Disco Loadout – October 2019: Life of Agony, Battles, Conjurer and more

The Load-In

Now this is more like it.  After a couple of leaner months, we can always depend on October to deliver the goods with a brace of great shows.  So much so, that I can pick and choose a bit on what I am going to write about in my usual detail.  I’m not going to dwell for long on things that didn’t really float my boat, and I’ve jettisoned at least one show entirely.  Despite having spent a relatively pleasant evening in the company of Pelican and Slow Crush, I can’t really find much to say about either except that Slow Crush were pretty, but the sameyness of the whole set makes it pretty dreary, and Pelican were pleasingly riffy.  So there you have it.

October’s batch of shows, as you will see, is a pleasing mix of styles, and includes a third bite of the cherry this year for two excellent, but very different, bands.

Tides From Nebula @ The Underworld

The decision to attend this show was a toughie, as my much-beloved Sumer are playing a headline set just around the corner at The Black Heart simultaneously. But Tides From Nebula have come all the way from Poland for the show, and their latest album, From Voodoo To Zen, showcased something of a change in direction, so scarcity value won the day in the end.

Both supports fit under the broad ‘post-‘ umbrella, with Mountainscape leaning more towards the metal end of that spectrum, and Tides Of Man the rock end. Mountainscape are a relatively new band, and are bolstering their three-piece configuration with the liberal use of loops. It’s not 100% successful, but it is nevertheless a promising start. Watching Tides Of Man brings back strong memories of early Maybeshewill, but although they are a relatively engaging watch, I’m not sure I would revisit them on record.
If I’m being completely honest, thats also broadly how I have felt about Tides From Nebula in the past. Having released their debut album a full ten years ago now, the band have deeply ploughed the instrumental post-rock furrow. Their last trip to the UK, in support of 2016 album Safehaven, included a slot at Tech Fest, which provided an excellent context for an hour of gentle swaying, but not much else to separate them from the crowded pack.  However, by that point the band had already slimmed down to a trio from a quartet following the departure of one of the guitarists, forcing them back to the drawing board when writing From Voodoo To Zen.

This forced rethink has brought about a shift in tone and a greater reliance on electronics. Guitarist Maciej and bassist Przemek now take the stage equipped with a bank of synths apiece, pushed right out to the far sides of the stage. Between them, and surrounding drummer Tomasz stand a forest of lighting poles, bathing the stage in warm colours. The overall vibe, from the stage presentation to the new songs themselves carries a distinctive vibe of ‘simple, but effective’. The songs are obviously still rooted in the atmospheric post-rock on which they built their reputation, but it now comes across like the soundtrack to an unwritten sci-fi movie. They manage to incorporate elements of synthwave without falling into sounding like eighties revivalists. Even the band’s older material sounds revitalised in this context. 

Proving that a change is as good as a rest, these new songs give Tides From Nebula enough of a unique selling point to clearly separate themselves from the pack. “Dopamine”, in particular, shows that there is still some uncharted territory left in these particularly well-trodden grounds, and that Tides From Nebula are intrepid enough to find them.

Heathens To Murgatroyd Vol 1 @ 229

As I said last month, I have a real soft spot for regular, well-curated events. In the right circumstances, they can become a really important nexus point around which local bands can flourish and those from further away get to play to something other than an empty room. So I was particularly pleased to hear about the inception of Heathens To Murgatroyd at 229, promising to bring bands from post-, sludge- and various flavours of -core together on what is initially planned to be a quarterly basis.  The opening event drew together five relatively disparate bands, but none of whom would really have been out of place on a Damnation Festival line-up, or maybe the now-defunct Temples. Everything has to start somewhere, and it would be fair to say that Heathens To Murgatroyd started relatively quietly. However, those who did show up arrived early and stuck around to watch all the bands. With none of the bands in this initial batch having any serious profile, this is promising.

Of the five bands playing tonight, it is the first two who really turn my head.  I saw openers Oldblood play this very stage relatively recently, but on this showing they already seem much improved.  Perhaps this is the benefit of a more sympathetic mix.  Their mixture of sludge, death and prog is further lifted by the fact both guitarists and the bassist contribute vocals, giving a good variety of texture to their wide-ranging compositions.  There’s definitely some potential here.

