The Sisters Of Mercy: Wake

The Sisters Of Mercy - WakeSynopsis: The Sisters of Mercy in concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London 18 June 1985: First and Last and Always / Body and Soul / Marian / No Time to Cry / Walk Away / Possession / Emma / Amphetamine Logic / A Rock and a hard Place / Floorshow / Alice / Fix / Knocking on Heaven’s Door. Directed by Mike Mansfield.

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The Sisters Of Mercy: Wake 8.25

eyelights: The Sisters of Mercy!!!
eyesores: the video editing. the encore.

“Give me ever the years you wept inside when cold,
All the sins and secrets never cried,
All the dreams you kept and the tears you sold.
Give me,
Give me ever and always,
Ever and always,
Body and soul.”

The Sisters Of Mercy are possibly my all-time favourite band. Having produced three brilliant full-length albums as well as countless EPs and singles, they pretty much quit releasing music as of 1993. The reasons are ambiguous: some claim that it was due to issues with their label East/West, others say that it’s due to lead singer and SOM mastermind Andrew Eldritch’s ambivalence.

To me, it spells out one thing: the band went out on top. Whereas other bands might stumble after a few stellar years, The Sisters put out a vast array of material in a short time, all of it of extreme quality, and stopped just as they were about to destroy their legacy. Other bands might try for a comeback, but The Sisters didn’t. They toured, but they never cut new records.

I discovered them through The Mission. I had become a fan of The Mish after picking up a cassette of their phenomenal album ‘Carved in Sand’. Insatiable as I was, I would seek as much of the band as I could, eventually discovering that they had stemmed from some band called The Sisters Of Mercy. I knew nothing about them, but I eventually got around to buying a cassette of ‘First and Last and Always’, their debut album.

I didn’t know what hit me. I was exploring the boundaries of music then, finally tearing myself away from the confines of the radio singles and pop music. The Sisters were like nothing I’d heard before: the music had a sound I’d never encountered, bass-driven, rhythmic, furious. But, most of all, Andrew Eldritch’s voice was extremely unusual: deep, not particularly melodic, sometimes pleading, in agony.

It took me a while to wrap my mind around it, but I just couldn’t stop playing that tape. I loved having discovered something that no one else was listening to in my high school. I wanted to turn people on to this album, as much as I wanted to be turned on by it. A friend of mine listened to it and said he understood it, and could appreciate it, even though he didn’t really like it, per se; it was all in the rhythm, he said.

I soon discovered that The Sisters had a follow-up album, ‘Floodland’. Another friend, from a different school, brought it over one night: his brother had expansive tastes in music and actually had this in his collection. I listened to it and was astonished by how different this was from the other album. It was like an entirely new band, but anchored by Eldritch’s vocals and an infinite darkness that is omnipresent in their oeuvre.

By the time they released their third album, I was eagerly awaiting. Others hated it, but I was digging into hard rock by then and I loved that The Sisters were a bit harder at that point. It’s like we were on the same wavelength. When they released their collection of early EPs, I lapped it up. It was harder to appreciate, but I kept playing it over and over again, and it’s since become a favourite.

I never got the chance to see The Sisters live. They rarely came to North America, and by the time I caught wind of them being here, I had long since heard bootlegs of their shows and found the sound so dismal that I couldn’t bear the thought of seeing them; Eldritch’s vocals were very poor, seemingly impossible to sustain in a live setting and  it brutalized the songs that I loved so much.

I nonetheless picked up more bootlegs over the years, given that there was nothing left for me to pick up. But I had still never seen them aside from in short interview snippets, music videos or in still pictures. So when I discovered, only recently, that there had been an official live concert released on home video back in 1985, I lost my friggin’ mind, tracked down a copy and immediately bought it.

This concert was recorded on June 18, 1985 at the Royal Albert Hall, in London, England. The show was never released on home video in North America, but it was released in Europe and Japan. It featured the ‘First and Last and Always’ line-up, which includes the future frontman/guitarist and bassist for The Mission. It was the very last concert with that line-up, due to a falling out between Eldritch and the other two.

Essentially, this recording is an important document in the history of this highly-influential goth band; not only is it the only official visual record to be released, but it marks the end of a key era.

Unfortunately, the recording is incomplete: for rights reasons, one song had to be omitted from the main body of the concert, a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”. To me, it’s no great loss, since I’ve never been able to swallow either the original or The Sisters’ dramatically altered version (which they recorded in the studio many years prior). Still, I would prefer a complete show over a truncated one.

Missing as well, however, is the second encore of the show. Eldritch had been performing with bruised ribs and wanted to quit after the first encore, but was persuaded to go back for another set. Sadly, by then the recording equipment had been shut down – an honest mistake given that there was no indication that the band would return on stage. And thus their set of “Train” and “Ghostrider/Louis Louis” is lost forever.

The rest of the 16-track show, however, remains. The quality is substandard, having been put to video tape almost 30 years ago: the video is grainy, compressed (it was transferred to DVD by eager fans) and the audio is tinny and lacking definition. Blown up beyond the size this was originally designed for (TVs were smaller back then) and played through a half-decent sound system (instead of a standard 1980s TV), I could see and hear all the blemishes.

But it was nonetheless totally engrossing.

