And so to Sunday, day three, as we return to the fleshy abattoir for one final time. Physically sunburnt and mentally bruised seems to be the day’s default look, with caffeinated substance a prerequisite tonic to the ruination past. Deep in the NME/BBC Radio 1 tent, purported Ibiza Rocks mainstay Colin Peters pounds out a slipshod mix that’s about as exciting as any which platitudinous playlist one might have the displeasure of overhearing in some suburban branch of H&M. E for effort, and a fucking almighty F for a t-shirt what reads: ‘Decks, Plugs, Rock’n’Roll.’ The delusions of grandeur enveloping the typically self-absorbed modern-day DJ know no bounds, though quite how it takes not one solitary deck but instead two laptops to reproduce this dross I’ll never know.
Alleviating the tedium a tad is an eventual stab at Blondie and yet rather than hyping up a sizeable throng installed for cack-mouthed sibs HAIM, Call Me only serves to accentuate how far Este, Danielle and Alana still have yet to come. In fact for that matter, they struggle even to approach Ladyhawke’s pretty trite Paris in terms of sonic quality, as they belatedly materialise to the pulverising rap thrash of 99 Problems. Mouthing its misogynistic stanzas, it feels more than a little telling for a band still with many an issue in need of resolution: expertly prissy, they rattle through a catalogue of bromidic rock postures with consummate ease, sure, but when it comes to establishing themselves as artists in their own right – whether recording or performing – they leave little to the imagination, if loads to be desired. The Wire, a palm muted monstrosity that’s strangely evocative of Sara Bareilles’ Love Song, fails to differentiate the trio from Fleetwood Mac pastiche while a ludicrously unimaginative cover of the band’s ’69 single Oh Well only binds the two bands that bit tighter together.
“We’ve been waitin’ for this show all summer!” an irrepressible Alana Haim chirps, before claiming they’d rather be in Reading than California. They’ve evidently not yet visited the current construction site that is its city centre, and they could surely have better expended all their bated breath on something more likely to take ours away. Thus if the tent slowly bulges outwards, it’s never exactly bursting at the seams as one might well expect. Though is that of any great astonishment? They’re a multi-talented troop, no question, and could likely feature in Gareth Keenan’s “ultimate fantasy” were they ever to wind up in some seedy trading estate in a nearby Slough. But beyond an unnecessarily reconfigured Falling – that’s this afternoon tossed off early on – their songs are far from there. Yes, there’s the usual smattering of desperate placards pleading their authors be admitted into the Haim famille, and plenty of hysteria that snowballs throughout their half-hour, though it all feels to have been questionably placed. I mean it seems to be a satire on ’70s stadium pomp, and the sort that would logically remain the preserve of covers bands playing to sparsely frequented bars down the back-of-the-sofa bits of the US. And with bass solos slapped down lavishly over guitar-based histrionics and excessive synth padding, it’s all been a little outrageously devised. Thus simultaneously overwrought and undercooked, they’re still well over the 200-odd miles distancing Bramham Park from Little John’s Farm off perfecting this thing.
Though hideously predictably, the place packs out regardless, which is more than can be said of a late afternoon Festival Republic Stage where, alas, to suggest that blue Floridian miscreants Merchandise attract a scant audience is to do them far too great a service. Performing for next to nobody, they’re lead to defeatedly apologise for curtailing The Jesus and Mary Chain honking its hefty way out from the PA, and therefore set off on a negative, indeed retrogressive foot. “We’ve come oh, so many miles to play today” frontman and self-acclaimed “redneck” Carson Cox slurs indolent, the Tampans approaching four and a half thousand from home. And aurally too, Cox & co. have come some way from the days when he, David Vassalotti and Patrick Brady would service an hellacious Floridian underground with bouts of infernal punk and so-called powerviolence. They’ve since evolved into an astute post-punk outfit tight as their spray-on pants, though effervescently pesky they so often seem to have remained. It’s quite apparently not the case today though and in light of Cox’ recent confirmation, “We’ve never been dependent on an audience”, he appears to lack a necessary conviction in his own affirmation. That unabashedly accessible edge when set against both HAIM and The Lumineers is blunt by comparison, and what with today being the festival’s traditionally chastening Sunday, the desire to explore the unknown has likely been subdued by an exhaustion now approaching fever pitch. Perhaps they’d have been better off playing powerviolence on the neighbouring Rock Stage after all, their great stride from stridency toward a more melodic aesthetic maybe alienating some expecting sleaze. Though regardless, they refund those few willing to stick with ‘em with a steady and so too assured showing, the noirish squalls of In Nightmare Room imbued with the added gusto given it by new recruit Elsner Niño’s trembling snares.
