For the first time since a memorable 2004 performance at the Brewhouse, underground U.K. band New Model Army is finally returning to Pittsburgh, armed with its galvanizing combination of post-punk, proto-goth, British folk and lyrical gravitas. Originally scheduled to play here in September, the group was denied U.S. visas at the last moment.
"Maybe they didn't like the name of the band," says vocalist Justin Sullivan wryly. He sees the increasing difficulty of entering the U.S. as indicative of a bureaucracy of "Nazi-like proportions."
"The whole of Western civilization -- especially Britain and American -- seem to be obsessed with ass-covering," Sullivan adds. And that's exactly the sort of small-mindedness in the face of the larger spiritual picture that Sullivan has lashed out against in song after song since New Model Army formed in 1980.
After recording several records on EMI, including 1989's compelling Thunder and Consolation, the band started its own label in the mid-1990s, preferring to run its own show on a smaller scale. "We're the sort of band that people don't discover en masse," Sullivan notes. "They discover in ones and twos." The current five-piece lineup also includes Michael Dean on drums, Marshall Gill on guitar, Dean White on keys, and the uni-named Nelson on bass.
Sullivan describes the band's 2007 recording, High, as "quite an angry album." While sounding similar to Nick Cave at times, Sullivan's oeuvre lacks Cave's old-timey biblical fire and brimstone. His is a voice in a more contemporary wilderness, whether he's beckoning the end of civilization ("All Consuming Fire"), railing against the military-industrial complex ("Bloodsports") or against mortality ("Nothing Dies Easy"). "One of the Chosen" deals with religious fundamentalism in a surprisingly empathetic way. Raised in a Quaker family, Sullivan says he used to "religion-hop" as a teen-ager. "I remember what it feels like to have that sense of certainty," he says. "It's a wonderful feeling, however erroneous it may be."
Just don't look for New Model Army to sacrifice its music on the altar of a consistent political philosophy. "Songs are not about philosophy; songs are about emotions, and emotions are contradictory," Sullivan says. "You have artists who ultimately sing about hope and human dignity, and that's what their concern is. [...] And then you have other artists that are sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, smash everything up. And I think we sort of veer wildly from one to another, because that's how people's emotions are.
"Sometimes you think, ‘You know, things will be alright, people are basically OK, love will conquer all.' And sometimes you think, ‘Give me the button now, I'll press it.' Yeah? Yeah."
New Model Army with American Armada and Didi Mau. 9 p.m. Sat., March 22. 31st Street Pub, 3101 Penn Ave., Strip District. $10 ($12 at the door). 21 and over. 412-391-8334 or www.31stpub.com