Now that’s more like it. After a couple of uncommonly lean months, my gig diary was back up to fighting weight in November, and I saw around thirty bands (some of them twice, but we’ll get to that), including some past and present favourites, giving me plenty to write about here. Granted, November is always prime touring season – something which is evidenced by the fact I’ve been at a show on the first of November for the last six years in a row. Thank you, Facebook memories.
This year, November’s real highlights were delivered in compressed form – three excellent shows on three successive nights. On two separate occasions. I don’t think that’s happened for a while. The first of these involved me virtually camping out in the building which houses The Dome and Boston Music Room over a weekend to see Circles, Caligula’s Horse, Rosetta, The Ocean, The Grey, Palm Reader and Will Haven as they rolled through town, most of them on their way north to play Damnation festival. Phew. The second… well, the second I will now unpick in quite considerable detail.
Gig(s) of the month: Pitchshifter, Earthtone9, The Blueprint – Highbury Garage & Nottingham Rock City
For people of A Certain Age who were in A Certain Place at A Certain Time, the announcement that Pitchshifter would be reforming for a one-off tour across the UK to mark the 20th anniversary of their breakthrough album, www.pitchshifter.com, and bringing Earthtone9 along for the ride was a pretty big deal. I fit all three of those categories. The late nineties and early noughties were a particularly special time in the UK alternative metal underground – although, as it was also the period in which I was in my early twenties and doing all the things people in their early twenties do when they’ve just moved away from home, so I might be just a little bit biased in that assessment. Either way, it is undeniable that there existed a vibrant, diverse and talented community of bands pushing the boundaries of progressive metal and touring the UK’s small venue circuit, and both Pitchshifter and Earthtone9 were in the vanguard of that movement, albeit pushing against slightly different boundaries to each other.
Pitchshifter were genuine pioneers in the crossover between metal and dance music, smashing chunky riffs together with industrial electronica, drum and bass beats and a fuck-you punk attitude. This high-octane mix made the band’s sound, especially breakthrough single “Genius”, ideal for video game soundtracks, as well as becoming a staple on metal nightclub playlists around the country. The recruitment of Jim Davis, who provided the guitars for The Prodigy’s riffier tracks coincided with the development of a more accessible sound and a major label record deal. Together with their reputation as a particularly rowdy live act, the release of www.pitchshifter.com saw the band riding the crest of a wave.
We should probably pause here to recall that in 1998, the internet as we know it today was still very much in its infancy. In fact, I’m not convinced that I had actually sat in front of an internet-connected computer at the point I first heard the album, and a broadband connection was definitely years away. With that in mind having a URL as the title was something new and slightly mysterious, not trite and clichéd. Perhaps another indication of just how far we’ve come in such a short space of time is that the ‘secret’ track on the album was a series of hits, stabs and tones for the bedroom producers of the day to manually sample, one by one. It’s like the stone age.
It is also worth mentioning, before we get into the meat of this, that at the point these bands were at their peak, I would have called Earthtone9 my absolute favourite band on the planet. After first encountering them on a CD mounted on a copy of Metal Hammer with “Withered” (incidentally, the first song the band wrote together) I was instantly smitten. To this day, a brief summary of the bands sound reads like a checklist of the things that really push my musical buttons – satisfyingly meaty riffs, snappy beats, soaring melodies, quiet/loud and fast/slow dynamics and just a sprinkling of cryptic mysticism. It would be fair to say that Earthtone9 never quite won the recognition they deserved at the time, and seeing how progressive metal developed following the collapse of the band in 2002, it is perfectly reasonable to award them an ‘ahead of their time’ citation. The band reformed in 2010 and whilst this second wind resulted in 2013’s IV album, the band have now seemingly settled into playing a handful of shows every couple of years. They were last in action for just a pair of shows in 2016 (and of course I was at both of them), so this tour represents the longest string of dates the band have played since reforming.
With all of this in mind, I didn’t really think that seeing this pair of bands just once on the run would be enough for me. The decision to travel up to Nottingham for the final date of the tour, as well as seeing the first London date two days before, was sealed by the announcement that, for that one night only, The Blueprint would be opening the show. The Blueprint were a relatively short-lived off-shoot, formed as both Earthtone9 and Pitchshifter were drawing to some kind of (at least temporary) conclusion, and featured Earthtone9’s vocalist Karl Middleton and – initially – Pitchshifter’s bass player Mark Clayden. Given Karl’s distinctive vocal style, the apple was never going to fall all that far from the Earthtone9 tree, but The Blueprint were far more a post-hardcore band than progressive metal one.
