Bennett Centre February 2023

Sweet Machine have been wowing audiences with their unique take on synth pop for 30 years and their enduring appeal was easy to understand if you were lucky enough to be in the especially invited set at the Bennet Centre in Frome.

The atmospheric vaults were awash with a kaleidoscope swirl of colour of lights and smoke as the band appeared. and took command of the stage as the first insistent rhythms upped the tempo. Tim Clayton is not only lyricist, but the quintessential front man, sweeping on in a cream coat he immediately took command of the stage and the audience, even as the first insistent rhythms were delivered. What followed was a glorious celebration of the band’s latest album Shimmer.

For the next 40 minutes, we were treated to pure and simple electro pop pleasure. Throughout the eight tracks, Richard Churchyard’s imaginative and hypnotic melodies and arrangements, kept the dance floor hot! Echoes of his influences, including Depeche Mode, The Pet Shop boys and Blancmange were there for those with a keen sense of musical history to hear, but the melodies always felt original and fresh, and in no doubt supported by the sharp and insightful lyrics of Tim.

Since I last saw the band, they have added a backing vocalist: Rachel Poa. She has a fine and pure tone that she effortlessly harmonises with Tim’s powerful vocals. The tracks that she sings on, most definitely have an extra tonal quality that elevates them to a different level that the audience clearly relished, BRASILIA being a particular highlight.

Other highlights from the album, included the title track SHIMMER, which had a glittering refrain, underpinned by a driving bass line, courtesy of Rob Petherick. GLASS and STEEL, had Tim urging an enthusiastic crowd to join in with his choreography, while UNDERWORLD took a darker tone that was perfectly in keeping with the subterranean venue. The climax to the first set, was FIREFLIES, which saw Tim and Rachel lifting the tempo into a perfect finale.

The second half was a carefully curated mix of tracks from the band’s back catalogue and some taken directly from the rehearsal room. It kicked off with RUN AND HIDE, which immediately plugged the audience back into a dance groove, driven by the insistent drum machine beats that lie at the heart of everything that SWEET MACHINE’S music stands for and unapologetically delivers. 

SILVER was altogether sparser, with a fascinating and unexpected halting rhythmical back beat that somehow worked with the flowing melody. In many ways, this track showcases how the band capture the essence of synth pop and create new themes and tones that take the oeuvre into new and exciting places.

The two new songs included DIVINE INTERVENTION, which surely owes a nod of gratitude to early Frankie Goes to Hollywood. It has a dark primal theme and a swooping vocal performance from Tim, who was by now be-splendid in a long dark coat, with top hat and an elegant cane with which he conducted the enthusiastic audience as they were swept along with the musical drama. 

1979 was pure disco nostalgia, but this glorious dance floor filler was topped by a fantastic interpretation of OUR LIPS ARE SEALED. It would be asking a lot to top the original by the GO-GO’s, or the iconic version by the Fun Boy Three, but Sweet Machine certainly gave them both a run for their money. Rachel and Tim’s harmonies blende with the inventive electro interpretation of the song in a way that made for a captivating performance. I can’t wait to hear some more sonic surprises like this one, in future performances.

The evening ended in a flurry of swirling keyboards, driving beats and a master class in crowd pleasing rhythms that had everyone on the dance floor. All too soon the evening’s entertainment was complete and a very happy and foot weary audience were heading for home, no doubt looking forward to the next SWEET Machine gig, which will hopefully be sooner, rather than later.

Gary Holloway
Play writer and Producer
Frome March 2023