“Hello, New York, this is The Holy Bible!” said Manic Street Preachers singer and guitarist James Dean Bradfield by way of introduction at Webster Hall. With those few words, the Welsh trio launched into their album of the same title, song by glorious (if grim) song. The Webster Hall stop was part of the seven-date U.S. leg of the Holy Bible 20 world tour, which celebrates the twentieth anniversary of the record.
Playing an entire album is a sign of the times, when half the bands currently touring seem to be celebrating some milestone or anniversary. It can bring in new fans and revive flagging or even failed careers. Though the Manics play small halls in the United States to lucky American audiences, they are superstars in the United Kingdom, Europe, and elsewhere, playing to packed arenas. The band’s 2014 album Futurology, which wasn’t physically released stateside, debuted at No. 2 on the U.K. album chart. This short tour marks the Preachers’ first dates here since 2009, and only their second tour in a decade and a half. Holy Bible–fueled or not, packed venues are inevitable, if the Webster Hall showing is to be any indication.
The Holy Bible was Manic Street Preachers’ final record as a quartet. It was released in the summer of 1994, but on February 1, 1995 — the eve of the band’s American tour — Richey Edwards, their principal lyricist and rhythm guitarist, was reported missing. Bradfield, bassist Nicky Wire, and drummer Sean Moore never replaced Edwards, but they did carry on. It’s just what you do.
The Holy Bible has been called the Manic Street Preachers’ finest moment, a startlingly brave and brilliant record. It’s certainly Edwards’s opus, the album he led lyrically and thematically. They were always sociopolitically inclined, and had used spoken-word samples in their songs as illustrations, but Edwards’s vision for The Holy Bible took them down a dark, dystopian path. The sampled sources include the vile sales patter of a pimp taken from a documentary on pornography (“Yes”); a pleasant invitation to Ronald Reagan’s birthday party (“Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit’sworldwouldfallapart” [sic]); a quote from an interview with author Hubert Selby Jr. (“Of Walking Abortion”); the mother of one of “Yorkshire Ripper” Peter Sutcliffe‘s victims confronting the killer (“Archives of Pain”); the lament of a victim of anorexia nervosa (“4st. 7lbs.”); author J.G. Ballard stating, “I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror” (“Mausoleum”); a passage from Orwell’s 1984 (“Faster”); and an excerpt from the Nuremberg trials (“The Intense Humming of Evil”). The Holy Bible is a hard listen. It is as much Edwards embracing his art and place in the world as it is him turning his back on it.
Two decades later, Edwards’s psycho-sociopathic vision seems prophetic, but the music surrounding these words is another story, and often one of transcendence. This tour is a celebration of its very nature. Webster Hall’s audience was ready for that and sang along on those catchy, cutthroat choruses: “We’re all just walking abortions.”
Wire leapt and paced, pounding out big round notes. Bradfield pogoed about the stage and never missed a solo or buzzsaw riff. And Moore, an underrated drummer in the annals of “World’s Best Rock Drummer Ever” polls, took command of the emphatic tempo changes dotting the songs. His drumming on “Archives of Pain,” which switches from frenzied mania to calm, and throughout the slowing stop-start pulse of “4st. 7lbs.” was borderline cinematic.
The Preachers allowed themselves some reminiscing about playing New York City in their early days: “We played the Limelight to four people at three in the morning,” recalled Bradfield. And of that absence that was a presence, Wire noted, “We know Richey is here.”
The album wound down with “This Is Yesterday” and the peppy, punky “P.C.P,” and while Wire and Moore left the stage, Bradfield remained and switched to an acoustic guitar for “Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky” (from 1996’s Everything Must Go) and “This Sullen Welsh Heart” (from 2013’s Rewind the Film).
Without pause, and with the drummer and bassist returned, the encore came from albums before The Holy Bible and after: the in-your-face “You Love Us”; the soaring “You Stole the Sun From My Heart,” a song presumed to be about Edwards, and “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next,” both from another masterpiece, 1998’s This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours; Futurology‘s “Walk Me to the Bridge”; and the 1996 hit “A Design for Life.”
Among those was the rousing “Motorcycle Emptiness,” where searching rhythm and soaring guitar accompany the obtuse but poignant lyrics. One line, by this point, needed no explanation: “Survival’s as natural as sorrow.”
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