CD Review: Public Image Limited - Alife 2009: Live at Brixton Academy

CD Review: Public Image Limited – Alife 2009: Live at Brixton Academy
Four Worlds Media
All Access Rating: A-
Public Image Limited - Alife 2009: Live at Brixton Academy 2012
“Proper music for proper people” – that’s the public service Public Image Limited provides, according to John Lydon. It’s a mission statement, as much as anything, for John Lydon and the revived PiL, playing their first gigs since Lydon pulled the plug on the post-punk insurgents in 1993. And Lydon, making an entrance as only he can, reintroduced PiL to the Brixton Academy crowd with that statement as the industrial noise of “The Rabbit Song (Intro)” died down. Those “proper people” Lydon refers to were in for quite a night of it, as PiL, established by Lydon after the Sex Pistols imploded, had no intention of leaving them feeling they’d been cheated.
Superbly mixed audio, coupled with the vitality and edgy, adventurous spirit of PiL – who deliver a sonically mesmerizing and stylistically diverse performance, full of different moods and textures – recommend Alife 2009: Live at Brixton Academy, another in the line of immaculately recorded and extravagantly packaged concert records from Four Worlds Media. Like the most depraved grave robbers, they plunder the PiL back catalog, digging up the bodies of 23 strangely compelling tunes from such classic LPs as Second Edition, Metal Box and Flowers of Romance and giving them new life. Where their studio versions could be grim and sterile, here, they have more color in their cheeks, many of them extended well beyond their original borders. Against a backdrop of eerie, unsettling dub rhythms, dissonant squalls of razor-like guitar and alien keyboards, Lydon – joined in this PiL incarnation by former members Bruce Smith and Lu Edmonds, as well as Scott Firth – goes on enigmatically poetic rants in the vaguely menacing, hypnotic and austere “Albatross,” “Careering,” “The Suit” and “Four Enclosed Walls.” Sounding more predatory, as an insistent bass line creeps around the edges, the disturbing meditation on family dysfunction “Tie Me to the Length” becomes a particularly nightmarish vision of a psychological breakdown in Lydon’s emotionally scarred hands.
It’s not surprising then that after “Tie Me to the Length” takes its last breath, Lydon jolts the seemingly stunned audience awake by yelling, “You’re too quiet.” Somewhat brighter, if not entirely happy and shiny, dance-oriented numbers like “Flowers of Romance,” “Bags” and “This is Not a Love Song” bounce off a muscular, thumping trampoline of bass that makes bodies want to writhe in the doomed ecstasy of the damned, as tangled coils of guitar vainly attempt to unravel themselves in puzzling and interesting ways. As ringmaster, the howling, growling Lydon is enthusiastic, funny and defiant, making an impassioned plea for unity, racial harmony and (gasp!) love in the airy, melodic “Warrior” and demanding the exile of all politicians from Britain, before pleading for more bass from a sinister, smoldering take on “Religion” – Lydon’s scathing indictment of an institution he despises. 
The cynical “Disappointed,” one of PiL’s biggest hits, has neither the bite or the snarl of the original studio version, and that’s … well, disappointing. Weak and ineffectual as it is, however, that failed effort is the exception, not the rule, on Alife 2009: Live at Brixton Academy. Even the more atmospheric, starry numbers like “Usls 1,” are rapturous on this occasion, and the seething undercurrent of danger and anger running through “Chant” – cosmic, swirling guitar work hovering above the growing unrest like supernova – is decidedly palpable, while the angular “Memories” and the propulsive “Annalisa” move surreptitiously in the manner of assassins, springing with violence only when necessary.
Vicious and uncompromising at times, and removing some of the grey drone of their recordings, this pulsating set is also deliciously entertaining, although the melodies and subtle hooks of their music maintain their subversive character. As the lighthearted, Eastern European-flavored “Sun” dances to the beat of its own drummer in the most easygoing, uninhibited manner, another one of PiL’s most recognizable tunes, “Rise,” throws weary travelers along life’s sometimes rocky path a bouquet of well-wishes and offers a reminder that “anger is an energy.” Yes, it is, and so is Lydon, whose unique brand of populism still resonates with “proper people.”

-            Peter Lindblad

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