Concert Film: Friends Are Still Electric: Gary Numan: Obsession (Reviewed)

As any long-time music fan knows, there are two main types of older musicians. There are those who coast on their old hits and become nostalgia acts: they rarely write new music, even more rarely play that new music live, and while they're still fun in concert, there's no denying that they are mostly just reliving past glory. Then there's those who actively fight against nostalgia: still changing and updating themselves, still writing new music that doesn't just sound like more of the same, and playing that music in innovative tours that look towards the present and future rather than the past. 

Gary Numan has long been in the second category, and now more than ever. In fact, he has remained so current and in-the-present that it's sometimes difficult to believe that his career has spanned almost four decades. That is, until you remember that he played a bigger role than almost any other musician in shaping the sound of the 1980s. Numan's recent career has been as unlikely has it has been fascinating. He began as one of the genre-creating fathers of popular electronic music: arguably the first major musician to mix the pure electronic of bands like Kraftwerk with rock, pop, and post-punk. This style would soon be imitated and reworked by a huge percentage of the following decade's bands, and would quickly spawn New Wave – but before that, it was just Numan, and it was brilliant. As the 1980s went on, however, Gary faced an almost existential crisis with his fame and pop-music status, torn between the darker, more artsy and experimental music he wanted to make, and the synth-driven pop that he felt expected to make, and increasingly felt trapped by. As this artistic angst became more and more toxic to the quality of his music, his career crumbled – but from the ashes a new, very different Gary Numan was born.

Liberated from the shackles of industry expectations by the thought that his career was dead already, in the mid-1990s (on the appropriately-titled Sacrifice) he started writing the type of darker, harder, more experimental and personal music that he had wanted to make for years – and it resonated. Soon he found not only redemption among critics and fans alike, but an unexpectedly resurrected career with a hybrid of electronic and moody industrial rock, not unlike the British older brother of Nine Inch Nails. This “Dark Gary” era reached new heights in 2013 and 2014 with the release and tour for his new album Splinter: Songs From a Broken Mind: his most critically acclaimed and commercially successful record since his groundbreaking late-'70s/early-'80s trio of Replicas, The Pleasure Principle, and Telekon. The album and tour was so successful that it allowed him to finally achieve a long-time dream: to rebuild his career to the point that he was once again big enough to play – and fill – the iconic Hammersmith Apollo theatre. Ending the Splinter tour at the Hammersmith Apollo was both a symbol of victory, that he had finally clawed his way back to the top, and a powerful celebration of this new era of his music; a statement that even after an almost 40-year career, a musician doesn't have to be defined by the past. It was only natural that Gary would capture this most important show for a concert film and live album, two mediums he has loved and explored frequently ever since his career began. Just over a year after the Hammersmith show – delayed thanks to some notable complications in the editing process – Gary has now released that live film and album, Obsession, on DVD, CD, and vinyl. The result is one of his best live releases: a document of one of his strongest tours, featuring a brilliantly-played cross-section of his massive catalog.

Numan held the stage at Hammersmith for over two hours, with a long and eclectic set-list. The main focus, of course, is on the new album: almost all of the songs from Splinter make it onto the set-list. But the long set also gave Numan the chance to explore the rest of his catalog, largely with a mix of iconic songs from the Replicas/Pleasure Principle/Telekon trilogy and fan-favorites from other modern darker albums like Pure and Dead Son Rising. But the best part about a modern Gary Numan show is that, since he is pretty actively anti-nostalgia, he plays those old favorites very much on his own terms – and they are all the better for it. He plays the songs from those three early albums reinvented in the style of his new material, as they might sound if he wrote them now. This hybrid of electronic's past and present is simply awesome, and results in some retooled compositions that are arguably not only better than the originals, but among Numan's best. This is especially true of the modernized Are “Friends” Electric, which starts dark, quiet, and brooding, and builds to a powerful crescendo, or the heavier and more industrial takes on Metal and Down in the Park, which beat the Nine Inch Nails, Foo Fighters, and (pretty awful) Marilyn Manson covers in terms of ferocity. Musicians like those just mentioned have all cited Gary Numan as a major formative influence when they were just getting started in music (in fact, Trent Reznor has said that he listened to Telekon on a daily basis when recording and mixing The Downward Spiral). It is now very clear that the music has come full-circle, with the mentor reinventing himself as a contemporary, likely even influenced by those who were once influenced by him. To those who still more or less know Gary Numan as just “that guy who did Cars” this may sound somewhat unlikely, but it really, really works.

