Good lord, it’s been a big month. It’s not necessarily been a high-volume month in terms of the quantity of shows, but the quality has been incredibly high. Some special, one-off sets and a pair of outstanding album release shows mean that I have a lot to say. So much, in fact, that I’m going to save a couple of shows from the end of the month for the July edition of this column. I’m sure you can wait a bit longer to hear about my trip back to the nineties with Senser and Collapsed Lung, and my voyage into post-rock with Tangled Thoughts of Leaving and Jo Quail. Instead, let’s kick things off with two very different shows from post metal overlords Amenra.
Weekend of Ra Part 1 – Amenra Acoustic at Bush Hall
It’s not completely unheard of for Amenra to perform acoustically, but it is rare enough to be treated as a legitimately special event. Ahead of their headline show at Desertfest on the weekend, Amenra arrive in London a few days early to give us one of these special performances in celebration of their twentieth anniversary as a band. How jolly nice of them. As a restored Edwardian dance hall that first opened it’s doors over 100 years ago, Bush Hall’s high ceilings and ornate trimmings help to give the show a proper sense of occasion.
Tonight’s support act is AA Williams, embarking on a busy summer of festivals and prestigious support slots, she is following the lead of the headliners, and playing special, stripped back, piano-led re-interpretations of her songs. Public transport delays unfortunately mean that I don’t arrive in the room until she is already onstage. Blast. Accompanied by a pair of guitarists providing mostly atmospherics, and no rhythm section, the already melancholic tracks become incredibly delicate and subtle. It doesn’t take long to get drawn into these bleak, wistful soundscapes, and it’s hard to think of a more appropriate opening act. I will say, though, that I am still looking forward to seeing a ‘full’ AA Williams set, as I do think the extra dynamics of the original versions will be extraordinary, but I get that chance in early June at the Portals festival. So I expect I will have more to say on her next month. Watch this space.
Before we get to Amenra’s set itself, I do have a bit of a confession to make. Despite the fact that since first encountering them at the Cult of Luna-curated Beyond The Redshift festival in 2014, I have religiously been to every London show since (Church of Ra, indeed), I haven’t ever gotten especially well acquainted with the albums. However extraordinary the live Amenra experience is – and we will talk about that more in a few pararaphs time – I haven’t ever felt quite compelled enough to invest the time in getting properly acquainted with them. Although, I will add that I’ve been listening to Mass VI whilst writing this, and enjoying it more than I ever have before, but what the hell. The point of the confession is that, going in to this show, I didn’t know any Amenra song well enough to recognise the acoustic version of it.
At least the diligent gremlins who keep setlist.fm updated have been quietly at work, so I can at least say that Amenra pulled together a genuinely career-spanning collection of songs to reinterpret, and threw in a couple of extra treats as well. Indeed, the one song I do recognise is a cover of Tool’s “Parabola”. This is particularly fitting, because without the gigantic slabs of post-metal noise as his backdrop, frontman Colin H. van Eeckhout moderates his voice down from his impassioned howls to a Keenan-esque melodious whisper. If the whole thing wasn’t bleak enough already, an extra layer of mournfulness is added by the presence of a cellist onstage with them. It really is unspeakably beautiful, a proper ‘eyes closed’ event. The band arrange themselves onstage seated in an inwardly-facing circle, with Colin assuming his customary position with his back to the audience. Behind them, a monochrome video backdrop shows a procession of lingering, abstract shots of various places of worship. Not, of course, that I spend much time watching it – as I say have my eyes closed.
If there is one fly in the ointment, it is that a (thankfully) tiny minority of punters haven’t quite grasped the etiquette for an acoustic show. This is a particular surprise, as even their normal electric sets usually hush the audience into an awed and reverent silence. But some, people, and especially a chap standing somewhere close behind me, can’t seem to cope with being respectful, and continues to prattle to his companion at a normal speaking volume. It seems (as it’s difficult not to eavesdrop) that it’s all a bit too gentle for him, which is as bizarre as his behaviour is rude. But, obviously, we are British and so nobody directly confronts him. I quell the steadily rising irritation that grows every time he pointlessly opens his mouth through simply moving away and standing with people mature enough to stand quietly for an hour or so to fully drink in this rare spectacle.
It is often said that the acid test for quality songwriting – especially metal songwriting – is for any given song in question to withstand the transition to its most stripped back form. Tonight, Amenra prove themselves to be master songwriters, and I leave with a particular appreciation for the interplay between the two guitar parts, the subtleties of which are often more obscured by the sheer force of their normal sound. It would be fair to say that, if forced to choose, I do prefer the crushing majesty of their electric shows, but as a one-off treat, tonight’s show was a masterclass in turning songs which usually hit with the unrelenting force of an oil tanker hitting a bridge into delicate butterflies. And, what’s more, I only have two days to wait to see them play a regular set. Result.