Now, because both main bands played broadly the same sets on the two nights, I think it makes the most sense to talk about the two gigs in parallel, rather than in series. So we will begin with the beginning of that second show in Nottingham. Incidentally, there is now a very convenient and very comfortable hotel literally yards from Rock City’s front door, and securing a room there meant that fully half of my journey from hotel room to live room was spent shuffling along in the queue to get in. I was feeling quite intrepid, until falling into conversation with a guy in the queue who had traveled from Germany for the show. Impressive.
A 10pm curfew on the event means that there’s not much time for hanging around, and The Blueprint take to the stage just 15 minutes after doors open, giving me just enough time to get to the bar and confirm for myself that drink prices are comparable to those in the capital, so God only knows what northerners get sniffy about when they come down south. The Blueprint take the stage and launch into their set with a minimum of fuss, playing what would constitute a ‘greatest hits’ set if the band had had a larger profile. It is a very pleasing trip down memory lane for those of us who were fans of the band while they were active, and the set passes relatively smoothly considering it has been fourteen years since their last show, and opportunities to practice for this one have been scarce (especially as Karl now lives in the US). It is only in their last song and calling card, “Minus 10” that the wheels come off, where confusion over a transition forces a complete halt and reset for the final chorus. Of course, there couldn’t be a more sympathetic audience for that type of mistake, and there are dopey grins equally evident in the crowd as on the stage. The set is over all too quickly, and whilst it was great to witness such a rare event, it’s also a little sad to realise that it is vanishingly unlikely to happen again.
Jumping back to London, real-life pressures mean I miss the opening band, and my party arrives in the room shortly before Earthtone9 are due to start. After a trip to the bar at the very back of the venue, we make our way down the side of the crowd looking for a good vantage point. To all of our surprise, we find ourselves stood virtually at the stage barrier. The show is sold out, and the room rapidly heading towards capacity, so to find such prime real estate still vacant is most uncommon. My best guess is that, with Pitchshifter likely to deliver a very pit-friendly set, and the average age of the crowd probably somewhere close to 40, most punters were happy to watch Earthtone9, but really did not have enough youthful exuberance to throw themselves around for two consecutive sets. I test this premise again in Nottingham, and watch the show from the second row, untroubled by any significant moshpit activity.
Their set takes selections from all four of their full-length albums, but passes over the EPs Omega and For Cause and Consequence that marked, respectively, the end of their first tenure of the band in 2002, and their return in 2011. The London set is a couple of songs longer than Nottingham, presumably due to a combo of Karl pulling a double shift and the early curfew, and the additional songs include “Grind and Click”, a strong contender for my absolute favourite track from their discography. One person who will have no sympathy for Karl’s plight in Nottingham is drummer Si Hutchby who, presumably in a moment of madness, agreed to fill in for Pitchshifter on top of his regular gig. For me, this is an absolute delight, as Si is one of my top ten favourite drummers of all time. Maybe even top five. Therefore, the fact we end up right at the front for Earthtone9’s set means that we get a completely unobstructed view of him at work, which is a real treat. Even in London, the band at least don’t appear to be feeling the fatiguing effects of touring, even with Si playing functionally two headline-worthy sets a night. But maybe, like all of us, the passing years have brought about rather more early nights and sensible diets and rather fewer 5am drunken kebabs.
The set also includes a surprise rendition of “Ni9e – This is the Sound”, an interlude track from ArcTanGent (yes, it’s the album after which the festival was named), placed in the set apparently for the practical reason of covering a guitar change. But the track is also fundamentally a drum solo – a bold choice for a drummer pulling a double shift. It’s also a slight misdirect, because rather than bleeding into “Yellow Fever”, as it does on the album, the band shift abruptly shift gears into a couple of tracks from comeback album IV. For me, the only real disappointment is the continued omission of the epic “Binary 101”, that closes out ArcTanGent and which they used to deploy as the finale to their live shows, with each member individually leaving the stage through the repeating coda, leaving just Si smashing out the rhythm. I’m sure they have their reasons for not playing it (not least that it is rather long, especially with that live coda), but watching them play it in the past was something close to a religious experience for me, and I would kinda like to relive that at some point. Maybe next time. I’ll be there, anyway.
