Sunday 19 November 2023

Ist Ist - Manchester The Yard - 17th/18th November 2023

Classic albums gigs have become a thing in recent years, heritage bands recreating an early album that's still the fan favourite by which they're defined. A current band taking on all three of their albums to date in one night is unheard of - but that's the challenge Ist Ist placed upon themselves as they celebrated the end of their most successful year to date where they laid down concrete markers both here and abroad both in the charts and on the stage where they're at their best. The first night sold out straight away and a second night followed it at The Yard, one of the city's best yet under-utilised venues.

"We do things differently here" is one of the most overused phrases in Manchester, an iconic statement allegedly made by Tony Wilson that's been bastardised by estate agents, house builders, media, the council and plenty of others when in fact they're doing exactly the same as everyone else is doing everywhere else. When someone does something different, it stands out. Ist Ist for the past eight years since they low key dropped demos on Soundcloud have grown by doing things the industry would tell them not to do - home-made CDrs, bootlegs of gigs that have now become full-blown live albums that hit the vinyl and independent charts, showcasing all of their next album before release. It isn't different per se, it's an old tried and tested method of building audiences from a time when the UK music industry didn't control the keys to everything other than excited word of mouth. But in a time where everything is homogenised, where success is measured by Spotify plays, where two million plays of a song that got paid inclusion in a playlist and a 6 Music C-list is seen as a triumph even though two dozen people turn up at a gig and that hastily pressed vinyl is sat gathering dust in the back of the splitter van that Daddy or the label paid for, Ist Ist are doing things differently and breaking down walls here and in Europe, where they regularly pack out five and six hundred capacity venues.

To celebrate the end of 2023, with a top 50 album, a third independent top ten and vinyl one, their debut appearances in the US at SXSW without a funding campaign in site, sell out tours across the UK and Europe, they took stock for two nights ahead of going into the studio to record album four and took on the enormous undertaking of playing all three of their albums to date in full including the few songs they've never played live. They chose the real hidden gem in Manchester's raft of wonderful gig spaces - The Yard, hidden away off Cheetham Hill Road in a part of town people don't venture for cultural enrichment and which has so far escaped the soulless gentrification of our city but a magnificent 350 capacity space that feels like it's been created by people as a space to create music rather than to make money and be instagrammable. In many ways it is itself a throwback to the days when you'd head down Plymouth Grove, Anson Road, Royce Road or Little Peter Street, off the beaten track but where music lovers would go for their fix.

Three albums one after the other is a huge undertaking, revisiting songs they haven't played for a long time, or forever and forgoing for once their desire to shift the setlist around to fit their mood, the venue and the crowd, a tradition that many of the greatest Manchester bands follow. But the two night's are a glorious triumph. As ever they've created some visually striking merchandise, their aesthetic an important part of their success to date, and before and after the desk is rammed with people. They've built, slowly, a dedicated fan base from their earliest days in the small venues of the Northern Quarter, supporting bands that are now long gone, to their own headlines that have grown in size and then spread further and further afield, expanding incrementally each time they go out on the road as the whispers have become an unavoidable scream. But they've never - yet - delivered something as thrilling, compelling and potent as this.

They perform the albums in reverse order, starting with this year's Protagonists that was a whisker away from debuting in the top 40 album charts, selling enough to even make the top 30 in other weeks. The thumping backing track builds before they even come on stage before Andy's trademark bass kicks in and Stamp You Out kicks the night off with a punch. They may have evolved and grown in many ways, but they've still managed to retain that rawness that characterised their very earliest shows when sheer brute force was their weapon of choice. Their methods are now more finessed but they still manage to blow you away, whether it's your first time as we witnessed in London the other week when they supported The Mission and succeeded with an audience there to celebrate the past of their heroes or the fifty-somethingth. 

