Gary Numan: dark music done right at the Oakland Metro

Pub date September 9, 2013

From Metallica to This Mortal Coil, there’s a sense of canned melodrama about most “dark” music that I’ve long found goofy and unconvincing. On that note, Massive Attack’s Mezzanine has always struck me as dark music done right, leaving the angsty ostentation behind, in favor of casually luring the listener downward into its imposing dungeon of groove.

As Gary Numan took the stage in Oakland last Tuesday night, the British artist displayed a similarly nuanced sensibility of what makes dark music work, delivering a relentlessly groove-based set of songs that brooded and seethed with total conviction.

Setting foot inside the Oakland Metro Operahouse (a dimly-lit, converted warehouse with the vibe of a joint operation between the Addams Family and a pack of steampunk welders) I felt the same tinge of skepticism that I did before Nine Inch Nails took the stage at Outside Lands last month; does Numan really have a purpose at this point in his career, aside from reliving old times and peddling out the reliable hit(s)? Surely enough, Numan took the stage with disarming panache, writhing up and down the stage with deft control as he treated the crowd to a stunning 90 minutes of punishing industrial rock.

Despite Numan’s one-hit-wonder status (his 1979 single “Cars” topped the charts in both the UK and the US) the British artist is revered in smaller circles for bridging many seemingly isolated developments in the pop world, from Kraftwerk’s stiff electronic propulsions, to Prince’s new-wave synthpop experiments, to Nine Inch Nails’ consolidation of industrial music with the rock mainstream.

Those mainly familiar with Numan’s early, synth-driven work, though, might’ve been taken aback by the physicality of Tuesday night’s set, in its commitment to the guitar-heavy, riff-based, Trent Reznor-indebted approach he initiated on records like Exile (1997) and Pure (2000).

Dressed in black, head to toe, like a sizable chunk of the enraptured audience, Numan and his four-piece backing band delivered forceful renditions of some recent tracks, namely “Haunted,” “The Fall,” and “Everything Comes Down to This,” dominated by relentlessly fuzzed-out guitars, as those reliably frosty synths provided rich textures and filled in the empty spaces.

“I Am Dust,” from the forthcoming LP Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind) fit seamlessly into the surrounding material, making a strong case for Numan’s creative future, while beefed-up, modernized variations of older songs, like “Films,” and “Down in the Park,” were impressive in their unpredictability and ambition, refusing to merely replicate their studio counterparts.

Numan’s career has taken many twists and turns, from prickly, proto-synthpop, to industrial filth-rock, yet his touring band refracted it all through their single-minded, distortion-laden aesthetic, intuitively connecting the old and the new.

Numan might be 55 now, with nearly 20 albums under his belt, but his stage presence and vocal delivery were remarkably vitalic, never once suggesting the washed-up burnout illustrated by those VH1-hit-wonder specials. Few AARP qualifiers can rock eyeliner and spiky black hair convincingly, yet Numan completely pulled it off, prancing across the stage with yogic control, and a glammy flair for presentation.

More importantly, his vocal ability hasn’t diminished in the slightest since the late ’70s, as he hit all the high notes on “Cars,” and “Are ‘Friends’ Electric,” without hesitation.

Numan’s voice, strongly reminiscent of David Bowie’s, fit harmoniously with the backing instrumentals, letting the band do most of the heavy lifting, as he deftly avoided the whiny/screamy/growly vocal contrivances that end up derailing so much “dark” music into self-parody mode.

The restraint of Numan’s vocals, combined with the dubby, trip-hoppy, disco-inflected headiness of his backing band’s grooves, resulted in a tightly controlled balancing act; much like Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, Numan’s set succeeded by keeping things at a constant simmer, yet never boiling over. Dark music done right, indeed.

Judging by his seasoned stage presence, and his undeniable influence on the greater music world, it seems that in an alternate universe, Numan could’ve become one of those Prince-y household names, shaping pop culture as well as the music within.

Yet, unlike Prince, who’s lately found himself grasping beyond his reach in hopes of channeling past glories, or countless other new wavers who were relegated to novelty status long ago, Numan has maintained his relevance by powering forward creatively, and smartly avoiding any attempts to relive the ’70s and ’80s over again.

It might’ve been reasonable to expect a phoned-in performance this deep into his career, yet as Numan authoritatively proved on Tuesday night, his icy grooves remain as fresh and involving as ever.