Disco Loadout – March 2019 – Press To MECO, Jo Quail, Devin Townsend (sort of)

The Load-In

Aaaaand we’re back. Maybe you noticed, maybe you didn’t, but I substituted last month’s column for my Keith Flint memorial piece. That felt like it needed to be done. I had been intending to write about the pestilence that is crowd-killing, and the knuckle-headed idiocy of vocalists saying things like “I want to see someone get fucking hurt” after every song. The fire that drove the desire to write about that has now been dampened, but I’m sure I will have fresh cause to write about the exasperating platoon of flailing virgins at some point fairly soon. But, I will say that if you really do want people to be hurt whilst you are playing, I don’t really want to watch your band.

On a more positive note, I did also miss out on the opportunity to enthuse about Rough Hands. I had previously seen the band supporting Employed To Serve at their sold out, album playthrough show at the Borderline last year, but watching them grow the back of an over-stuffed room with less than sympathetic sound didn’t really do them justice. However, a little spark of promise did make its way through these unflattering conditions to convince me to give them another go and hope the winds were more in their favour.

That opportunity arose this month, with the band playing as main support to The Armed at Boston Music Room. I took up a favoured position – at the front, off to one side – ready to be impressed. And impressed I was.  In a nutshell, Rough Hands sound like Will Haven might if they borrowed Stephen Carpenter’s pedal board, and a few Deftones riffs for good measure. Bleak, sludgy and topped off with their vocalist’s distinctive, high-pitched scream that is somewhat reminiscent of the late great Jonny Morrow. I’m definitely going to be paying close attention to these guys from now on, and if that brief description sounds tantalising, you should too.

Now, to more recent business. I have mentioned before that London has a habit of serving up distinctly non-standard musical experiences, and my month has been characterized by a little string of them. So I’m going to jettison the ‘gig of the month’ thing again, and as I meander through some of the things I’ve seen in March, I expect you’ll start to see why.

A Gig In A Shop – Press To MECO Acoustic

Denmark Street in Soho is a London address that pretty much every British guitarist is familiar with, and probably also with many beyond our shores.  Home to a parade of instrument shops, recording studios and publishing houses, this surprisingly short parade just around the corner from Oxford Street has served as something of a nexus point for the British music industry.  The Rolling Stones, Hendrix, Bowie, The Sex Pistols and…er… Elton John have all lived, worked and recorded on the Street.  Until a couple of years ago, there was also a hilariously tiny venue (the 12 Bar) but since its closure, there hasn’t been much live music to speak of on the street.

However, for some reason, the London date of Press To MECO‘s acoustic tour was booked into the even more diminutive Sixty Six Sounds, a Gibson specialist on the very end of the street.  With a capacity that can’t have been much higher than fifty, the show sold out in a matter of minutes.  A second date was then added the following night, and that one sold out just as quickly. Fortunately, due to my raging social media addiction, I caught the announcement early enough to snag a ticket to the first date.

Press To Meco’s perky, uptempo Brit-rock has always seemed to me to be a prime contender for the acoustic treatment, thanks largely to the effortlessly expert three part vocal harmonies the trio inject into their songs.   Prior to the acoustic short tour that these London dates conclude, the band had released their quite radical reworking of “A Quick Fix”, probably the stompiest, riffiest number on last year’s second album, Here’s To The Fatigue, so we had a good idea of what to expect.

The band’s half-hour set runs throught the six tracks they have recorded acoustically for an EP to commemorate the tour, with the songs predominantly culled from Here’s To The Fatigue, alongside “Autopsy” from predecessor Good Intent and a cover of “Strangers” by Sigrid.  Unsurprisingly, it sounds gorgeous, and the band’s well-honed stagecraft gets the small crowd involved by dividing the room into thirds and getting us all to sing a harmony together, which worked surprisingly well.  The show could easily have been homed at one of the larger, more traditional venues in the city, but these tiny, unfamiliar surroundings make the night even more special.  I hope we see more of these types of shows from the band.

