When I think back to my post-punk days of the early days of the 1980s, when things went electronic and dance music made its synth-driven return Heaven 17 was one of my go-to bands. Their first two albums - Penthouse & Pavement (1981) and The Luxury Gap (1983) were the stuff of hipster cool at the time, and I'm not ashamed to say tracks like (We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thing and Let Me Go have remained family favorites over the years, still enjoying prominence in my iTunes library.
Damn - those are great songs. Really.
For the uninformed, Heaven 17 is three guys (Ian Craig Marsh, Martyn Ware, Glenn Gregory) who were pioneers in the whole Sheffield electronic music movement of the late 1970s, two of which (Marsh and Ware) were founding members of The Human League. While Heaven 17 now is essentially disbanded, basically relegated to reunion shows and the like, this 2005 concert recorded at London's Scala seemed poised to be closing bookend to a career that for some of us has produced some truly exciting music.
With Marsh and Ware hunkered over digital equipment at the rear of the tiny stage, Gregory is left to bound around uncomfortably, at times taking a backseat to a trio of backup singers that includes the terrific Billie Godfrey, perhaps one of the only women able to handle the iconic vocal work on the single Temptation that was originally sung by Carol Kenyon circa 1983.
In some cases maybe it's best just to keep those good memories where they belong. In one's mind. The thing is there's sadly something uneventful in watching a synth band perform live, with the nearly motionless Ware and Marsh left to tweak knobs and dials while Gregory does his best to present the face of Heaven 17 with a voice that has seemingly lost some of its once majestic, commanding edge. There's power and energy in the original recordings, but live it just seems off somehow. There's an awkward karaoke subtext to the performance, made even weirder by the recurring use of cheesy graphics that do nothing to solidly the experience or provide any sort of artistic balance to what is being conveyed by the music.
The band has a wonderful catalog of music, and deserves a place of imaginary honor in the annals of the electronic movement. This concert disc - not so much.
Are You Ready?
I'm Gonna Make You Fall In Love With Me
Geish Boys & Temple Girls
Come Live With Me
(We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thing
What Would It Take?
Hand Up To Heaven
Into The Blue
Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry
Let Me Go
Way It Is
Penthouse & Pavement
Do I Believe?
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is a fairly drab affair, but much of that is due to the minimal/poor stage lighting. Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh are perpetually lost in shadow, while Glenn Gregory is awash in an orangey/pink bloom from the concert spots, constantly peppered by blocky pixelation. Not terribly pretty to look at, but much of the blame seems to be on the half-baked lighting scheme.
MVD concert releases typically fall short in the audio department, and this one is no exception. The 2.0 stereo mix does nothing what so ever to generate a live concert feel to the proceedings, and as a result handcuffs the entertainment value of this dramatically. The absence of any prominent bottom end reduces the satisfaction of early 80s dance hits like Fascist Groove Thing exponentially, and the entire presentation is flat and lifeless.
Bonus features consist of a pair of interview pieces entitled At The Gig (09m:18s) and At The Studio (08m:53s). The first catches the band after the performance, with Glenn Gregory nearly hoarse, and solicits their feedback on how things went. The second segment has Gregory and Martyn Ware discussing Heaven 17 history in Ware's tiny studio, and includes some obligatory chit-chat about early days of The Human League.
The backcover lists the run as "148 minutes approx", when in reality the concert runs 106 minutes, with another 20 or so with supplemental material.
It's tough to put a finger on why this 2005 reunion performance didn't wow me, and as a Heaven 17 fan it only serves to confound me all the more. Perhaps it was the lackluster 2.0 stereo mix which just made the whole experience seem kind of dead. I'm going to hope it was that.
Rent this only if you're a diehard, and even then be prepared to be underwhelmed...