Disco Loadout: 2018 In Review

Four years ago, I started to keep a complete list of every band I saw. Three years ago, I began kicking myself for not starting that childishly simple task sooner. Never mind. At least I can tell you exactly what I got up to this year – with one important caveat. A band only gets logged on The List if I have seen them play a minimum of three songs, or about fifteen minutes for of bands who don’t know when to end their songs. Bands that fail to meet this standard are either of a flavour I have no interest in (sorry, black metal bands) or are so unspeakably awful that I can’t even give them the benefit of the doubt.  Fortunately, the latter category is a small one.

Whilst my gigging year isn’t quite finished as I smash these words into my keyboard just ahead of deadline, the end is in sight – so that means that I can say with some confidence that my 2018 live music extravaganza comprised watching 181 different bands play 240 sets across 63 events (including two full weekend festivals and three all-dayers) at 31 different venues spread over five cities. Phew. Perhaps that seems like a lot. Hell, that is a lot. But it actually represents the smallest total since my records began. In 2017, my set tally topped out at 313 and, if I’m really honest, that might have been a bit much. So a quieter than normal September and October were simultaneously a source of mild frustration and quiet relief, as my desire to go and watch bands conflicted with my desire to sit on the sofa and eat cake.

As one might expect, those 240 sets included a small collection of truly incredible performances, the return of old favourites, some special one-off and landmark shows and a liberal dose of good old-fashioned chaos. There are also, as I flick back through my list, eleven names for which I can remember literally nothing whatsoever about the band or their performance. Sorry lads, better luck next time.

Most Watched

Of course, the most obvious metric of how much I might like a band is how regularly I will go and see them play. This year, two bands have tied for first place in this respect.  I watched Conjurer and Sumer five times apiece through the course of the year, including watching them play about an hour apart on the same, hyper-hectic afternoon at Euroblast.  That these bands have come out on top should come as no great surprise to regular Disco Loadout readers, as I frankly can’t shut up about either of them. Nevertheless, that I’ve been perfectly content to watch them as many times as I have speaks to the quality of their shows, and that I’ve had the opportunity to see them as often as I have speaks to their impressive levels of commitment.

I think I’ve now seen Sumer more than any other band currently extant, with my grand total now having reached 22 sets since the release show for their debut album, The Animal You Are, back in 2014. Their atmospheric, melodic prog-metal grabbed me right from the very first song, and it has been a privilege to watch many more people having that same Road To Damascus style discovery across various shows. 2018 also saw, at long last, some new songs from the band edging their way into their setlists, which suggest that the band’s upward trajectory will continue. The band is also undergoing something of a transition, as their final show of 2018 was also the very final show for bass player, Taria Dawson, who is amicably parting ways with the band.  It is always a little bit sad when changing circumstances mean that bands have to change shape, but I have every confidence that this particular change is more the end of a chapter than the end of a book.  Not least because the band have just announced that they will be playing their furthest flung shows of their career next year, when they head down to South Africa for a couple of dates supporting Jinjer.

The Conjurer juggernaut, too, continues to build momentum.  Almost constantly on the road since the release of debut full-length Mire earlier this year, the band have been liberally beating audiences around the head and neck with their brutally sludgy, doomy grooves up and down the country, and out into Europe. One clear sign of the mark (stain?) they are leaving on the scene is that it’s now virtually impossible to go to a heavy show without seeing someone, somewhere in the audience sporting Conjurer merchandise. Good work. American fans will get their first opportunity to witness Conjurer on stage when they head out with Rivers of Nihil early in 2019. I think it’s worth mentioning that whilst I absolutely love Mire (it placed at #3 in  my year-end list), it still doesn’t quite prepare you for the sheer force of the live experience.  If you are going to see Rivers of Nihil, make sure you get there early.

