The Hertford Corn Exchange, 28 July 2022
The Hertford Corn Exchange is one of Hertfordshire’s premier music and comedy venues. A splendid Victorian building on the main high street, it’s the setting for this evening’s eclectic line-up of local metal artists. I arrive just before the doors open at 8pm and see a crowd of thirty people milling around outside. Most wear black attire. I’m in jeans and a Periphery t-shirt with my casual suit jacket holding my business cards and my Dictaphone. There’s a feeling of relief in the air. We’ve all had a long week and need something to absorb our pent-up aggression. I begin to wonder if shorts would have been better instead of jeans.
Is there anything more gratifying than a mid-week beer after a hard day at work? My priority is to slake my thirst with an overpriced pint of Neck Oil before the first band appear on stage. I glance at the people in attendance. There’s no sign of the boys from Sentient, who are supposed to be on the bill tonight. I find out later that they had to withdraw due to one of them contracting Covid. That’s a shame. Frontman, Joe Burton, is a muscular vocal presence on stage, and his guitarist is a colossal drop-tuned riff lord of the Meshuggah school. Can any of the other bands provide the eye-bulging intensity that I need tonight?
First up are Vixen X. Their name suggests they might be some kind of sleazy hair metal throwback with a love for the genre’s most playful clichés. I couldn’t be more wrong. A slim black-haired beauty in her mid-to-late twenties holds the mic like a cat ready to pounce on an unsuspecting robin. The guitarist to her right has the haircut of a rugby league player and the flannel shirt of a mid-90s street busker. His guitar tone has a mean undercurrent to the distortion, yet he hovers around the mid-range frets like a player who stopped down-tuning his instrument after the emergence of drop-D in 1989. Opening song, ‘Mary Jane’, has the guts of a grunge number and holds out the possibility of a spectacular implosion. The audience remain austere as vocalist, Tatiana Marcov, slays her demons in an impressive display of public therapy. She dares not speak to the audience in the interim between songs. ‘Loneliness’ and ‘Into the Unknown’ display a sophistication of melody underneath the punk rock snarl and coquettish vocals.
I sense that six-stringer, James O’Connor, would like to intensify the technical metal riffing, but it would be a crime to diminish the impact of the husky choruses and hip-swaying rhythms. Instead, he settles on the most exquisite of guitar solos with orgasmic vibrato bends and rapid scale-shredding patterns. ‘Break Away’ is his chance to demonstrate his Black Sabbath fantasies with a dose of hard rock extravaganza. “This song is heavier live because we like to live it up on stage,” says the singer. A few of us whistle our approval, but an awkward silence pervades the room. I can’t decide if they’re heavy metal, hard rock, or grunge when they close their set with ‘Scarlet Witch’. Either way, I want to raise my fist and quit my day job in pursuit of the pleasure principle. I know it’ll end in tears, but you’ve got to live for the moment, right? Fuck the rat race.
SBR favourites, Skarlet Envy, need no introduction. This is a band that wrap old school heavy metal heroics in crushing seven-string guitar rhythms and frame them around the sultry rock vocals of Kim Stacey-Merino. I had the latest album from Oceans of Slumber on my headphones before I arrived tonight, and it strikes me that Kim can hit the same anguishing notes as Cammie Gilbert when she purrs into the microphone and emotes through the semitones like a veteran performer. ‘Personal Frankenstein’ captures everything that makes this band great – the overflow of hostile guitar distortion, the playful menace of the chorus, the subtle growl of the bass, the heavy-hitting drum snares. I move closer to the stage for the Iron Maiden-esque onslaught of ‘Believe Me’, yet I feel like I’m listening to Nancy Wilson of Heart instead of Bruce Dickinson. Drummer, Alan Bryant-Lowe, only knows one tempo, and it’s a manic one that might leave him with a permanent muscle tear if he continues to murder his snares with this level of ferocity over the next decade.
