The Load-In

As I sit down to start writing these words, my gigging year is not quite done, but the end is in sight. Beyond it lies the desolate wasteland of early January, but we’ll worry about that when I come to write the February edition of Disco Loadout. This is my second year-end review for Heavy Blog, and the first that covers a full calendar year. It might not necessarily look like it from reading my monthly columns, but 2019 has been my quietest year for gig attendance in the last five years. That means I’ve “only” managed to catch 208 sets this year. I know, I know – fucking casual.
Yeah, OK, I suppose it is still quite a lot. But I’ve managed to make it to middle age with no evening commitments or responsibilities and I live in North London, so I fully acknowledge that I am blessed with far more opportunities than most to witness the simple pleasure of large men making tremendous amounts of noise in small rooms. I couldn’t put a precise number on the number of venues, sized from shoebox to stadium, that are less than an hour’s travel from my front door, but it has to be comfortably over fifty. Don’t worry, I know exactly how lucky I am.

On the subject of venues, I do think it is worth noting that the volume of the lament at the closure of an established venue (this year we lost The Borderline most conspicuously) is quite considerably louder than the trumpets hailing the opening of a new one. This year, I went to my first shows at two relatively new venues in the east of the city – EartH Hall and The Moth Club, both in Hackney. EartH, in particular, is an astounding space (except for the absence of a capacious smoking area) and, to be honest, I’m a bit sick of hearing people STILL whining about the closure of the Astoria, when so many new venues have opened since then. And you don’t have to deal with the awful tourist hell of Oxford Street/Tottenham Court Road to get to them. That has to be a win.

This year also seemed to be a year in which indoor festivals really took a step up – I spent excellent weekends at both Radar and Portals festivals (helped, in no small part by Agent Fresco appearing at both of them) as well as an afternoon/evening at Desertfest (entirely to see Amenra) a thoroughly enjoyable day at the seaside at Brighton’s Bad Pond, and a heavy (and bizarre) extended Friday night at London’s Waynestock. Especially as I’m not getting any younger, festivals held in multi-stage venue complexes, close to amenities, tube stations or comfortable hotels feels like the future to me.

Of course, the hulking great exception to that rule is ArcTanGent. I’ve already spent many thousands of words wittering about ArcTanGent, either in anticipation or retrospect, so I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone that it was the most astonishing musical weekend of my year. It would have been even more astonishing had we not been visited by the most prolonged and relentless rainstorm I have experienced in a full quarter century of festival adventures. Good God, that was miserable. However, forewarned is forearmed, and (largely through bitter previous experience) my camping party made it through the weekend relatively unscathed by the monsoon. Do not underestimate the simple virtues of double-skinned tents, and packing to allow for a mid-afternoon complete change of clothes. Man, that felt good.

These year-end things practically scream for a collection of lists, so what I’m now going to do is run through my favourite live acts of the year, then have a quick canter through some of the more unusual and unique live experiences I’ve witnessed and finish up with a selection of my favourite live discoveries for the year. Cool? Cool.  

5 Favourite Live Bands (and five honourable mentions)

Battles – Shacklewell Arms, ArcTanGent, EartH Hackney

Battles top this particular chart for three reasons – their latest album, Juice B Crypts, has nudged Gloss Drop out to become my personal favourite, John Stanier is simply my favourite drummer of all time, and that thanks to winning tickets to a hilariously tiny warm-up show, I got to stand close enough to effectively be part of his drumkit for the entire duration of that first set. It didn’t even matter that it was the very first time we were hearing a good 75% of the songs we played. That’s an experience which will linger long in my memories.

Ultimately, I would see the new-look duo configuration of Battles three times over the summer, playing fundamentally the same set, but in three very different contexts. That extraordinarily intimate experience, a main stage headliner at ArcTanGent, and that excellent mid-size venue I spoke about in the introduction.  Aside from soaking in the experience of watching one of my biggest inspirations at work, I am also left with the distinct impression that guitarist Ian is some kind of alchemist.  Even after the third show, when I’d had time to properly get to know the new album, I still don’t really understand how the things I watched him doing translated into the sounds I was hearing.  And that is fascinating.

Daughters – The Dome, ArcTanGent, Islington Assembly Room

As with Battles, I was able to get three bites of the Daughters cherry this year.   Even if I had struggled to connect with their 2018 comeback album, You Won’t Get What You Want, on its release, I was still looking forward to crossing the band off my ‘Ones That Got Away’ list, having never had the chance to see them before they went on hiatus at the start of the decade.  That first return to British soil for them was something of a revelation – it completely unlocked the mysteries of You Won’t…, thanks in no small part to the twisted hypnotics of “Satan In The Wait”.  Talk about a Road To Damascus moment.  Hallelujah, I have seen the light.