Weekend of Ra Part 2 – Amenra Electric at Desertfest
Desertfest is not my natural environment. Now in its seventh year, the festival commandeers a total of five venues of various sizes on Camden High Street for a full weekend doom, stoner and stoner doom. It’s a beards, beer and bongs kind of weekend… Or, at least it would be were there not stringent bag checks every time you entered one of the venues. Over the years, it has established itself as a cornerstone of a scene that I, at best, skirt around the periphery of. Indeed, I have splurged the £40 on a day ticket on the strength of Amenra’s headline set alone. I had also hoped to catch my favourite Swiss hardcore lunatics Coilguns detonate themselves on the tiny fourth stage at The Dev, but frustratingly, they clash with Amenra. All is not completely lost, as they will be back in the city in July with Cult Leader and Birds In Row. Phew.
Whilst I didn’t especially mind paying the ticket price for one set, I thought I may as well get my money’s worth and headed into Camden mid-afternoon to see what else was happening, and maybe have a serendipitous discovery. Indeed, that can’t happen unless you go and see stuff you know nothing about, so it was worth a bit of a gamble.
The day didn’t start particularly auspiciously, as after picking up my wristband from a tent in the alley outside The Black Heart, actually getting in to one of the venues was proving difficult. I found out, after failing to get anywhere near the stage in The Black Heart or The Underworld and squeezing into a corner of The Dev, that a band on the main stage in the Electric Ballroom had been forced to cancel at the last second due to catastrophic equipment failure, which explained the crush everywhere else. And then, when the band I’d managed to get in to see – Heads – actually started playing, I discovered it wasn’t really worth the effort. Sounding like a slightly more muscular Dinosaur Jr, or a particularly lethargic post-hardcore band, they don’t really hold my attention. But the stop had at least served as a rendezvous with my companion for the day, so all was not lost.
With neither of us having strong opinions on any of the bands playing before the headliners, and harbouring minor concerns about the capacity of the main room of this multi-venue event, we decide to head into that venue and watch the two bands playing before Amenra – Stoned Jesus and Kadaver. We arrive just as Ukranian trio Stoned Jesus are starting their set, and find the room is virtually at capacity. Had you asked me to guess what Stoned Jesus sounded like before walking in, I think I would have been pretty much spot-on. Big, fuzzy riffs galore. The jubilant roar that erupts from the crowd as the band launch into “I’m The Mountain”, what transpires to be a fifteen minute desert-prog epic, heralds what is unquestionably the highlight of the set.
They are followed by Kadaver, a power trio from Germany keeping the spirit of late seventies hard rock well and truly alive with a spirited and particularly well executed collection of riffy barnstormers. Neither band is one that I would normally seek out proactively, but their sets give me a bit of a peek into a scene I usually overlook. There are clearly many people in the room who are long-standing fans of the bands, and experiencing bands for the first time from amid such a receptive and appreciative crowd is just about the best environment. Whilst I’m still not sure that I’d go out of my way to see either band again, or – particularly in the case of Kadaver – choose to listen to them at home, but they are both pleasant surprises, making the gamble to come down well in advance of Amenra’s set a worthwhile one.
Amenra’s set starts with Colin walking out alone, kneeling with his back to the audience in the centre of the stage and starting to beat out the slow, double-tap pulse of “Boden”. It is a ritualistic introduction which neatly sets the scene, and one they have employed on at least their last two trips to London. When the full weight of the song hits, all anyone can do is pay attention. The set is an expertly controlled dynamic rollercoaster, albeit one that contrast quiet with loud rather than slow with fast and, again, it feels most natural to close my eyes for the majority of the set. The video backdrop is there for those who still have their eyes open and can’t quite see Colin’s tortured, emotive performance. Who knew that the back of someone’s head could be so expressive?
Of course, as this is a festival headline set, the audience has a greater proportion of punters unfamiliar with the band than one would find at a headline show. Anticipating this means I’m already prepared for a greater degree of crowd chatter through the quiet moments, and so it doesn’t bother me as much as it did at the acoustic show. And, in any case, the moment they stomp on their distortion pedals, it’s not possible to hear any other sound at all. Having already had my fill of Amenra at their quietest over in Shepherds Bush, I am here for the noise. And, boy, do they deliver. The set concludes with “Diaken”, which ends abruptly, and the band silently file offstage. The discipline of not succumbing to the usual “is every having a good time” between-song hype schtick only adds to the overall potency of the show.
