Disco Loadout – December 2019: Devin Townsend & Clutch

Pray for me, because these are dark times. As you read these words, it will have been around two weeks since I last watched a band play live. The chances are it’s going to be around another two weeks before I get my first fix of live music, 2020 style. This sucks. Of course it makes sense, though – I mean, who has money to spare for fun things at this time of year? 

All is not lost  – I saw five excellent shows from December to talk about here to a greater or lesser extent, and a small cluster of gigs lined up for the tail end of January, so February’s edition of Disco Loadout won’t be (entirely) an exercise in filling the void. Phew. In fact, as it stands I already have nearly thirty events logged in my diary for the coming year, including no fewer than five weekend festivals. I think it’s unlikely I’m going to be scrabbling around for things to talk about this year. In 2019, I watched 208 sets, which is my lowest grand total since my records began about five years ago. I think that total will almost certainly be bested again this year. My highest annual count was 313 and, to be honest, that was a bit much even for me. Around 250 is about perfect. Let’s see how it goes.

Devin Townsend @ Roundhouse

I’ve not been to the Roundhouse, the largest Camden venue, all year but December takes me there twice in the space of a week. Funny how these things land.  This first visit sees Devin Townsend return to the space for the first time since the kitchen-sink extravaganza of Retinal Circus, back in 2012. I was there that night too (as I’ve definitely said before, London is absolutely the best city for a Devin superman to live in), and I think that the deafening roar of the crowd that greeted Jed Simon’s surprise appearance that night is still reverberating around the walls. Tonight’s show is also a special one, as it is Devin’s first visit to the city since the radical overhaul of his working paradigm and the release of Empath earlier this year.

As I said at the time, Empath is Maximum Devin, and the announcement of an all-new live band, including a number of the musicians who helped bring Empath to life makes replicating the dense and sprawling tracks that comprise what I now consider to be his magnum opus on stage a little less of an uphill struggle. Clearly wanting to exploit this opportunity to the fullest, Devin includes half a dozen Empath tracks in the setlist – which is virtually the whole thing other than the wholly impractical twenty minute headfuck of “Singularity”.

The difference in approach is obvious right from the moment the band, resplendent in Hawaiian shirts and playing in front of digital screens displaying a tropical beach, slide into the endearingly gawky cod reggae of “Borderlands”. Particularly towards the end the … Project, Devin’s live shows seemed to be increasingly reliant on a very dense backing track. Whilst this did provide reliably pin-sharp sound, it also felt rather sterile. This time around, there is no backing track. But, with up to a dozen bodies onstage, including three guitarists, keys and a trio of backing singers, there isn’t either any need or space for one. The net result is a noticeably more organic and playful show.

Probably the biggest curveball of the night is the inclusion of no fewer than four tracks from Ki in the middle of the set. This album has been rather overlooked in Devin’s electric setlists (even if it is more regularly called upon for his acoustic shows) and it is arguably his most mature and straight-laced album  I can only presume that the decision to include such a hefty chunk of it in this setlist was directly influenced by the quality of the band he assembled for this tour. That, and potentially to draw a thicker line of separation between the more cartoony Project and where he is now. 

 Of course, that’s not to say there is no humour at all. I don’t think it would be physically possible for Devin to play an entirely serious set, and his jovial stage persona could never be fully suppressed. We get a surprise outing of “War” from Infinity, another album that has been under-represented in live sets in recent years. Old favourite “Deadhead” retains its spot, as does the goofy party anthem of “Lucky Animals”, complete with ‘jazz hands’ audience participation. The real highpoints of the set come towards the end of the main set, in the form of the hilarious turbo-camp of “Why?” (Which proves Devin could easily write the signature tune for a Disney movie) and “Genesis”, the track which boils down the very essence of Devin’s latest approach to his art.

It would be fair to say that the decision to cluster those four Ki songs together makes the middle of the set drag a little, but this is entirely forgivable as that segment is bookended by comfortably the best Devin tour show I’ve seen, and more than a match for his big set-piece events like Retinal Circus or Z2. As an album, Empath had already vindicated Devin’s bold and risky decision to dissolve the Project, and this live show proves that it really has reinvigorated Devin. He’s already hinted that he wants to be able to bring together different live bands for different tours, so who knows what we will be presented with next time he comes to town, but I think we can be confident that whatever it is, it will be an essential experience.

