LIVE REVIEW: Arab Strap @ The Fire Station, Sunderland (21.05.24) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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When Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton stepped onstage at The Cluny some eight years back, there was no talk of new material or an extended second wind. And frankly, why would there be? With a setlist bordering on perfection, the Scots’ first show in 10 years was a wholehearted celebration of their original decade-long innings; lapped up by an audience split between returning fans reliving their youth, and a new generation who’d discovered Arab Strap’s deliciously dark delights during the intervening years.

Cut to the present, and the paradigm has shifted markedly. Still turning out in numbers, those followers have been treated to not one, but two new records, with triumphant 2021 comeback As Days Get Dark followed earlier this month by a similarly satisfying eight effort: the sardonically titled I’m totally fine with it don’t give a fuck anymore . It’d be an exaggeration to claim that time travellers from 2016 wouldn’t recognise the band paying their first ever visit to Sunderland – yet true to the opening statement of comeback single The Turning of Our Bones, Arab Strap’s appearance at The Fire Station is anything but an exercise in nostalgia.

There are still fleeting echoes of those glory days gone by. Girls of Summer’s invigorating, unrefined youthful escapades and New Birds’ stirring storytelling and cathartic crescendo land as potently as ever, while the impenetrable murk of Red Thread-era highlight Infrared provides a welcome deep cut. They, though, are outliers on an evening dominated by the fruits of their reunion – in particular a new record that’s had barely a week to sink in.

I’m totally fine’s additions bear all the quintessential Arab Strap hallmarks – from rough-spun drum machine beats and Middleton’s spidery guitar to Moffat’s ever-compelling lyricism. And yet, there’s a freshness here which feels like anything but a retread. While electronics are another long-term cog, now they’re embraced like never before, while Moffat’s narrative gaze has shifted to the grim reality of our digital age – be it the sordid state of online discourse, or the addictive squalor of doomscrolling.

Most pertinent of all, however, is a characteristic less readily associated with Arab Strap: the hooks. Strawberry Moon’s scuttering beats and distorted abrasions, for instance, do little to mask its soaring earworm of a chorus, while expertly mapped dynamics and a digestible melodic pulse make Summer Season perhaps the closest they’ve come to delivering an unabashed pop song. Live, both are a revelation – but don’t be fooled into thinking they’ve gone soft. Opening their set in a maelstrom of fierce feedback and weighty riffage, Allatonceness betrays a lesser-aired streak of anger, aimed squarely at culture wars and online radicalisation. Amplified by the full five-piece line-up, it’s difficult to recall a time when Arab Strap sounding this menacing.

Notable though it may be, this focus on novel numbers seems par of the course for a band who – with ample justification – feel their recent writings stack up against any in their catalogue. Indeed, as the core duo sign off with yet another new song – a bare bones rendition of You’re Not There – there are no dejected calls for The First Big Weekend or Packs of Three. Instead, there’s a recognition that Arab Strap Mark 2 are set on expanding that legacy, energised by a purpose beyond crowd-pleasing revivalism. Far from fizzling out, this incarnation is delivering some of their boldest and most captivating shows ever. No matter how miserable the music, their continued evolution is a joy to behold.

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