The last few weeks have not been kind to the Manic Street Preachers. Lifeblood, their seventh album, was released to lukewarm reviews and sales. Despite a commercial AOR production, it somehow managed to enter the charts lower than 1994's The Holy Bible, an album described even by the sleevenotes of its recent reissue as "so bleak and horrid as to be unlistenable".
Bringing back The Holy Bible has clearly done their career no favours. The roar of approval that greets tonight's selected highlights is in marked contrast to the muted applause afforded tracks from Lifeblood. A decade old, and now part of the fusty canon of classic guitar rock, Faster and Yes still sound unlike anything else: squalling, splenetic and vital in a way that the new material simply is not. Most of the Lifeblood tracks opt for the deathless mid-tempo chug, a uniform pace that blinds you to the intriguing lyrics. And if you ignore the words of The Love of Richard Nixon or 1985, they could be the work of almost anybody.
Yet the gig still serves notice that the Manic Street Preachers are not like other bands. By the merchandise stand, the kind of balding, post-Edwards fans derided by critics as Mondeo drivers are queuing up to buy T-shirts bearing a quote from Kierkegaard: you don't get that at a Keane gig. Nicky Wire remains the most compelling bass player in rock. Admittedly, that's not the world's most hotly contested title, but he is a formidable presence, dropping to his knees, howling along to the lyrics without a microphone, doggedly fighting his one-man war against fashion by nipping offstage and returning in a leopardskin miniskirt and knee socks. By the closing song, A Design for Life, he is on top of the amplifiers, still in his skirt, risking his modesty by high-kicking along to the beat. Behind him, screens flash provocative revolutionary slogans. If their music sounded as remarkable as this looks, the Manic Street Preachers' future would be more assured.