The Load-In

As the year draws to an end and the nights get colder and darker, there is still life to be found on the live circuit. It’s been a quieter year for me than usual, and this is the first year in some time that I have reached December with my total band count for the year under two hundred. It is only just under though, as the last act of the month – Jamie Lenman – is in slot 199. Phew. I’m starting to take stock of my year of shows, and whilst I may not quite have managed the quantity of previous years, the quality has been exceptionally high. I’ll have more to say about that in the final days before Christmas.

The single most exciting piece of news to land this month has been the first announcement of bands for ArcTanGent 2020. ATG 2019 was, as we will never tire of repeating, an absolute fucking triumph of a weekend, even with the Biblical rains, and its successor shows the organisers are not resting on their laurels. With Opeth headlining, as well as Post-Metal overlords Amenra, personal favourites Frontierer and Boss Keloid, a return of Curse These Metal Hands and presumably one of the very last Raketkanon shows, I was pretty much sold already. But the real clincher is that Earthtone9 will be returning, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the release of the album which gave the festival it’s name by playing it in full. This is one of my favourite albums of all time, and would have been reason enough on its own for me to buy my ticket. So I have. See you there?

Oh yes, and if that wasn’t enough nostalgia for an aging nineties refugee, Faith No More have announced a string of four UK shows for June 2020. So I just need to work out how many I can get to. Will it be all of them?

Poly-Math @ 229

Of all the various flavours of shows I go to, it’s fair to say that the math-rock ones are currently the friendliest. Maybe it is the open, welcoming atmosphere that pervades ArcTanGent bleeding out from the weekend into the rest of the year, or maybe it’s just that everyone who goes is a similar breed of like-minded music nerd. Either way, I fall easily into smoking area conversations in between each of the bands tonight, making the show a very pleasant experience all round.

With four bands and barely a vocalist between them, the show is opened by Codices, who include members of the organisation team behind Portals festival in their ranks. Their ASIWYFA-flavoured math-rock is a solid and enjoyable opening to the evening.  However, I am left thinking that had their set been much longer than 30 minutes, they might have started to outstay their welcome.

There’s definitely an audible buzz around London trio Mountain Caller, and after a couple of near-misses, this is my first opportunity to catch them.  They do not disappoint. They take the skeleton approach of a prog/post band, with long songs and virtually no vocals, but embellish it with tones and riffs that owe more to classic rock than anything else. Following, to an extent, in the footsteps of Mastodon and Karma To Burn, as potentially offering a similar interpretation of instrumental prog as fellow up-and-comers Urne do with metal (I certainly think that the two bands would complement each other on a bill), they certainly set themselves apart from the pack.

 As it stands, Mountain Caller have just a single, three track EP to their name, but they should be releasing their first full-length release in 2020. They’re also going to be busy with shows, and I already have two more opportunities to see them logged in my diary – the first playing with Pijn at the end of this week (if you’re reading on the day of publication) and the second Heathens To Murgatroyd event in February 2020. I fully expect that these will be far from the only times my path will cross with theirs over the course of the year.

https://mountaincaller.bandcamp.com/releases

Just to prove how capricious music tastes can be, try as I might I just can’t seem to find a connection with Body Hound.  To further compound this mystery, it is seemingly the precise qualities that draw me in to Poly-Math that turn me off Body Hound. The choppy time signatures, the slightly goofy vibe, the vast array of notes. Granted, they hold my attention for longer this time than they have in the past, but I still can’t quite make it through the full duration of their set.  I really don’t understand exactly what it is that turns me off them, but it is also equally clear that the majority of the crowd are at least as enthused by Body Hound as they are by Poly-Math, so mine is obviously a minority opinion.

For me, Poly-Math were one of a flood of new discoveries that I encountered for the first time at ArcTanGent 2013, and tonight is probably close to being the tenth time I’ve watched them since.  But aside from continuing to write and release a stream of exciting music to keep their performances fresh, they have also started adding band members.  During the recording of last year’s full-length House of Wisdom | We Are The Devil, they added keys player Josh to the line-up.  Now, seemingly out of nowhere, they have expanded again with the addition of a saxophonist, Chris.  No, I didn’t see that coming, either.

