Are Friends Electric? Actually, not always as Numan updates his sound

Malcolm Wyatt sees Gary Numan in a new light after the electronica pioneer’s exhilerating show at 53 Degrees in Preston

It seems rather apt that Preston, somewhat synonymous with the Industrial Revolution, should play host to such a prime mover in modern electronica.

Gary Numan playing at 53 Degrees in Preston

Gary Numan playing at 53 Degrees in Preston

Gary Numan was at 53 Degrees in an extension of last year’s Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind) world tour, taking in various otherwise-forgotten towns and cities.

So here on our doorstep we could judge for ourselves why this artist has proved so influential to so many bands over the past 35 years.

Before the main attraction, we were treated to the engaging vocals of Liela Moss and her outfit Roman Remains.

It was a worthy indication of what was to follow, fusing old-style goth with modern dance sensibilities, the band’s live presence a great advert for debut album Zeal.

Think Catatonia meets Chvrches on some tracks, imagine Bjork tackling Siouxsie Sioux on others. We should hear a lot more about this three-piece.

On to Numan, and all night this 56-year-old defied his advancing years. In fact he looked and acted younger than I ever recall, not least with his other-worldly balletic moves.

The LA-based synth legend seamlessly switched between guitar, keyboard and dance expression, and you could barely take your eyes off him, despite the overall power of this five-piece band.

From mighty ear-bashing 2011 instrumental intro Resurrection and latest single I Am Dust onwards, the throbbing around 53 Degrees suggested this venue might not even reach its December 31 end-date.

Numan’s band never stepped back from there, moving on to the metronomic soundscape of Metal, from the ground-breaking The Pleasure Principle, to a backdrop of Martian red planet lighting.

That set us up for a second selection from Splinter, the colour scheme changing to ghostly green as we experienced the orchestral mind-warp of an impassioned Everything Comes Down to This.

I was aware of the false ending, but was just one of many caught out as the band re-emerged from the darkness to herald a mighty climax.

Films was next, another selection from his defining era, the evocative original updated with cutting edge 2014 effects amid a wall of sonic power.

Here in the Black is another great moment from last year’s critical success, its almost-Yello whispered opening building to another cacophony of beautiful noise.

If proof were needed that Numan can do soundtracks, The Fall, from Dead Son Rising, threatened an almost dalek-like swirling aural attack.

From there we returned to Splinter for The Calling, Numan as the lost boy amid orchestral touches that were subtle but powerful all the same. Such was the perfect fit that it took me a while to realise we’d hit Replicas classic Down in the Park, this redefined 2014 version slower and more brooding than I recalled.

A more mellifluous mood was further enhanced with last year’s Lost, its sweet lullaby qualities backed up by that deep bass throb as the band caught their breath.

Reaction to the unmistakeable intro of Cars was as you might expect. And however over-played these past decades, it remains Gary’s finest pop moment.

While his career almost hit the bricks in the 90s, there was a nod to the earlier signs of resurgence on 2000 album title track Pure, the artist rediscovering something of that old power, its shouty chorus particularly stirring.

He’s slowly built on that, and 2013 drum-driven title track Splinter, almost-anthemic slow-builder We’re the Unforgiven and the wondrous Love Hurt Bleed brought us up to speed. The latter was difficult to follow, a simple searing synth riff gorgeously complemented by that drum and bass framework.

There was still time for one more, Baba O’Riley keyboard introducing us to emotional 2000 show-stopper A Prayer for the Unborn. An Elvis-like mumbled ‘thank you very much’ followed, Numan’s first direct words to his audience, but there was a big smile as he returned and the band launched into 1980 single I Die You Die.

That wasn’t all, and a 21st century re-imagining of Are Friends Electric? shone, stripped down to claustrophobic vocals and simple piano that surged into mighty choruses.

Then he was away with My Last Day, slowly building to an emotional crescendo of piano, drums and orchestral layering – a perfect finale.