Beyond that, I saw four sets from both Palm Reader and Temples On Mars. Palm Reader are, for my money, possibly the band most worthy of the title “the British Poison The Well” and their album playthrough show (more about that in my regular column in January) confirmed Braille‘s place in my personal top ten albums of the year. Temples On Mars’ hardy and polished neo-grunge continues to win fans, and they will also be heading down to South Africa in 2019.

Below that come eight bands I saw three times, including (I predict) future megastars Loathe, dance-metal crossover herberts Seething Akira and my favourite German technical hardcore trio The Hirsch Effekt. A further 28 bands played in front of me twice, including old favourites Earthtone9 and Pitchshifter, who I wrote about in far too much detail at the start of the month.

The Best

Of course, a review of the year wouldn’t be a review of the year without some kind of list, so here’s a quick sprint (or at least as sprinty as these overly verbose fingers can manage) through ten of my stand-out shows of the year. I’m resisting the urge to rank them, so instead they are presented here in simple chronological order.

  • Jamie Lenman @ Islington Academy – I have come to regard Jamie Lenman as being what Devin Townsend would have been had he come of age in the British alt-rock scene, rather than the North American metal one. Honing his songwriting talents in the noughties as part of Reuben, he emerged as a solo artist in 2013 with a double album, Muscle Memory, featuring one disc of gentle, mostly acoustic, songs and one of blistering hardcore. He followed it up in 2017 with Devolver, which rode particularly high in my year-end list. Whilst his early solo shows were backed by a full band, he has now moved to walking out on stage with just a drummer for company, and a split-signal from his battered Yamaha feeding into both guitar and bass cabs. Jamie is a relaxed and confident frontman, making the 800 capacity venue feel as intimate as if he was playing in the corner of your local pub. He played a varied set, reaching across both his solo albums and some choice Reuben cuts. To bring another layer of variety, there is a second drumkit, and Jamie moves into position for a drum duet, before his drummer jumps up and grabs a guitar for a song, inverting the position entirely. The last few songs of the set are then played by Jamie completely on his own, with just an acoustic guitar.  Jamie is relaxed and amiable in his between song banter, and keeps the entire audience in the palm of his hand, virtually on his own, for ninety minutes.  That’s a most uncommon skill.
  • Amenra and Jo Quail @ Heaven – I think it is fair to say that Heaven, which built it’s reputation as one of the premier gay nightspots in the city, is the venue with the best sound in London. It’s not used regularly for shows that are worth me writing about, but pretty much every single show I have seen there has been incredible. Although this particular night included something of a lull in the middle for me – I have never really gotten on with Japanese weirdbeards Boris – but that set was bookended by the gorgeous and hypnotic sounds of solo cellist Jo Quail and the unrelentingly bleak and hypnotic sounds of Amenra. I noticed that night that Amenra hold the audiences attention so completely that punters weren’t even holding up their phones to grab some dodgy video footage. Perhaps they knew it wouldn’t do the performance justice. It’s all even more remarkable considering vocalist Colin H. Van Eeckhout spends fully 95% of the set with his back to the audience.  disjointed, black and white images are projected across the back wall, nobody says a word to the audience.  As set finale “Diaken” reaches it’s brutally abrupt conclusion, the stage is plunged into darkness.  There will be no encore.  Utterly spell-binding. 
  • Dead Cross @ Underworld – I wrote about this show in my first Disco Loadout over the summer, and I still an’t quite believe it actually happened. With barely 24 hours notice, this supergroup containing guys from Retox, The Locust, some band called Slayer and my number one, all time favourite musician Mike Patton, played in the pokey basement known as The Underworld, a venue comfortably under half the size of any I’ve seen Mike perform in before (and, at rough count, that’s about 20 times across various projects. Including Mr Bungle. Don’t hate me). Dead Cross are new enough for their set to comprise literally every song they have released to date, and small sweaty venues are just about the ideal environment for their short,sharp, spiky punk tracks. Seeing musicians of Mike’s and Dave Lombardo’s calibre in a 500 capacity venue is a rare treat, and one that will definitely live long in my memory.
  • Voyager @ The Borderline/Tech Fest – Try as I might, I can’t think of a single other band who appears to have as much fun onstage as Aussie progsters Voyager. Of course, an element of this visible elation may have something to do with selling out venues on the other side of the planet, but I get the distinct impression that they have almost as much fun in rehearsal as they do on tour. With every member of the band a master of their respective craft, they are a timely reminder that you can be a bit clever-clever whilst still wearing a big dopey grin, not just a scowl of concentration. Their headline show at The Borderline, supported by Sumer and Temples On Mars, was a real party night, but the performance was given steroids at Tech Fest a couple of days later, swelling to fill the big tin shed. Throw in a keytar solo or two, some weapons-grade titting about by guitarists Scott Kay and Simone Dow and a truly inspired cover of nineties club banger “Sandstorm” and you have a recipe for the most playful celebration of prog-metal you’ll find anywhere. I’m certainly hoping we won’t have to wait too long for them to make the long trek up from Down Under again.