Poly-Math continue to pile on the surprises by opening their set with “Babel”, from their debut release Reptiles.  Not only has this song been absent from their setlists for a good few years, it returns with the band two members stronger than its last airing.  The result is a Poly-Math that sounds even thicker, denser than before.  Importantly, it also sounds better than before, too.   Who would have thought that what Poly-Math needed was even more notes?  Yet another layer of complexity?   But with a set that takes at least one selection from each of their releases, including a complete rendition of new, fifteen minute single track “Sensors In Everything”, the prove pretty much conclusively that the expansion of the band has been an unqualified, overwhelming success.  Whilst the set proves that the gamble has paid off, the really exciting thing is what this could mean for the future.  With the songs played tonight Chris and, to a lesser extent, Josh are both essentially jamming along with pre-written tracks.  It’s going to be fascinating to see what they come up with when writing as a five-piece, rather than bolting new parts onto existing works.

One also has to wonder, what will they add next?  Glockenspiel?  Gong? Ukulele? It’s going to be fun finding out.

God Alone @ The Dev

By a pleasing scheduling coincidence, God Alone pop over to the UK from their native Ireland in the same week that I wrote about their latest release, a startlingly excellent four track, self-titled EP. How jolly nice of them. What’s more, they have long-standing personal favourites Core of Io along for the ride. We will do well here. The Dev on a Friday night comes with a pre-packaged crowd of metalhead regulars, so shows always feel well attended, even for bands with minimal profiles.

For various reasons, including but not limited to the arrival of children, 2019 has been a fairly quiet year for Core of Io. Tonight is my first opportunity to see them this year, and I’ve been watching them develop since their first EP back in 2014.  So I’ve missed them.  Core of Io have a particularly distinctive take on technical, prog-metal, as they infuse it with an upbeat, almost pop-punk vibe, and match complex, twitchy riffs with hooky, singalong choruses. It’s a lot of fun.

Their set plucks out tracks from right across their back catalogue of four EPs and beyond, including “Why Not Take A Chance”, the first song on their first release, and a brand new, minty fresh track, which bodes well for the future.  Core of Io are always a joy to watch, and this is due in no small part to the outrageous amount of talent concentrated in their rhythm section. Of course, that is not to detract from the spidery guitar work and vocalist Bob’s easy going between song banter. All in, Core of Io effortlessly bridge the gap between technicality and accessibility and give punters the best of both worlds. Hopefully, they’ll be out and about with a bit more frequency in 2020.

God Alone’s EP was, for me, something of a surprise attack. As is confirmed tonight by the row of fresh faces taking their spots on the cosy corner stage, the Irish quintet (performing tonight as a four piece) are powerfully, terrifyingly young. But whilst most of their peers are still tinkering around with dodgy metalcore covers, God Alone have developed a sound which is diverse, distinctive and far more mature than one might reasonably expect. As I said the other week, the EP takes in elements of prog, Post-Metal, blackgaze and more, and they bring it all to the stage with them.

I had reasonably high expectations going in, but God Alone still manage to surpass them, turning in one of the most compelling shows I’ve ever seen in this small space. The band – and guitarist/vocalist Jack in particular – really throw themselves into the performance with full force. This spectacle gradually draws more and more of the Friday night drinkers down towards the stage, and the cheers which follow each successive song get progressively louder throughout the set. Their stage time seems to pass in an instant as they barrel through the twists and turns of their song’s complex arrangements, which is always the hallmark of an outstanding show.

Considering around a month ago I was pretty much oblivious to the existence of God Alone, for them to have turned in both one of my favourite releases and favourite shows of the year – and a year which has been pretty thin on the ground for new discoveries – is tremendously exciting. I can’t wait to see what they do next, and I hope we don’t have long to wait for them to hop back on a ferry to play over here again.

https://godalone.bandcamp.com/album/god-alone

Grant Sharkey @  The Trafalgar

This one is a bit of a break from  my standard outings, but music is music.  Grant Sharkey is a solo musician, who  spends his time perpetually travelling around the pubs and clubs of the country singing left-leaning, comedic songs, accompanying himself with just a double bass, and occasional guest appearances from a kazoo and a ukulele.   The net result is somewhere between Billy Bragg, Chris Morris and Les Claypool. Grant is also seven years in to a twenty year project to write, record and release an album of new songs every six months.  Yikes.

Of course, this project means that Grant already has a fearsome repertoire to draw from when he performs. So he adds an element of randomised excitement to proceedings by brandishing a thick stack of flashcards bearing the names of songs, and allows members of the audience to pick what comes next. Each song is usually prefaced by a short explanatory story, and Grant is now particularly well practiced at telling them in an amusing and engaging way.  So, over the course of two sets, we get songs about racists, islamophobia, pandas, Brexit, chickens and eating a shit sandwich, amongst others. It’s clear that most of the people in the room have just come to the pub, but Grant wins them round, getting them clapping along, and joining in with a rousing chorus of “fuck you, you fucking fuck”. Charming.