Brighton quintet Yuxa were the band I was most interested in checking out going in, and they definitely delivered.  They play a rumbly, riffy form of post-metal that reminds me particularly of Cubic Space Divison.  But the simple fact that name probably doesn’t mean very much to more than a few dozen of you suggests that this is a seam of post-metal that is begging to be mined.  For the sake of a more familiar touchstone, think of a point around halfway between Isis and Will Haven, with a sprinkling of earthtone9. Cool? Cool. I thoroughly enjoyed their set – and they’ll be back at 229 in January to open for The Moth Gatherer, and so I’ll definitely be there too.

Speaking of returns, the second Heathens To Murgatroyd event has already been announced, for the 8th February.  The bill features Harrowed, Mountain Caller, The Brood, TorchbearerSaltbuck and  Vandampire.  i saw and thoroughly enjoyed Harrowed at Downsurge Festival earlier this year, and I’ve heard good things about other names in  this list, especially Mountain Caller.  So I strongly recommend marking this date in your diary now.  I’d be surprised if you already have plans.

Life of Agony @ Islington Academy

If you had asked me back in the nineties which bands would still be active today, Life of Agony would definitely have been low on that list.  Straddling metal and hardcore well before the term ‘metalcore’ came into common usage and topped off with disarming heart-on-sleeve lyrics, Life of Agony’s first couple of albums were amongst the more invigorating ways to be miserable. After first calling time on the band in the early noughties, the band went through a fairly lengthy on again/off again period, and now seem to have refound their groove. In more ways than one.

The tour is billed as a three band package, but the openers Evolution Empire, featuring Fear Factory‘s Christian Olde Wolbers, are mysteriously absent, and it subsequently appear to have fallen off the whole tour. Curious. So the show is opened by Doyle, named after their guitarist who also happens to play in the Misfits. It’s safe to say that their punky garage rock does very little for me, so we’ll just leave that there.

Life of Agony are touring in support of their new album, The Sound of Scars, but like any nineties band still active, they know what side their bread is buttered. After opening the set with “Scars”, the lead single of the new album, they pile straight into “River Runs Red”, their signature tune. And the crowd goes wild.  The bulk of the set is then given over to songs from their first three albums, and their last album, 2017’s A Place Where There’s No Pain, gets ignored completely.

The phenomenon I like to refer to as the ‘Dadpit’ is in full effect. You will find it at shows like this, where bands are playing material from the nineties to a roomful of punters who were there to hear it first time round, putting the average age of the crowd somewhere in the mid-forties. When the band starts to play a cherished track from their back catalogue, the moshpit erupts – but by the time the second verse rolls around, everyone has gotten a bit tired and needs a little rest. It’s adorable.

The venue may be a little smaller than those they have played on previous visits, and the crowd noticeably thinner, but the band are clearly having a tremendous time. The band’s history has been far from straightforward, but they seem particularly happy with where they now find themselves. Vocalist Mina, in particular, seems to be even more comfortable in her skin than ever before, guitarist Joey plays practically the whole set wearing a big daft grin and new drummer Veronica gives the set an absolutely rock solid foundation.

Pleasingly, as well as playing all of the songs a die-hard fan would expect them to, they also sprinkle a couple of deeper cuts into the set. Tonight, “Damned If I Do” from Ugly gets an airing, and I believe it’s the first time the song has been played on this side of the Atlantic since the nineties.  The set ends with the powerhouse double punch of “Underground” and “Through and Through” from River Runs Red, and the increasingly old and creaky crowd file out tired but happy. It may almost be a little strange to see Life of Agony in such an obviously good mood, but it means they are capable of delivering the quality of show that other nineties bands still touring can only dream of.

Battles @ Earth Hall

Yes, it’s Battles again. Yes, this may be the third time I’m watching them this year and, yes, they may be playing a functionally identical set to the previous two shows I’ve seen, but I don’t especially care. Fortunately, at least, all three shows have been in quite dramatically different circumstances. Regular readers may recall that I was blessed with a golden ticket to attend a tiny warm-up show in an East End pub over the summer, and then there was the headline set at ArcTanGent. Now, I get to see that show in a sold out mid-, size room, with the added benefit of having had the opportunity to properly digest new album Juice B Crypts.

