Support: Orme & The Grey
I haven’t been to a gig since December 2020, and that was for a weekend of Viking-inspired metal at Sheffield O2 academy. Since the emergence of Covid-19, we’ve all been restricted from attending shows and watched in horror as our favourite bands live on the breadline and try to repurpose their merchandise for 2021-22. I must admit I’m a little uneasy about socialising in a larger crowd, but what can be better than a night of crushing doom, sludge and post-black metal to get back into the swing of things? You can put your hood up and zone out at a show where the music is slow enough to give you chest convulsions.
The people around me look like they’re ready to experience a heavy night of musical transcendence and molten distortion, although £4.90 for a pint seems steep when I make my way to the bar. (Were these prices the norm back in 2019?) The Grey are doing their sound check in the other room while I’m scanning my contactless card on the PDQ machine. The heavy bass and neck-tightening guitar tone make my arms tense up and my stomach rumble. I enter the live area with a mixture of trepidation and excitement to see three short-haired musicians with perplexed facial expressions. The bass player wears a Norma Jean t-shirt, and the drummer looks like he’s just come back from a Millwall away match and swapped his jeans for a pair of cargo shorts. The chap on guitar could be a sound tech for Fleetwood Mac. It’s rude to ask their names, so I stand at the back, next to the jukebox with pint in hand and a wandering eye on the pretty females that walk past. Maybe this won’t be a sausage fest, after all?
The Grey start their set at 6:55pm, but, as an instrumental trio, they have no microphone to announce that things are underway. No more than five people stand around the stage, and I’m nodding my head to the crushing drum beat and loud guitar crashes with a sense of guilt. Why are the people in the beer garden ignoring them? The answer is more to do with my stupidity – this is another sound check. Jesus, I’m out of practice at these events. I ask the cutie in the Slipknot t-shirt and fishnets next to me if she thought they’d started as well. She says something to me with an embarrassed smile, but the band start up with another test of the kick drum and drown out her words.
When they get down to it at 7.14pm, I’m worried that this is another warm-up – it’s not. Now I can relax and settle into the discordant guitar and grinding bass rhythms. Drummer, Steve, is replete in a headband and tie dye vest like a member of Eskimo Callboy and going hard on the hi-hat. Ah, I’ve missed this. Watching bassist, Andy, slip in and out of a psychotic daydream as he contorts and circles his head like a member of Dillinger Escape Plan is enough for me to put the pint down and nod my head in unison. It reminds me of the effortless way Inter Arma glide through a succession of doom metal downstrokes and noise rock passages that convey atmosphere as well as aggression. Opener, ‘Painted Lady’, goes on for nearly fifteen minutes, but every one of them holds my attention. ‘Cygnus’ is more volcano-like in its vision. Again, the guitars bubble along like lava until the eruption arrives and the bassist is losing his shit. He introduces closing song, ‘Church’, and explains that it’s about mental health anxiety and maudlin thoughts, and it receives a few approving nods of the head from those in front of him. I don’t think they’re expecting him to scream in their faces like Colonel Gaddafi intimidating a new batch of conscripts, but it’s a remarkable spectacle and shows how much the music means to The Grey. They tell me after the show that they have no plans to recruit a vocalist. On this evidence, I can see why. These lads are confident that the music alone can convey their emotions. This is a band to watch out for on the south-eastern touring circuit.
Next up are Orme, a drone metal three piece that look like they’ve come from the set of an Electric Wizard video shoot. I know vocalist and guitarist, Tom Clement, from the sludge band, Praetorian, and he’s also guest-reviewed a couple of albums for Scream Blast Repeat in the past. I must confess that I’m sceptical about drone metal. The fact that a micro-genre of doom metal exists on a diet of primitive guitar loops and harsh bass upstrokes and avoids all pretense of riffing does not bode well. I’m not even sure if they’ve started or if they’re still sound checking, but five minutes of the drummer falling asleep on his stool with a stray hand chiming the crash cymbal makes me even more cynical. People start leaving the room to smoke outside.
But then something happens.
The spasmodic hits from the drummer’s rack toms start to feel their way into Tom Clement’s fuzzy distortion. He takes to the mic with a broad chest and a confident posture. I move my head to the side and place a finger behind my left ear. Is that some kind of ritualistic incantation or a soliloquy he’s projecting through his lungs? Something about the children of the watch and a statue of Jesus. Imagine Devin Townsend in ‘Juular’ imitating Brian Blessed’s Ceasar speeches from I, Claudius. A couple of well-dressed scousers, who are passing through Stevenage for the night, walk by and wonder if they’ve walked into a satanic ceremony. The soliloquy is nothing short of mesmerising when I close my eyes and take another sip of my pint. Tom later tells me that it’s a scene from The Omen III (starring Sam Neil). When I look up, I can see that he’s not fretted a guitar chord during the entire episode but seems to be plucking away at his open b-string (drop-tuning) with no discernible rhythm. The bass player also has his back turned and his hood up as if caught up in the moment.