The only other post metal band that, for me, came close to the awesome power of Amenra live was Isis, and it still looks like we won’t be seeing them on a stage again in the foreseeable future, so as it stands, I am comfortable stating that Amenra are the single most essential post-metal live act. Part recital, part ceremony, part exorcism, it is a powerfully enthralling experience, and something any fan of anything remotely ‘post’ should experience at least once. You have been told.
Employed To Serve album release – Highbury Garage
I’m excited for this one. I’d spent much of the fortnight leading up to this show listening to Employed To Serve‘s third album, Eternal Forward Motion, so that I could write my review, so I was primed and ready to hear a selection of the tracks make the transition to the stage. I had been at the release show for the previous album, The Warmth of a Dying Sun, too – in the considerably cosier environs of the Old Blue Last, and that show still holds the record for the rowdiest, largest, sweatiest show I’ve ever seen in that particular room. But with the venue for tonight holding about five times as many people, it’s clear that Employed To Serve have levelled up. What’s more, their two hand-picked supports for the show, Loathe and Devil Sold His Soul, are equally masters of their respective crafts, making this the most personally exciting three band bill of the year to date. We will do well here.
I’ve already had many good things to say about Loathe over the last year, and they deliver another strong set. There does seem to be just a hint of fatigue creeping in, though. That isn’t especially surprising – they’ve been playing broadly the same songs since the release of The Cold Sun in 2017, and after touring as hard as they have for as long as they have, there are subtle signs that they are starting to tire of them a little. Indeed, even though their stage presence is always strong, they are at their most potent when rolling out a brand new track that bodes particularly well for the future. The band’s relentless touring is definitely paying off, though – the show isn’t sold out, but it’s also not far off, and the majority of the crowd is through the door in time to catch their opening set. Their commitment to putting on a show is earning them a loyal and steadily growing fanbase. As I’ve said previously, I doubt they’re going to be playing opening slots for much longer.
It would be fair to say that long-term scene stalwarts Devil Sold His Soul have been rather quiet since the flurry of activity following the ten year anniversary of their debut album, A Fragile Hope, in 2017. This is the first time they have played in 2019, and sandwiched between two of the rowdiest bands on the scene means that there appear to be a smaller proportion of fans in the audience than there were for Loathe. This actually suits myself and my gig buddy, as we take the risk that there won’t be a significant moshpit to avoid, and head right down to the front of the stage to fully soak ourselves in their expansive post-metal/post-hardcore hybrid.
Now fully settled into their dual-vocalist line-up following the return of original vocalist Ed Gibbs alongside his replacement Paul Green, it’s hard to believe they’ve been largely inactive considering the strength of their performance. Indeed, it’s probably the best set I’ve seen from them since the A Fragile Hope playthrough, at least. My understanding is that they have been sequestered away writing new material, and so potentially their return to the stage tonight will soon be followed by more shows and some new tunes to play at them. The strength of tonight’s performance certainly speaks of a band that was hungry to get out into the wild again. That has to be a good thing.
Which leads us to Employed To Serve. The band file out in their now-trademark windbreakers to a hero’s welcome. As Justine stares out over the crowd, it’s possible to catch little glimmers what seems to be an internal conflict between wanting to maintain her dour, aggressive stage persona and wanting to crack a big grin at the huge response. The album may have only been released that day, but the title track dropped as a single a week or two previously – so the crowd greet it as an old friend as the band use it to launch into their set.
The set is relentless and, slightly surprisingly, drawn exclusively from Eternal Forward Motion and its predecessor, The Warmth of a Dying Sun. Slightly more than half is drawn from the latter than the former – but lead singles “Force Fed” and shout-along anthem “Harsh Truth” are undoubted highlights of the set, linked together by instrumental hide-a-guitar-change interlude “Sore Tooth Twin”, as they are on the album itself. Because I had spent much of the previous fortnight soaking myself in Eternal Forward Motion so that I could write my album review, I am impatient to hear more of the new material played on stage – but I guess that will come later in the year.
As good as Employed To Serve’s albums are, they still don’t quite replicate the unbridled fury of the band in the live environment. The riffs come thick and fast, with “Lethargy” strategically placed to give the pit just a little bit of a breather before it’s incendiary outro cranks the tempo back up for a second assault. And I really do not think I’ve heard anything heavier coming out of a venue PA than the outro of “Harsh Truth” this year. Because I am old and brittle, I am going to hurt in the morning. But it will have been worth it. Employed to Serve comfortably prove why, in just two years they’ve been able to jump from playing their album release show in a (admittedly beyond capacity) shoebox room above a pub to a venue of this size.
