My July, as you may have already seen from my review, is always dominated by Tech Fest. For the last six consecutive summers, I’ve enjoyed a highly concentrated weekend of general merriment, sub drops, breakdowns and attempting to headbang in 7/4. Which is super. In addition to the main event, especially as international bands playing at the festival like to try and make the trip across the Channel more worth their while, there will invariably be numerous tours snaking around the country in the lead up to, and aftermath of, the weekend itself. With these tours all largely happening around the same time in broadly the same cities, one thing is inevitable: clashes.
It could be said that London’s live music scene is just a bit too awesome for it’s own good. With so many venues available, with sizes ranging from shoeboxes to aircraft hangars, it’s inevitable that on a regular basis, there are two (sometimes even three or four) shows I’d happily attend booked on the same night. I think the record is six. Which is awkward. Don’t worry, I fully realise that this is the firstiest of first world problems. My dilemma of having to choose what to go and see absolutely pales in comparison to those of you living far away from the well-trodden tour routes and facing hours of driving to see anyone play at all. Don’t cry for me, I’ll make it through somehow. There have even been a few times where I’ve gone to one show to watch the opening band(s), then legged it over to a second venue to catch the headliners. Most recently, for example, I went to Scala in Kings Cross to watch Coilguns return to the stage after a lengthy hiatus, then hopped on a tube to Camden and caught Ho99o9 headlining at the Electric Ballroom.
Anyway, a lot of the time, those types of capers simply aren’t feasible, so decisions have to be made. Sometimes hard decisions. This month’s column is going to feature reviews of Voyager and The Hirsch Effekt. But it could just as equally have featured Nexilva and The Voynich Code, as they were, for me, the roads not travelled on those particular evenings. In an alternate universe, maybe I went to see the other shows instead. Sorry if you’d rather be reading about those shows, but I hope you can take some solace from the fact that in that universe, the alternate you is delighted right now. I’m sure that were it to be scientifically analysed, my decision making process would appear flighty and capricious, but generally I will opt to either see the band who comes to town less frequently, or the bill that delivers the most bang for my buck.
Gig of the Month – The Hirsch Effekt & The Guts @ The Black Heart
As much as Tech Fest dominates my diary, this year I actually left the festival a little earlier than normal, arriving home late on Sunday night rather than Monday afternoon. The reason for that sacrifice was the opportunity to watch The Hirsch Effekt play in The Black Heart, my favourite small venue in the city. When Hirsch first came over to play at Tech Fest in 2016, they stopped in at The Unicorn (literally a pub with a stage in one corner) and played the best show I’ve ever seen in that space. I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to see them play material from latest album Eskapist in a small venue setting, even after watching them cover every square inch of the Tech Fest stage only the day before.
The opening act is Brighton quintet The Guts. Featuring a keyboard player and two singer/guitarists with significant pedalboards, fitting onto the compact Black Heart stage would be a struggle. However, with advance ticket sakes being less than stellar, the band overcome the issue by claiming the first third of the floor space as being part of the stage.
It’s a good thing, too, as The Guts throw themselves into their performance as if they were playing to a packed out room of adoring fans, rather than a couple of handfuls of curious early birds. That, as they say, is the spirit.
Both guitarists are literally bouncing off the walls, and the keyboard player roams the venue whenever his fingers are not required on the keys. All three of them have mics, and the amount of movement is such that each of them uses all three over the course of the set. If I had to sum up their sound in just two words, it would be ‘Rolo Godzilla’, as they take the jagged and mathy contortions of Rolo Tomassi, and deliver them with the seemingly limitless energy of the old Baby Godzilla/Heck performances. It’s a tremendous amount of fun, and I’m immediately smitten. I’m definitely going to be keeping an eye on these guys.
For reasons that are never made explicitly clear, The Hirsch Effekt’s arrival on stage is heralded by Simon & Garfunkel‘s “Bridge Over Troubled Water’. Emerging from the side room and singing along with its final moments, the trio are cued by their in-ears and launch seamlessly into “LIFNEJ”, the barnstorming opener to Eskapist.
Oh. My. God.
“LIFNEJ” compresses The Hirsch Effekt’s entire sprawling proposition into just six minutes: mathcore head-fuckery, anthemic choruses, towering dynamics, bellowing in German, action, adventure and beauty. Phew. As I’ve already said elsewhere, for me The Hirsch Effekt are just about the only band coming close to filling the huge hole left by the demise of The Dillinger Escape Plan. And that’s some big talk, right there. “Agnosie”, the title track of the bands third album, follows hot on its heels. The relatively spartan crowd gives me the opportunity to stand right in the front row and fully drink in the spectacle.
