As I write these words, we are deep in the festive dead-zone, where gigs by anyone other than tribute or function bands are practically non-existent. Fortunately, in amongst the office parties and family commitments, I still managed to find a couple of shows to go to in December, and I even have a few pencilled in for early January as well, so all is not completely lost for the purposes of this column. Although, I suspect I’m more relieved about that than you are.
My 2018 gig calendar also ended slightly prematurely, after a winter cold hit me like a freight train on the last ‘normal’ working day of the year, sending me homewards with armfuls of tissues and eucalyptus flavoured placebos rather than towards Brixton Academy to see Clutch. I am told they played a blinder. But they are back pretty much every year around that sort of time, so I’m sure I won’t have long to wait to see their well-crafted riffing, in the grand scheme of things. And, indeed, well-crafted riffing is exactly what I’m going to be talking about right now, with a fond farewell to a favourite trio. Also, missing that final set means that my tally for the year rounds out at 240, which feels nice and neat and tidy.
Gig of the Month – Bad Sign @ Boston Music Room
Riffs. When you boil it down, that’s why we’re all here, right? For the overwhelming majority of us, our heads would have been first turned towards rock and/or metal by the siren song of a classic riff. Without wanting to get too pretentious and beard-stroky about it, the riff is probably the clearest, cleanest example of the transformative power of music – where just a couple of notes and maybe a pick-scrape can join forces and create a towering, monolithic groove. That groove will fill a venue to overflowing, potentially sending energetic young things into a moshpit, and older and more brittle riff enthusiasts (hello) into a bout of spirited nodding.
Croydon trio Bad Sign clearly love a riff. Somewhere in my vast merch collection lies a Bad Sign shirt bearing the slogan ‘Riff, Inc.’ Braver souls than I will possess a slightly more confrontational variant sporting the phrase ‘Pure Fucking Riff’, and I really don’t think there’s a more succinct phrase to describe the band and their attitude. However, after announcing a couple of months ago that their time as an active band was drawing to a close, tonight will be their final performance. How very sad.
Let’s face it, though – at the level of unsigned, or even indie-signed bands, keeping active is fundamentally a passion project. Passion is almost always a finite resource, so band splits are a simple fact of life. I’ve been moving in these circles for long enough to take a philosophical approach to bands throwing in the towel, but Bad Sign’s decision hits harder than most. After first seeing them in 2014, somewhere around the release of their second EP, Destroy, their name has regularly appeared on my gig calendar and I have watched them play at least a dozen times prior to this evening’s swansong. But before we get to that final set, we have a pleasing and surprising pair of support acts to help mark the occasion.
Opening the show are Chapter and Verse. There’s quite a buzz building around the quartet, and it’s not hard to see why. This is the first time I’ve seen them play in a little over a year, and it is obvious that the band have matured and progressed in the interim. They deliver a set of upbeat and perky alt-rock bangers with a layer of post-hardcore spikiness and a similar ear for the anthemic that Muse had before it became muffled by their own pretentiousness. Chapter and Verse give a spirited performance, helmed by the increasingly confident and startlingly talented frontman Josh, making full use of an impressively broad vocal range. With a new EP set to drop at the end of January 2019, I fully expect this will not be the last time the band features in this column this year. Promising stuff.
The main support for tonight’s show has been such a closely guarded secret that most of us weren’t even aware that a third band was playing at all, with their spot on the running order not even kept warm with a ‘TBC’ type placeholder. In retrospect, it was forehead-smackingly obvious that Press To Meco would be popping their heads in to send off their pals.
In a rather neat bit of symmetry, the last show I saw in 2017 was Press To Meco headlining at Hackney Oslo, with Bad Sign in support. With the release of their Machine-produced second album Here’s To The Fatigue dropping earlier this year and some choice support slots (the show falls just days after an extensive European run opening sizeable venues for Shinedown) their star is firmly in the ascendant. So it is a mark of their general humility and respect for their pals that they remain entirely silent about their appearance, leaving the spotlight for Bad Sign alone.
So what this means for me is a rare opportunity to watch Press To Meco without much of their steadily increasing fanbase, so I stand right at the very front. Having watched these guys for around as long as Bad Sign, and seeing the wider world gradually cotton on to their supremely well-crafted and hook-drenched pop-metal, to the point where it became necessary to keep this set under wraps, has been tremendously satisfying, and I fully expect to not have many more opportunities to see them play in quite such an intimate environment. Here’s hoping.
To help get people into a festive mood, the band emerge sporting a variety of ill-advised Christmas party attire. Obligatory garish woolly jumpers. Bells. Bobble hats. Guitarist Luke appears resplendent in an oversized pair of comedy glasses and an equally large felt elf hat. The glasses fly off as the band hit the very first note of the very first song, and the hat falls down to completely obscure his vision in the second, so Luke’s costume doesn’t make it past the first bar of the set, but points for effort.