Numan has long had a flare for visually-impressive live shows, and this one is no exception, with a video wall behind his band and some very cool lighting design giving the show a strong aesthetic. Visually I am reminded of some of Nine Inch Nails' tours, although not quite to that scale; it certainly has the same appeal, and the same element of songs made even better by the aesthetic accompaniment. For this reason, I would recommend the DVD of Obsession over the CD or vinyl; so much work and artistry was put into the production of the concert that it adds a lot when it is seen rather than just heard. With that said, though, it sounds fantastic. Numan and his long-time bandmates are all excellent musicians, and were very much on their A-game for this grand finale to the Splinter tour. They sound almost as good live as they do recorded, with the keyboardist/mixer adding in just about every layer of electronic complexity that can be found on the album. The show is very well-mixed too, and quite effectively recreated the live experience on my stereo. However, this is where the unfortunate complications I mentioned in the introduction come in: on the day of the show, Gary came down with a horrendous cold and sore throat, and lost his voice almost entirely. He got some sort of insane injection before the concert, bringing his voice back (a story that he tells with self-deprecating wit when he takes the stage), but he wasn't 100%. As such, I am fairly certain that he overdubbed his vocals for large parts of the DVD, as his singing sounds noticeably better (vocal health-wise) than his talking between songs. However, he did it quite seamlessly, overdubbing with what sounds like recorded-as-live vocals rather than excessively polished ones, so that his voice still has the moments of spontaneity and imperfection that you would expect from a concert. It also sounds like for select songs where he already uses a deeper, quieter, and more gravelly vocal style (like the almost spoken-word Here in the Black) he leaves the original live vocals alone, and they still sound pretty good. While I was at first skeptical when I heard whispers that he overdubbed his vocals for the release, the finished mix works very well, and were it not for the stage banter where he explains how sick he has been, I don't think viewers would ever suspect.

If there is a weakness to be found in Obsession, it is in the way the concert film is shot. While the live show itself has very good production values, the videography for the DVD is merely alright, but not great. There's nothing wrong with it: it's just a totally typical, mid-budget filmed-concert multi-cam set-up. There are some really good shots to be found throughout, and a couple very good camera operators who make stylized use of focus, but largely the videography is pretty utilitarian; capturing the live show effectively, but not adding much to it. Plus, the reverse shot looking out at the audience and the close-up of the keyboardist at the back are clearly stationary Go-Pros, and like all Go-Pro shots worked into a multi-cam production, they're acceptable and better than nothing, but noticeably worse in quality. Again, nothing about this is actually bad: it does a faithful job of capturing an awesome show, and that's all it's trying to do. It just would have been nice if the production had used a cinematic style as distinctive and cool as the style of the show itself. I can't complain about it too much, though, just as I can't complain about Numan releasing the film only on DVD, and not blu-ray. This is an independent, self-released production, and the focus was clearly on bringing audiences an awesome live show containing the best-sounding music it possibly could; in that regard, Obsession is a resounding success.

Obsession does a generally very effective job of capturing Gary Numan at his modern peak: the most successful he has been since he first helped usher in electronic music as we know it, and arguably the best he has ever sounded musically. While it may not be the most well-shot concert film he has released during his long career, in terms of the quality of the show documented I think it may be his best, or at least my favorite. Granted, not all fans of his older work are fond of his modern electronic/industrial style, and enjoyment of this concert film will be directly proportionate to how much you enjoy his sound as it currently exists. But if you are a fan, or even if you've just been curious to check out his modern work and see what all the fuss is about, the DVD (or CD or vinyl) is highly recommended. Friends have seldom been more electric.

The DVD, CD, and vinyl variants are all available exclusively through the web store – specifically the UK store, although the DVD they ship for US orders is in the North American NTSC format. All of the releases are limited editions.


- Christopher S. Jordan

Check out the trailer for the concert film below, and share!