The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Sharpen The Knives Mick Middles , November 6th, 2009 09:51

Mani knows a good band when he inspires one. Actually, he probably inspired many on that day at the close of the 80s as he strode the stage at the infamous Stone Roses Spike Island mega-gig/absurd gathering. But none, I suggest, would launch a career as powerful if understated as Puressence. Hence they began, literally in the shadows of the Roses. Further down the line, as the band's name was scrawled all over the derelict buildings of pre-regeneration Manchester, there seemed further echoes of the 'Roses unholy early years.

The parallels might be said to end with that flurry of self-promotion. For Puressence would not become an iconic band; they would not flicker brightly and fizzle to a glorious pop! This would be a slow burner: understated to the point of sullenness; undiscovered to some extent. And yet, as Manchester's best kept secret, they would emerge tentative and unsure, albeit armed with a bulging stack of variable leanings ('tunes', you may call them, although something inside me dies, everytime I hear a DJ use this word). To the uninitiated, Puressence's eerie sound might recall prime-time U2.

But now, at last, their two decades of extraordinary songwriting are captured together on this (kinda) 'best of' package. Only now do they seem so accessible, so rewarding. The finest Manchester songwriters of the past 20 years? Guy Garvey, perhaps, is allowed a grimace there. But, strangely, Puressence have attained superstar status in Greece, where their own festival will take place this autumn (not in Warrington, alas).

To some extent, Sharpen Up the Knives will be viewed with disdain by those already loyal to the band. It's an exercise that aims to gather in stragglers such as myself. Having seen them just twice in as many decades, I hadn't really taken time to enjoy the perceptive, invigorating nature of the songs that lay beyond the outstanding breakthrough single 'This Feeling'. And, back then, in the days when it would take its place on 'alternative' radio, there was a tendency to bundle this heartfelt beauty into a lazy 'Manc classic' category, and leave it lying dormant. Those who saw the link with U2 were closer to the metal, however.

For in truth there is something decidedly un-Manc about Puressence and the courage they have often displayed — they rock out beyond the city's famous reserve, and pull back to an unlikely tenderness. Both extremes live hand-in-hand on Sharpen Up The Knives, at times within the same song. This is indeed ironic, as the unbelievers have often lumped them in with less disparately gifted bands: your Turin Brakes and Starsailors, polished — elegant, even — but lacking the natural instinct to push beyond the boundaries.

Many look to the soul-dripped voice of James Mudriczki for the answer. It was the darkness in that voice that enticed Judy Collins into his fanbase; he returned the compliment by contributing a cover of 'Che' to the 'Born to the Breed' tribute album (alongside Leonard Cohen, Dolly Parton, Joan Baez and Chrissie Hynde). But there's much more, a vast lake if not an ocean to wade through. On the highlights alone — 'She's Gotten Over You', the new single 'Raise Me To The Ground' and the title track among them — Puressence fly between the black and the white, bounce from extreme to extreme. I've attempted, and now failed of course, to avoid using the word 'anthemic'; we're not talking about The Alarm here. On 14 November their tour concludes by crashing into Manchester Apollo, to seal their local enormity. Contained legends; it's a pressure cooker.

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.