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  • Jack Starr

Leftfield Review – Prog-House Pioneers Bring the Noise to Sheffield

In 1996, Leftfield were banned from the Brixton Academy for playing so loud that plaster and dust were shaken from the ceiling. Similar incidents in Belgium and the Netherlands cemented the progressive-house group as one of the most infamous live electronic music acts.

Does their music still pack the same punch today, twenty-seven years later? When we chatted with Leftfield mastermind Neil Barnes, he assured us that while they push their sound as far as they can go, they follow the rules in terms of sound levels to ensure nobody is getting hearing damage.

Nonetheless – Leftfield boast one of the most powerful soundsystems imaginable. Playing in the Sheffield O2 Academy, the earth shakes and rattles with every bassline, every beat pounding into your soul and shaking your insides. This is house music, as it is truly meant to be experienced – in a crowded hall with a beast of a soundsystem that pounds the air around you.

When the group first came onto the scene with the debut album Leftism in 1995, it was heralded as a rare example of dance music that could prove itself across an entire album; rather than as an assortment of simple dance tracks for DJs, it took you across a journey of sound. Much of that same energy is here today – Leftfield have truly gone above and beyond in making a real stage show for house music, rather than a glorified DJ set.

It is a tricky task to make ‘live’ electronic music work – of course, there will always be a pre-recorded element to it, but Barnes and his crew add live percussion (including Barnes himself beating a pair of congas), as well as synthesisers and live vocalists. MC Cheshire Cat and reggae legend Earl Sixteen took to the stage to give live vocals, enhancing the experience to another level.

Most of the material played was from the group’s latest album, This Is What We Do, giving an upbeat and uplifting set. Barnes wrote and recorded the album during his recovery from bowel cancer, and it shows that he wishes to bring a more positive and motivational sound. The tracks add elements of electro and techno to the mix, combined with some eerie and atmospheric synths.

Spliced into the setlist was ‘Afrika Shox’, Leftfield’s classic 1999 breakbeat hit, bringing the energy back up with the combination hit of nostalgia and high-BPM electro-goodness. The setlist hit the right combination of new highlights and throwback fan-favourites, ending on an encore of ‘Song of Life’ and ‘Phat Planet’, specially mixed for the set.

But by far one of the most impressive elements of Leftfield as a live-act is in the presentation. Lasers and neon lighting and dry ice bring the atmosphere alive, with digital screens dotted around to give a spectacular audio-visual show. The screens played imagery carefully synchronised with the music, both in-time and thematically – motifs such as mixing-boards and circuitry, human eyes relayed in fast-motion, and the shark mouth featured on the cover of Leftism, assorted with dazzling kaleidoscopic light displays.

Leftfield are an electronic music group that just work in every way – the music is dominating and never boring, and it’s a spectacle to watch, or even just dance to. There’s a good reason why they’re one of Britain’s most beloved and well-remembered electronic acts – even after so many years, they can still prove themselves.

The opening act was a DJ set by Posthuman, a duo who run the I Love Acid record label. Their set combined squelchy acid-house with classic ‘80s and ‘90s tracks that got big cheers from the crowd – highlights were 808 State’s ‘Pacific’, LFO’s ‘LFO’, and Inner City’s ‘Good Life’, all of which were big tracks in the UK’s classic electronic dance scene.

If you missed our exclusive interview with Leftfield’s Neil Barnes, you can read it HERE.

This Is What We Do is available now on Virgin Records. Leftism and Rhythm and Stealth, Leftfield’s first two classic albums, have been re-issued on vinyl for 2023 by Columbia Records, and are also available now.


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