It doesn’t take long before we realise we’ve entered some sort of religious fever dream at the Manchester Academy. Having walked out of the unseasonably glorious weather and into the already sweltering and close to capacity venue, we’re greeted by some unmistakably ominous 80’s sci-fi thriller-esque music over the PA that builds a palpable sense of nervous anticipation within the audience; most of whom are fanning themselves with an array of less than effective objects.
Having originally been slated for the Albert Hall, which would have been an almost too perfect setting aesthetically, the larger stage at the Academy has been artfully transformed. Adorned with Rodin-inspired sculptures, scattered staircases, and wooden chairs reminiscent of church pews, the message is loud and clear, we’ve come to the theatre.
This should come as no surprise as Chris’ latest album, which will be played in its entirety this evening, is itself inspired by a play, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. The phantasmagoric drama follows its protagonist, Prior Walter, battle abandonment and illness, seeking “more life” from the angels, and ultimately finding hope. Chris’ choice to draw from this work feels like a manifestation of that same hope, a sentiment he wishes to share with his audience tonight.
The symbolism starts immediately as Chris descends onto the stage from a ladder and as the show unfolds in its three acts representative of the album (PARANOIA, ANGELS, TRUE LOVE) we notice more and more, forcing us to question what is intentional and what are we just clutching wildly at? He descends into our presence, yet he is wearing shoes that are designed as cloven hooves. Perhaps at this stage in the story he relates more to the fallen angel of Lucifer.
Each act is marked by distinctive change in both outfits and mood that is masterfully reflected in Chris’ commanding physicality. In the first act, he graces the stage in suit trousers and a single glove, a nod to Michael Jackson blended with ballet school finesse. Later he dons a black blazer and ethereal angel wings. Despite being immaculately held up by his live band it feels like a one man show with a host of characters – or rather, a single character in transformation.
Transformation has long been a thread in Chris’ artistry and life. PARANOIA, ANGELS, TRUE LOVE, in tandem with its live performance, elevates it to another level. It feels deeper, more brutal and fundamental. A little bit scary. It’s encouraging you to think about transformation in a celestial space, to evaluate your existence. Chris has used terms such as “extreme” and “devoted” when talking about his most recent work and that sense really resonates from him as you lose yourself in his performance. It’s gripping and, at times, overwhelmingly beautiful. There’s a vulnerability that makes you want to look away, and a power that leaves you in awe.
There will be segments of tonight’s audience that will leave disappointed, having hoped to hear Tilted and for the inclusion of earlier material and that criticism is valid. However, the boldest move on display tonight may well have been the show itself. To play a “concept” album that some fans will feel is too big a departure from what they are familiar with, in full, with no additional inclusions, is a risk. But if anyone is going to take it, it’s Chris. And we’re thankful he did.
Every moment of this evening’s show was choregraphed and rehearsed. Don’t think of it as a gig. Go with the knowledge that you’ll witness a performance that may not have been what you wanted or expected but one that will leave you with something much more tangible than 90 minutes of the hits ever would have. Tonight we are reminded that music has the power to disrupt, terrify, and ultimately transform us. One for the devotees.