The first half of the album is relentless, Something Has To Give is like a speeding train accelerating to its destination on time, Nothing More Nothing Less with its synth gloss soars and lifts, bringing light into the darkness and All Downhill has an unstoppable momentum that threatens to obliterate everything in front of it. They don't say much, other than Andy expressing their undying gratitude that people are there to see them, something they're going to have to get used to in bigger numbers, but they let their music do their bidding for them. Mary In The Black And White Room is huge and expansive, exploding into glorious life and light as it hits the breakdown, soaring and taking them to new heights. What Ist Ist have done, right from the days where people were making Joy Division comparisons that quite frankly look a little silly now, is take their wide palette of influences and fuse them into something that sounds immediately familiar but feels very contemporary and draws you into it.

Emily, taken from their debut EP Spinning Rooms and revisited on Protagonists, has its guitar line sung back by the crowd and has grown with them from the tiny rooms to the arenas that their sound could now fill. There's been plenty of great bands from Manchester that we've witnessed who've hit a level where they get lost in the room - Ist Ist are a rare one who you think would make that step effortlessly as if that were the plan all along. Artefacts strips things back, the more experimental side coming to the fore without losing the audience's attention whilst Fool's Paradise, the first Protagonists era song to be played live, does have the most audible lines to the second album still but in a way that traces out their growth and, as we discover later, brings the older siblings right into the here and now. The Protagonist, another one that had never been played before these two dates, makes perfect sense live against expectations - you sense the band are learning things about their live set up doing these shows as well as loving the reminder of what they've achieved so far and the love in the room for them both nights. Trapdoors leaves us reeling with a repeated hammer blow as Adam barks "too caught up in it" repeatedly before they let loose one final time before the respite of the first interval.

Artists talk of difficult second albums and The Art Of Lying's genesis very much fits that category. With COVID lockdown hitting just weeks before Architecture's release touring plans came to a halt and the band basically put on ice with nothing to do other than to share ideas online. By the time they were able to be back in a room together the album had been born despite not having the benefit of being able to be roadtested as Architecture had been and Protagonists was later. Live the album consequently benefits from a much harder edge as they recorded it without having had an audience in the room to gauge reaction and develop the songs in that environment.

It starts with the brooding build of Listening Through The Walls, a menacing lament before bursting into life with the shuffling drum intro to Fat Cats Drown In Milk and it's immediately evident how much these songs have grown since they were recorded. With so much going on musically, there's also a lot of space for each of the band to show off their art, including Joel's backing vocals (and Andy's later on in this part of the set). Other than a few issues with Adam's mic cutting off, mostly on Middle Distance the sound is perfect too allowing everything to be heard so the likes of Watching You Watching Me and The Waves have developed a new life as they've been played live since lockdown was eased and they've had chance to reveal themselves fully to the audience. Whilst there's inevitably a few talkers at the back the crowd down the front are intensely engaged, wherever they've joined Ist Ist on their journey. 

The Art Of Lying is an unusual record in that the strongest tracks are in the second half of the record. Extreme Greed is a huge soaring monster of a song that radio would be falling over if it were recorded by an American band or someone with contacts within the playlisting cliques. It Stops Where It Starts and If It Tastes Like Wine have razor-sharp edges, unsettling and jagged, the latter a curveball from the rest of the record without being the black sheep. Heads On Spikes has a beautiful waltz like quality to it and feels like it could explode into violent life at any moment but never does, the tension holding the listener.  The album finishes with Don't Go Gentle, a song they'd never played live before and Andy and Joel depart the stage leaving just Mat and Adam. Adam jokingly calls Mat "Elton John" on the first night as he sits at his piano, but what follows is one of the highlights, something you wouldn't expect from Ist Ist but which works beautifully and could do so when they regroup for touring next year to break up the set or start the encore. Near the front you can hear a pin drop as Adam leaves Mat on his own for a couple of minutes instrumental at the end.