If that first show was a revelation, the second – buried deep in that glorious weekend at ArcTanGent – was a confirmation.    The first show was no isloated event, Daughters really are that dangerously compelling a live act.  Frontman Alexis and guitarist Nicholas, in particular, have utterly an transfixing stage presence – giving off that distinct, Dillingeresque, impression that literally anything could happen.  It’s hard to turn away.  All of this made the third show, with the band returning to London on Halloween, something of a celebration.  I knew what I was going to get, and they absolutely delivered.  Neatly, although all three sets were obviously built around the new material, they were accompanied by differing selections from their back catalogue, meaning that I’ve now seen them play almost every song I’ve really, really wanted to see them play.   Let’s just hope that if they cross the Atlantic again in 2020, “The First Supper” is given a slot in the setlist.

  Probably the common thread that ties both Battles and Daughters together is that they deliver a live experience quite unlike practically any other bands.  And, in both cases, the best way to experience them is to lock in with the groove and allow the madness they overlay to swirl around you.  Daughters, especially, may not be for everyone – indeed, I have to admit that even I required a five minute smoke break from the intensity during those first two sets to make it through to the end. But nothing really satisfying is ever easy, is it?

Devin Townsend – Roundhouse

I’m not going to say too much about this one right now, as it only happened in December, so I’ll have a lot more to say in January’s Disco Loadout.  But, as I think I’ve made pretty clear already, I am a Devin Townsend megafan.  If you happen to be a Devin megafan, there really isn’t anywhere on the planet that it’s better to live than London.  Hurrah.

 As a result of this geographical fortuitousness,  I’ve been in attendance at almost all of Devin’s big set-piece events over the years – Retinal Circus, the four shows that represent By A Thread, Z2 at the Royal Albert Hall, Ocean Machine in full in Hammersmith,  Casualties of Cool, a brace of one man acoustic shows and even the odd ‘regular’ Devin Townsend Project tour date.  And the Empath tour date blew the pants off all of them.   Wow.

Through the ‘…Project’ years, it felt like the backing tracks were becoming ever more dominant, effectively railroading the band through their set.  But with the number of onstage musicians practically doubled, and the backing tracks left at home, the band Devin assembled for this tour (and who knows what he will bring next time) delivered a lush, organic and – above all – truly joyous and playful set.  Ending DTP was an absolutely colossal gamble for Devin, but one that has paid the most handsome dividends imaginable.  Check back in the new year for some more hyperventilating from me about this particular night.

Meshuggah – ArcTanGent

Continuing what has clearly become a theme of bands delivering singular experiences, we come to Meshuggah.  As the very last band playing over that extraordinary ArcTanGent weekend, we would all have been forgiven for feeling a little fatigued.  Especially as getting anywhere on that final day meant negotiating thick and sticky swamp of mud laying across the entire site like a gigantic flytrap for math-rock fans.  Indeed, one member of my party had slightly over-estimated their capabilities to festival (yes, festival is a verb) as we did in our twenties, and watched the set in a state of near-catatonia.  Bless him.  But Meshuggah couldn’t give a fuck how tired anyone might be – and simply drove an absolute riff juggernaut directly at the crowd, without giving the brake pedal a second glance.

With no new material to promote, Meshuggah give us a greatest hits set, supported by the most outrageous light-show to grace the ArcTanGent site to date.  There is nothing quite as awe-inspiring as the Meshuggah machine in full flight.  It is the oldest track in the set – “Future Breed Machine” that delivers the absolute killer blow, with it’s utterly pulverising breakdown taking up residence in the very forefront of my mind and stubbornly refusing to leave for three straight days after the festival had ended.  It’s possible I gurned my face almost completely inside out when it hit.

I’m not going to pretend to be a die-hard fan of Meshuggah’s albums – but there are not many things beyond my own funeral that I would prioritise above the chance to be flattened by the Meshuggah live show.  It is the quintessential, primal heavy metal experience, painstaking honed over many years to meticulous perfection.  Every metal fan should witness it at least once.

Employed to Serve – Highbury Garage, ArcTanGent  

With Eternal Forward Motion topping my Albums of the Year list, it’s probably unsurprising that the band also make an appearance here.  Employed To Serve‘s ArcTanGent set was an excellent appetizer for Meshuggah immediately afterwards, but it is the album release show at Highbury Garage that really secures their place.   With outstanding support slots from Loathe and a rare outing from Devil Sold His Soul, it was probably the single best club show of the year for me (with Will Haven, Conjurer and The Grey coming a close second)

As exciting as those riffs and breakdowns are on record, it’s clear that they were always written to be written to be played on stage.  Their ferocious belligerence tuned to the point it can coax an fantastically energetic pit out of a fatigued festival crowd towards the end of a weekend, and support guitarist Sammy’s extended crowdsurfs.  Eternal Forward Motion‘s lead singles, “Force Fed” and “Harsh Truth” already sound like long-standing setlist highlights.  For the simple, no-nonsense thrill of an avalanche of great big meaty riffs, you don’t get more value for money than at an Employed To Serve show.

