The Red Lion, Stevenage, 19 August 2022
“Welcome to modern Britain,” is an apt description for tonight’s metal show at The Red Lion in Stevenage. The ongoing rail strikes cause no end of inconvenience on this Friday evening. I learn that London’s hardcore/black metal quintet, Calligram, will be taking to the stage much later than expected due to the logistical nightmare of relying on the rail network to transport their back-end gear. A few of us contemplate what else we could be doing tonight after forty minutes of waiting around. How can I make this warm bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale last for longer than twenty minutes? Should I take it back and ask for a cold one? Most people enjoy the beer garden outside. A married couple play darts in the front bar area. The music on the PA plays the most predictable and unoriginal stoner rock you can imagine. In the queue for my second pint, I watch a woman crack jokes about losing her teeth due to the imminent noise from the band completing their sound check. That band is Grandad, and they promise a filthy sludge assault bogged down in guitar distortion and harsh bass overdrive. No more than ten of us make our way to the front in time for the band’s opener, ‘Respect Yer Elders’.
Grandad are a band that thrive on having no charm or gimmickry. As a four-piece dressed in surfer shorts and ragged t-shirts, they threaten to spoil the mood of the sun-loving beer monsters outside who came here for a night of chain-smoking and banter. I glance at my buddy, who nods his head in time with the aggressive snare beats. My mind tries to analyse the sonics underneath the surface of hostile noise. The grungy downstrokes of ‘OAD’ play to a mid-tempo beat with gruesome vocals. You can trace this sound back to Hellhammer in 1983. Think of the Discharge guitar tone and the ugly chord choices of Bathory. There’s no melody here – only pain and anguish. The riffs are primitive, the vocals are barbaric. ‘As Good as Gone’ is a grindcore battering ram with fast drum fills at the end of each bar. No wonder the woman joking about losing her teeth complains of the noise in the pub. I’m not sure if the guitarist knows anything other than fifth chords on the bottom two strings of his instrument. Yet this is the type of raw fusion of hardcore and metal that makes me want to form my own band of miscreants with no purpose other than to be as nasty and as unmelodious as possible. Drummer, Max, is the star of the show with his heavy-velocity snare action ringing through the pub like military grade weaponry. ‘Are You Sick and Tired of Feeling Sick and Tired’ experiments with a brief intro of doom before the band launch into a violent piece of metallic hardcore with testosterone vocal grunts. Vocalist, Alex, looks like he should be fronting Raging Speedhorn in his baseball cap and polo shirt. Maybe the train delays were worth the wait after all. Grandad won’t win any prizes for innovation, but they might land one for no-nonsense brutality.
Sunderland trio, Yersin, are in no rush to do their soundcheck once the Grandad boys pack their things away. Everyone empties outside to the beer garden and smoking area, leaving me and a few lonely individuals to watch on with our pints in our hands. Guitarist, Rob Scott, wears a black sleeveless jacket with numerous band patches and holds his V-shaped guitar like a marksman warming up his weapon for a new theatre of conflict. The drummer looks like he avoided a referral to the Crown Court on charges of GBH thanks to the leniency of a liberal magistrate. Is it me or could lead screamer, Chris Storey, pass for ex-Sunderland forward, Chris Brown (of Under the Cosh fame)? “We’re Yersin, and we’re from the north,” roars Storey, sliding over to the mic stand like a cabaret performer. The pitch of harsh feedback reaches maximum decibel levels as the sludgy notes of ‘Dopesmoker’ ring out like nauseating torture sirens. I glance at the woman from before and see her holding both hands over her ears. The double-time beats and masculine scream vocals send ripples through the floorboards. What tuning are they in? ‘Massive Headwound’ and ‘Northern Stronghold’ seem to be using a pitch shifter effect to make up for the lack of a bassist. The former is a gratifying blast of blackened death metal with a monstrous guitar tone that could rival the last Kataklysm album. Drummer, Chris Mallan, provides the heroic snare gallops at the beginning of the latter before they launch into a violent Sepultura groove from the Chaos AD era. A few heads start to circle, and arms begin to flail when they switch to a metallic hardcore assault at the two-minute mark before relapsing into a brutal assault of drop-tuned chords.