Oh yes, and it seems like we will get the opportunity to relive this particular evening at some point in the future, as the performance was recorded for a future DVD release. You can keep an eye out for me in the crowd, too.  I’m somewhere near the back.

Clutch @ Roundhouse

It seems to have become something of a tradition for Clutch to play in London in December. I think this is the fourth successive year they’ve done so.  After a couple of shows at venues which were slightly too small (like the Kentish Town Forum) and one that was a bit too big (Brixton Academy), the band seem to have found the perfect room with the Roundhouse. The show isn’t quite sold out, instead it is close enough to make it look packed, but still have enough space to move relatively freely around at the back of the room. 

This extra space comes in particularly handy during support act Graveyard, whose unreconstructed seventies rock really does nothing for me whatsoever, so after watching enough to be sure, I make my way out to use the facilities, smoke some cigarettes and fall into a suprisingly engaging random smoking area conversation with an ex-police officer.

I do have something of a confession to make. For quite a long time, certainly several years, I laboured under the misunderstanding that I didn’t really like Clutch. It was a thoroughly mystified friend who virtually strapped me down and force fed me Blast Tyrant to disabuse me of this foolish notion. He was right to do so, and I thank him for it. Further examination lead me to the conclusion that I had been put off by “Burning Beard”, which was on heavy rotation on the alternative music cable TV channel that provided the soundtrack to one of my old shared houses.  To this day, I still don’t really get along with that specific track, but extensive research has proved it to be the exception rather than the rule.   But, hey, at least being so wrong about the band for so long meant I had a sizeable unexplored back catalogue to dig into – which is an increasingly rare treat as one ages.

There are a couple of reasons why any Clutch show is a bit of a special event. The first is that they are undoubtedly an incredible live band, but it’s not immediately obvious as to exactly why that is. There are no pyrotechnics or gigantic lighting displays. Other than vocalist Neil slowly stalking around with his trademark persona (part blues shouter, part evangelical preacher, part hobo shouting at traffic) there is no movement on stage. What we get is four dudes (joined by a couple of guests here and there), their amps and an absolute boatload of great songs. It’s not for nothing that they have a song called “Pure Rock Fury”. This is about as pure as it gets.

The other reason is that, unlike the vast majority of touring bands, they compile a different setlist from that vast discography every night. I guess this is what is possible when you aren’t reliant on hitting backing track cues or stage directions that lock a band in to playing exactly the same songs in exactly the same order every night for the duration of a tour. So this means that whenever the band finish a song, nobody really knows what is coming next. That’s pretty exciting. Over the course of tonight’s set, Clutch play at least one track from no fewer than eight different albums, spread right across their career.

Ironically, the first song tonight is “Burning Beard”, but at least that gets it out of the way. Just before this short run of UK dates, the band announced that they would be playing Blast Tyrant in full at a special new year’s eve show, and they decide to incorporate the rehearsals for that show into the tour, so we are treated to five cuts from the album, more than latest album The Book of Bad Decisions. This includes, gloriously, “Profits Of Doom” – a particularly strong contender for my favourite Clutch song and one that had been sadly absent from the setlist every time I’d seen them previously. Hallelujah. That was worth waiting for. Sadly, perhaps as a consequence, we don’t get “The Mob Goes Wild”, but you really can’t have everything.

Neil keeps the between song banter to an absolute minimum, but he does amuse the room by drawling “This is our second time here. Still haven’t figured out why they call it the Roundhouse. Must be that famous British sarcasm.” Google a picture of the space if you don’t know why that’s funny. The main set ends with another personal highlight, “The Face” from Earth Rocker, which packs one of the most effective two-note riffs ever written, to my ears.

As I said, it’s hard to think of a purer hard rock experience than a Clutch show. Proof that, if you have the songs, you don’t need any other bells and whistles to hold a couple of thousand punters in the palm of your collective hand for ninety minutes. It feels like a fitting conclusion to my 2019 gig calendar. Same time next year?

The Round-Up

I’ve been getting a bit carried away in these columns recently, so in the interests of brevity, I am re-introducing the bite-sized whistle stop tour of the remainder of the shows I went to. I’m sure writing 5,000 words is a lot more pleasurable than reading them all. It’s also fair to say that, sometimes, I don’t have much more to say than ‘hey, that was a good gig’. So let’s just quickly skip through the three other shows I saw in December.

