Review: Placebo play host to Bristol Sounds’ flagship 2024 sell out.

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After headline shows by Skindred and Gentleman’s Dub Club last week, and James Arthur and BUSTED over the previous two nights, the reformatted Bristol Sounds stands on the precipice of an unprecedented second weekend. The growing sight of the goth-like, emo-esque aesthetic of dark clothing, fishnet stockings and black eyeliner among the harbourside patrons is an indication of alternative rock band Placebo’s enduring cult appeal. Tonight is the only sold out show of this year’s event. However, with latest album Never Let Me Go garnering critical praise upon its release in 2022, this may not be fully explainable by a hunger for nostalgia alone.

Upon entry to Lloyds Amphitheatre, a laminated A4 sign is flashed in front of gig-goers, admonishing them against mobile phone recordings during the show. The message is hammered home as a pre-recorded announcement from frontman/guitarist Brian Molko is broadcast over the speaker system. While its hard to disagree that dependence on mobile phones during gigs is irritating and somewhat diminishing of communion, Molko’s overwrought encouragement for us “to be in the here and the now” in order to “create connection, euphoria and transcendence” sounds a smidge sanctimonious and about as annoying as the problem itself.

The fact that present day Placebo are essentially a duo is confirmed when Molko and long-time songwriting partner Stefan Olsdal (who tonight switches from bass, guitar and keys) arrive at the front of the stage, while musicians on drums, guitar and keyboards stay perched at the back. Opener ‘Taste in Men’ has a tinge of electronica as an oscillating synth riff gives way to a wall of industrial guitar sonics. ‘Beautiful James’ – which contains the titular lyric of Never Let Me Go – has a similarly electro synth hook, bolstered by chugging chords and Molko’s circling guitar riffs.

Three songs in, Molko makes the introduction “We are Placebo and we are a European band” in what is an eerie echo of Gaz Coombes’ defiant utterance on the very same stage the day following the EU referendum in 2016. He then dedicates ‘Happy Birthday in the Sky’ to his brother whom he lost in 2022; the chunky chords of its intro culminates with Molko stalking across the stage while executing a bubbling guitar solo.

Midway through ‘Bionic’- one of only two surviving songs from the group’s eponymous 1996 debut – Molko and Olsdal meet at the centre of the stage for an extended instrumental sparring of guitar and bass, and the comparative stature of both men is quite striking; Molko, sporting long straight hair, beanie and a ‘tasche looks impossibly small and wiry next to the imposing, giraffe like figure of Olsdal.

Depending on where one would land within the band’s discography, Placebo could in turns be described as “alternative”, “grungy”, “emo-rock” or “electro rock”, but the definitive mainstay of their sound is Molko’s ultra-distinctive vocals. His nasal, high-register, slightly androgynous style is one of those voices: imperfect but, akin to a Morrisey vis-à-vis The Smiths, utterly distinguishing of his band’s sound. Now 51 years old, Molko’s live vocal is still dynamically instep with its recorded cousin.

From the myriad ways in which one could describe Placebo’s music, it being conducive to mosh-pit bedlam wouldn’t be the first thing to spring to mind. Thus, one is surprised to hear that ‘Surrounded by Spies’ was abandoned mid-song two nights ago in Southampton for those very reasons. No such drama here; the dark lyricism and swampy guitars merely result in Molko declaring “You’re all spies” as he points at the crowd.

1998 favourite ‘Every You, Every Me’ induces the first huge cheer of recognition at its intro. The zero phone protocol is thus broken en masse and the extent of the band’s policing of it becomes apparent as security staff keenly gesticulate for devices to be returned to pockets. Subsequently, the lyrics to ‘Try Better Next Time’ align quite nicely with the evening’s phone-banning subplot as Molko sings “Someone take a picture before it’s too late.”

It’s a subplot that manifests for moments throughout; in ‘Too Many Friends’ Molko appears to change its lyric to “All the cunts do all day is stare into phones.” After the screaming guitar solo and frantic light show of the rapturously received ‘The Bitter End’, Molko implores an apparently follically challenged type to return his phone back to the holster (“You, Mr No Hair – phones in pockets”). Molko appears fairly composed about it all – there appears little danger that he’s going to hurl himself, Axl Rose like, into the crowd. But, again, the attempt to police the problem often comes across as equally annoying as the problem itself. Certainly, there is absolutely no way that the gentleman nearby, wearing eye-liner and a T-shirt donning the song title in question, is going to be robbed of his opportunity to view old favourite ‘Nancy Boy’ through a 5 inch screen.

‘For What It’s Worth,’  which Molko introduces with “It’s time to do a bit of what we call dance rock and roll” is a highlight. Muddy, distorted guitars give way to some pleasing call and response lead riffs at its chorus, while Olsdal leads an audience clap along. A two song encore ends with Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ which the group first covered in 2003. Beginning sparse and airy, it builds to a crescendo of guitars. The phones, unfortunately, will never fully disappear from live music events but Molko’s wish for a communal experience has just about been achieved.

Scott Hammond