GY!BE: live review

GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR
Warwick Arts Centre, Oct 22nd 2015

Louder, heavier, noisier, DRONIER … if those words go some way to describing how Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress compares to previous GY!BE records then those same words go all the way to describing Asunder live v Asunder studio: on stage, GY!BE 2015 are an electrified maelstrom.

At the start of the set, hope flickers. Literally. It’s the first word of the night but it’s unspoken, projected instead onto the film-shorts backdrop while the band file onstage one-by-one and take to their instruments – a violin two-bass two-drum three-guitar ensemble – to build that b.i.g. drone opener. This all happens without fanfare or salutations, like a choreographed rehearsal between long-term friends… if the crowd were absent, it would not matter.

Post HOPE, where do Godspeed take us? Far away from The Everyday Normal, that’s where. Asunder gets aired – Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!’ and Piss Crowns Are Trebled are both heavier and hairier than you dare imagine – as does the madfuck spiral that is Mladic. And while there are moments of calm and light, as you’d expect, those moments are Flee Ting and Power Less in the face of the night’s amplifier overload. Strands of Sunn O))), Metal Machine Trio and Earth all push through in the drones and the noise, and though it’s pretty tough going at times, the reward – typified by Piss Crowns’ stupendous fuck-off-and-cry climax – are those surging crescendos and brink-of-collapse payoffs that Godspeed make their own.

So yeah, it’s an experience more than a gig, and if you want fanboy precision about tracks played then this review ain’t the place. All I wanna do, as a Godspeed-live first-timer, is somehow convey the thrill of the show: it IS heavy, it IS noisy, it IS intense, and it IS vast – the orchestral enormity conjured by just eight people defies belief.

When the whole thing ends – band members departing one by one, instruments left and locked in feedback harmony – there’s much to reflect on, not least the massive, near-physical power of music (when it’s in the right hands) and the transient chatter that passes for much of our day-to-day. Sometimes you need a break from life to get yourself realigned. Two hours of Godspeed will do that.

Seismic rock, visceral beauty. Nothing less.

MOTHER CORONA live

OXFORD WHEATSHEAF, August 27, 2015

Funny how some gigs just feel like home. Last week, Steve Harris was at the O2 with British Lion – upstairs, no less – so when a metal legend is that close, you gotta go. MAIDEN: the Iron One. No wonder it was packed, and yet for all the musicianship and energy and sweat and conviction of the Lions, not to mention the bass-gun pointing from ‘arris (classic), their anthemic mid-tempo Maiden-lite didn’t really roar …. solid enough but kinda careful. Made me want to dig out some Maiden proper.

Tonight in the Wheatsheaf, though, is a different kettle of scaley ones. I know next to nowt about Morass of Molasses or Mother Corona EXCEPT for the promise of heavy stoner action from Reading and Didcot respectively, so I am completely in their hands – and they abso-fucking-lutely deliver.

Morass of Molasses: mid-tempo, bottom-heavy rifferama, lifted by spacious bluesy flow. GO SEE THIS BAND. They’ve got an EP out called So Flows Our Fate and the only downer is that it’s only four songs long (apols for buying CD not vinyl after the gig, Morass fellas. Mr Bones tried his best).

Mother Corona, another trio, rock a similar path except they do it with a drummer vocalist and – if my eyes ain’t doing porky lies – a bassist with five strings. Oh, and the World’s Biggest Mother Corona Fan is on stage at all times ‘coz no.1 fanboy seems to be their very own guitarist Lee, who can’t help showing his big big love for what songwriter Dave (drums/vox) pulls together:

“Dave writes the songs, it’s awesome, he’s … a prick!”

“I am,” agrees Dave.

Can’t possibly comment on a stranger’s prick-or-not status, but what we can comment on is Mother Corona’s stellar stoner-age grooves, as you might expect from a band who’ve been on the road with Orange Goblin. Nice bit of psyche shimmer on the guitar, clean Billy Corgan-ish vocals, faultless devotion to rocking out, this is infectious stuff. Vertigo Terror, Back to Hell and Reburn (I think) are among the Corona chewns getting the ‘sheaf going, while mid-set covers of Sabbath (Into the Void – natch – and Sabotage mother lode Hole in the Sky) stoke things further and a closing I Wanna Be Your Dog are pretty perfectly pitched in my book. GO SEE THIS BAND.

Like I said, some gigs feel like home. Best of the year so far pour moi.