  • The Hirsch Effekt @ The Black Heart – Anyone who knows me will know just how important Tech Fest weekend is to me. As fixed a point in my calendar as Christmas, it takes something very special indeed to get me to miss any of it. The prospect of seeing The Hirsch Effekt play in the Black Heart was one of those rare events, so I left Tech Fest on the Sunday evening to ensure I was in a fit state to watch the show the following evening. It was worth it. Standing with my toes touching the monitor line, watching a performance the band are clearly used to giving in a much larger space was tremendously thrilling, and the setlist pulled in pretty much all of my favourite tracks along the way. They were back in the UK much sooner than I had expected, playing the Tech Fest sponsored Techabilitation all-dayer in November, but the Black Heart show was a particularly special occasion. What’s more, it also gave me my first exposure to The Guts, and I’ll have a bit more to say about them in a minute.
  • Fishbone @ Underworld – As I mentioned at the time, this show ended up being quite a lot more special than I had expected, and my expectations were already pretty high. Originally billed as a 30th anniversary (!) for their seminal album, Truth & Soul, the band had returned to as close to it’s ‘classic’ line-up as is now possible, with the original member count having fallen to just two in recent years. However, rather than the full album playthrough I had anticipated, the band instead played the choicest cuts from both Truth & Soul and it’s successor, The Reality of My Surroundings, one of the two albums that originally made me fall in love with the band in the early nineties. To unexpectedly hear tracks like the upbeat ska of  “Housework” and the groove metal of “Behaviour Control Technician” after loving them for a full twenty five years was an extraordinary sensation, and God Damn, was I sore the next day. 
  • Frontierer @ Boston Music Room – A strong contender for the most bone-grinding night of the year, Frontierer rolled into town dragging Conjurer and fresh-and-promising newcomers  Itself Timeless behind them. Boy, it was loud. In a moment of rashness, I stood right in front of the speaker stacks for the first couple of tunes (ha, ‘tunes’) and it felt like the sheer weight of air being moved was forcing my vocal cords to vibrate on their own. Aaaaaaaaaaa.  The new tracks from second album Unloved translate excellently to the stage, and the band’s performance clearly benefited from the two-week tour that culminated in this show, which practically doubled their total gig count in one big, angry lump. The set was, unsurprisingly, a relentless assault on pretty much every sense. Including one’s sense of decorum. And a surprise rendition of an as yet-unreleased track featuring guest bellows from Employed to Serve was a particularly pleasing Easter egg, albeit one positively dripping in gore.
  • Godmother@ The Dev – When they disbanded, The Dillinger Escape Plan said publicly that they had passed their metaphorical torch on to Godmother. This show absolutely confirmed to me that was the right call. Playing a free-entry show literally in the corner of a pub, it was exactly the type of chaos that Dillinger themselves must have inflicted on unsuspecting venues before Calculating Infinity lifted them off the toilet circuit. Their furious, grindy hardcore turned the tiny space in front of the stage into a seething mass of humanity, and frontman Sebastian Campbell spent almost as much time on top of the crowd as ploughing through it – and more time doing either of these things than standing on stage. Throw in a great big bag of passion, an excellent support slot from Irish quintet Ilenkus, an impromptu limbo competition and a hilarious war of attrition between the band, the venue curfew and a cartoonishly furious soundman who couldn’t even get the band to actually stop by cutting the PA.  Busy.  The night was basically what everyone hopes a hardcore show will be: Sweaty, chaotic, faintly dangerous and  relentlessly thrilling.
  • Pitchshifter/Earthtone9 @ The Dome/Nottingham Rock City – I think I said everything I needed to say about these shows at the start of the month. You can read my full thoughts (here), but I will just summarise by saying that I first saw these bands tour together in 2001, and the two dates of this tour that I caught catapulted me straight back to that bygone age where a website URL was novel and exotic enough to be used as an album name, and I could go into a moshpit without the legitimate fear of my bones turning to dust. Happy days.
  • Will Haven @ Dome – This one had also been a long time coming. The last time I saw Will Haven was on The Hierophant tour, whilst vocalist Grady Avenell was out of the band, so this show was the first time I had the opportunity to see the ‘classic’ line-up. They did not disappoint. Opening with “Fresno” and “Carpe Diem” made their set the high point of a three day run of gigs that had already included Caligula’s Horse, Circles, The Ocean and Rosetta, which is some fearsome competition.  They busted out a greatest hits set with twice the venom of bands half their age, threw in a surprise cover of Faith No More‘s twisted classic “Jizzlobber” and left me with a case of permanent Riff Face that lasted deep into the following week. Shortly after the tour, the band were included in the main announcement for Hellfest 2019. So we know already that they will be in Europe next summer, and I simply hope that they can make a quick stop in London either on their way to or from France.