Pitchshifter take the stage to an intro tape that, rather cheekily, contains snatches of the distinctive samples used in “Genius”, and Mark can’t resist giving us a couple of bars of its bassline, even if the song itself won’t get an airing until – naturally – the very end of the night. They start the set with “Microwaved”, the opening track of www.pitchshifter.com, and the room goes suitably berzerk – neatly confirming my earlier hypothesis about an elderly crowd keeping their powder dry for the main event. In London, frontman Jon Clayden tells us how he has suffered an injury to his knee, and is under doctors orders to keep his weight off it. That advice is clearly ignored, but while he is less energetic in London, he performs like there is no issue at all in front of the hometown crowd (including many friends and family) in Nottingham. I had suspected that the Nottingham show would be a special night, given that both bands treated the city as their base back in the nineties, and the atmosphere really is electric. But whilst Nottingham has a real homecoming, party atmosphere, the London date makes itself distinctive through the appearance of two special guests. Mikee Goodman from Sikth emerges to provide guest vocals on one of just a pair of tracks pre-dating www.pitchshifter.com, “Triad”, and Colin Doran of Hundred Reasons lends some howls to “We Know”. This represents the closing of another loop, as both guest vocalists were also part of the mass-collaborative project This Is Menace alongside members of Earthtone9, Pitchshifter and a whole host of their noughties contemporaries. Their two albums, incidentally, are also worth a listen if you’re hankering for something new-to-you during the festive period’s drought of new releases.
The setlist draws surprisingly heavily from their final album, 2002’s PSI, leaving it’s predecessor Deviant largely overlooked. However, it is still “Hidden Agenda”, one of two Deviant cuts in the set, that really kicks the pit into overdrive in London, sending members of my own party into their first mosh in many, many years. I, however, am far too brittle for that type of thing. Nottingham doesn’t need quite as much encouragement to really get moving – what’s more, Rock City is a wider, shallower space than the Garage, which is definitely more accommodating for a large and bouncy pit.
It doesn’t take us long to realise, either, that Pitchshifter are sounding incredible. As early adopters, the band were always slightly at the mercy of their technology, but in the time they’ve been away technology has caught up. The riffs sound extra thick and crunchy, and the heavily-effected squawks and squeals that guitarists Dan and Tim Rayner wring from their guitars are crisp and clean. Si Hutchby does an outstanding job with the drum and bass beats, rendering much of the electronic accompaniment surplus to requirements. Mark makes up for Jon’s lack of movement by stomping around the stage and screaming the lyrics in the faces of the front row, and everyone looks like they are having the absolute time of their lives.
Of course, they save the absolute best til last, with the three big-hitters from www.pitchshifter.com, “WYSIWYG”, “Please Sir” and “Genius” – pretty much every person in the room knows every word and just about everyone is moving in some form or other. Except, bizarrely for the guy stood statue still for the entire show directly in front of me. Weird. For that final fifteen minutes in particular, the years fell away and we were back wondering whether the millennium bug was going to end civilization as we know it again, whilst waiting for our dial-up modems to connect. The show was a tremendous success – so much so, that I won’t be at all surprised if they come back around rather more quickly next time. Glorious.
Best of the Rest: Boss Keloid – The Black Heart
This one was a bit of a surprise. I had been looking forward to seeing Boss Keloid again since the release of Melted On The Inch earlier this year, but had been unavoidably unavailable every time they had passed either through or near London since that time. But, fortunately, the band are hitting the road hard, coming back to the capital for the second time in a month on a date that is snugly nestled in the off-day between the two Pitchshifter/Earthtone9 shows I’ve spoken about above. Phew.
Opening the show are Hundred Year Old Man, who have made the trip down from Leeds and attracted a significantly sized crowd for an opening slot. They unleash a bleak and brutal strain of post-metal, drawing from giants of the scene like Isis and Neurosis. From the very back of the room, I can’t see much beyond their vocalist, perched on the slightly raised monitor line and delivering some throat-shredding screams. I’d heard some encouraging buzz about the band previously, and they certainly met those expectations, with an (apparently) passionate performance, whipping up a punishingly gloomy atmosphere. I walk away clutching a copy of their latest album, Breaching, and a promise to see them again next time they’re in town. Mission accomplished. Main support, Kurakuma possess a particularly filthy bass tone, but I don’t really connect with them in the same way, so head outside for a smoke.
When we head back in to watch the main event, it is obvious that the schedule has slipped a little. Technical gremlins ultimately delay the start of the show by a full twenty minutes, but aside from wondering just how hard and fast the venue’s curfew was, any frustration is forgotten the moment the band actually start playing. Melted On The Inch represented a transition for Boss Keloid from purveyors of solidly beefy stoner/doom riffs and big head-nodding grooves into something considerably more ambitious. With vocalist Alex Hurst adding a second guitar and the sound further filled out by new keyboard player Matthew Milne, Boss Keloid have been showcasing this new shape and fresh direction by simply playing the album from top to bottom. They do so again tonight, and it is – not to put too fine a point on it – fucking spectacular.