UNDERSMILE live

The Wheatsheaf, Oxford, May 9 2015

Is this going to be Undersmile‘s big year? Already they’ve done the Roadburn Festival in the Netherlands, and new record Anhedonia has gone top of the Terrorizer charts by bagging its Album of the Month accolade in the current issue. This, surely, is Big News, and with rumours flying that tonight may well be their only Oxford gig of 2015, there’s a feelgood homecoming buzz about the Wheatsheaf. Lotta smiles, lotta chatter.

But before Witney’s super-strength export close this Buried in Smoke event, we’ve got a support set from Essex troupe Earthmass – and with a name like that you just gotta deliver, right? But before we can find out, singer/guitarist Chris Houghton makes for the mic for a quick word.

I know you metallers are a sentimental lot so I just wanted to say that … well, my nan died yesterday.”

Oh … bummer. ‘sheaf crowd twitches. Not sure what to do with this information.

“So this is for her. She never actually heard us play, which is probably for the best. It would have fucking killed her.”

And once first track Awake/Crisis cruises from sparse intro to bruised-up pounding, you know he’s right coz Earthmass do spacious post-metal the Isis way: clean bits, raging bits, gut-growling downtuned crunch, mebbe even a scrape of Tool’s discordant prog spook. Very nice, Earthmass chaps. Very nice indeed. Looking forward to giving that Collapse CD some heavy rotation.

But if mid-tempo riffage is just TOO DAMNED FAST for your slothmetal tastes, and instrumental breaks just TOO DAMNED CHEERFUL for your subterranean nightmare vision then you can always always always turn to

u   n   d   e   r   s   m   i   l   e .

Yeah. The pace stops here and when they step up, they say nothing. Not. A. Word. All those pre-gig smiles and chit-chat are long gone when Hel and Taz, white dresses catching spectral light, take centre stage side by side and the band prepare to unfurl Sky Burial: haunting, drowning, none heavier. Probably. Atacama Sunburn, possibly tonight’s peak ‘mare centrepiece, showcases the extremes of their expanding sound as delicate post-rock quiet makes way for scream-in horror harmonies from the depths of the grim. Fearsomely intense, Undersmile utterly inhabits its own world, locked in while we look on like cult metal Stockholm Syndrome captives. As one punter puts it on the way out, ‘There’s no-one like ’em. They’re in a field of one.’

Second that. An acquired taste yes, but no-one  and that means, no-one  does doom quite like Undersmile.

Anhedonia by Undersmile and Collision by Earthmass, out now.

More Oxford gigs and stuff at Buried in Smoke

PULLED APART BY HORSES: live, Art Bar Oxford, April 2014

Short, fast, sweaty and screamy. Four words that could mean anything (keep it to yourselves though, eh?) but here, in Oxford’s Art Bar, they mean only one thing – Pulled Apart By Horses are on stage and they’re scorchin’ it.

‘Was that you? Did you just catch him? Good one. That’s the only reason we do this, you know … to watch you lot. I mean, we really like playing but we love watching you lot.’

So sez guitarist James Brown after yet another bit of spectacular/drunken moshgymnastics takes the band’s pre-tour pledge ‘to get sweaty with you guys’ to new levels of body-slammin’ bonhomie. That’s what Pulled Apart By Horses do, see. Stoke the heat with their punk-edged multi-riff attack, flick a match and set the whole thing off. By the time V.E.N.O.M. sears the room three tracks in, it’s game over: PABH have won the night, somehow making everyone feel like they’re mates with the band. How? Is it the grounded banter? Or the jagged anthems and ferocious pace? Or the fact that the band are enjoying this every bit as much as we are, inviting the Art Bar mob to hang out and do some drinking after the gig?

It’s all of that. Pulled Apart By Horses sound viciously sharp on record but even then, you sense they can rip it up EVEN MORE when they nab a stage and have a few bodies to bounce off, and tonight proves it – they’re one of those bands you’ve just got to go and see live, simple as that. High Five, Swan Dive, Nose Dive is nuts, and when I Wanna Be Your Dog gets the Horses makeover ahead of a crowd-surfing ceiling-hanging finale from singer Tom Hudson, you can’t help thinking that Iggy himself would give ‘em the nod.

Riotous good fun and – most definitely – a real cool time.      

OLD MAN GLOOM – live@the Scala, London, April 2014

In some ways, there’s not much to say about Old Man Gloom tonight.

They’ve put out some stupendous albums – especially Seminar II (here’s a review I put on Head Heritage a few years back), Seminar III: Zozobra and Christmas – and their pedigree is first class so what can you demand of a rare-as-feck appearance in Blighty beyond, well, just showing up?