Two down, one to go and whilst Ist Ist have generally avoided the pitfall that many bands fall down that their audience hark back to their debut and that's all a majority want to hear, it's probably the most popular and best received of the three. It starts with the pulsating intro to Wolves that kicks in before the band make it on to the stage. It was very much a statement of intent at the start of the album and still is today. Whilst they've created some songs that grab you instantly and wouldn't sound out of place on daytime alternative radio, Wolves has an edge to it that stops you feeling comfortable with it even on multiple listens. It's followed by a trio of their best loved songs. You're Mine is a short sharp punch to the gut and it's no surprise that it's the song that gave them the springboard in Europe where Kink FM picked it up for the simple fact it's fucking brilliant rather than criteria laid down by the people in power. It's followed by Black, a song with a magnificent dark romanticism flowing through its core that feels even more poignant with it being sung back at the band. It's followed by Discipline, a song that hits hard from the start and continues to do so, angular guitars, call and response vocals and which connects with the crowd, who, on the second night in particular, are lost in the music completely.

A New Love Song provides a little but not much respite. One of their very earliest songs that was a ninety second head rush that got completely revamped for Architecture, it has an almost suffocating intensity as the song's build creeps up on you until it's enveloped three hundred and fifty people in its spell. Silence has been a much requested song they haven't played a great deal, an early single revisited for Architecture and the song that first triggered the Joy Division comparisons. They look a bit silly now as the song has grown exponentially and has the power to fill rooms ten times the size of this. 

Drowning In The Shallow End strips things back down temporarily but a few idiots apart the song commands the respect of the crowd who listen attentively and soak in the intensity and its "monochrome glory" as Andy had earlier described the album. Night's Arm was the first song they ever wrote and the first song they played at their first ever gig and yet still feels fresh and alive, bigger and bolder with the supreme confidence the band justifiably have in themselves right now. 

Under Your Skin is Architecture's hidden gem and it proves in these shows just why. It's simpler than many of their songs, built around the chilling repetitive threat that "the committee won't permit this." Adam adds menace by prowling the stage mic in hand and intonating that sentence as if he means it right now. They finish on Slowly We Escape and they let rip on it, the second night in particular where Adam eyeballs Mat as the guitars ramp up, pecking him on the cheek before they all depart to a rapturous response, smiles beaming deservedly across their faces.

This was a brave and tough undertaking, but one completely in line with the ethos of Ist Ist. They have beautiful unique merch on sale that complements their aesthetic which in turn complements their music. They play three albums and still leave some disappointed that their favourite early single or EP track or the dozen or so unreleased songs don't get a look in. There's nothing of the future, of their fourth album that they'll launch around their big New Century Hall gig in October next year, which they've demoed ready to record in the Spring and potentially road test at their mostly sold out Independent Venue Week shows. These two shows were about stopping for a minute, taking stock and reflecting and realising just how much they've achieved under their own steam on the strength of these three magnificent albums, their work ethic and intelligent self-promotion and approach to the band without much in the way of support from the industry and its supporting organisations. They might have to wait to get the real recognition they deserve given the environment they and other guitar bands are operating in right now but they're leaving a legacy that will see them classed alongside the very best this city has produced.

Ist Ist played Stamp You Out, Something Has To Give, Nothing More Nothing Less, All Downhill, Mary In The Black And White Room, Emily, Artefacts, Fool's Paradise, The Protagonist, Trapdoors, Listening Through The Walls, Fat Cats Drown In Milk, Middle Distance, Watching You Watching Me, The Waves, Extreme Greed, It Stops Where It Starts, If It Tastes Like Wine, Heads On Spikes, Don't Go Gentle, Wolves, You're Mine, Black, Discipline, A New Love Song, Silence, Drowning In The Shallow End, Night's Arm, Under Your Skin and Slowly We Escape.

Ist Ist are on Facebook and Twitter. Their albums including their new Live In Amsterdam release can be ordered via their website. Digital versions of their previous limited edition releases and a number of live field recordings are available to download from their Bandcamp

They have recently announced a headline show at Manchester New Century on October 19, 2024 following Independent Venue Week shows at Preston Ferret (January 31), Milton Keynes Craufurd Arms (February 1), Sunderland Independent (2) and Huddersfield Parish (3).

Follow Even The Stars on Twitter at @eventhestarsuk and like our Facebook page for all the latest updates

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