The album twists and turns through many points on the progressive spectrum, as well as wandering into funk and soul from time to time, but a hulking great riff is never that far away. What’s more, in the live environment they are even, er, hulkier than they are on the record. Thick. It’s not really moshpit music, but the packed out house is locked together in some vigorous collective nodding. Frontman Alex is a charismatic presence, with a fearsomely impressive set of pipes and a range that takes in silky melodies and imposing bellows. He engages in some relaxed and amusing between-song banter, and introduces each successive track by simply shouting “Onwards!”. The band are absolutely locked tight behind him, and the performance is to all practical purposes faultless. The only real downer being that whilst the curfew has been allowed to flex a little, the band still have to call it a night one song short of a full album playthrough. Nuts. All is not lost, though – because not only is it one of the most exciting and enthralling half-hour sets I’ve seen this year, it reminded me just how excellent Melted On The Inch is and – to top it all off – in the immediate aftermath, they announced another show at the same venue for January 2019. Wild horses couldn’t keep me away from that show, even if they had really big sticks. And if you like progressive music and big filthy riffs, you should be there too.
Best of the Rest of the Rest: Toska/Hypophora
I’ve mentioned in the past that I am locked in a battle of attrition with gig clashes. So the night where I went to see Monuments, I could also have been to see not only Toska, but also Rolo Tomassi. So one of these clashes was overcome by heading down to Brighton the following weekend to catch the final date of the tour. Rolo, I’m afraid, are just going to have to wait. This is my first visit to The Haunt. Brighton has a great range of venues for a city of its size, and this one sits at the upper end of the ‘small venue’ category. So it’s large enough to have a balcony, but small enough for it to be reserved for the guest list. The room itself is an irregular, almost triangular shape, and with a capacity crowd, a brutal bottleneck quickly develops in the pinch point between the sound desk and the frankly too-large bar. I have written about both Toska’s and Hypophora‘s debut albums in the last few months, and it isn’t giving too much away to say that both will appear somewhere in my year-end list.
This is my second bite of the Hypophora cherry on this tour, having snuck into the London date to catch them before running upstairs for Monuments and Vola. But nevertheless, I plough through the bottleneck to find a pocket of lower density crowd to stand in relatively close to the stage. The band combine energetic youthful exuberance with a startling maturity well beyond their tender years, and seemingly drawing most influence from music written well before they were born. Their focus on quality songwriting, peppered with deft little touches is compelling enough to receive exceptionally warm receptions in both London and Brighton. Particularly impressive for a band playing short and snappy alt-rock songs to a crowd assembled to watch technical prog.
Hypophora’s talents shine through most conspicuously in Karum Cooper’s ripping, John Frusciante-inspired guitar solos and Katie McConnell’s astoundingly powerful, soulful and bluesy voice, which is still in full force despite a couple of weeks of touring. But, much like Toska themselves, Hypophora operate very much as a single unit, with none of them obviously clamouring for more than an equal share of the spotlight. Their short, snappy set clearly wins over new friends on both nights, and I expect that was also the case on the other dates of the tour. Let’s hope that trend continues for them through 2019. It will be richly deserved.
I had been particularly looking forward to seeing Toska on this tour, as it represents the first opportunity to watch the band after properly getting acquainted with their excellent debut album, Fire By the Silos. Although, in the event, ‘seeing’ them, in any literal sense, is something of an overstatement. I extract myself from the crowd between bands for a smoke, and find I am part of a tiny minority that do so. So when I return to the room, the combination of its shape, a capacity crowd, the liberal use of a smoke machine (there’s probably an irony in there somewhere) and the band’s new lighting rig effectively back-lighting them, means that I can hardly see anything beyond vague shapes moving in coloured fog. Not that this is a total disaster, as there’s plenty in the music to hold my attention.
The new songs sound great live, the new lights really add to the atmosphere, and the hometown crowd whips up possibly the most active pit I’ve seen at an instrumental prog show since watching And So I Watch You From Afar at ArcTanGent festival. Toska have been playing numerous tracks from Fire By the Silos live for some time, but after properly soaking myself in the recordings, I am able to fully appreciate their performance on a deeper level than nodding along to the crushingly heavy breakdown in “Abomasum”.
