The past couple of years have seen Gary Numan return to a level of popularity he perhaps hasn’t truly enjoyed since the ’80s. 2017’s ‘Savage: Songs From A Broken World’ proved a substantial hit and, even two years on from its release, it’s clear that he’s still riding on the high from its success. His appearance at Bexhill’s spacious De La Warr Pavilion is a bustling sell-out; as the lights dim upon an expectant crowd, an ominous drone reverberates around the wide hall. Flames appear behind the stage, slowly revealing text – “(r)evolution” – with a solemn theatricality that pays off well if the crowd’s excited hollers are a fair indication. By the time Numan himself appears, draped in gothic tatters, the crowd go wild before so much as a note of music has been played. Such a dramatic entrance should be of little surprise, of course; a strongly cultivated image has always been part of the man’s artistic identity. Opening the set with recent hit ‘My Name Is Ruin’, the group kick into the action with a foul-tempered stop-star riff as the song’s video is projected over the stage. That Numan is in rude health becomes immediately clear; he slides and crawls across the stage with all the vigor of a class rock frontman high on mid-set adrenaline. Despite a physicality to his performance that considerably outstrips the current-day antics of most of his contemporaries, his vocal performance remains consistently impressive. The band themselves manage to replicate the studio take near note-for-note.
‘Savage: Songs From A Broken World’ found Numan exploring a gritty darkwave influenced industrial metal that referenced genre mainstays such as Killing Joke and Nine Inch Nails, without diluting his own vision. While the album was far from innovative in its style, it was a successful venture and, clearly still enamoured with its sound, he renders much of his set in that same style. The setlist itself is admirably – and perhaps even surprisingly – varied. He performs only one song from his latest outing, instead focusing on a set that plucks tunes from across his output – with particular focus on his enduringly popular late ’70s work and fan-favourite mid ’90s material. Regardless of where he picks his material from , the rendering is distinctly modern. Noirish synth parts offer some melodic relief over uniformly crunchy, effect-swamped bass parts and angular, spiky guitar. The grinding industrial tonality that Numan so eagerly subscribes to suits both his voice and often dark lyricism well, even if at times it feels a little unimaginative in a time when the genre’s great innovations were largely made over twenty years ago. Varied though the set is, the modernised interpretations of older material at times result in a set that feels somewhat homogenised. A clutch of vintage hits – peppered through the set at intervals – give even the most casual of fans exactly what they want, but does so with significant concessions to the tone of his more recent work.
A jacked-up version of ‘Cars’ finds Numan in fine form, singing those familiar lyrics with admirable gusto for a man who must surely have performed the song hundreds of times. A thick and highly compressed bass part rather stifles the innate melodicism of the song, perhaps suggesting that some of the old favourites are better left unchanged. More sagely, ‘Are Friends Electric?’ is presented in a faithful light. It’s an exhilarating moment. The Numan of 2019 performs to the backdrop of the song’s original music video, juxtaposing youth and age to surprisingly poignant effect, despite an ultimately exultant energy.
During the show’s best moments, Numan demonstrates the power of a truly audiovisual experience to contextualise the songs being performed. In addition to projections that accompany most of the songs, a stunning light show serves as a sensory benchmark for the mood of each piece. In the set’s few lulls, prisms of a cool blue light play across the ceiling; during the more frantic moments, dazzling stabs of brilliance threaten to blind. These are lights that do not simply serve to illuminate, but rather to stun. They add a further dimension to the music, engaging the audience enough to carry the show during the set’s infrequent missteps and offering a frenetic visual salvo to its most compulsive moments. The projections are also vivid, if at times perhaps a little inscrutable. The visual references are varied; at one point or another, they not only display the influence of shaky-cam horror and glitchy industrial music videos, but also the mutable and disturbing nightmares of H.R. Giger. Although largely successful as additions to the evening’s overall presentation, one moment where the art direction stumbles is during ‘Absolution’, an excellent cut from 1997’s underappreciated ‘Exile’. A montage of news clips – featuring a flashing series of bloody babies, extremist propaganda and even the Twin Towers burning – is looped over the song’s solemn and sinister groove. The intention is clear; to accentuate the innate melancholy of the song and offer some kind of paen to the suffering now projected so inescapably across the stage. It’s a well-meaning but ultimately misjudged move – largely because it feels voyeuristic rather than empathetic. At best, it feels clumsy and ill-advised – at worst, as though it’s a commodified vision of pain.
Now over forty years into his career, Gary Numan has managed to endure to a far greater degree than a significant swathe of his contemporaries. When he leaves the stage for the first time after some eighty minutes, he does so to explosive cheers. His crowd tonight is as large as it is enthusiastic and the De La Warr Pavilion’s roomy auditorium has proven a comfortable venue. Numan’s performance is engaging and enthusiastic and his focus upon vividly engaging theatrical presentation helps to set his show apart from the comparatively prosaic performances of his straighter punk peers. Returning to the stage for a generous encore, when all’s said and done, he leaves the crowd wanting more despite a healthy 100 minute runtime.