As an aside, I also spent a fun afternoon as part of the crowd at the shoot for the “Force Fed” video.  I think we must have heard the track at least fifteen times over the course of those few hours, and I wasn’t bored of it by the end. I think I’m partially visible in at least three frames.  But I’m there somewhere.   

Honourable Mentions

Obviously, with more than 200 sets to choose from, trying to pick out just five acts to speak about in any detail just isn’t going to cut it.  So, to balance the interests of brevity and sanity, I’ll just whip quickly through these five shout-outs to bands that always leave me with a big, goofy grin on my face after watching them play and – in the case of one of these five – a tear in my eye.

Boss Keloid – Black Heart, Waynestock

With Melted On The Inch, Boss Keloid produced absolutely my favourite album of 2018.  Every time I have seen them since, they have played the album from top to (almost) bottom.  Sadly, their set times have never been quite generous enough to allow me to hear a complete rendition, but they have always given me the opportunity to virtually snap myself in half at the obscenely filthy grand finale riff of “Jromalih” (No, I don’t know what it means, either).  Before this album was released, I’m not sure I realised sludge-prog could really be a thing.  Now, I’m wondering how we managed without it.

Palm Reader – Boston Music Room, Bad Pond, Portals, ArcTanGent

Definitely my ‘festival band’ of the year, popping up at three of the five multi-stage events I attended.  Their set at ArcTanGent, falling in the early evening of the wettest festival day I had ever experienced, was exactly what I needed at that moment, and those forty minutes of screaming along to the choicest cuts of their outstanding Braille material, blocked out the aches, the cold and the damp as effectively as any bonfire could.

Loathe – Highbury Garage, Radar

Opinions on Loathe may be somewhat divided amongst the Heavy Blog staff, but I am unashamedly in the ‘pro’ camp. Especially when it comes to watching the band perform. It is clear to me that the band have invested a considerable amount of thought and effort in how they present themselves and their songs, and the result is easily the most complete package of any band operating at their level currently.  The two sets I saw them play this year were also my first exposures to their new material – with new single “Gored” comfortably earning the title of ‘Song Of The Year’ for me, and making their upcoming second album, due to land in Feburary, one of my most anticipated 2020 releases. I expect that we’re going to have a LOT to say about Loathe next year.

Agent Fresco – Portals, Radar

It would be no overstatement to suggest that Agent Fresco are my favourite discovery of the decade.  2015’s Destrier is possibly the only album of the last ten years that I would place in my all-time top ten.  It had been eighteen months since they had last been to the UK, so of course I was going to leap hungrily upon the two opportunities I had to see them this year.  And of course they would be special experiences.  The tantalising glimpses of new material also bode well for their much-anticipated third album, due to be released next year.

Coilguns – The Underworld, The Macbeth

If there’s some kind of running theme through the live shows I really love, then I think it has to be the juxtaposition of chaos and control. Coilguns practically dance around the borderlands between the two. Whenever they play, I adore watching the deep connection between guitarist Jona and drummer Luc in full effect – and a rather sparsely attended show towards the end of the year allowed me to fully drink in that spectacle.  But it is then overlaid with the total freewheeling insanity of vocalist Louis’ onstage persona.  He ducks, weaves, climbs, spasms and writhes his way through the set, wrapping himself, the crowd and the fixtures and fittings in his mic cable.  With a fresh batch of exhilarating progressive hardcore to hurl at us in the shape of third album Watchwinders, a Coilguns show is always incredibly thrilling and just a little bit scary. 

Notable Shows

In any given year, there are always a few stand-out, one-off live experiences.  These are the ones that will come up in conversations about shows in the future.  The ‘I was there’ bragging rights moments, I guess.   So here’s a little selection of notable or unique events from the year that, I suspect, I am going to be talking about in some form or other for years to come. 

Ithaca – Album Release Show, Old Blue Last

I’m pretty sure this is going to be one of those shows that an awful lot more people insist they were present at than actually were. Even so, I’m not sure I’ve been squeezed into the tiny upstairs room of the Old Blue Last with quite as many people before.  It might not have been the slickest, tightest set I’ve seen Ithaca play, but the night felt like a genuine celebration of the band, and the vindication of all the hard work that had brought them to this point.  The pit looked wild, and I was picking glitter from the cannons that were ignited literally next to me, out of various crevices for a week afterwards.