Nothing more than volume, reverberation and gut-blowing intensity – and that’s exactly what we get. OMG hit it for an hour at the Scala and they hit it HARD, starting with the opener of all openers – The Gift’s multi-part slow-build – and blasting through new and back-catalogue extractions like Branch Breaker, Regain/Rejoin, Sleeping with Snakes and Common Species. Aaron Turner, wildman unkempt, is animated far beyond the close-cropped intensity of Isis and maybe that’s because OMG trade in the primal and the primordial rather than the celestial. OMG are a seismic force.

Then the biggie. Zozobra is fired up 20 minutes from showtime’s end … Zozobra. Yes. NO WAY. No bloody way.  Seminar III: Zozobra is exalted ground, the mother of all OMG, and hearing those opening strands on this already-special UK outing is an omg OMG moment in itself.

It takes its time, we know this. Intro becomes build becomes pummel becomes squall becomes … a different track.

Whaaaaaaat?????? NO. WAY. The climactic guitar payoff, the extended post-fury euphoria, the colossal big ender, is choked off pre gush. Shit.  It’s a momentary downer in an otherwise triumphant bruiser of a set.

Now, a quick word about the supports: Bossk surge and swell with hypnotic Cult of Luna dynamics, and Finland’s Circle … well, I’ve no idea what they are on. What do you do with a band who sport dayglo gym shirts and ham up the rock theatrics with heroic metal poses, guitars held aloft and onstage duels? Circle look like Spinal Tap doing an Olivia Newton-John video.

Musically … again, no idea. Speed. Top-of-the-range metal vocals. Progressive musical chops and song structures. Catchy hooks and riffs. If Helloween grew up on post black metal as well as the trad power of Maiden, and chewed on the brains of Yes, Zappa and Devin Townsend, then … I dunno. After a short interlude they emerge sans fitness togs but each now clad in the cheapest, lowest-budget metal threads, like an 8 year olds’ primary school of rock – a single studded armband, a ripped T-shirt, a pair of black leather kecks bursting under a hefty belly  – and continue their avant metal. THAT’S entertainment.

 

 

 

BEEHOOVER – live@Wheatsheaf, March 25 2014

‘We’ve got a new one for you … but mostly it’s the same old shit’.

That’s how Caravan of Whores introduce themselves on tonight’s Buried in Smoke event, but when it’s high grade no-messing-about shit dealt primarily from the Road to Kurti stash, there’s nowt to grumble about. New track Blackout (I think) fits the Caravan MO pretty damned well. Spacey bits are spacier, heavy bits are more chargin’ and apart from drummer Jamie losing a stick halfway through Your God is Dead, it’s a job well done.

Rising locals Undersmile are in no danger of such stick-losing accidents. That would be like driving a milk float up Shotover Hill and getting done for speeding – it just ain’t gonna happen. No, their mournful harmonies and so very very loud-and-slow anti-groove is a nightmare soundtrack pulled from the Khanate school of doom. It is relentless. Brief relief comes when they wind it up – yes, UP – to a mid-tempo hurtle past the finish line after some Godflesh-inspired menace.

Following Undersmile’s punishing slo-mo we get a total contrast: Beehoover. Shoeless, sockless drum-and-bass action from Germany and these guys don’t hold back. At no point does this sound like just two people. No way.

With bass amplified and no guitar to get in the way, you get echoes of that thick warm Kyuss woomph but it’s not fat, woozy or dusty … it’s superlean and shifting fast. No nod-outs or loose jams here. Ingmar Petersen plays bass like rhythm AND lead, with a progger’s itinerary of riffs, patterns and shifts. And the drums? Same full-on deal. Claus-Peter Hamisch seems to switch every time Petersen does, a joint lead attack that’s totally locked in. They play hard and give it everything, and the only band that really comes to mind with this kind of sound and set up is latter-day Melvins rhythm-meisters Coady Willis and Jared Warren, aka Big Business.

How Beehoover come across on CD I’ve yet to find – 2013 album The Devil and His Footmen didn’t arrive in time for the gig – but live, they’re tonnes fuller and more propulsive than on Exile on Mainstream’s Worship the Riff label sampler a few years back.

The one downside to this great line-up tonight is the attendance. Only partially filled at best, even that meagre crowd thins once Undersmile exit, and it’s criminal that bands as strong as this – and especially Beehoover – weren’t seen by a few more rock-loving bods.

 

 

 

 

 

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?