Press To Meco give us a necessarily short and snappy set, reprising the show that setlist.fm tells me they had been playing on the Shinedown tour – which is effectively the very choicest cuts of Here’s To The Fatigue, after the band were forced to drop the only song from debut album Good Intent to keep the show running to time. Of course, their three-part harmonies are as effortlessly on point as always and the set is peppered with feel-good moments, including some very warm words about their good friends in Bad Sign. Considering that “A Quick Fix” is a very strong contender for my favourite song of the year, and I had no idea that I would be watching them play it when I got up that morning, this was about as pleasant a surprise as they come.
There is a lot of love in the room as Bad Sign take to the stage for their final set. Opening with “Confession”, the first track from Destroy, a spirited few at the front are seemingly taking this last chance to dance particularly seriously. Bad Sign’s signature move is to build their songs around a gigantic pay-off riff, in much the same way deathcore bands do with an open-string breakdown, and the band and the crowd alike throw themselves into these moments as they appear through the set with a genuine vigour. Clearly, everyone involved is intent on making this a night to remember. To mark the occasion, a clutch of tracks from 2012’s De L’Amour were wheeled out of retirement, to the obvious delight of many long-standing fans in the room. Some of these fans, it is worth mentioning, had travelled internationally to be at the show.
It’s obviously an emotionally-charged evening, and the context of the final show gives some of the songs an added poignancy. One of the things that makes Bad Sign’s songs so compelling is the juxtaposition of the brawn and bravado of these riffs with the raw emotional vulnerability of bassist/vocalist Joe Appleford’s lyrics and delivery – and he is at his most passionate this evening. “Closure” sees Joe repeatedly singing ‘…for the last time…’, and its hard not to be a little moved by that. Indeed, as the set progresses towards that literal final song, both Joe and guitarist Jonathan are visibly having a harder and harder time keeping it together. Whilst it is an unfortunate truth that Bad Sign never quite managed to attract the number of fans they really deserved, it is also clear from the warmth of the atmosphere that they really did mean something, especially to the people gathered in the room tonight. Myself very much included.
Of course, it’s not the most technically perfect or tightest performance I have ever seen from them, but nobody in the room could give the tiniest shit about that. We’re here for the riffs. And Bad Sign delivered. They backed up their truck, and dumped a whole trailer full of riffs – served up with Joe’s fantastically meaty bass tone – on us for one last time. And it was glorious. The set culminated with probably my favourite track from their discography, “The Recidivist”, complete with it’s truly apocalyptic Riff To End All Riffs. Nothing can follow that. There will be no encore. There will be tears.
Now, given these circumstances, I won’t be completely surprised if we do see the occasional reunion show from them somewhere down the line, but for now, we sadly must say goodbye to Bad Sign. At least we still have the recordings, especially Destroy and 2017 album Live & Learn, but for me these songs really came alive when Bad Sign were actually playing them in front of me. I’m definitely going to miss them. Thanks for all the riffs, lads. It’s been fun.
Best of the Rest – Palm Reader @ Boston Music Room
It’s fair to say that Palm Reader have had a hell of a year. The band’s third album, Braille, was released back in April and the significant jump in quality turned a great many more heads in their direction. Since that point, it has seemed like the band have barely stopped moving, with a string of high-profile tours and festival appearances. To round the year off, the band have decided to play what they have stated will be the only complete live playthrough of Braille as their largest headline show to date.
Tonight’s show is opened up by Sharkteeth Grinder, a trio consisting of a drummer, a bass player with a gigantic fuzzy tone and an awful lot of shouting. It’s certainly a spirited and energetic performance, with their frontman spending most of the set out amongst the crowd, climbing on the bar, writhing around and smashing the mic against his head. It is unquestionably a spectacle, but right now there does seem to be a bit too much noise and not quite enough signal. But, if nothing else, it’s hard to avoid paying attention, even if it is difficult to tell precisely where one song ends and the next begins.
Next up are I, The Mapmaker, who seem to be giving the melodic end of metalcore a slightly poetic twist which helps to overcome the entirely senseless prejudices I have against the “I, the <Noun>” naming convention. Again, there’s still a hint of the work-in-progress in the set, but it does seem like they’re a lot further along. It feels a bit like they’re still searching for their sound a bit – but it’s also clear that’s there’s a spark of something – especially of passion – in there worth keeping an eye on, because they could develop into something quite special.
I had some big words to say about Loathe following their triumphant set at Tech Fest over the summer. All of that is still true, so I won’t repeat myself too much here. Even with just the two new songs on this year’s split EP with Holding Absence, there is a palpable sense of progression in the songwriting already, despite debut album The Cold Sun only dropping last year. Those new songs sound devastating in a room this size, and the effect is magnified by the visuals of their performance. I can’t honestly think of a band amongst Loathe’s contemporaries – or indeed many of their elders – who bring quite so much presence to the stage with them. Watching the band in full flight is incredibly exciting and, as I said back in July, feels like a taste of the future.