 It might not be family friendly, but it is a great deal of fun. Especially in old pubs like this one, where the average age of the drinkers is comfortably north of fifty, not everyone will be completely sympathetic to the messages in some of Grants songs, but his demeanor and humour are disarming. He gets no serious heckling this time, and only a couple of people quietly slip away between the two sets.  As I say, it’s very different from the shows which usually fill my calendar, but Grant’s hybrid of music, politics and comedy is a very welcome change. His calendar is even more full than mine so, for those of you the UK, the chances are he’ll be playing near you soon. Wherever you are. So have a look at his socials, and go and see for yourself.

https://grantsharkey.bandcamp.com/music

Jamie Lenman @ The Moth Club

Another month, another first visit to a relatively new East London venue.  They seem to be being drawn to this area like…. something.  I’m sure it’ll come to me.   Recently, people have been lamenting the loss of the Borderline, but The Moth Club is certainly close to being a serviceable replacement in terms of capacity.  It could do with larger restrooms, but there’s probably not much that can be done with that.   The building itself is an old working man’s club, and, sparkly gold ceiling aside, the decor has a distinctly seventies feel.  It’s a cosy space, but the room’s dimensions are a little on the long-and-thin side, which together with a low stage height means that the back half of the crowd isn’t seeing much more than the tops of singer’s heads.

  It’s a relatively short, sharp night with just the one opening act, the ever dependable Haggard Cat.  It was actually at one of Jamie’s previous shows that I first encountered Haggard Cat, or as they were then known HCBP.  At that time, it was a novelty to see guitarist Matt actually stand still for more than four bars, as both he and drummer Tom were one half of the dangerously kinetic Heck.  Since Heck’s sad demise, as Haggard Cat the pair have continued to kick out a stream of no-nonsense, feel-good rock songs.   The shows may not be as physically dangerous as they used to be, but they are packed with great songs and, thanks to a multi-amp rig, a satisfyingly thick sound.  Matt can’t quite make it through the whole set with both feet on the stage, so stalks out through the crowd towards the end of the set to play a few bars stood on a table at the back of the room.  Just like old times.
As with most duos, the connection between the two is everything – and that connection is most evident as they peer down the length of the venue at each other, searching for the next cue.  They play with an infectiously obvious passion and pleasure, and when coupled with the quality of the songwriting, they are setting themselves up to be another addition to the list of Brit-rock greats, alongside the like of the Wildhearts and Jamie’s previous band, Reuben.

Of course, we get a couple of Reuben songs sprinkled through Jamie’s set.  Jamie even mentions, during one of his easy-going between song chats with the crowd, that he tried to pick a song from every album he’d released for tonight’s setlist.  It’s a nice touch, and one that neatly side-steps the issue of how to tour a covers album without turning into a covers band.  Nevertheless, Shuffle – released in the summer – is still the most heavily represented album, shortly followed by it’s predecessor Devolver.

The set opens with his flatly outstanding re-interpretation of “Tomorrow Never Knows”, a hippy-dippy Beatles track masterfully transformed into a heavy-jacketed riff anthem in probably the most inspired moment of Shuffle.  I won’t be at all surprised if it remains a staple of Jamie’s set for some time to come.

 After kicking off his solo career with a full backing band, he has settled into taking to the stage with only a drummer, Jack, for company.  As the set progresses, he switches between electric guitar, bass (coupled with an amusing and self-depreciating story about contractual obligations) and acoustic guitar.  The Reuben songs peppered through the set get the crowd bouncing, and they are in fine voice throughout, spontaneously picking up the backing vocal parts.  Towards the end of the set, he helps to usher a couple of visibly over-inebriated people out of harm’s way for when the moshpit kicks off again and is consistently funny and entertaining.  Judging by the crowd reactions, there is now a fairly even split between those who have followed Jamie since the Reuben days, and those who have found him through his more recent solo work, but the mix of songs seems to keep everyone happy.  

Put simply, Jamie Lenman is to British Alt-rock what Devin Townsend is to North American Prog-metal.  He has cultivated his own universe where he can go pretty much wherever he pleases – from big band swing to caustic hardcore – and amassed a minor army of completely devoted, slightly nerdy fans happy to follow wherever he leads.  I can’t think of many other performers, other than Devin, who can so completely hold a room practically single-handedly.  Although all the parts are familiar, they are put together with such care and such skill that it’s hard to not have a good time.  What’s more, Jamie is almost as prolific as Devin, so we also get a brand new song in the set.  New songs mean new albums. New albums mean new shows.  This can only be a good thing.

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