Opening the show is Three Trapped Tigers drummer Adam Betts, playing his solo material under the monicker of Collosal Squid. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it doesn’t fall a million miles away from his day job, as a glitchy, twitchy collision of electronics and math rock. In between songs, Adam self-effacingly describes his music as ‘an argument between himself and his laptop’ and subsequently goes on to prove it by knocking that laptop off its stand mid-song. Whoops. 

Adam is a thoroughly extraordinary drummer, and watching him simultaneously hammer out complex beats and trigger samples is an remarkable thing to witness. Our view is slightly obscured, as Battles have their equipment set up on the lip of the stage, and Adam is behind it, on the traditional drum riser. However, from my vantage point, if I squint a bit it does look like Adam is playing John Stanier’s kit, which quietly amuses me.  Adam also tells us that there will be new Collosal Squid recordings in the not too distant future which, on the strength of what we hear tonight, will definitely be worth checking out.

Now, although Earth Hall is a lovely venue it was built long before anyone dreamed of a smoking ban. With the doors of the venue opening directly onto the narrow and bustling Dalston High Street, there really isn’t any space for a capacious smoking area. As a result, the venue has been forced to introduce a kind of queuing system for those of us needing to feed our nicotine dependecies. But forewarned is forearmed, so I arrive at the venue with a pack of nicotine lozenge in my pocket (which usually help me through long-haul flights) so rather than anxiously joining that queue and constantly checking the time, I pop a lozenge in my mouth, find a fortuitously open space right on the stage barrier and settle in to wait. Having a Kindle app on one’s smartphone is a lifesaver for the solo gig goer.

Of course, as I have explained previously, if John Stanier is on stage then his kit is always going to attract the lion’s share of my attention.  Having practically overdosed on that by standing so very close when they played at the Shacklewell Arms earlier this year, I was able to give rather more of my attention to whatever the hell Ian Williams does to corral his multi-layered bleeps and loops into order.  I still don’t really understand.  I can only presume it is some form of digital alchemy.  However, having spent enough time with Juice B Crypts to be comfortable writing the review of it, I did find a deeper appreciation for just how high a proportion of Ian’s loops and samples are generated on the spot, or manually triggered.  The performance tonight is not completely faultless, but that only served to highlight this point further.  The path of least resistance would obviously be to have the laptop do most of the heavy lifting, but that’s clearly not the Battles way.

If there’s one thing that seems to separate me from the average Battles fan, it’s that I don’t have the same emotional attachment to “Atlas”.  It’s arrival towards the end of the set generates the biggest cheer of the night, but it is the track I choose to extricate myself from the throng at the front of the stage, rehydrate and watch the last couple of tracks from the back of the room.   With both members rooted to the spot by their instruments/equipment, the stage show is given more life by the pair being surrounded by floor-level squares of lighting strips, which sway and pulse throughout the set. 

 I’m probably not the best judge of the overall quality of a Battles live show per se, as I find the technicalities of the performance so engrossing.  I will never, ever, get bored of watching John play, and Ian’s approach is so singularly mystifying.  It is fair to say my relative enjoyment of the three shows I’ve seen this summer has been in direct proportion to my physical proximity to the band as they perform.  Although this show could never have topped the warm-up in terms of the intensity of the experience and the special sense of occasion, now being familiar with the material made the show enjoyable for it’s own reasons.   I can only hope that they’ll be back again before the end of this touring cycle.

Conjurer @ Boston Music Room

My surprising realisation at this show is that despite the fact that Conjurer haven’t appeared to have strayed more than six feet from a stage over the last couple of years, tonight’s show is their first London headliner since the Mire release show at The Black Heart back at the start of 2018.  Time really does fly when you’re having fun.  Before we get to them, though, the show is opened by Californians Armed For Apocalypse.  Conjurer themselves have repeatedly stated that Armed For Apocalypse were one of the main influences on the formulation of their own sound, so their presence on this bill speaks both to the speed with which Conjurer’s star is ascending, and what nice guys they are. 