The Bad  

We won’t linger here too long, but it would be churlish to pretend that everything I saw was a certain shade of wonderful, because it clearly was not. I’m not going to mercilessly dump on some young hopefuls here, however much fun that might be. But there were just a couple of sets from bands that really were old enough to know better that I think justify admission to a small Hall of Shame.

The first was The Faceless at The Underworld. Now, we all know the jokes, we all remember the seemingly endless trail of cancelled tours, and any number of us bought tickets for the tour at least half-expecting to be seeking a refund at some point. But, yes, the band really did turn up, and really did take the stage at their scheduled time. But it became very quickly apparent that they maybe shouldn’t have bothered. After the type of mass exodus of musicians that seems all to common in these hyper-tech death circles, head honcho Michael Keene is joined by a full complement of session musicians brought in for the tour. However, despite these guys clearly having put in the work to learn the set, it doesn’t seem like Michael bothered to do so himself. Add to the dodgy playing a continual running battle with unfamiliar electronics, and the band manage to deliver one of the sloppiest, most disjointed, least professional headline sets I have ever seen. But hey, at least, around six songs and under 30 minutes of stage time, it was short. I understand that they got it a bit more together by the end of the run, but if anything that just makes me feel more aggrieved. In reality, that London date was closer to being a dress rehearsal, and not a successful one, than a full show – which would have been fine had we not been charged to see it.  If all of that wasn’t enough, this shambles had to follow the practically laser-guided ferocity of tour support Osiah, whose slick presentation showed both the audience and The Faceless how it’s really supposed to be done.

For whatever reason, I’d never quite gotten around to seeing Karma To Burn, so to see the announcement that they would be playing an intimate show at the Black Heart had me scrabbling for a ticket link (maybe it’s worth talking about more deeply at another time, but I buy tickets to pretty much every show I go to. No Guestlist shenanigans here). We got our first indication that all was not as it should be when guitarist William Mecum took far longer than we could see any visible justification for to settle into position and start the first song. When it did finally start, it started strong, and those chunky stoner grooves were flowing thick and fast. But the set very much had a downwards trajectory. It became apparent that William was more than a little under the influence of drink, and that the alcoholic concentration in his blood was still building. Attempts to converse with the crowd were largely incomprehensible, and his ability to keep time decreased on a minute by minute basis. I soldiered on, remaining more out of a faint sense of duty than anything else, to be rewarded by the band butchering my favourite track, “Twenty”, to such an extent that I had to listen to the album version when I got home to remind myself why I loved it. Disappointing, to say the least.