A setlist of twelve unrelenting siege-breakers is just what I need for a good time. Of course, I can enjoy the skank beats and sandpaper chord effects played through an unsentimental octave pedal on ‘Insidious Mechanised Barrymore’. The guitar distortion is quite ethereal despite the massive amount of gain. I peer over my shoulder to check if anyone spies an opportunity to goose-step their way through my spine for the beatdown riff at 01:30 seconds. I’m safe, but the black metal tremolo riffs towards the end leave me in a permanent state of paranoia. The ringing fifth chords are like sewage spilling through the household water supply on ‘Burzum and Chill’. There’s no possibility of melody with loutish screams of “I’m gonna fuck you up until I’ve had enough,” and “Life is the ultimate sin/ Death is the only way out.” Fans of Sepultura’s Roorback will appreciate ‘Buggered in the Green House’ from the band’s 2018 Vulgarians EP. By now Storey has shed most of his clothing and slides around the floor in violent ecstasy with the microphone. The people that chose to stay in the beer garden will regret their decisions. Yersin are an excellent live band.
Calligram take to the stage after 10pm, but the number of people in attendance starts to grow in the minutes leading up to the start of their set. Now, I rub shoulders with men and women who look like they listen to only powerviolence and grindcore. A woman with a shaved head and skull tattoos catches my attention in her Doc Martin boots. Her boyfriend lives in the gym and has a well-groomed beard, but I doubt anyone would call him a hipster unless they want a bloodied lip. The members of Calligram resemble a hardcore band with their short hair and simple beach barbecue clothing, but that might be a result of their native Italian blood and the rare moments in England when they can feel like the Mediterranean on their doorstep. Opening song, ‘Carne’, is the sinister atmospheric black metal scorcher from their 2020 album, The Eye is the First Circle. It’s the first composition I heard from the band and still their strongest. I watch the people around me bob their heads to the addictive eighth note bounce of the opening riff, but our eyes bulge for the next part when vocalist, Matteo Rizzardo, appears to exorcise the demons lurking inside him without the need for a priest. Watching the shaved-head Italian performer cleanse his soul of the latent monsters that want to drag him into the abyss would be worth the admission fee if there was one. But we can thank the mighty Jordan Allard at Tombstone Promotions for making this a free event. I learn afterwards that this will be the last extreme metal event at The Red Lion following a decision from the new management to halt all further bookings.
There’s something in the air that I cannot define during the set – a restlessness, even an apathy that makes the people in the beer garden oblivious to the top-class metal mayhem bleeding from the Calligram guitar amps. They treat us to ‘Vivido Perire’, one of the shorter songs in their back catalogue, followed by the ferocious madness of ‘Serpe’. The latter delivers an awesome onslaught of fast-picking tremolo rhythms and murderous snare hits. I can hear a maniacal Deicide angle to this music. The floor is shaking once again during this song. Why does this music conjure images of larvae evolving into insects? I close my eyes as much to deal with the oppressive heat as the incongruent imagination produce by five pints of ale.
It raises a smile to see such an extreme band murder their instruments in beach party clothing. Bassist, Smittens, is a giant personality, playing some of the loudest low-end incursions this side of Conan with the humour of an Electric Six musician. You wouldn’t say the same thing about Matteo Rizzardo. His antics during ‘Della Mancanza’ are frightening as he lies on the floor like a victim of cyanide poisoning puking up his guts. The mid-range circular riffing of ‘Kenosis’ stands out on the record and in a live setting. I sense no anxiety in the drummer’s performance to keep the blast beats going. It reminds me of Wiegedood up until the reset at the two-minute mark to a slower crunch of downward palm-muting and agonising disembowelment screams. The mid-tempo death metal gives me a breather, but the vocal abrasions are unrelenting. I see no trace of the tongue-in-cheek complainant from before, but I imagine the spectacle of a hardcore-tinged black metal quintet persuaded her to depart for another pub where she might hear herself think. The three new songs of Calligram’s set throb with promise for the next record. I’m thankful they braved the train strikes to bring their extreme metal to middle England, and I hope the management that decided to bring this to an end for the next generation of metalheads at The Red Lion reconsider their intentions after reading this review.