Klaxons | Pop review

Village Underground, London EC2

No matter who makes the shortlist, the nominations for the Mercury prize always prompt the same response. The reaction to this year's runners and riders was no different: they were either praised as examples of the vigorous health of the British music business, or bashed as a sign of how it's all gone awry. There then followed the familiar assessment of whether the judges are even fit for purpose. Evidence that they might be: inspired choice of winners such as Dizzee Rascal. Signs that too much of the awards ceremony's house red sometimes wrecks the critical faculties: Gomez and several others who've walked off with the prize and into steep career decline.

It's fitting, then, that Klaxons should reappear just a week after this year's nominations were made public. Their debut album, Myths of the Near Future, was a surprise winner three years ago, its giddy dance-rock hybrid edging out the sex'n'drug-damaged retro soul of Amy Winehouse's Back to Black as well as the more orthodox rock of Arctic Monkeys' second album, Favourite Worst Nightmare. Whether history records this an example of supreme wisdom or trend-hopping foolishness will be decided in the next few weeks, by the reception to the London-based quartet's follow up, Surfing the Void.

Dismissing the Klaxons is easy enough. To the more serious minded their semi-jokey talk of kick-starting "new rave", enthusiasm for the drug ecstasy and not-unrelated fondness for spouting cosmic gibberish (their Mercury winnings were going to be donated to a "telepathy charity" said guitarist Simon Taylor-Davis) were a wind-up, proof they were no more than a Mighty Boosh skit that got out of hand.

In truth, the basic idea – combining the twin energies of rave and punk – was sound, and executed more successfully than by Jesus Jones, EMF or any other of the forgotten rock bands who sought nirvana through MDMA and drum machines 20 years ago. Top 10 hit "Golden Skans" also suggested that a genuine fondness for pop music lurked beneath all the undergraduate references to JG Ballard (from whom they cribbed the album title) and Thomas Pynchon (they have a track called "Gravity's Rainbow").

Trouble is, they were enjoying themselves so much they turned up at initial sessions for album two having neglected their homework. So the first stab at Surfing the Void was famously rejected by their record label, Polydor, who packed them off to Los Angeles to record with producer Ross Robinson, best known for his work with lucrative but commercially derided early noughties nu-metal bands such as Korn. If this doesn't strike you as the behaviour of supposed visionaries and independent thinkers, you'd be right. It was more a case of salvaging careers and making the best of the opportunity that the Mercury win had provided. Robinson knocked them into shape with a bizarre mix of personal training and group therapy, with morning runs on the beach accompanied by unintentionally hilarious motivational instruction, such as telling drummer Steffan Halperin his next take was a "goodbye note to his family".

So far, so suitably ridiculous. On the plus side, they actually delivered something listenable, even if it is a slightly more grey-sounding approximation of the first album. Its better moments are those where their undeniable way with a chorus rises above an inevitably heavier new approach. Heard alongside old favourites during this evening's low-key warm-up gig in front of a partisan home crowd and it seems like the Klaxons have indeed pulled themselves away from oblivion. "Twin Flames", Surfing the Void's lightest, most engaging moment, slots perfectly between "Golden Skans" and fellow Myths' highlight "Two Receivers".

They're a band reborn in another sense too. Robinson's peculiar boot camp has given them some technical skill and live they're no longer a triumph of vigour over ability. Gone are the days where Righton, Taylor-Davis and bassist Jamie Reynolds appeared to be playing three entirely different tunes. Reynolds recently admitted that "the sobriety thing's got a massive amount to do with it", but whatever the reason, something's clicked and old favourites, such as their cover of Grace's mid-90s dance hit Not Over Yet, are rendered with fresh intensity.

They're not entirely free of pointlessly trendy touches, insisting on addressing the east London crowd as "Shoreditch" in deference to the area's fashionable reputation. And there's a coy early reference to new rave from Righton when it might be better to forget the matter entirely: its only legacy is the sheer volume of brightly coloured sportswear Topshop managed to flog at the time.

There's also a lingering feeling that while they might have rescued their career, Klaxons haven't really advanced either. The shock of the new has worn off and while they still talk a good game – they've discovered South American shamanic rituals and the Jungian theories of Arthur Koestler – it feels like we've been here before. Which was surely never the point of them in the first place. Proficiency is one thing, imagination quite another.


Gareth Grundy

The GuardianTramp

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