“You’re already kickin’ the shit outta Leeds” quips Cox, and if one struggles to imagine how, then they up the enthusiasm with a rollicking Anxiety’s Door flung open oddly early on, Vassalotti’s oversized, even extravagant riff bowling the ten or so pins before them clean over. Debonair, he drops to the ground, wrestling with his guitar as though it were some venomous ray, equal parts natural born performer and killer poseur. Though perhaps the most disappointing facet of a connately dispiriting set stems from their inability to engage as we know they’re able to, and their inability to judge this afternoon’s audience – or what there is of it – is translucently elucidated in their opting for an utterly superfluous ballad only a couple numbers in.
And on the loose topic of vanity projects, Pete Wentz’ Fall Out Boy are back for another pop at the Main Stage, attracting a multitude that’s no less impressive in magnitude than that of their 2006, 2007, and 2009 performances. There is thus little, to no exclusivity factor when it comes to this rather literal resit of umpteen editions past, but they’ve evidently still got it so long as the ever elusive it can be considered them having their keyring-friendly acronym scribbled along clavicles and scrawled across still developing torsos. They’re a pop band first and foremost, and command a mania that certifies them as such with even ropey opener Thriller – replete, of course, with still-bewildering Jay-Z voiceover – garnering quite the response from their gargantuan turnout. Indeed, were plasticine playthings One Direction and The Wanted no longer around, F.O.B. would doubtless rank among the most influential, and indeed successful boy bands about: they order adoration, and continue to receive every iota they’ve yet applied for; scuttle about the sort of stage they’re seemingly about as comfortable on as are most mere mortals their threadbare divans; and share in a litany of self-congratulatory high fives throughout. Wentz spends more time chucking up plectrums than he does regurgitating his increasingly tired, infuriatingly contrived bass lines from atop ridiculous little plinths shoved right to the very fore of the stage. And then there’s the excruciating screamo middle eight to the itself repugnantly entitled I Slept with Someone in Fall Out Boy and All I Got Was This Stupid Song Written About Me – a parody of a parody that grew older long ago.
Sugar, We’re Goin Down remains just about their best to this day, although elements intrinsic to its success have since changed: Patrick Stump’s newly accented vocal inflexions, most probably picked up during his questionable solo excursions, make him out to be an aspiring X Factor contestant though ultimately paint him more as an anguished karaoke bar wannabe, while drummer Andy Hurley has undergone a makeover that could only be made more radical were pins and needles involved. He’s evidently been further tarnished by those of the tattoo parlour, but intensifying the acute pain for that minimal gain to be gleaned from another of the weekend’s several exercises in nostalgia is the splurge of new material that besmirches their set. They’re ostensibly here to “save rock’n’roll” with stuff from their latest of that same name although were such an undertaking ever necessary, they self-evidently ain’t the men for the task, with the hi-NRG flimsy disco shtick of The Phoenix a case in point.
They’re back atop those same risers aforesaid for a rapturous Dance, Dance that, if itself weighed down by sobering indications of the overdramatised, engenders a better reaction from the otherwise unresponsive elders in attendance. Though essentially, it’s a little tricky to derive much joy from what was once a guilty pleasure and now looks to be an unapologetically Glee-like, high school-primed jamboree. It inspires that grossly unreasonable guttural feeling excited only by an impending return to school and sure enough, those who derive an undue amount of, well, glee from this one will soon find themselves charged with those undesirable pangs of persistent dread as they’re to return to their respective educative establishments. This latest generation have certainly learnt to keep their intimate bits sheathed even when seen above their boyfriends’ shoulders on the vast screens flanking the stage, making a welcome change from the days Placebo would implore they be flashed constantly throughout a notorious technical hitch back in ’06. And since then, Fall Out Boy have rather explicitly learnt of Soft Cell, I Don’t Care flagrantly thieving from the duo’s Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret epoch, though the hip hopera fare of recent single My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark (Light Em Up) fares a little better, as does Saturday. Doubtless better experienced up in Glasgow just yesterday however, you just start to wonder as to whether even they’re beginning to tire of playing to Richfield Avenue on seemingly every last August bank holiday weekend.
Someone who may never be seen in these surrounds ever again, however, is Trent Reznor. ‘Should be an unusual show tonight at Reading’ read the Nine Inch Nails lynchpin’s Twitter prior to his first return to the festival in six relatively silent years. ‘The lying promoter and the band following us (whoever the fuck they are) fucked us on our production’ he continued, a steaming setlist furiously punched into his iPhone notes then beginning: ‘fuck you festival republic’ and right from the off, there’s an underlying current of uncontainable ire bubbling just beneath the surface. Hesitation marks thus hang around his professionalism, compulsive tweaks to what transpires to be a pretty subversive outing making him out to be the petulant archangel we’d come to lament the inactivity of during the band’s self-imposed hiatus. It’s a feeling that was also found at the deadened heart of his farewell UK festival appearance prior to said period of artistic inertia, when at Sonisphere he once again took to social media to voice yet more discontent toward feeling the ‘odd one out’ while sandwiched between Machine Head and headliners Metallica.
