Live Review: The Human League @ Palais Theatre, Melbourne

11 March 2024 | 8:37 pm | Cyclone Wehner

"It's a bold call but The Human League must be the best live electronic band in music today."

The Human League

The Human League (Source: Supplied)

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It's a bold call but The Human League must be the best live electronic band in music today. Not even Kraftwerk rival their paradigm of pristine synthwave, glamorous allure and retro-futurist aesthetics. The Northern English innovators deliver a show.

The Sheffield synth-pop outfit – centred around founding member Philip Oakey, Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley – are in Australia for the first time since 2017. This tour (belatedly) marks the 40th anniversary of 1981's seminal third album DARE! – an LP with no skips, then or now. Auspiciously, soon after the announcement, extra dates were added because of "unprecedented demand".

For their sold-out Melbourne premiere on a sweltering night, The Human League are symbolically returning to the Palais Theatre – where they performed back in 1982. Then, as early adopters of computers and sequencers, The League's machine music was controversial in a domestic scene dominated by pub rockers.

The League's special guests nationally are Tycho Brahe – the Brisbane band, fronted by Ken Evans, formed in the '90s. Support acts either represent a curated contrast or be safely complementary – and Tycho Brahe are definitely the latter, the influence of The League's electro-goth Being Boiled and Kraftwerk, as well as Pseudo Echo, apparent. One member struts across the stage with a keytar.

However, Tycho Brahe, who describe themselves as "reclusive veterans", formed during the acid house epoch and carry squelchy rave elements. The three-piece perform a fresh single, Supernova, and finish with a cover of the Gloria Jones/Soft Cell standard Tainted Love.

Back in 2009 The Human League headlined Australia's last V Festival alongside The Killers and Tame Impala (with an electric side-gig at Billboard The Venue, now 160 Russell). The mystery is why, especially here, the band don't deservedly command more of an intergenerational fanbase – as they were so visible globally during the 2000s' electroclash boom, presenting the credible comeback Secrets. Notably, the disco-house queen Sophie Ellis-Bextor will be The League's special guest on an upcoming UK expedition. But, happily, at tonight's show a stray Swiftie is spotted – the tween hopefully enjoying what might have been Taylor Swift's sonic mood-board for 1989.

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The League's set is an elegant spectacle with a live ensemble, sleek stage design, high-definition video, graceful choreography and designer costumes – the trio still fashion icons.

The premise for the New Wavers' run is to perform DARE! in full plus other avant-pop hits – a concept refined in 2007 when they toured Europe for the album's 25th anniversary.

In their experimental '70s incarnation, The League were named The Future – and David Bowie subsequently hailed them "the future of pop music" in NME. And, somehow, their material hasn't dated – a credit to producers like Martin Rushent but also the band themselves.

Surprisingly, The League open with 1982's shimmering Mirror Man – an electro-pop homage to Motown on the stop-gap Fascination! EP issued post-DARE!.

Live, The League are joined by drummer Robert Barton and two accomplished keyboardists in Nick Banks and Benjamin Lee Smith – and, though they haven't obviously rearranged their classics, the songs do sound contemporary, the instrumentation allowed to breathe. (Keep Feeling) Fascination is punchier – and funkier. Heart Like A Wheel, off 1990's Romantic?, has the elevation of house music.

The League's most political song, The Lebanon – the lead single from Hysteria, 1984's underrated follow-up to DARE! – has a topical poignancy given the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. And, even without Jo Callis' original amplified guitar rips, The Lebanon retains its industrial energy. Another early highlight comes when, thanking fans for their loyalty, Sulley sings One Man In My Heart – a soulful ballad off 1995's Octopus that unusually saw her assume lead.

The League's first 'act' closes with the epic Human – a US chart-topper, from 1986's 'R&B' album Crash, produced in Minneapolis by Jam & Lewis, Janet Jackson's cohorts. Again, the arrangements are astute – with the lowkey Catherall performing spoken word and an atmospheric extended outro.

Seven songs in and The Human League launch into the DARE! era – which famously introduced Catherall and Sulley as part of The League V 2.0 – with the vaguely sardonic bop The Things That Dreams Are Made Of, Oakey serving a look in fluid yet flared trousers.

DARE!'s big singles inevitably shine – Open Your Heart playful with its Casio tones. The Sound Of The Crowd, the group's UK break-out, feels like a Steel City club anthem. But DARE!'s album cuts have never sounded as dynamic, some bearing an ultramodern funk and others betraying a heightened techno ominousness – such as Do Or Die, with a idiosyncratic keytar jam, or I Am The Law, carried by Oakey's sonorous baritone. The haunting Seconds, about the senselessness of John Lennon's assassination, is as affecting as ever.

Oakey is rejoined by Catherall and Sulley for the post-disco Love Action (I Believe In Love) and a celebratory version of his enduring duet (and trans-Atlantic #1) Don't You Want Me with Sulley – a pop opera due for a TikTok revival.

The Human League tend to keep to the same encore. This evening, Oakey rematerialises for the band's now cult 1978 debut Being Boiled, resembling a bohemian guru in a tunic and bathed in red light. Next, his co-vocalists accompany him for an euphoric rendition of the sentimental hit Together In Electric Dreams, originally recorded by Oakey solo with disco godfather Giorgio Moroder for the Electric Dreams soundtrack. And, for the first time, there's  guitar – courtesy of Banks.

Ever the Yorkshireman, Oakey is self-effacing about The League's stature in interviews – the band struggling with the vagaries of success amid the flux of the '90s music milieu and callous media cycles.

Yet the revelatory triumph of The Human League performing DARE! in its entirety demonstrates the potential for very different shows encompassing lost classics and deep cuts from their later albums (the band assembled an excellent anthology in 2016's A Very British Synthesizer Group) – albeit if audiences are ready. Indeed, The League rarely revisit Hysteria's Life On Your Own – a minimalist treasure. Romantic?, too, was cutting-edge, Oakey & Co intuiting broken beat on A Doorway. In the early '90s The League actually collaborated with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yellow Magic Orchestra.

While The Human League haven't released an album since 2011's modishly dancey Credo (on Wall Of Sound), they are at their peak as a live band five decades on – pop culture catching on to their timeless sophistication.