Naturally, the underground scene is always going to feature bands whose ambitions outpace their abilities, but in both these cases, the obstacles were put in place by the bands themselves and they still fell over them. Any band can have an off night, but for both cases in point here the bands have some work to do to regain my trust.

New Discoveries

For me, watching a hitherto unknown band deliver an absolute barnstormer of a set gives me a rush similar to a syringe of adrenaline plunged into my sternum, and chasing that high is what compels me to get to any show in good time to watch the opening bands. Over the years, I’ve seen any number of today’s hot acts playing in opening slots to an indifferent handful of early birds. Who knows, maybe one of the bands on my list this year will ultimately go on to play headline arena tours – but I think it would be foolhardy given the capricious nature of the industry to make any form predictions on that front. 

However, there were still a clutch of bands that I had my first exposure to in 2018 that I will definitely be making a point to see should they be playing in London in 2019. In the interests of brevity, I will limit myself to talking about just three of them.

Palm Reader – I’m sure I had at least heard of Palm Reader before, but I can’t place having actually seen them until they landed a choice support slot on what was, at that point, Rolo Tomassi‘s biggest headline show, back in the spring. Playing virtually in silhouette thanks to the back-lighting, I had no idea what they looked like, but the quality of the songwriting shone through as bright as day. It’s no exaggeration to say that I had “Internal Winter” as an immovable earworm for three straight days after the show. Picking up a copy of Braille from the merch desk, it found its way into my top ten albums of the year, and I would find a further three opportunities to watch them, including support to that Will Haven show and what they profess will be the only complete playthrough of Braille towards the end of the year. Mission firmly accomplished.

Jo Quail – One surefire way to get my attention is to create music in a unique or unconventional manner. Jo Quail is a literal solo artist, taking the stage with just an electric cello, a brace of effects pedals and a loop station for company.  I first watched her gradually build the layers of her hypnotic, mournful songs at an all-day birthday bash thrown by my favourite promoters, Chaos Theory, who have been responsible for putting any number of new, ground-breaking adventurous acts in from of my face.  Jo confirmed to me just how uncommonly beautiful and captivating her music is opening for Amenra, and has spent much of 2018 on tour with other luminaries of all things post, including Mono and Myrkur.  Jo has already been booked for a return to Chaos Theory’s birthday event for early 2019, and there are some hints that there will be some changes to the formula for this one. I’m already looking forward to seeing how that turns out.

The Guts – This Brighton based quintet opened the Hirsch Effekt show I spoke about earlier, and with advance ticket sales for the show not being exactly stellar, the band spread their gear out from the stage, commandeered about a third of the entire room for their performance. And they needed the space. They ply a kinetic mixture of Rolo Tomassi-style mathcore (complete with keyboards) and feral punk attitude that mines a seam similar to the one mined by the much-missed Heck. I’ve been contracting this description down to simply ‘Rolo Godzilla’, and you should too. With three members of the band providing vocals, and moving around enough for all three of them to have cause to use all three mics at some point during the set, they were a genuinely pleasant surprise. I’m sure I will have more to show and tell about The Guts in 2019. Maybe sooner than you think.

Notable Shows

Ok, we’re nearly at the end, folks. I won’t keep you too much longer. I could have spent a bit of time talking about Tech Fest and Euroblast here, but I simply don’t trust myself not to waffle on for many thousand more words. So, instead you can read what I wrote about them at the time, if you’re a glutton for punishment, here and here.  Instead, let me just close out by quickly listing some of the more notable shows of the year.