Yet his fury could also have been furthered by their prelude: as was in ’07 when CSS and LCD Soundsystem provided a jubilant soundtrack to the festival’s typically hyperactive final night, an inexplicable, if again inevitable exodus toward Disclosure elsewhere leaves Reznor’s crowd a little thin on the ground. It incurs an intense sense of déjà vu, not least as it was then the same time, the same place and even the same positioning on the Main Stage billing. It’s the same clientele who’ve come out to see him too, presumably, one t-shirt reading: ‘TRENT REZNOR DO ME’ on the one side, with ‘NIN GET INSIDE ME’ on the flip. It’s a crowd that could likely cram into a couple of nights at the Scala, however, all of which makes for a quite saddening sight when set against the repellent mob Chase & Status attracted just twenty-four hours previously. Though as Huw Stephens decrees: “Up next: Nine Inch Nails” before duly detonating Bonkers, it’s this time that Reznor et al. are really shoved out of their comfort zone. That they should have had to adjust what would have been one of the most expectantly awaited shows of the weekend for the profit of a headliner they’d reputedly never heard of ought to speak volumes for their incompatibility with a festival the musical identity of which is, and indeed has been, in a state of transition for some years now. Nonetheless expectant of the eternally unexpected, and tonight unhinged, you’d be forgiven for thinking the indignation would amplify his performance.
His current production, when not hindered by those others wrathfully aforementioned, is one centred around destruction and industrial reconstruction; the live decomposing of both old and new, so that each might be reconsidered in a truly revolutionary fashion. And a subtly infuriated Copy of A serves as a striking introduction to what is itself a reconstitution of Talking Heads’ legendarily minimal ’83 tour setup, during which instruments would be wheeled onto and off the stage in accordance with their pertinence at any one point in time, and in a sense a faint imitation of Kraftwerk’s enduring stage configuration. Thus with each member initially stationed behind a bank of inscrutable gadgetry, there’s a sense of replication here serving as the highest form of flattery. And even though Sonisphere played host to an unprecedentedly, purposefully subdued, and thereby highly provocative hour with the themes of fragility and intricacy key, tonight feels rather more intimate, if injuriously so. The track builds as might a fully fledged techno destroyer taking flight, Reznor having slipped out unseen from a mass of impenetrable white smog. It has increasingly seemed his wont, to eschew the celebrity favoured by, say, Fall Out Boy before him, with furtive sorties his preferred form of attack.
However, as has already been frequently remarked of forthcoming eighth, Hesitation Marks, it bears hallmarks of a happiness of which his recordings have so often felt bereft, and this reintroduction feels if not excessively, then mystifyingly positive. The opening trio of this, a mildly middling Disappointed, and Came Back Haunted sound heftier and all the more imposing live, happy hardcore elements intermingled with Asiatic instrumentation with Reznor at the same time epicentral and impotent, equipped with nothing but a mic stand with which to grapple. He intermittently makes a tambourine rebound violently from his puffed chest, although he fails to grip as he’s so often done before. Of course each segues neat as most Sónar sets into the next, and it’s an audacious manoeuvre to play what are currently three relatively obscure ones in sequence when his numbers are already fairly negligible. “Everywhere now reminding me/ I am not who I used to be” he sings during a quietly prepossessing Came Back Haunted, having previously declared: “I don’t think I’ll be coming back.” Although a track concerning his return to the campaign trail, the song can now just as easily be applied to their performance, and with it this place.
The tide changes with the drive time industrial brutality of a punitive Sanctified, however, that witnesses a reversion to his more nihilistic norms, its reworking approaching animalistic levels of ferocity. With Robin Finck still on synths, it lacks its lagging chug and having newly recollected all of his prize minions, the guitarist’s talents tonight seem wasted. Though if their backstage production, subsequently reactionary setlist election and Reznor’s glum demeanour can send contradicting signals out to those here congregated, the show it must be said has otherwise been immaculately conceived. It may be one perhaps better suited to an enclosed setting, with Reznor seeming puny in spite of his hulking biceps when seen within the leaden billow of trademark dry ice that envelopes Find My Way, and it’s one which has been visualised with Hesitation Marks in mind. Nonetheless, that this last track lifted from it should be met with a sky amok with swaying arms only heightens the sheer oddity of it all.