  • Pijn, Waco & Mountain Caller @ The Black Heart – This was quite soecial, as it was one of just a pair of shows Pijn booked to play their outstanding album, Loss, in full. The show was opened by Mountain Caller, who confirmed their spot in my informal ‘Great New Bands To Watch in 2020’ list with their classic rock take on instrumental prog. Waco were a little bit jarringly wacky, and although their set may have been fun, it did feel a little out of place. Annoyingly, Pijn started their set a little early, so not only did I end up right at the back of the room with literally no view of the stage, I missed the first song entirely. But what I did hear, at least, sounded as bleakly gorgeous as one might expect.
  • PSOTY, E-L-R, Flies Are Spies From Hell @ Nambucca – My favourite London promoters, Chaos Theory, rounded out their year of shows with an night of top quality post-rock. Although the night was headlined by the excellent Hundred Year Old Man, I was forced by circumstance to leave before their set. Flies Are Spies From Hell played some particularly tantalising new material that bodes well for their upcoming new album. E-L-R were an especially nice surprise, overlaying ethereal, harmonised female vocals on some pleasingly sludgy riffing. It was good to see PSOTY back in action, and to hear songs from latest album Sunless in the live context, but they are also clearly a little bit rusty, so didn’t pack quite as hard a punch as they have in the past.
  • Nordic Giants, Jo Quail, AA Williams @ Village Underground – Any regular reader will know what I have to say about this particular line-up.  I have a deep love for all three,  and I have explained that in meticulous detail over the course of the year.  So I won’t repeat myself.  Curated as part of Mono‘s Beyond The Past 20th anniversary celebration weekend, the most distinctive thing about this show is that it is a matinee.  So, the doors open at 1pm, and we are on our way home by six.  Those of us not actually going to see Mono on the South Bank, anyway.  It was all very civilised.  I don’t think it would necessarily work for all types of shows, but for gentle, beautiful post-rock, of the type pretty much best exemplified by the three acts here, it is just about ideal.  More of this type of thing, please.

Coming Soon

Setting the inevitable early January deadzone to one side, my 2020 gig diary already has some juicy dates penned in.

  • On the last day of January, the unstoppable hype train that is Sleep Token return to London to play the Islington Assembly Hall.  Considering that their last headline show was at the Underworld, which is only a little over half the size,  just a couple of months ago, it really underscores the most uncommon momentum that the band are building.  Maybe it sounds hyperbolic, but I genuinely can’t think of a band who has grown such a dedicated fanbase this quickly since Slipknot
  • I have front row tickets for AA Williams’ first headline show, in a fancy pants theatre in the South Bank Centre in March, where she will be accompanied by a string quartet. That’s going to be lovely.
  • Annoyingly, that show falls on the same day as the London date of the Employed To Serve/Palm Reader tour. Bastards. As those two are comfortably my favourite UK hardcore bands right now, I’m going to risk heading out of London to catch the Milton Keynes date a couple of days beforehand. Intrepid.
  • Just before Christmas, Monuments announced that original drummer and all-round good guy Mike Malyan had rejoined the fold after standing aside in 2015 to deal with some very serious health issues.  They return to London in early March, and as Mike is comfortably my favourite drummer from that whole tech/djent scene, I can’t wait to see him play those songs again.
  • The 2020 festival season is already looking pretty tasty. The obvious one is ArcTanGent, and I will have much to say about that before, during and afterwards, no doubt. Portals festival guaranteed my attendance in 2019 by booking Agent Fresco, and they’ve already done it again by booking We Lost The Sea for this year. I pretty much shouted when I saw that announcement. Agent Fresco themselves have been booked for the inaugural Prime Fest, so a trip to Copenhagen is looking likely for me. Radar Festival surprised us all by announcing Dirty Loops and Plini. Euroblast surprised us all by announcing Dirty Loops and Plini. Hang on. I’m sure those last two will distinguish themselves more with their subsequent announcements. 
  • Finally, the one date which is looming largest in my diary is the 16th June.  Because that is the day that FAITH NO FUCKING MORE return to their spiritual home, Brixton Academy.  I’m quite pathetically grateful that they have chosen, again, to play two nights at Brixton rather than throw everyone in together in the horrendous soul-less box that is Wembley Arena.   There aren’t many more important bands in my personal musical journey than Faith No More, and literally no musicians who I love more than Mike Patton.  That’s going to be a good day, whether I am looking good or not (spoiler alert: probably not)

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