MUSIC REVIEW: NI Music Prize
Robyn G Shiels scoops album of the year, while alt-metal icons Therapy? perform Troublegum
It's entirely fitting that Robyn G Shiels should be the recipient of the Northern Ireland Music Prize on the same night that Therapy? celebrate their Oh Yeah Legends award with a full rendition of their classic 1994 album, Troublegum.
Although the winning album, The Blood Of The Innocents, is Shiels's second, the Kilrea man is a contemporary and friend of the Therapy? boys, a point highlighted by tonight's host, BBC Radio Ulster's Rigsy, who reminds the older heads in the crowd that Shiels was a member of Sons Of Massey in the late 1990s, alongside none other than Therapy?'s Michael McKeegan.
The win for Shiels is a popular one, celebrated too from the stage by Therapy?, and it adds a pleasing sense of coherence to proceedings – a reminder of just how interconnected (or incestuous, if you're being unkind) the Northern Ireland indie and rock scene is.
Before being announced as the winner, however, Shiels is one of three nominees to perform live on this evening organised by the Oh Yeah Music Centre, the centrepiece of its inaugural Sound of Belfast festival. Hailing from Derry~Londonderry, indie-folk duo Sullivan & Gold are up first with acoustic guitar and piano – a rather tentative way to start the show.
Shiels fares a little better, though he too performs acoustically, accompanied by banjo player James Heaney. In front of a large and boisterous crowd, his dark acoustic folk struggles to face down the talkers, something that Shiels is only too aware of. 'Let's get this party started!' he exclaims ironically at one point.
If your songs are good enough there is a fair chance you will win over any crowd, and the magnificent 'This Deathly Charm', from the winning album, brings tonight's audience to order by sheer force of songwriting and performance.
The final nominees fare best. More Than Conquerors have volume, full-band energy and a dazzling light show on their side, and for 25 minutes of slick, Biffy Clyro-flavoured alt rock they make the Mandela Hall stage their own – so much so that frontman Kris Platt is asked by someone on the barrier just exactly who the hell they are. He is happy to oblige, and that new fan is unlikely to be the only one.
Once the award winner has been announced and a bashful Shiels arrives on stage to accept it, radio and television stalwart Mike Edgar comes on to give a thorough, and utterly stirring introduction of Therapy?, and a justification of the decision to give the band this year's Oh Yeah Legends award. All of which leaves the crowd – a good mix of local scene heads and hardcore Therapy? fans – thoroughly warmed up for Troublegum.
There is, it must be said, something very artificial about these full album shows. Everyone knows the setlist, so there can be few real surprises until we get to the encore. But Troublegum is as good a record as any to give that treatment to – although slightly frontloaded, for 45 minutes it barely lets up in intensity.
It's an anthem to teenage, small-town angst ('Hellbelly' is dedicated to anyone from Larne, Ballyclare or Carrick, which elicits a few cheers) in 14 parts, full to the brim with as many pop hooks and memorable one-liners – 'I know how Jeffrey Dahmer feels – lonely' – as buzzsaw riffs and thunderous drumming.
For just about everyone in the crowd, the album is a favourite, and there is something beautiful in that collective nostalgia. That said, the tension between those nihilistic lyrics and the joy of belting them back at the band is an odd one, but damn good fun. And it helps that Therapy? remain such a tight, powerful unit.
The big tunes – 'Screamager', 'Knives', 'Nowhere' – are still staples of the band's set and sound ferocious, while the lesser-known album tracks also deliver. The Joy Division-esque 'Unbeliever' contains not one but two ripping noise-rock solos from Andy Cairns, while the actual Joy Division cover, 'Isolation', segues into 'She's Lost Control' before moving seamlessly back again.
As for surprises, we get two guest appearances from NIMP nominees. Nathan Connolly of Little Matador (oh, and Snow Patrol) adds rhythm guitar to 'Die Laughing', but the star turn is from Tony Wright (aka VerseChorusVerse), who has immense fun providing extra vocals to 'Lunacy Booth'.
Wright owns the stage in the manner of a man who has spent most of the last two years performing on his own – swinging the mic stand and eyeballing the crowd. He started out in punk bands and he clearly hasn't lost the knack.
Once Therapy? reach the end of the album, they stay on stage for a celebratory shot of something strong and dark, McKeegan explaining that there is no time to go offstage in order to come back. And then there are some treats for the die-hards, as the band go further back in time with 'Meat Abstract' and an extended 'Potato Junkie' that slides into turbocharged renditions of Van Morrison's 'Gloria' and The Stooges' 'I Wanna Be Your Dog'.
Two more heroes acknowledged on a night where Therapy? themselves are rightly celebrated as such.
Image courtesy of Carrie Davenport Photography.