A Cellist in a Cinema – Jo Quail

The very next evening after Press To Meco, I was heading deep into London’s east end hipster enclave, to visit one of the city’s newest venues, Evolutionary Arts Hackney – usually styled as EartH. The venue started life in the thirties as a sumptuous Art Deco cinema, but fell into disuse and had sat largely abandoned and decaying since the eighties. However, last year the space was cleaned out and transformed into a state-of-the-art venue, albeit one contained within the walls of a derelict.

The old cinema has effectively been cut in half horizontally, turning the venue into a two-room space, with a traditional shaped room downstairs, and the old balcony becoming something closer to an amphitheatre. The actual chairs have been removed, so the audience sits on broad, shallow steps. It’s a lovely space, and just about the perfect setting the gentle, subtle, neo-classical music on offer this evening.

The constant tyranny of gig clashes had kept me away from Jo Quail‘s last couple of London shows, so this is the first time I had seen her perform since she opened the show for Boris and Amenra about a year previously. Playing tonight with Dutch pianist Joep Beving is a very different beast entirely, which underscores the broad spectrum of appeal in Jo’s music.  EartH may not have repainted the walls of the auditorium, but they have invested heavily in the sound system, and from the spot where I perch about halfway up the venues steps, it sounds like she is standing right next to me.

Jo’s haunting, hypnotic music is conjured through nothing more than her electric cello, a brace of effects pedals and a loop station. Her latest album, Exsolve, is her fourth and so she has a fairly substantial body of work to draw her set from. Taking the time to briefly contextualise each piece before performing it, the gig – or rather, recital – feels remarkably intimate for what is a relatively large space. There probably aren’t many musicians who can keep roomfuls of post-metallers and classical music heads in rapt attention, but Jo comfortably achieves this. A quick chat with members of her team fills me in on just how full her calendar is going to be for the rest of the year, and some tantalising plans for the future. Fans of the innovative and the unique would do well to become better acquainted with Jo’s work, and it seems like there will be plenty of opportunities to do so in the near future.

A Devin in a Cinema

Ok, so this one isn’t strictly a gig. But, I did buy a ticket for an evening event with one of my favourite musicians, where I sat in a darkened room with familiar gig buddies and bought merch on the door, so it’s close enough for now. 

As a special one-off just before the release of Empath, Devin Townsend booked out the luxurious Screen On The Green. The Screen a small boutique cinema in Islington where one can usually watch films sat on large, comfy sofas, drinking a beer from an actual glass instead of a plastic bucket. Very civilised. He used the cinema to screen all seven episodes of the Making of Empath documentary that had been released on a weekly basis as a single cut.

However, rather than just letting the film play through, Devin remained on stage, sat in a corner, and hollered at the technical folks periodically to pause the film so he could talk a bit more about it. The documentary covers the entirety of the writing and recording process, and hearing Devin talk about it ‘in the moment’ on film, and then in retrospect from the stage was genuinely fascinating. Perhaps it is only for Devin’s mega-nerd fans, but I guess I count as one of them.

The event was warm, good natured and slightly ramshackle, which neatly reflects the relationship Devin has with his fans in the UK. We’ve been lucky enough to have Devin host almost all of his ambitious set-piece events in London, and although this one may not be on the same scale as Retinal Circus, the By A Thread shows or Ziltoid at the Albert Hall, it still feels pretty special.

I virtually ran home afterwards and practically threw the copy of Empath I had purchased into my disc drive. And then didn’t listen to anything else at all for. Solid week so that I could digest it enough to write my review. I don’t think I’ve ever sat down with an album for the first time quite as well prepared and aware of the background and context before, and it definitely made that first spin a lot less bewildering than it could have been.  This treatment probably wouldn’t work for every album, but for Empath it was perfect. 