The Hirsch Effekt are clearly accustomed to playing rather larger venues than this back in their native Germany. The laptop carrying the backing and click tracks also powers an array of additional lighting, including illuminations built into the cabs and kick drum. They position a riser in the centre of the stage with a footswitch that triggers a plume of smoke, that both guitarist Nils and bassist Ilja hop on and off throughout the set – we got the full effect of this neat extra touch at Tech Fest, but the smoke machine is switched off in the tighter confines of The Black Heart.
The set they play, too, is functionally identical to the Tech Fest set. Unsurprisingly weighted towards the Eskapist material, they nevertheless reach back and pluck choice selections from their previous three albums as well. The set is excellently structured, so the moments of chaos don’t become overwhelming and the moments of calm don’t destroy the momentum. Nils and Ilja are a blur of motion, and the shared vocal duties mean they neither of them are permanently tethered to a microphone. Nils has also taken a leaf out of the Dillinger playbook, placing his amp head behind the cab rather than on top of it, giving him an extra flat surface to play with.
I am utterly transixed. The constantly evolving tracks, and the conviction and professionalism with which they are performed make this not just the best show of the month, but in all probability the best of the year so far. The professionalism is underscored at the point The Hirsch Effekt insert the standard break to allow for an encore call. Ilja reappears slightly sheepishly to apologetically explain that Nils had been taken ill, had forced himself through the final minutes of the main set, and now had all but collapsed backstage. So there would be no encore. That none of us watching even got a hint that he was unwell shows just how committed they are to their cause, even if it was a sadly abrupt end to a genuinely phenomenal evening.
Best of the Rest – Voyager, Sumer & Temple on Mars @ The Borderline
Having travelled over from Perth, Australia to kick off a summer of international touring, Voyager plug the gap between Rambling Man Festival and Tech Fest with a couple of headline shows. The London date is held at The Borderline, a keystone in London’s musical heritage. The venue was significantly refurbished and rearranged last year, and its still just a little disorienting – especially the corridor to the toilets.
Tonight show works as a kind of showcase, as all three bands are part of the Incendia Music management roster. I walk down the stairs just as Temples on Mars start their intro tape rolling to kick off proceedings. Having been through some line-up changes, as well as a full band-name change, in the fairly recent past they are in rude health, giving us a professional set of material drawn from their eponymous album, released earlier this year, the tracks sound pleasingly full and chunky.
Up next are Sumer, and for the sake of full disclosure I should mention that tonight’s set is the twentieth time I’ve seen them since taking a punt with their album release show in 2014. This demonsteates just how very keen I am on their atmospheric, triple-guitar prog-metal, and also how hard they have been hitting the circuit. The work involved in the latter is rewarded tonight with a particularly warm reception and a noticeable number of Sumer shirts in the crowd, who are in turn repaid with some long-awaited new material. However, this month is a busy month, and I know I will be seeing Sumer again in early August, with South Africa’s Deity’s Muse, so I will save talking about them for next time.
Voyager have existed in some form or other for very nearly twenty years. Vocalist Danny Estrin may be the sole original member, but the current line-up have been playing together for long enough to have become a fearsomely well-oiled gigging machine. Bounding onto the stage to a pumping intro tape, they are either obviously delighted that it is showtime, or Oscar-worthy actors. Indeed, with big grins, bigger gurns and an impressively varied collection of playful stage moves, there really aren’t many bands at all who look like they’re having quite as much fun as Voyager have when they’re performing. Both in their songwriting and their stagecraft, they balance clever-clever technicality with uncomplicated party vibes in a manner few bands can ever manage.
This juxtaposition is probably best illustrated by their set including an opportunity for each member to individually shine with a short solo break, and also a cheeky interlude based on 90s dance club banger “Sandstorm”, itself featuring a truly inspired drop into a half-time feel that prompts a practically Pavlovian headbanging response. Naturally, the Ghost Mile material features heavily in the running order, alongside long-standing staples like “Hyperventilating” and “Meaning of I”, and the real high-point of the set is Ghost Mile opener “Ascension”, particularly the dynamic build, and hugely satisfying stop-start outro riff.