Amenra – Unplugged at Bush Hall/Electric at, er, the Electric Ballroom. 

Since Isis called it a day, I can’t think of another band who delivers such a powerful post-metal live show than Amenra.  The level of production values, and indeed, the attention span of the crowd, for the electric set were slightly lower than normal, thanks to their appearance as headliners on the Saturday night of Desertfest, but it is nevertheless a fantastically bleak experience. But nothing quite prepared me for the delicate beauty of their special acoustic set a couple of days earlier. It brought a fresh and invigorating perspective to their songs for me, and was utterly spell-binding.  Well, from the moment I shifted my positon away from the moron who couldn’t stop talking, anyway.  Wanker.

Black Peaks with Jamie Lenman – ArcTanGent

Due to what is clearly a very serious medical situation for vocalist Will, Black Peaks have sadly not been anywhere near as active in  2019 as anyone might have hoped. Having been forced to cancel most of their touring plans this year, they resolved to pull a little special something together for ArcTanGent weekend.  And they did so by joining forces with Jamie Lenman.  Interspersing a couple of Jamie’s own songs in amongst the best tracks from Black Peaks repertoire, what we were treated to really was the best of both worlds.  This wasn’t Jamie doing a Will impression, this was Jamie fronting Black Peaks.  A perfect collision of two of the brightest shining lights in British alt-rock right now.  Naturally, we hope that Will is able to make a full recovery, and that the band can pick up again where they left off in 2020.

Beyond The Past – Village Underground

In celebration of Japanese post-rock titans Mono‘s twentieth anniversary, they curated a whole weekend’s worth of events at prestigious venues, featuring an equally prestigious array of talent.  Whilst I am not personally a huge Mono fan, they curated a matinee show that brought together AA Williams, Jo Quail and Nordic Giants on a Saturday afternoon. I have to say, I’d like matinees to be more of a thing.  Going out and soaking myself in a river of unutterably gorgeous noises and still getting a relaxing evening at home is something I’d like to do more often.

Press to Meco, acoustic – SixtySix Sounds

This one was a bit of a double whammy.  It’s unusual enough that Press To Meco left their amps at home to play an acoustic tour, but they then compounded the weirdness in London by playing the show in a guitar shop on the corner of the famous Denmark Street.  No, I don’t know why it was there either.  Despite, or even perhaps because of, this alien setting for a show, it did turn out to be a pleasingly intimate experience, with around sixty people listening intently to their trademark, pitch-perfect three part harmonies. 

Curse These Metal Hands – The Black Heart, ArcTangent, The Victoria

It’s weird to think that, as things currently stand, the three shows I’ve seen the collaboration between members of Pijn and Conjurer represent 75% of the shows they’ve ever played.  What was even more peculiar was that, right up to the point the collective played their first note at that first Black Heart show,  I didn’t really have any real idea of what the music they’d created together actually sounded like.  Any lingering worries that they were going to have come up with a load of cheesy nonsense were swiftly and firmly dispatched by the arrival of their uplifting, Baroness tinged post-metal.  Especially with Conjurer’s increasingly frenetic touring schedule, which took them over to North America twice, it’s a wonder that they found the time to record, rehearse and perform the material they’d written for ArcTanGent 2018. But we’re really very glad they did. 

Discoveries of the Year

If there is one thing that really keeps me heading out to see live shows, and especially getting to them in time to see the opening bands, it’s absolutely the buzz generated by a serendipitous discovery. So let’s just finish off with links to a handful of acts that I saw for the first time in 2019, and hope to see much more from in 2020 and beyond.  

AA Williams – Bush Hall, Portals, ArcTanGent, Village Underground

This one is probably no surprise. Call it Portishead for the post-rock generation. Call it Sleep Token for grown-ups. Either way,  AA Williams‘ achingly melancholic and beautiful, down-tempo soundscapes absolutely capitvated me each and every time I saw her perform.

Tuskar – Waynestock

Two-piece bands seem to be very much a growth industry right now, but Guildford duo Tuskar set themselves apart from the pack with some improbably thick and meaty sludge-metal riffing

Mountain Caller – 229, Black Heart

Mixing the structures and dynamics of instrumental prog with the tones and riffs of more classic rock, Mountain Caller suprisingly manage to refresh a modern genre by reaching back into the past. I am intrigued.

God Alone – The Dev

Adventurous, energetic and terrifyingly young, Irish quintet God Alone delivered a startlingly mature self-titled EP and proved themselves to be an extraordinary live band. Allowing their songs to roam through sludge, blackgaze, dub, funk and prog, it’s going to be fascinating to see what these lads come out with next.

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