I think I get it when the band move away from the one-note loop and fire into a doom metal passage of crashing cymbals and furious snare hits. Ah, that’s clever… This music is all about preparing you for the glory of the conventional doom riff. Drone metal is not nihilistic nonsense but a serious experimental sub-genre. “Thank you. Enjoy the rest of your evening,” says Tom, after giving his guitar amp a battering with the noise and feedback effects from his pedals. It turns out the twenty-minute composition is called ‘Nazarene’. I’m impressed.
My main reason for being here, tonight, is the Sheffield post-black metal sensations in Ba’al. Our review of their Elipsism album last year gave it glowing praise. ‘We get trinkets of brief melancholy and twinkling beauty here and there, but, by and large, Ellipsism is a powerful raging beast underscored by desolation and the futility of the human condition,’ said SBR’s Dax Brody in his analysis. I tested this out at the weekend by streaming it on a long countryside walk. He’s right. This is what Neurosis would sound like if they experimented with atmospheric black metal.
It must be getting on for 9pm when they launch into ‘Long Live’. I know they’re in full performance mode by the sight of vocalist, Joe Stamps, screaming into his mic with eyes closed and a clutched hand resting on his chest. To say the audience are on top of him is an understatement. I wonder if he needs to close his eyes to block out the faces watching him with a mixture of curiosity and confusion. My place at the back comes in useful. Here I can see drummer, Luke Rutter, work his kit like a maestro. The bassist and band spokesman, Richard Spencer, is a giant of a man who handles his instrument with the aggression and feeling of a musician playing Wacken. I’m more concerned for his safety – his head is only a few centimetres from the ceiling. The two guitarists either side of him are in a world of their own. Stamps demonstrates his powerful vocal range on ‘Orchestra of Flies’ with a guttural death metal growl that ripples through the wooden floors of the pub.
Ba’al’s music is about trying to create a transcendental experience beyond the power of words and cerebral emotions – it invites a longing for escapism in the listener. On a live stage, they have no trouble conveying this mood. I can feel my adrenaline building up for the crunchier metallic breakdown moments that permeate through the ambient beauty and swirling textures of ‘Father, the Sea, the Moon’. There might be no more than thirty people crowded into this tiny room, but everyone one of us is feeling it. Their decision to end the set with the twelve-minute epic, ‘Rosalia’, makes me want to grab the person next to me to communicate my euphoria, but no one is close enough for me to accost. “Are you hearing this?” I feel like saying to anyone that dares to walk past in the direction of the beer garden. I mean, listen to the echo on the opening guitar passages. This is the sound of a person that can envisage the loneliness of his own death and has no trouble accepting this inevitability. Spencer rests a viola on his shoulder and bows his strings like a respectful performer at a funeral wake. The unblinking expression on Rutter’s face as he provides the military snare beats tells you that he’s feeling it, too. This is what Vous Autre would sound like if you asked them to cover The Cure’s Bloodflowers and gave them an instruction to coat it in the sorrowful doom of Pallbearer. We all know it’s the closing song, and it feels like a striking epiphany that will stay with us for the rest of the week.
The bar lady tells me that the card machine network has stopped working when I go to order my fourth pint of the night. I’ll need to pay by cash if I want a drink, which means I must nip over the road to the cash machine. Leeds post-metal trio, Gozer, are already working their way though the first song when I get back to the stage area. Their current single, ‘Crown Eater’, is a beast of a track, but the bassist/vocalist has his back to the audience for the entire set and the lack of tempo variation after ten minutes starts to grate. A roguish man in front of me gives off chavvy vibes in the way he lampoons the rhythms of the band by doing chicken dances and slapstick callisthenics. I need to keep my distance from this guy – is he taking the piss or trying to get into it?
I move to the side of the stage to get a different view. The riffs are loud enough to sink into my chest, but I can’t concentrate on the music. Instead, I have the image of a slow-burning candle in my mind – it’s one that no wind can expunge despite the open window letting the draught in. It’s a poor metaphor for the way I’m feeling. How much longer will this go on for? I close my eyes again and absorb the loud bass and listen to the hi-hat. There’s nothing wrong with this. It dawns on me that I’m the problem. The night is getting late; I’m hungry and impatient. I’ve got work tomorrow, but I want a few more beers, which will bring on the inevitable hangover. Gozer deserve better than a grouchy reviewer like me analysing their music.
We all pile outside to the beer garden when it’s over, but not before I’ve accosted Ba’al’s Joe Stamps at the bar. He’s a quiet chap with a sorrowful expression on his face. Emotive music like this takes a lot out of him. I mention his role as the vocalist in Hecate Enthroned and talk about the Formicarius t-shirt he’s wearing. Like him, I’m looking forward to the upcoming Voices album on Church Road Records. “I don’t normally do interviews. I’m not very good at them. You should speak to our bassist,” says Joe.
I take him up on the offer, and I spend the rest of the evening sipping a last pint with the members of Ba’al followed by the guitarist and bassist from The Grey. It’s a convivial night, and one I will not forget any time soon.