‘Wake’ is a blistering set. Now condensed to 56 minutes, it must have been about 70 minutes in length in its original form:

1. First and Last and Always: A stellar opener, the title track of their debut album is a high energy track. There’s this swirly effect surrounding the band, for some reason, but it actually makes it more dynamic. 8.5

2. Body and Soul: This is a non-album single that The Sisters released when they signed with their label, WEA. I like it, but it’s a slower number. I think that it may have been better as an opener because it has a ghostly vibe and the lyrics would have made for an amusing tongue-in-cheek declaration of intention from the band to the audience. 8.0

3. Marian: The pace picks up considerably with “Marian” one of the more popular Sisters tracks. Eldritch sings the German verse in it, which is a nice touch. 9.0

4. No Time to Cry: This has a great guitar hook and a catchy chorus, and is one of my favourite from the studio album. 9.0

5. Walk Away: Another favourite, but Eldritch’s voice is off-key here. In all fairness, his singing style is hardly natural, so it can’t be easy to sustain live. 8.5

6. Possession: This song has a terrific bassline going for it. Weirdly, The Sisters are shown in negative colours here and silhouettes of the concertgoers dancing are superimposed over the band. 7.0

7. Emma: Another great bass line, but this track is slower than the previous; the band is clearly changing the vibe, at least temporarily. I’m not a big fan of this song, a cover, but it must have created a great mood in the auditorium. Eldritch throws a few awesome howls in there; I don’t know how he does it, but it sounds like he’s in horrible agony. 5.0

8. Amphetamine Logic: The band kick it up again with another high energy track from their studio album. Catchy stuff, I adore the chorus. 8.0

9. A Rock and a Hard Place: This is a good rendition of the original, but it didn’t do that much for me. It’s got a great bass drive, though. 7.5

10. Floorshow: A strange choice considering that it downbeats the show suddenly, but it’s got a terrific groove. I used to dislike this track when I first heard it, many years ago, but it’s grown on me considerably since. Again, there’s that groove, but there’s also Eldritch’s screams that punctuate it nicely. Bizarrely, the editor decided to go with tons of flash cuts for this one. 7.5

11. Alice: A Sisters Of Mercy classic single, “Alice” is yet another blistering track, and such a wicked closer to the show. It’s energetic, potent, and it wraps up with a final scream from Eldritch, which is such a brilliant way to leave the stage, in my estimation. 9.25

12. Gimme Shelter: n/a – I have no idea if this was part of the main set or the opening of the encore. Doesn’t matter, I suppose.

13. Fix: This song has a nice groove, something you could easily sway or grind to, but it feels lifeless and incomplete. For reasons that escape me, the encore is in widescreen format, with white bars framing the picture. 4.0

14. Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door: Why they insist on playing this song is beyond me. It’s so repetitious and unbelievably dull, aside from Hussey’s guitar solo.  The crowd cheers like mad, though, so maybe it’s just me. 1.0

15. Train: n/a

16. Ghostrider / Louie Louie: n/a

The Sisters of Mercy were a three-piece band at the time, with a drum machine backing them. As weird as that might sound, I actually quite love the sound of the drum machine because it gives the band a droning quality that is totally in keeping with the kind of music that they do; it makes it slightly entrancing, enhancing Eldritch’s cries of despair and growls. Having a live drummer would have negated the lifelessness of his vocal style.

The band is mostly inert, performing without moving for much of the show, much like The Cure did in ‘Trilogy‘. The difference here is that The Sisters of Mercy are shrouded in smoke and darkness much of the time, so this actually creates a wicked atmosphere. Also, they only play for a little over an hour, not three hours plus, so it’s bearable. Again, Eldritch had bruised ribs, but I suspect that this didn’t affect his performance substantially.

Eldritch spends most of the show just staring out at the audience motionless and emotionless. One gets the impression that he’s trying to mesmerize the audience, which is perhaps a function of the lighting. Some might find it eerie, but I think that it’s a brilliant touch. Of course, it could also be due to the chemical cocktail he was taking for his ribs. Or maybe he just didn’t know what else to do with himself. The end result, though, is pitch-perfect.

No doubt to spruce things up, this video is enhanced in various places by rudimentary visual effects. I don’t have the technical savvy to break them down much, but you can tell that the band didn’t have much money to throw at the project. This was made with pre-digital technology, so anyone expecting a slick presentation would be gravely disappointed. However, anyone who adjusts their expectations with 1985 in mind would be satisfied with this presentation.

There’s very little chance that this show will ever see an official release on DVD, let alone on blu-ray, but it’s something one could daydream about endlessly. ‘Wake’ is a spectacular document and it would be fantastic to have a cleaned up, more defined image (for what that’s worth, given the source) and a high resolution presentation of the audio. I watched it a second time before finishing my blurb, and it’s totally captivating stuff. At least for fans of the band.

Granted, the show peters out with the encore (hence the relatively low rating), but it’s nonetheless a must-see for any fan of the band. Eldritch still tours as The Sisters of Mercy from time to time, but the line up is entirely different and his presentation has changed considerably since – just as the band’s style would morph from album to album. This is a document of a time and place that will never be recreated, and for those of us who missed out, it’s the next best thing.

The Sisters of Mercy would only release two more studio albums, and wrap up their legacy with two essential compilations before mostly disappearing from the scene. I’ve remained a major fan since, likely because (unlike Depeche Mode, New Order, Prince, and countless others) they never squandered this legacy with disappointing new releases. To this day I wear the shirts and have their posters on my walls. I don’t listen to them as often, of course, but ever and always it will be The Sisters for me.

“Yesterday, today, tomorrow: Body and soul” – Andrew Eldritch

Date of viewing: October 14, 2013

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