Employed To Serve are on a roll, a few steps further along the road that Loathe now appear to be on. It’s hard to know whether the ferocity of their live sound would really survive the transition to venues much bigger than the 600 capacity here, but right now they are in a particularly sweet spot. Their third stage headline slot at ArcTanGent is going to be a prime contender for the biggest moshpit of the whole weekend, and I’m definitely going to be there to see it. Employed To Serve are rapidly becoming one of the best bands the UK had to offer.
We Never Learned To Live album release – The Black Heart
I secured my ticket for this show on the day it was announced, but the main reason was not that I was looking forward to We Never Learned To Live‘s return to active service after a protracted absence, but because of the support act, Curse These Metal Hands. I should probably also point out that the We Never Learned To Live’s new album, The Sleepwalk Transmissions, plopped through my letterbox a week or two before the show thanks to my monthly Holy Roar Records subscription. A couple of quick exploratory spins had already told me it would be worth sticking around to watch the main event. Nevertheless, it was to finally see what fruit the Curse These Metal Hands collaboration between members of Conjurer and Pijn had borne. The project had, to date, only broken cover once – at ArcTanGent last year and, to be honest, I have no idea what to expect from them. I guess there’s only one way to find out.
Before we get there, we have an opening set from Modern Rituals. Making the bill a three-for-three of Holy Roar-signed bands, the London-based quartet kick out an engaging mixture of fuzzy grunge and post-hardcore angularity, with bursts of dreamy pop and angry rage peppered throughout. This is my first encounter with the band, and they hold my attention completely.
So, after that pleasant surprise, Curse These Metal Hands set about squeezing three vocalist/guitarists along with bass and drums onto the compact Black Heart stage. The eager knot of fans in front of the stage builds, and as they start to play I really do not know what is going to happen. With a name seemingly drawn from a Futurama quote, it is still possible that the collaboration will be closer to a parody, or at least considerably less serious than either of the main bands. And I didn’t really know if that would be a good thing.
In any case, my fears were unfounded and the set is an absolute triumph. The material really does feel like a legitimate collaboration, with elements of both constituent bands audible, yet still seperate and distinct from both of them. Coming across like a mixture of Baroness and Wavering Radiant era Isis in a particularly good mood, the set is an absolute delight, firmly vanquishing any concerns I may have had to the extent of making them look absurd.
With three voices and three guitars at their disposal, the sound is thick and rich without sounding fussy or cluttered. There seem to be numerous deft little flourishes that will become especially satisfying with more familiarity, even with the songs sounding accessible on this first listen. A review copy of the album itself has just dropped into my inbox, so I will save my more detailed thoughts for now. But I can say that I find it hard to believe that fans of either Pijn or Conjurer will be disappointed by their output. Get hyped.
The room is full to bursting by the time We Never Learned To Live start their set, so from my vantage point at the very back of the room, I can’t really see anything except the tops of a couple of heads. I can, however, feel the benefit of the air conditioning on potentially the first night of the year thats really needed it, and I can appreciate the particularly high quality of the mix. I may have only spun The Sleepwalk Transmissions a couple of times prior to the show, but I recognise each track as it appears. That has to be a good thing.
The unexpected highlight of the set for me personally, though, is a cover of “The Realist” by metalcore pioneers Poison The Well. The last time I heard any Poison The Well songs played live was waaaay back when the band themselves acted as main support on Dillinger Escape Plan‘s Miss Machine tour. That was an awfully long time ago. I had even just been thinking how We Never Learned To Live had elements of Poison The Well’s spirit just before they played the track. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fish out my dusty copy of You Come Before You when I got home. I hadn’t realised quite how much I missed that band.
We Never Learned To Live will also be appearing at ArcTanGent, so Im definitely going to spend some more time with The Sleepwalk Transmissions before then, so I can properly appreciate that set. And, taking the night as a whole, it is yet more confirmation that the phrase ‘Holy Roar Records band’ is pretty much a sure-fire mark of quality.
Festival season is now upon us. I have my first weekend adventure in early June, at the Portals festival. Agent Fresco are headlining the first day, and like many Heavy Bloggers, I am completely besotted with them. It will be my 11th time seeing them play, and with the recent announcement that they have recently started to record their third album, maybe we will get a new song or two. Firm favourites Palm Reader, Three Trapped Tigers and Hypophora will also be appearing over the weekend, as will AA Williams, so I expect I will have much to say about that.
June will also see me taking a trip down memory lane with a new-look Stone Temple Pilots, a night of chaotic hardcore courtesy of Cult Leader, Coilguns and Birds In Row. Then, whatever is left of my face is likely to be demolished by a return visit to the city at the end of the month from Will Haven, with Conjurer in tow. No rest for the wicked.