“Fuck rock’n’roll, man” he then sneers in what seems a flimsily sheathed rebuke directed toward Pete Wentz’ altogether incapable brigade, and with thoughts of return and retribution unremitting, you can almost envisage a Celebrity Deathmatch redux in the offing. Who would win? Reznor when it comes to arrant brawn, but you could never discount the Overcast Kids and the obstinate clouds of discontent that linger above them at all times. Though whereas their idols do nothing to dampen the fervour reserved for them unswervingly, as Reznor snarls: “Lost my faith in everything” during a caustic Somewhat Damaged, you can’t help but feel that his impertinent revolt at what he perceives a subordinate billing may have that exact effect on his dedicated underlings. Has he inflicted a certain damage on his reputation? Quite reasonably, I’d reckon he might well have done, yes.
But if self-centred to the point of becoming self-obsessed, all auxiliary video footage centred on he and only he at nigh on all times, all five contemporary members of Nine Inch Nails continually pull in the one direction. They’re at their most beguiling once they’ve deigned to bust out the full-on rock show though, their bespoke retina-obliterating lighting shoving intense scrutiny on a truly devastating Terrible Lie, the song showered in electrifying torrents of white. It’s the exact sort of omni-sensorial onslaught we’ve come for, and with it come to expect of him, its high spec constitution and terse, militaristic rhythms thoroughly compelling. We then “step right up, march, push” on into a faith-restoring March of the Pigs that’s uncompromising as the pendulous swing of a butcher’s right arm, the set finally taking recognisably barbaric shape to a cacophony of porcine oinks. The syncopated claps of Survivalism give yet more reason to believe in his burgeoning resurgence, its penetrative polyrhythms shocking to the core. Burn seamlessly blends into Gave Up, which in turn morphs into a Wish infested with strobe and strife, with not one transition noted for even an iota of jarring discordance, despite the incongruous nature of each. And it’s thus only with time swiftly dwindling that NIN begin to ratchet proceedings upward towards the level expected of them.
Nobody hacks at their preparations night to night quite like Trent, and you certainly sense that this disemboweled selection is far from his best. Yet that said, they effortlessly better much of the weekend’s remainder, even in spite of there being no encore. Perhaps Reznor isn’t feeling Hurt for once? Yes, it’s a querulous setlist slashed up out of a highly perceptible spite, and he essentially torments the innocent bystanders to have stood by him so resolutely in doing so, many having made this pilgrimage in his honour alone. And although anger has of course long since befitted NIN, it’s more an impression of arrogance that translates most transparently this evening and for that, budding hesitation begins to spring anew.
Far removed from the conflictual political rhetoric of the previous two evenings’ American headliners, Phoenix bring proceedings in the NME/BBC Radio 1 Stage to a rather more sprightly close. There’s a lethal dearth of humanity once within the tent, and their seemingly all-pervasive summer presence renders the prospect slightly less special than it could otherwise have been, but they’re deserving of a little more respect than that which they get. The atmosphere’s dead as How to destroy angels_ or Serge Gainsbourg, though soon enough the euphoria the Versailles minstrels so gayly promote injects a nonpareil animation into the night. Opener Entertainment exudes a joie de vivre incomparable with Reznor’s pithy hissy fit of the previous hour, before Thomas Mars strings us along with a giddying Lasso and an ebullient Lisztomania, both of which prompt impressionistic reminiscences of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix – the crème de la crème of Gallic pop.
Innovative to this day and yet to get bettered, a pared back Countdown witnesses a capricious Mars serenade the front few from atop the barrier. As was the case at their equivalently intimate date in Shepherd’s Bush back in April, an alleged onstage malfunction prompts the rethink, during which he keens, his vocal addled with nostalgia: “Do you remember when 21 years was old?” With most now mashed up against the barricade still to hit that age, they likely do rather vividly as they gather within grabbing distance. Invisible to almost everyone else, Mars looks a little boy lost amidst the blinding allure of a hedonism that would doubtless never wash across la Manche. (Rock en Seine, where they headlined just last night, comes with preprogrammed camping places, lest we forget.) But both this and the ensuing Too Young enchant with refined guile. “Farewell, well, well, well, well, well, well ’til you know me well” he chimes ingenuously during Girlfriend, and given their identikit festival sets this season, it would be easy to argue we know them only too well, were it not for the inimitable, ever changing urbanity of their every rendition.
They’ve Trying To Be Cool from their latest, Bankrupt!, an album that by their standards was found gently destitute of innovation, though if unabashedly naff it simultaneously feels effortlessly chic, as does a Sunskrupt! mashup that’s epiphanic as per. Laced with invasive electro overtones, it this time sees Mars fall to earth where he hides a while to allow for the plush billows of becoming French musical perfumery to enter the bloodstream, and bring with them renewed sanguine aspirations for the new school year. You never cease to learn stuff at the Reading Festival, and this year’s edition was certainly no exception. Many a revelation was lost to the murky fug of memory left behind, though maybe the most apropos disclosure is that there remains oodles of enjoyment to be derived from the festival long beyond AQA-coordinated qualifications.