This is Armed For Apocalypse’s third trip over to the UK in two years, so it’s clear they enjoy being here – and the sold out room is already respectably full as they launch headlong into their early opening slot.  Playing songs from last year’s Palm Reader EP and 2013’s The Road Will End, the band show the early crowd just how skilled they are at slamming break-neck high-octane hardcore riffs into the slowest of sludgey breakdowns.  It is unspeakably heavy.  As a long-time fan, my only real disappointment is that the only offering from 2009’s Defeat was a tantalsingly brief snippet of “Fists Of Gods” tacked on to the very end of the set.  As the touring package has expanded for tonight from three bands to four, I can only assume that set lengths have been pruned slightly to accommodate the extra band.  But considering how frequently the band have been here in the recent past, perhaps we won’t have long to wait to see them again.

To be honest, neither LLNN (whose set was admittedly beleaguered with technical problems, breaking the momentum) nor Earth Moves really spoke to me, so we will skip straight over them and on to the main event.  As Conjurer appear onstage and finish checking over their gear, “If All Your Parts Don’t Make A Whole”, a perky, poppy anthem by Press To Meco plays over the PA.  Members of the band can be seen singing along and, as the song comes to it’s conclusion, the band pile straight into the set.  It’s almost as if they planned it, or something.  

Now, my meticulous records tell me that since that Mire release show, I’ve seen Conjurer a further half a dozen times up to this point. These shows have been a combination of support slots and festival appearances, and one entirely improbably evening on a bill with three indie bands.  But tonight is different.  The room is practically awash with Conjurer merch and the moshpit goes entirely bezerk.

The band, too, are on ferocious form.  Now that they have two American tours under their belts, their live show has been honed to a devastating degree.  What’s more, the work they have put in since the release of Mire has rewarded them with a clearly devoted fanbase.  For the section of “Hollow” where Dan steps away from the microphone to bellow directly at the crowd, his voice is joined by numerous bellows from the crowd themselves – and it’s the first time I’ve seen that.  

The biggest treat, however, comes right at the very end of the set.  Despite not actually leaving the stage, they encore with their cover of “Blood and Thunder”, due to be released on a split covers EP with Palm Reader next month.  It’s hard to think of a better marriage of cover song to band, and it is – not to put too fine a point on it – fucking glorious.

This show was the clearest sign yet that Conjurer have levelled up.  I will not be at all surprised if their next London headliner sees them at The Underworld, or similar sized venue.  Having spent so long writing breathlessly enthusiastic words about them, it’s fantastic to watch them getting the recognition that their songs, performances and work ethic have deserved.   Let’s hope 2020 is as good to the band as 2019 has been. 

Daughters @ Islington Assembly Room

Nobody sounds quite like Daughters.  Their first return to these shores earlier this year was something of a personal revelation for me, and I’ve been utterly besotted with last year’s You Won’t Get What You Want ever since.  After confirming at ArcTanGent that it wasn’t a fluke of circumstance, I was eagerly anticipating this swift return to the capital, to play a venue around twice the size of the show at the start of the year.  It seems I was not alone.

The support band for this entire European run is Jerome’s Dream.  They run through a set of competent but unremarkable spiky hardcore, with no songs really sticking in the memory.  Their bassist/vocalist also elects to play the set with his back to the audience for the duration.  With the two guitarists also turned inwards, it feels more like we are flies on the wall of a rehearsal room than actually watching a show.  

The same can most certainly not be said for Daughters.  Who stride out and launch – as they have both times previously – into “The Reason They Hate Me”.  Their setlist picks have largely centred, for obvious reasons, around You Won’t Get What You Want, but they have brought slightly different choices from their back catalogue on each successive trip.  Which is nice of them.  There are a couple of changes onstage, too – there is a change of bass player, with the stand-in hiding herself away at the back of the stage, and a different chap handling the synths and assorted extras beside the drum kit.
The set is gloriously, captivatingly intense.  Frontman Alexis is an utterly compelling frontman, often crawling out across the crowd and subjecting his microphone to an impressively varied and vigorous array of abuse. 

Whilst thanking the crowd and noting that tonight represents the anniversary of their first show in support of the new album, he remarks ‘It’s been a wonderful year, it’s been a horrible year, it’s been a good year, it’s been a bad year’. 

My personal highlights are the hypnotic, demented adventures of “Satan In The Wait” and set closer “Ocean Song”, and I stumble out afterwards equal parts dazed, confused and invigorated.  Daughters conjure up a uniquely dark and intense atmosphere that draws you in and throws you around.  It’s almost certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but if these songs get under your skin, the Daughters live show is an utterly essential experience.

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