I’m aware there’s a bit of a mix of opinions on whether album playthrough shows are a good idea. Personally, I think it depends on the album – a couple of years ago, I saw Korn play their eponymous debut in full, and that showed in uncomfortably certain terms that almost the entire last third of the album is a limp sack of wet and forgettable crap. Never mind. But, on the other hand, Jane’s Addiction playing all of Nothing’s Shocking really was Ocean Sized.  This year, I saw five playthrough shows. I’ve already mentioned Palm Reader playing Braille, so here are the other four:

  • Alcest playing Kodoma @ Queen Elizabeth Hall – As part of Robert Smith’s Meltdown Festival at the artsy South Bank, this was more of a recital, with a seated and silent audience, than a show – I was previously unfamiliar with the album, and it was a great introduction to it.
  • Gomez playing Bring It On @ Forum – It might be surprising to learn that I still have a deep passion for a twenty year old, quirky and bluesy indie rock album, but it has aged like a fine wine.  Incidentally, I probably wouldn’t have found out about this show were it not for my habit of regularly checking venue listing pages.  But we should talk about that another time.
  • Employed To Serve playing Warmth of a Dying Sun @ Borderline – Good heavens, this was a rowdy one.  But fortunately the venue layout gave me a great vantage point protected from the excesses of a vigorous pit.  The set culminated in a full-bore stage invasion so dense that it basically forced the band out onto the floor, and alongside the chaos gave the band the opportunity to play some of the slower tracks that hint that if they mature over time into a post-metal band, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.
  • Boss Keloid playing Melted On The Inch @ Black Heart – Again, I wrote about this show in more detail earlier this month, but it’s worth including here simply because it was this performance that really locked Melted On The Inch to the very top spot in my Albums of the Year list.  They’re coming back to (presumably) do it again in January, so I’m sure I’ll have more to say after that.

Beyond these playthrough shows, there were two notable hellos, and one notable goodbye:

  • Heart of a Coward @ Boston Music Room – The first performance for the band with new vocalist Kaan Tasan.  Replacing a presence like Jamie Graham is a daunting task, but having honed his craft with No Consequence, Kaan quickly proved he was up to the job.  I ultimately saw this new-look HoaC three times, thanks to sets at both Tech Fest and Euroblast, and the confidence of his performance grew each time.  I’m very much looking forward to hearing the new material. 
  • Jakub Zytecki @ Islington Assembly – Opening a one-off Plini headline show (which, incidentally, fell only just outside my top ten for the year) was Jakub’s first live outing for his solo material, and it translated magnificently to the stage.  What we didn’t know at the time, however, was that Jakub would soon announce his departure from his main venture, Disperse, and within that announcement a heavy hint that this solo work would become his primary focus.  So, hopefully, that means we’ll get to see him do it again in the not too distant future. 
  • Bad Sign @ Boston Music Room – As I write these words, a few hours before my deadline, Bad Sign’s amps are still cooling from their final show.  Having first seen them before my records properly began, I believe that tonight’s final show was the 13th or 14th time I’d watched them play their huge riffs and passionate anthems.  It was emotional.  I’ll have a lot more to say about that in my next column.   

So there it is.  I may have seen a smaller quantity of shows in total in  2018 than in previous years, but I think the competition for places in the top ten was more fierce – I could have comfortably expanded the list out to twenty.  But I think that would be a danger to the health of everyone involved.  Especially mine.   

Having a quick peek at my 2019 calendar, I can already see I have some things to get excited about – not least the return of Boss Keloid to the Black Heart, but also Derange, Pteroglyph, Ithaca, the Chaos Theory all-dayer featuring Jo Quail, PSOTY and all manner of splendid weirdness, Black Peaks, (maybe) Complexity Festival in the Netherlands, The Armed, Cave In/Old Man Gloom, Daughters, Devin Townsend, Portals Festival with Three Trapped Tigers, Hypophora and yet more splendid weirdness, Tech Fest and ArcTangent with Meshuggah.  Strap yourself in, kids.  And don’t forget your earplugs.

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