Oxford: the doom inspires

REWIND MARCH

April’s in. March is out. What happened? The return of one of the slowest, heaviest bands in the land, that’s what: UNDERSMILE. And if you’ve ever been within a mile or eleven of their nightmare doomcrawl, you’ll know that’s no exaggeration – last year I stood within a few feet when they supported Beehoover and felt utterly punished by the set’s end. Not exactly pleasurable, yet weirdly compelling … if torpid glacier is a pace you’re partial to. Either way, it was pretty damned cool to see them nab Nightshift’s front cover in March, and it’s an all-round good read so check it out – the band are funny and friendly (everything the music is not), there’s a new word for our vocabulary and you’ll find some highly impressive, though not remotely big-headed, namedrops of Billy Anderson, Dylan Carlson and Mr 2.13.61 himself, Henry Rollins. Why the Big Interview status? Oh yeah: Undersmile have got a new album looming. It’s called Anhedonia.

But you’ll find no review here coz it’s not out til a bit later in April so, as a warm up, let’s turn to 2013’s Wood and Wire. I’ll admit that I haven’t squared up to the Narwhal debut, mostly because I’ve been too scared, but this split album is shaping up to be a proper entry point to the world of Undersmile. For starters, it’s not just them – it’s a split album with Coma Wall, who are … Undersmile? Yes. In disguise. As ACOUSTIC BALLADEERS, faaaaa’ckinnelll!!!

Except there’s no b*ll*dry on show here, I made that bit up. Coma Wall are acoustic though, and the three tracks here – each of them 6 minutes plus – have the same addictive downer harmonies that recall Alice in Chains’ Sap EP, yet the low cello drone and slow-pick banjo on the standout track You Are My Death (it WILL stick in your head) turns the vibe dial to Rustic Americana. Love it. No wonder Dylan Carlson’s been sniffing around.

The flip to Coma Wall’s melancholic drift is Undersmile’s amplified hit: bog-slow and Dopesmoker-huge, the inyerface clarity is well removed from the stoner end of doom, not just because of the recording itself (co-produced by no less than Justin Greaves) but also because Undersmile don’t do that blues-based Sabbath-rooted derivative riffing thing. They don’t chug, not here at least, and they definitely don’t swing or groove. Undersmile pound and lurch, dragging things down with those moaning dead-souls-in-harmony vocals. Sure it’s monotonous on first listen but with extra reps, you find the spaces and the range. The Slint-like unease (Killer Bob), the Neurosis tension (Hives). And it grows, absolutely. Undersmile are no easy ride but one thing’s for sure – they stand apart in this heaviest of rock divisions, and Wood and Wire’s split format could be your way in. Did the job for me.

Digital download of Wood and Wire available at Shaman Recordings, it’s well cheap

Undersmile interview with Oxford’s Nightshift is in the March issue, page 4 of the PDF. Album review on page 5.

Last bit …

6Music went underground on March 21 when John Doran, editor of online sprawl The Quietus, guested on Maconie’s Freakier Zone for a 30-minute special on SUBTERRANEAN WORLDS. Not all of it’s essential but if you’re poking abut the iPlayer it’s worth checking for these two reasons: Lustmord’s ambient industrial menace, and the Butthole Surfers dementedness. Because you don’t really get this stuff on air very often, do you?

And that’s that. ‘til next time!

Arbouretum: live@Port Mahon, Oxford, August 2013

Baltimore rockers Arbouretum follow their Green Man Festival date with a mini tour that takes in a mini venue: Oxford’s Port Mahon. Standing room only, surely.

 

Please, no encore. Don’t make this go on any longer. Make it stop.

And stop, they do. No encore. Arbouretum get it, and we can get out. RELIEF.

Which is not quite what we were expecting ahead of a gig that, let’s be honest, is a bloody exciting prospect. Listed on the posters as ‘the smallest gig of Arbouretum’s UK tour’, this has to be the rock event of the month bar none. Not even Eels and Nick Oliveri, who are both playing Oxford tonight (sadly not together), can top this one. My mate Si drove all the way over from Cardiff having seen Arbouretum 24 hours earlier in Bristol, declaring it one of the best gigs he’d ever been to. Cardiff-Bristol-Cardiff-Oxford-Cardiff in a day and a half is a pretty conclusive testimonial.

But back to tonight: history is written. Why?

HOTTEST GIG EVER.

Stupid-hot, it is. Pouring sweat and light-headed flakiness all round. The bassist does well to keep his eyes open and stay upright, and the only way to get through this high humidity hell-hole is not to move. At all.

More of this later though ‘coz before Arbouretum take the tiny stage, we have two local bands on the bill – Coma Wall and Listing Ships.

Coma Wall are the unplugged alter ego of the doom-laden Undersmile. They lay funereal Alice in Chains-esque harmonies (Sap/Jar of Flies) over sparse, almost-rustic acoustics and drag it all out at an Earth-paced crawl. A melancholic start for sure.

Listing Ships, by contrast, are all over the place. I mean that in a very precise, right-side-of-muso way – their instrumental math/post rock fusion is krautrock propulsive, bringing to mind Explosions in the Sky jamming on Battles or early-Foals. Or summat. Exhilarating stuff.

We wait for Arbouretum and feel the Ships-generated exhilaration slowly turn to perspiration. Equipment problems delay the headliner’s start and there’s a hint of agitation in the thickening air. Arbouretum look distracted, a bit tense. It’s getting hotter. Finally they start. They get it wrong, it’s a balls-up. They stop.

‘Well, we’ve never done that before,’ says frontman Dave Heumann. ‘You are witnessing a first.’

This error and frank admission somehow breaks the onstage tension and frees them, finally, to do what they came here to do – mesmerise us with their amplified Americana, fluid heaviness and out-there escapism. Arbouretum’s music belongs somewhere earthy and mystical, somewhere without boundaries. It rolls and surges. It’s unhurried but it still rocks. For some reason I start to imagine them playing in a bedouin tent.

But they’re not in a tent. They’re in an airless sweatbox which, by the time the set nears its end, is slowly forcing people out the door before the band call time on their set

Arbouretum still win though. They’re a class act, no doubt about it. We saw that, even if we were too beaten to fully reward it. Bristol next time?