The guitar duo of Mike Merino and Ryan Brown understand the theatrical element of metal. What’s the purpose of being onstage if you can’t swagger and shred? It would be a job for most musicians to match the charisma of Kim, but these boys have their own alter-egos. Watching Mike swing his head like Dimebag Darrell to the pinch-harmonic groove of ‘Not Dead Yet’ is a sight to behold for those of us that would love to be up there. The band confess that they keep this in the set for their old fans, and it’s true that it now seems like an outlier from a different time in their career. I realise at the chorus of closing song, ‘Bleed for Me’, that this is the new anthem for Skarlet Envy. The harmonised guitar melody and lonely beauty of Kim’s negotiation through the octave registers produce that clenched-jaw effect you reserve for those moments of heartache when you learn that the way other people see you is much more negative than you thought. Yet the riffing goes hard on the palm-muted crunches and makes expert use of the lower tuning range to provide a contrasting feeling of invincibility. It’s a special moment, and it’s an intimate one between band and the listener alike. I can’t think of another song that’s connected with me like this in 2022.
Tonight’s headliners, Burdensome, are an enigma. They formed at the end of last year and have no Bandcamp page. Only one song is in the public domain, and that’s a YouTube lyric video. You have to admire the self-belief of these chaps as they stride into the counties of the London commuter belt like veterans with a decade of experience behind them. Their sole promo picture shows four men in their mid-twenties, two of whom resemble long-haired professional models. Another wears a Periphery t-shirt (hence my attire tonight), and one of them has a goatee and the baseball cap of an MC. Are they an amalgamation of eclectic styles with a Motley Crüe edge and a street-savvy metalcore attitude? Er… Absolutely not.
“Alright, I hope you’re ready for some horrible noise,” says frontman and rhythm guitarist, Declan O’Hara, looking every inch the metal god with his v-shaped guitar and naked chest covered in tattoos. Lead axeman, Owen Palmer, sports a Metallica Kill ‘Em All t-shirt and parades his instrument like a magical portal that can transport the audience to a utopian world beyond their comprehension. They unleash the most grotesque perversion of thrash metal with a cacophony of agonising slow-death vocal impersonations and extravagant guitar solos. I’m not sure whether to chug on the air guitar or swirl my head like the participant in a ceremonial offering to the pagan gods. Those that came here tonight for some harmless heavy metal shenanigans try to retain their composure. This is extreme metal from the mid-1980s nailed to the mast of modern thrash with death metal mouth manipulations. It’s gory, it glorious, and it’s unafraid to accentuate the savagery in a triumph of bloodlust. The song titles are self-explanatory – ‘Terminal Misery’, ‘Threshold of Death’, ‘Ghosts of Violence’. I’ve never seen Sodom in concert, but I imagine they sounded like this at their most malevolent in 1986.
The one song I heard before tonight’s show is ‘Damaged Deliverance’, which reminds me of Celtic Frost in its hostility and Death in its grisly menace. O’Hara’s ghastly outcries haunt the venue like the torture fantasies of an extreme masochist, yet his riffs give you the impetus to upend a jeep with your bare hands. Palmer holds his guitar aloft like the daily recipient of adulation. These guys have the moves and the muscle. It might explain why their surprise cover of ‘Master of Puppets’ corrupts the genius of the Metallica original. O’Hara and Palmer stroll around the stage like rock stars asked to play something they could produce from muscle memory. It’s too easy for them. The iconic opening is more of a blood-soaked makeover when we need it to be as precise as a machine gun. You don’t speed up a song like this when the power resides in the crunch of the guitars. Neither should you rush the dignified mourn of the Hetfield-Hammett harmonies at the mid-way point. “We don’t usually play covers,” says Palmer when I see him at the bar after. Maybe an Entombed track would be more suitable in future, although closing song, ‘Hell is Dark’, confirms that Burdensome can use their own tools to win over the crowd. This band belong on stage, and they have the chemistry to justify their collective belief and purpose. A future gig with Must Kill would be a mouth-watering prospect.
The venue empties fast once the band pack up their gear. Nobody from the Vixen X fraternity remains inside the building. The good people of Skarlet Envy talk to their fans and share stories. I step outside into the night in need of deodorant and junk food. The evening breeze struggles to make an impression on the town’s residents enjoying their beers and cocktails on the sidewalks of Hertford.