Even with no vocals and minimal visuals, Toska manage to hold my attention almost completely for a full ninety-minute set. I do find myself becoming distracted by my impending train departure time, so slip out of the venue and walk back up the hill as the band are playing their encore, and I certainly don’t feel short-changed. As I said in my album review, I find it particularly refreshing that Toska have been able to write complex progressive music that still carries the loose and relaxed vibe of good friends having a jam – which appears to be precisely what they are doing. This combination of watching them perform after heavily digesting the album is just about the ideal conditions, even if it might have been nice to see the expressions on their faces once in a while.
Rest of the Rest
OK, I’ve gotten entirely too carried away with all of that – and that only represents a shade over a third of the sets I caught in a very busy month. So, I think I’d better just pick the pace up a bit now and speed through a few of the highlights from what remains:
- Having been on the road since Euroblast, both the Caligula’s Horse/Circles and the Monuments/Vola tours rolled through town. Their sets all covered pretty similar ground to Euroblast, so I don’t feel much need to repeat myself here. I will say, though, that Caligula’s Horse were mind-blowing again, and the vocalist Jim Gray’s performance of the spoken word “Inertia and the Weapon of the Wall” rendered the entire room silent before the band practically kicked us in the face with the opening riff of “The Cannon’s Mouth”. That was pretty special. Oh, and you’ll soon have the opportunity to re-live what I believe is Monuments’ largest London headline show, as the whole thing was recorded for an upcoming release. See if you can spot me.
In any normal month, I would have A LOT more to say about the return of Will Haven to these shores, with Palm Reader and The Grey in tow. However, the band have just been announced for Hellfest 2019, and are making noises about booking more shows around it, so I’m going to gamble on getting to give them a fuller treatment in a few months time. Palm Reader, too, are playing a one-off full playthrough of this year’s excellent Braille album, with Loathe in support, in mid-December. I’m definitely going to have something to say about that this time next month. The Grey, incidentally, were a really solid opener, a stripped-back, instrumental trio coming across like a post-metal Karma To Burn. They were also watched, from the front row, by Will Haven frontman, Grady Avenell, which I thought was a pretty classy move. You may recall from the very top of this article that this show fell at the end of a three day run of shows, and Will Haven’s opening two songs – “Fresno” and “Carpe Diem” was easily the most exciting ten minutes of the whole weekend. Every bit as furious as bands half their age, they kicked out a real greatest hits set, with a couple of curveball surprises including a cover of Faith No More‘s “Jizzlobber”. Good god, I hope they can sort a London date for the summer.
On one hand, it was great to see The Ocean return after a protracted absence. What’s more, the last two times that I had seen them play before going into writing hibernation had been full playthroughs of 2014’s Pelagial and having peeked at the setlist from previous dates on the tour, I was particularly excited to see some older cuts make their way back into the set amongst the new material. However, the show coincides with album release day, so whilst it is nice to be able to buy an album off the merch desk on release day, it does mean that I am largely unfamiliar with the Phanerozoic tracks. Of course, they are still engaging to hear, but I am still left with the nagging sensation that I would enjoy it even more if I knew where each track was going. So I’m sure next time will be more successful. The rendition of “Orosirian: The Great Blue Cold Now Reigns”, though, was worth the price of admission on its own.
The annual ‘Techabilitation’, Tech Fest-sponsored all-dayer returned to the New Cross Inn, which also serves as something of a reunion for the community that has built itself around the festival. A full day of bands saw some particularly promising and chunky tastes of things to come from Northern bands Dividium and The Mechanist, as well as excellent sets from perennial favourites The Hirsch Effekt and Sumer – but I’ve already said plenty about both of these bands in recent months. You know the drill. Hopefully, I will have other opportunities to write about the other two during 2019.
Armed For Apocalypse returned to the shoebox confines of The Dev almost exactly a year since their last visit, and damn near ripped our heads off in the tiny space, pushing out a fearsomely dense sound for a three-piece with no backing tracks in this uncomfortably tiny space.
As the year draws to an end, it is looking like I’m going to fall just shy of having watched 250 sets over the course of 2018, but we’ll see exactly what the final tally is in a round-up towards the end of the month.
In between avoiding Christmas shopping and concocting excuses to miss the office Christmas party (humbug), December holds dates from the mysterious Zeal and Ardor, that Palm Reader/Loathe show I mentioned earlier, a sad farewell to local heroes Bad Sign, who will be playing their final show and the year will be wrapped up in a big bow by the legendary Clutch at the equally legendary Brixton Academy. That’s my kind of Christmas party.