Whilst The Hirsch Effekt ultimately benefit from being squeezed into a club, the Voyager set at Tech Fest simply expands to fill the available space. With more stage to run and spin around, the band are even more energetic, and the songs work with, rather than against, the resonant acoustics of the sheds. Even taking the time, as responsible Aussies more used to the sunshine than us Brits, to gently lecture a pink and sweaty crowd about the importance of sunscreen.
As I said as a kind of teaser last month, Voyager deliver one of the most complete performances I’ve ever seen grace a Tech Fest stage. Their set is expertly paced, packed with both poppy earworms and casually deployed virtuosity, and performed with a genuinely infectious enthusiasm. It’s just a shame that they have to come so far, because I’d happily watch them play far more regularly than every couple of years.
Rest of the Rest
Dance-metal fusion herberts Seething Akira brought their Sleepy Skeletor (album review link) album release tour to The Unicorn and pushed the energy levels to a virtually indecent point for a school night. I’ve been watching them at every available opportunity over the last five years, and it’s really great to see things finally coming together for them and their infectious tunes.
Palm Reader have barely sat still long enough to eat a cupcake since the release of latest album Braille, and having just completed a run with The Contortionist, they’re back in the van for a headline tour. The show is opened by Cove, whose newer material is showing considerable promise. Haggard Cat, the half of the much-missed Heck who are also seemingly allergic to staying home, are main support – and whilst their shows may not scale the same demented heights as Heck, their no-nonsense, feel-good hard rock is always a joy to watch. Sadly, it seemed as though fully 50% of the (ultimately) capacity crowd only turned up after Haggard Cat’s set. So despite having plenty of room to watch them, when I return after a smoke break for the main event, the venue is absolutely rammed solid. So, for the second time, I’ve watched them from the back of a crowd whilst they perform in silhouette. So I have no idea what they actually look like. Even so, I had “Internal Winter” stuck in my head for a full two days afterwards, so they’re definitely doing something right.
Employed To Serve gave me a second reason to visit The Borderline, as they played a complete run through their truly devastating second album, The Warmth of a Dying Sun. Fortunately, the venue is set up in such a way that I could stand relatively close, but still be shielded from the worst excesses of a particularly vigorous pit. Vocalist Justine (maybe rather bravely) indulged in a face-first stage dive, and the rowdy, riffy set culmimated in such a successful stage invasion that guitarist Johnny ran out of room, and ended the song playing on the floor directly in front of me. With their third album already in the can, I expect to be seeing them again in the not too distant future.
August is usually a relatively quiet month in the gig calendar, but this year it’s looking busier than normal. I mentioned the Plini show last month, but since then The Man Himself has announced that he will be joined onstage by pianist Luke Martin, who collaborated on the original Trilogy EPs, and John Waugh, saxophonist for The 1975. John hopped up last time Plini was in town for a tune and a jam, so that’s sure to be very special. And two days afterwards, we get our hair set on fire by Frontierer and Conjurer. Lordy. On top of that, I have (close to) the original Fishbone line-up playing through the seminal Truth & Soul album (and I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am about that), Nova Twins busting out some satisfyingly fat basslines and God Mother probably destroying a small venue completely, among others. Fun times. And, if this utterly bewildering heatwave doesn’t break, sweaty times.
Oh yes, and somewhere during the month, I’ll be watching my 150th set of the year so far. Neat.
I’m just going to close out this month’s edition with a bit of a confession. Despite the naming convention of this final section, I would be happy to see an end to the practice of the encore. In particular, the common hey-we’ve-walked-off-stage-without-playing-our-biggest-song variant. To me, it just feels like a gratuitous waste of time.
I will always have more respect for a band who puts together a well-constructed set, plays it and says “that’s your lot, good night”, rather than one that inserts a rather trite call for validation before the final song, as if paying for a ticket, probably buying a shirt or a CD and then watching them play for an hour or so isn’t enough of an indication that the people they’re expecting to shout and stomp for one more song might be fans of the band.
Of course, that kind of validation isn’t all that easy to come by, and I don’t completely blame bands for perpetuating the ritual and getting a nice warm fuzzy feeling out of it. And I’m not about to start marching out of the room the moment the band leave the stage on general principle, either. But I will just reserve a notch or two of additional respect for bands – like Amenra, Nordic Giants, Earthtone9 and, of course, Dillinger – who generally eschew(ed) the practice.