Harbinger at Camden Rocks

Camden Rocks is an annual festival which takes over twenty or more venues across Camden, fills them with bands and gives punters access to all of them with a single ticket. For the first time in 2019, the festival is expanding out to fill Sunday as well as Saturday. With as many as 400 bands on the bill, there really is something for everyone in there. In order to find enough bands to fill every stage, the festival runs a series of all-day events as a bit of a testing ground.

Somewhat bizarrely, they have been holding these events at The Monarch on Camden High Street, but the venue also plays host, on Saturday nights, to a nightclub specialising in music culled from movie soundtracks. So, in order to make way – presumably – for couples wanting to pretend to be Uma Thurman and John Travolta, the show has a 9:30 hard curfew. Now there is a proper Disco Loadout for you.  This set-up left us in the somewhat bizarre scenario of watching Harbinger take the stage for their headline set at 8:30pm – and it’s rather more commonplace for openers to be starting their show at around that sort of time.

With a remit as broad as Camden Rocks, and a need to recruit as many bands as possible for their weekend, it probably stands to reason that the bill is something of a mixed bag.  Despite Harbinger sitting closer to deathcore than anything else, the day is billed as an ‘alt-rock bonanza’.  The bands who precede them are, in the main, more middle-of-the-road affairs and whilst none of them are overtly terrible (which is more than I can say for some of the genuinely awful sets I’ve endured at previous events like this), none of them are especially interesting, exciting or ground-breaking.  So I became very well acquainted with the smoking area throughout the day.

As well as wanting to show my support for Harbinger, I had been curious to see Red Method, a new project formed from the ashes of two familiar names from the scene, Meta-Stasis and The Defiled.  Unfortunately, their set is a bit of a triumph of style over substance, and whilst they look the part and have a thick, heavy tone, the songs themselves are fairly standard and uninspiring by-the-numbers metal.  I can’t completely rule out the possibility that the clean vocals were being piped through from the backing track either, as they cut through the mix with suspiciously more clarity and volume than the harsh vocals.  Hmm.  I think I’ll have to see them again to be sure.

Harbinger themselves played a solid, dependable and headline-worthy set.  The band have recently put the finishing touches on their debut full-length, Compelled To Suffer, which is due to drop in the middle of May, and we are treated to a couple of new tracks.   I will save my more detailed thoughts on these songs for the review of the album itself, but for now, I think that the key to Harbinger’s (hopeful) success is the way they marry modern deathcore brutalism with the skills (and riffs) of the Big Four, with a distinctly Megadeth vibe creeping into the mix.  The crowds at these types of shows can be a bit hit-and-miss, but a respectible number of people hang around to catch the set, despite Haken‘s show across town being the major draw of the night.  

I’ve probably said this before, but I’ve been following Harbinger since pretty much their first ever show, and watching the band steadily grow and mature has been a genuine delight.  With a gigantic tour across Europe booked for the next couple of months, and some high-profile festival appearances also in the diary, I expect we will see Harbinger’s star continue to rise throughout 2019.  And it will be well deserved.

The Encore

So, March was a distinctly non-standard month.  Alongside these shows of varying degrees of weirdness to their construction, I also caught a typically solid set from Palm Reader supporting Blood Youth, a slightly disappointing show from Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard, which could have done with being twice as loud as it was, and a gently amusing night with the Lounge Kittens in a packed-out Bush Hall.  Fun times.
Looking forwards, the next couple of months have some very exciting things to look forward to.  In April, we have the UK’s Caleb Scofield memorial show, featuring Cave In, Old Man Gloom and Bossk.  I had been quietly hoping that, like the American counterpart, we might have been treated to a Celestial set, but that appears not to be the case.  Maybe one day.  We also have the first Daughters show in the country for the best part of a decade, Bad Pond festival down in Brighton headlined by Jamie Lenman, acoustic shows from Mr Devin Townsend and return trips to the UK for Aiming For Enrique and Ho99o9.  Then in May there is the Employed To Serve album release show (which is sure to be carnage), as well as acoustic and electric sets from post-metal titans Amenra.  I can’t wait.

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