Fiery punk attitude. Breakneck guitar thrills. REM? Royal Albert Hall, London (March 24)

REM ACCELERATE’ read the T-shirts, and as the lights go down, you can almost hear the revving from the wings. The implication hits like a dust-cloud in the mouth: alt.rock’s hardiest journeymen have awoken from nearly a decade of low-key, politicised semi-slumber, thrown on their young punkish collegiate leathers and sewt out to burn up the highway to hell on a fast, furious, flame-spewing death ride. Or at least to torch the nearest dead letter office, like the good old days. Mid-career crisis or a spectacular return to the form of their late ’80s underground heyday (before the Warner push made them instant alt.pop godheads with ‘Green’), REM’s 14th studio album, ‘Accelerate’, arrived taut, tight and touting a band rejuvenated in a frenzy of fuzz, fire and fuming indie oilsmoke.

So tonight’s ICA anniversary show finds the band at their most savage and spittlesome, competing for the noise-pop prize, pushing their punk country pedal to the molten rock metal. Well, almost. Diving out from the dark in black designer suits and thankfully bereft of campish Zorro face paint, Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck present themselves to this venerable venue and the noble listeners of Radio 2 as gentlemen punks, brimming with buttoned-down attitude. As new album opener ‘Living Well Is The Best Revenge’ ricochets from the dome, Stipe throws Clash poses and gobs onstage, at one with his inner Rotten. Like much of ‘Accelerate’, this could have backfired from the lo-fi exhausts of any REM album from ‘Murmur’ right through to ‘Document’, and as it splutters marvellously into the new album’s title track after a thrilling two minutes, we find ourselves back in deep ‘Ignoreland’ territory. The song ‘Accelerate’ is a dark, dusky REM rock-out that attacks you like one of those midwest American psychopaths cutting your oil leads in the woods unnervingly close to your well-armoured motel.

So they’re in great shape, rock-wise, and in good spirits too. “It’s such a great honour to finally play Wembley for the seventh night in a row,” Stipey says, teasing the home listeners, shuffling papers on a music stand as he promises tonight to be “loud”. And it is; just not as loud as it could have been. Sure, they showcase the roughest of ‘Accelerate’’s edges – ‘Man- Sized Wreath’ throbs and twitches its way through Beastie yelped verses of dischords and “WOW!”s; ‘Houston’ is a scorched country hymn of epic brevity; ‘Hollow Man’ a wonderfully poised 7.3 second piano ballad, bursting a razor-toothed alien punk chorus from its ribcage before morphing into ‘Nightswimming’. Throw these brattish newies in among the older ‘Finest Worksong’, ‘Orange Crush’, ‘What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?’, ‘The Wake-Up Bomb’ and ‘Radio Free Europe’, and you’d have the most adrenaline inducing, oxyacetylene-in-yer-face set REM are capable of: real acceleration. Alas, they take their foot off the gas and bottle the game of musical chicken to cruise through ‘Drive’, ‘Electrolite’ and ‘The Great Beyond’: magnificent examples of REM’s mid-paced majesty, but not the runaway steamroller of a show we ordered. ‘Around The Sun’’s protest folk centrepiece, ‘Final Straw’, barely raises the Albert Hall’s pulse and the spooky ‘Until The Day Is Done’ stalls the entire encore dead. Most frustrating, perhaps, is Stipe introducing the three-chord stomper ‘I’m Gonna DJ’ with “It’s the end of the world again!” before zombie walking and yelling “Death is pretty final!/I’m collecting vinyl!/I’m gonna DJ at the end of the WOOOOORLD!”, which just doesn’t quite pack the apocalyptic punch of that one about jellybeans and Breshnev.

Still, their sheer, stately panache and passion pull REM through. ‘Losing My Religion’ (during which Mills, possibly trying to spy on NME’s review notes, wanders into Block G) and ‘Man On The Moon’ get the crowd ‘dancing’ (in embarassing dad fashion; you can tell a band is past its credibility peak when the big hits elicit a response akin to a wedding reception or the last song at a Tory conference). New single ‘Supernatural Superserious’ boasts a classic rock riff cobbled from ELO’s ‘Do Ya’ or any number of hirsute ’70s hits, but with a fresh vigour that proves REM’s rebirth is no skin-deep plastering over the wrinkles. Tonight could have seen a cadaver of a once great band slipping back on to its rusting old hog in an attempt to prove they’ve still ‘got it’; instead, it reveals a band a bit creaky at the joints but with a youthful fire still burning brightly in its belly. Hit the gas boys; we might be left eating REM’s dust yet.

Mark Beaumont