Karma to Burn – live@Bullingdon Arms, Oxford, July 2013

No-frills power-trio Karma to Burn bring guitar-bass-drums fury to the Bullingdon. Or do they?

As we know, Karma to Burn are all about the expected. End-to-end riffs, no vocals, no experimentation, no frills. They do not deviate, they do not change: certainty is their currency and you pretty much know what’s coming up – an hour or so of shit-kicking, dust-and-gasoline guitar hooks ground out by three grizzled road-dogs bonded by a volatile history of bad drugs, bad attitudes and band break-ups. Seeing the reunited Will Mecum-Rob Oswald-Rich Mullins line-up nail the Audioscope headline slot a couple of years ago was a proper treat, and now they’re back to give us more.

But before West Virginia headlines, Oxford must support. That honour falls to local heroes Desert Storm who charge the Bully with infectious, Clutch-inspired rhythm ‘n groove and supreme confidence. Immense.

Karma to Burn take to the stage almost without anyone noticing. And as the first notes crunch forth tonight, something’s not quite right.

Who’s the drummer?

And where is the bassist?

First question first. By not following Karma’s personnel moves last year, I missed the fact that drummer Rob Oswald left not just the band but music itself, sick of the lies and compromises at the business end of the music business. He got out.

As for the bass space … it remains a void. Rich Mullins never shows. Nothing is mentioned.

So for a band who trade in certainties and absolutes, this is an unsettling start. Does Will Mecum (guitar) plus a drummer (Evan Devine) count as a Karma to Burn experience?

Sonically, yes. As soon as those amps push Mecum’s Karma-sized riffs out, the doubts diminish and grins emerge. This music isn’t sophisticated, it’s as stripped down as you can get – there aren’t even any solos – and yet, live and loud in a small venue, it unleashes a very primal urge to just ROCK OUT. The Bullingdon back room does exactly that, whirling into a mosh as the wordless tracks blast past. Job done. And with job done, Mecum and Devine swiftly depart.

Whether this two-piece format is Karma to Burn’s future is something we don’t know yet. Losing Oswald’s unkempt wildman intensity is one thing but if Mullins’s genial cool is AWOL too … that’s a hefty personality deficit for a band who are pretty minimal to begin with. Tonight they pull it off – I think. Let’s see what happens.

Naam: live@the Wheatsheaf, Oxford, June 2013

Rock action beckons when Naam take the Wheatsheaf. Beards optional.

 

 

 

 

You check the gig listings.

You see the phrases HEAVY PSYCHEDELIA and DRONE CORE BEHEMOTHS next to a band’s name in a preview.

You don’t know the band.

But this sounds promising.

No, this sounds unmissable – colossal drone AND transcendence? In the same night? At the Wheatsheaf?

No-brainer. Naam are a band I’d never heard of but there’s no way I was missing that.

Didn’t manage to see the first support band but the second support, Oxfordshire three-piece Caravan of Whores, made an immediate impact. Again, not a band I knew. The singer looked familiar. But that’s because I’d seen him unloading a van of gear (musical) on the High Street a few hours earlier.

Onstage, it’s muscular mid-tempo riffs they unload, riffs that reference 90s stoner yet are anchored by downer roots – less blues, more blackened. A few escapist psyche-jam flourishes and tasty time changes show that the Whores have the chops to shift their doom-riff devotion into something more textured.

And so to Naam, four unassuming fellas from Brooklyn signed to Tee Pee Records, the label that put out Sleep’s restored Dopesmoker record a decade ago.

Not for them the monolithic bludgeon of Matt Pike’s crew, though. No, these guys are a less singular musical proposition than that, preferring instead to embark on lengthy light-dark excursions that embrace Pink Floyd’s expansive moods but add a little heft.

With the odd nod towards post-Sleep mantra gods Om, as on Skyscraper, and an ever-present keyboard swirl, Naam craft some seriously free-flowing currents to carry you off and away. Tracks like Vow and Beyond bring the band’s tougher edge and Hawkwind pulse to the fore, while elsewhere they flit with ease between tempos, moods, density and space. Ebbing heavy prog with a psychedelic wash: that’s what fills the Wheatsheaf tonight.

Which makes the pre-gig drone core tag a bit …  off. SunnO))) and Ufomammut they ain’t.

But classic spacerock trippers they definitely are. If Black Mountain at their Bright Lights heaviest or Crippled Black Phoenix at their most Floydian make it onto your playlist, Naam are well worth checking. Keep your eye on ‘em.