I know there is some difference of opinion over whether album playthrough shows are even a thing worth doing – and, in short, I think it depends on the album. One minor problem with the format conflict is that the songs a band would normally use to grab an album listener’s attention at the top of the running order are the ones they would save until last in the live setlist. Which can lead to a setlist which blows its load a bit prematurely and led Metallica to take the extraordinary set of playing the Black album in reverse order.
After using album interlude “Dorothy” as an intro tape, the band launch into a no-nonsense top-to-bottom run-through of the album. This means that in the first ten minutes of the set we are battered about the head and neck by “Swarm”, “Internal Winter” (another Song Of The Year contender, by the way) and “Like A Wave”. All uptempo, riffy stompers, reminiscent of a time that the term metalcore wasn’t so closely associated with directionless breakdowns and a big part of the reason the album ended up in my top ten for the year. Thrilling.
The tempo drops with “Inertia”, and the band are joined by Matt Reynolds of Haggard Cat for some guest vocals, and the crowd can also be heard in full voice for the more melodic parts. Obviously, as the album displays a gentler, more expansive side to the band, the show feels very different to the other sets I’ve seen them play this year, which were very brash and in your face – but the atmospheric guitars of “Breach” force a change of pace and of mood. In turn, this enhanced dynamic range gives the shift back up to their normal volumes an extra heft – and the album’s tracklisting leads us seamlessly through these dynamic peaks and troughs – proving it is firmly and album, and not just a collection of songs. That’s an important distinction.
There must have been songs which Palm Reader had never played live before this evening, but they drew no particular attention to the fact they were being debuted in the set either in word or in deed, and each song was performed with the same assured passion as the cornerstone songs from their regular sets like “Internal Winter”. It does appear that album closer “A Lover, A Shadow” is among this group of fresh tracks, and I really can’t believe it won’t be aired again. Similarly, as an album Braille does translate remarkably well to the playthrough environment – I am reminded most strongly of Employed To Serve‘s equally successful playthrough of Warmth of a Dying Sun earlier in the year – not least for showing that there is scope for growth in the band well beyond moshpit and stagediver friendly hardcore anthems. So I won’t be especially surprised if this doesn’t end up being the only playthrough show they do. I certainly would be happy to watch it again.
Rest of the rest
- Try as I might, I just can’t seem to get a handle on Zeal and Ardor. So I figured that going to see them play a headline show at the Electric Ballroom would help. And it did. A bit. I am now sure, for example, that the live show is absolutely a spectacle that everyone interested in extreme or experimental music should witness at least once. I am still not sure, however, if I actually like it. I think the problems I have with it stem from the powerful aversions I have to the standard black metal tropes, and the longer they are prominent in any given song, the less I find myself enjoying them. But I do also know that this matters a lot less when I’m watching them live. What’s more, I have no doubt that their sound won’t stay the same for long, and I suspect that it may sail into more favourable waters for my personal tastes at some point. The word ‘original’ is somewhat overused, but it is absolutely fair to class Zeal and Ardor in a genre of one, and that is not something you get to say very often.
- Incendia Music Management held a Christmas Party/band showcase night at the rather under-used 229 venue on Great Portland Street – a conveniently central venue with a reliable sound, sensible layout and a reasonably priced bar. It’s a shame I’ve barely had half a dozen reasons to go there in the ten years or so it has been operational. Tonight we get strong sets from Temples On Mars, The Five Hundred and As Everything Unfolds, but the main reason I head down is to see the return of Brutai after having taken most of the year off. Tonight’s show is the first for their new drummer, as well as for two new songs. “The Upside Down”, in particular, suggests that the new material, due to drop in 2019, will be worth paying attention to. I should probably also point out that I’ve now seen Brutai around fifteen times – so I fully expect I’ll have plenty more opportunities to write about them when they return to active service later in the year.
Unsurprisingly, this January is a vast and desolate wasteland, largely bereft of signs of life. But there are a couple of little oases to be found if you look hard enough. A trio of bands from the broader Tech Fest community, Derange, Pteroglyph and Mask Of Judas will be popping up at various little shows throughout the month, so I’ll definitely have some reasons to get off the sofa. Oh, and Boss Keloid will be returning to the Black Heart on its final weekend. I’m quite disproportionately excited about that one.
I suppose, considering I probably won’t have quite as much to say about shows as I normally do, I’ll have a bit of space to talk about something else as well next month. I have no idea right now what that will be, but if there’s any particular subject you’d like me to waffle around, then drop me a note in a readily available comment box to nudge me in that direction.