Gloucester Guildhall

If you thought Robbie Williams had infected every part of 1998, then prepare to be relieved. In a year in which British music has lowered its standards to such an extent that the Clown Prince Of Barrymore is now seen by many as a saviour, thank heavens there are still a few people prepared to cut themselves off and pretend that none of this is actually happening.

Witness are currently Wigan's second most famous band, but one you're going to take to your hearts in forthcoming months. Signed by Island a year ago, but only now on the verge of releasing their debut single - and even that, a limited seven-inch - Witness are a complete withdrawal from the brash and braying sounds of 1998, offering a brand of music so wrapped up in itself it can barely see daylight. Slow and strung-out, this is dark and confessional country rock that sucks deep from America (REM, both Buckleys, Codeine, even Galaxie 500), but resolutely retains its British identity.

The Wigan connection is important. Guitarist Ray Chan has been a friend of The Verve's Nick McCabe since art college, and it shows. Without his freewheeling, occasionally psychedelic, slide guitar, Witness would be just another band of American music enthusiasts, paying respects to a country they'll probably never see. As it is, Chan transforms their songs with a startling array of interstellar drones and half-heard steel guitar-noise, and if that makes you think of 'A Northern Soul'-era Verve, it's hardly a surprise. Only then, they do 'Scars', a sharp burst of wracked, shimmering discordance (and their next single), which could not be further away from their more illustrious peers.

It's not just Chan, though, who makes Witness special. Centre-stage, their singer Gerard Starkie stands stoned to kingdom come, looking for all the world like Gruff from the Super Furries, pouring his heart out with fervid intensity. Songs like 'Before The Calm' and 'Freezing Over Morning', with their funereal pace and desolate storytelling, are saved from being simple dirges by Starkie's forlorn and stretched vocals that arc over and above the music they're accompanying. After 25 minutes, they can't keep it going any more. A ragged, feedback-smeared version of current single 'Quarantine' abruptly shudders to a halt, and suddenly they're gone. The virtues of cutting yourself off from all that surrounds you still ringing through the venue.

James Oldham (NME)


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