has vowed to once again buck conventions and stick to his own convictions.

With the mere announcement of Gary Numan’s Vancouver stop having been at Fortune Sound Club, he already crumpled up expectations and tossed them like rubbish to the wayside. Surely, a musician of Numan’s stature, however more cult than pop at this point in his career, could still have filled a larger venue in a more prominent part of town. But to the hip hop/dance-focused Fortune Sound Club the electro-industrial Numan went.

Coming along for the ride (Get it? Because Gary Numan wrote “Cars”?… H’all right then.) was New York/L.A. musician Wesley Eisold, best known as Cold Cave. Like many people, I fell out with Cold Cave after his second album Cherish the Light, an ambitious but ultimately hollow effort. Even Eisold came to resent that album – and that period of his artistic and personal lives in general. But now, having excised himself from collaborative detractors, “excessive”, “unhealthy” and all around “awful” people – though he maintains that he is “grateful” to have worked with everyone he did during that time – Eisold has been emboldened in more than one way, and I don’t mean recently flaunting a prominent black prosthetic left hand.

Shrinking with his personal world is the scope and ambition of his newest singles from the past year, presumably lead-ups to his third album tentatively titled Sunflower. Unfortunately, it takes more than shrinking one’s sights and social network in order to put on an enjoyable show for me. Admittedly, the odds were already stacked against Cold Cave: I’ve rarely liked performances that are solely based on keyboard loops and multi-tracking. I probably would have liked the few songs of which I caught snippets, if I heard them on record, and I did like new tracks such as “People Are Poison” (which reminded me a lot of Jesus and Mary Chain). But live, I needed something more. I needed something that really would have signified that someone was on that stage doing something. At least Cold Cave’s swirling electronics, with their dense dance-ability, provided a lighter compliment to the rest of the brooding evening.

In front of a curtain of churning electronic drone, Numan and his troops took their posts onstage. They simultaneously deployed their first notes as blinding flashes of red light flared, turning Fortune into a broiling furnace.

Numan has changed in many ways since his punk beginnings in Tubeway Army, but he’s still a consummate showperson. Though already drenched in sweat by the end of his first song, there was no slowing down as he postured with youthful (well, younger) exuberance through selections from his upcoming eighteenth album Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind) and other latter day songs including “When the Sky Bleeds, He Will Come”. For someone who spent his most peak years acting like a cold, stiff android, Gary Numan sure played to the crowd more than I expected, and he seemed to enjoy himself too.

photo by Jeremy Isao Speier - C 2013
photo by Jeremy Isao Speier – C 2013

Numan surprised me by also having played some of his most beloved classics, exclusively from his magnum opus, The Pleasure Principle, including “Metal”, “Films” and “Cars”; given his stylistic changes, I thought he would have grown tired of playing his hits. Although, I must say, in another surprise, the absolutely packed house at Fortune Sound Club (the most crowded I ever saw the venue on a concert night, let alone an early show) remained relatively cool during his monster smash “Cars”. It was almost as if they thought it was uncool to fully get into a band’s biggest hit, even though I doubt the crowd, which was mostly older than my mid-twenty years, would have been concerned with that sort of mentality. Numan capped off the night with a second encore, a slightly modified, more ominous version of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”.

If I had any issues with Gary Numan’s performance, they were only technical. His vocals came in clearly at the beginning of his set but gradually became more indistinct as the night wore on. The same befell the rest of the instrumentation, as the drums, guitars and bass became more and more difficult to discern from the backtracks.

The dense combination of Gary Numan and Cold Cave was sure to have stirred anyone’s appetite for heavy electro. If you saw this show and are also lucky enough to hold a ticket for Nine Inch Nails at Rogers Arena on November 21, you are one lucky, lucky… I’m not sure how to end that without a backhanded compliment via an expletive. To those who knew Gary Numan best as an android from the future (myself included), his animated performance couldn’t have made his message in “Remember I Was Vapour” any clearer: “Remember, I am human.” And as for how much he enjoyed himself: “Remember, I feel just like you.”

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu