The Load In
With the festival season now (mostly) behind us, September is usually the beginning of peak gigging season for me, running through to a couple of weeks before Christmas. But not this year, because I spent the first three weeks of the month swanning around in Peru. How jolly. So there was a whole bunch of stuff that I missed, most notably an opportunity to see Amenra open for Sisters of Mercy at the Roundhouse. Nuts. But I really can’t complain. I did also discover that I was actually in Lima on the very same night that Caligula’s Horse played a show on their South American tour. The kicker is that I found out about it AFTER the show had taken place. Double nuts. There may have been a short, sharp deployment of language when I saw their post the following morning. Caligula’s Horse are a great live band under normal circumstances, but seeing them on the other side of the planet would have been extra special. But we did have a 7:30am flight the following day, so an exciting late night might not have been the wisest choice. You win some, you lose some – and I think that the adventure overall counts as a win, just not one I should really spend much more time talking about here – we’re not Travel Blog Is Travel, after all.
Fortunately, in the final week of the month I did manage to get myself to two dramatically different shows, and I have a little something else for the future to write a few lines about, so all is not completely lost for our purposes here. Phew.
Voyager @ 229
Under normal circumstances, unless you are a hyper-popular act doing some kind of special set piece event, playing two nights in a row in the same city is a bold but somewhat foolhardy move, and one that one might expect to lead to at least one disappointingly empty room. Voyager have been making regular trips over to Europe from their native Australia (he says manfully staring down the barrel of an obvious pun) for the last five years or so, and always put on a dependably excellent show, so I head down to the second, smaller show of the two safe in the knowledge I’d see something worth watching, but at least half expecting to have a fair bit of space around me as I watched.
Certainly not for the first or last time, I was quite breathtakingly wrong with my expectations on the crowd size, and the venue is close to sold out. Shows what I know. Before we get on to the show itself, it is worth pausing just for a moment to mention the distinctly non-standard show that Voyager had played across town the night before. Billed as ‘Space Rocks’ it was a hybrid event run by the European Space Agency in the smaller secondary venue, called Indigo, of the huge entertainment complex that began life as the Millennium Dome. After a day of lectures and talks from a variety of science types (with top billing given to Tim Peake, previously an ISS resident), the evening is given over to performances from Voyager, Amplifier and Anathema. By all accounts, it seems to have been a very successful evening – and more evidence that London really can deliver something for everyone.
Opening the show tonight are Shattered Skies, a long-term fixture on the scene whose uplifting, melodic and poppy prog-metal is just about perfect for getting us in the mood for the main event. It would be fair to say, though, that the band have not had an especially smooth ride. Line-up changes, in particular, have prevented the band from really capitalising on their early momentum, which is a pity. However, the band found their current shape during the creation of last year’s second album, Muted Neon, and now appear to have found their stride again.
This does mean that the oldest songs in the set are now at least five or six years old. As I’ve now lost count of exactly how many times I’ve seen Shattered Skies since my first encounter with them at Tech Fest 2013, this does lead to a creeping sense of deja vu – but the flip side to that is that they are undeniably great songs, and the performance is particularly tight and well-honed. Singer Gerry has both a powerful voice and a slightly flamboyant stage presence that further helps to sell the tracks to a crowd who appear to be largely unfamiliar with them.
Without question, Shattered Skies earn themselves some new fans through the course of their set. Their bombastic sound is immediately accessible, and each track is rewarded with a steadily warmer response from the equally steadily growing early crowd. Shattered Skies may not have had the smoothest ride in terms of their overall career, but there can be no doubt that tonight’s show has been an unqualified success.
We have a bit of a change of pace as tour support Coldbones, joining Voyager for the first of four UK dates, with the instrumental trio venturing deep into post-rock territory. Sandwiched between two perky, poppy prog-metal bands, the band certainly give a spirited performance. Their guitarist comes equipped with stage moves more commonly seen in hardcore bands, and an attempted high kick off-balances him, with his amp only just propping him up, keeping him on his feet and playing. Points for effort, there.
However, the band are an instrumental post-rock trio and sound pretty much exactly how you would expect an instrumental post-rock trio to sound. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but there’s also precious little to distinguish them from the quite considerable number of similar acts on that circuit. It is a risk that all bands operating with a bare-minimum configuration face, and Coldbones haven’t quite yet found their USP. But with that said, I will have another opportunity to watch Coldbones in the very near future, but we’ll talk about that a bit more in a little while.
Which brings us to Voyager. As I said earlier, having seen them perform around half a dozen times before, I was confident that I knew what I was going to see on stage. I was not, however, fully prepared for the potency of the crowd response. Voyager have always been warmly received, but tonight’s audience seems to contain a considerable number of utterly besotted fans and so as the band open their set with “Hyperventilating”, the room goes batshit. This is a surprise, but a very pleasant one. Indeed, the chap stood immediately in front of me is so intent on bouncing up and down, pumping his fist and chanting ‘hey hey hey’ along with the best of every song that I have to reposition myself in the room to remove the distraction from my line of sight. But he was definitely having a lovely time.
Later, a slightly breathless couple tap me on the shoulder to ask, having arrived late, whether the band have already played “Colours”, the lead single from the band’s soon-to-be-released new album. As luck would have it, it is the very next song in the set and is greeted by possibly the very strongest reaction of the whole night, which is remarkable considering the song was only released a matter of weeks previously. The crowd can also be heard singing the choruses and – at one point – even Scott’s guitar lines back at the stage. It is the type of reaction that suggests that the band won’t be playing their headline shows in venues this size for much longer.
And of course, this enthusiastic reaction is fully justified. Few bands look as if they are having as much fun together onstage as Voyager do, interacting with each other as well as the audience whilst perfectly executing their deceptively complex riffs. Their inspired cover of “Sandstorm”, Darude’s nightclub banger, is still present in the set, giving vocalist Danny another opportunity to wield his trusty keytar. Watching Voyager play is always an absolute joy, and with the new album set to drop in the next month, I expect that we won’t have to wait too long for them to return to our shores. When they do, I will definitely be there to see them again, and you probably should be too.
Emma Ruth Rundle & Jo Quail @ The Dome
If it feels like I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Jo Quail in these columns, it’s because I have. As I’ve probably said before, I find Jo’s solo explorations of what is possible to achieve with just an electric cello and a loop pedal for company to be utterly spellbinding, so I take every opportunity I can to watch her play. With only two acts on the bill tonight, Jo is given a 45 minute set, which means she has the time to play five of her lengthy compositions, rather than the usual three or four. Lucky us.
The Dome is probably my favourite mid-size venue, providing a nice clear sound, a high stage for easy viewing and a configuration that allows for easy movement around the space even with a capacity attendance, and the crowd swells towards that number as Jo’s set progresses. She opens her set with “White Salt Stag” and “Gold”, two staples of her live sets and, if you’ve not yet listened to any of her music, are excellent places to start. The cello has a naturally mournful sound, and the artfully controlled loops make for a hypnotic listen.
Between the songs, Jo takes the time to explain and contextualise each song, helping the unfamiliar to get a deeper understanding of what is going on beneath the surface. She has a gently humourous and self-effacing way of speaking, fully acknowledging that live looping is not without its risks. Before performing the most recent addition to the set, “Reya Pavan”, she admits that no two renditions of the song so far have gone in quite the same way. But I think that you’d have to be paying very close attention indeed to be able to spot any mistakes this time around.
Ultimately, Jo’s music is beautiful, thoughtful, captivating and almost entirely unique – which is basically a shopping list of all the things that really excite me about an artist. She’s appearing in the city once more this year, as part of the extraordinary bill of atmospheric music brought together to celebrate Mono’s twenty year anniversary, and then performing a specially commissioned piece at Roadburn early next year. Exciting times.
Last year, I saw Emma Ruth Rundle play a solo, acoustic set in support of Alcest, during Robert Smith’s Meltdown festival. That was a lovely, gentle affair, so I was intrigued to see what a full band set would be like. However, for whatever reason, I found that as I stood and watched the set, I wasn’t really being drawn into it. The downtempo, downcast sounds eminating from the stage were of course very pleasant, but I most certainly was not swept away by them. Maybe I should have invested more time in listening to her albums before the show, but after about forty minutes of listening, I realise I am paying more attention to my phone than the stage, so figure it is time to cut my losses and head for home. Emma certainly didn’t do anything wrong but, much like Coldbones supporting Voyager, I couldn’t quite find enough to hang onto in her songs. Still, it was worth a try.
Heathens To Murgatroyd Preview
I’m just going to round off this month with a little look forward to an event happening in early October. I am a big fan of the concept of a well curated, regular series of shows. Back in 1692, when I was a fresh faced teenager, I discovered and developed my love of watching all flavours of bands through regular nights hosted by a local promoter with his finger on the pulse of several scenes. My circle of friends would wander down to all of these shows, irrespective of who was actually playing (because sitting at home on the sofa was considerably less appealing before the internet was invented) and every once in a while would be blindsided by something unspeakably brilliant. That is the kind of rush I still find myself chasing to this day.
Until the end of last year, the Chaos Theory promotion team ran a regular monthly night of up-and-coming heaviness, called The Facemelter, at the Black Heart in Camden. But since that came to an end, there haven’t really been any alternatives. Until now.
Rejoicing in the name Heathens To Murgatroyd, the promoters at 229 have convened a new regular event, initially running on a quarterly basis, to showcase “a mix of Post-Metal, Metal, Sludge, Blackened Hardcore and other creative alternative genres for fans of excellent music” which certainly ticks a lot of my boxes.
Their first show is being held at 229 on Saturday 12 October, and features Oldblood, Coldbones (there they are again) Yuxa, The Sun Never Set and Symbol of Orion. Initial investigations have shown that Yuxa are a particularly intriguing proposition, and I’m fully prepared to give Coldbones another go in what would seem to be a slightly less jarring context.
Certainly, if you happen to be at a loose end on that evening, it seems like an excellent and – with only a £5 entry fee – cost effective way to introduce yourself to a hand-picked selection of some of the rising talents from the underground. And that, after all, us what we’re here for, right? I’ll no doubt have plenty to say about the night next month, but if you can come down and see it for yourself, then you probably should.