Club 85, Hitchin, 28 January 2022
Hertfordshire thrash metal stalwarts, Helgrind, are an ideal artist for a dark and cold night in January. Led by vocalist and bassist, Paula Nelson, the band are a trio once more after Joe Lyndon relinquished his joint guitar slot and moved to Brighton. Last year’s re-recorded, remixed and re-mastered interpretation of 2017’s Insurrection LP made it into the SBR Top Seven Thrash Albums of 2021. What better way to start 2022 than in the company of Helgrind?
This is the first show in a fifteen-date tour that includes most weekends leading up to July. They call it the Back from the Dead tour, but tonight’s setting at Club 85 in Hitchin has a quiet feel to it when I arrive at 7.30pm. A couple of loyalists saunter at the entrance, and an audible bass reverberation creates a rumble from the room upstairs. The weather might be the issue here. It’s damp and windy outside.
Local luminaries, Thirteen, are the first to take to the stage just after 8pm. Their name carries weight in this part of England as a band that won Hitchin’s 2018 Metal 2 the Masses competition. They played Bloodstock the same year and appeared on the same bill as Napalm Death and Acid Reign in 2019. Only drummer, Matt Truman, and vocalist/bassist, James Bryan, remain from the original line-up, and the current guitar duo of James White and Gary Ogilvie now assume the songwriting duties.
I’ve no idea what to expect of Thirteen, but my eyebrows twitch when I see James Bryan walk on stage with a thunderbird bass guitar. Apparently, the quartet play technical and melodic metal, but Bryan’s invigorating roar is vitriolic and equipped with the eye-bulging ferocity of hardcore. My friend next to me breathes in as they launch into a battery of crunchy metal riffing and flawless time changes. I feel the skin on my skull tighten. Woah! This is fucking heavy. And they look the part, too. Lead shredder, James White, is a charismatic presence on stage and a natural performer in the way he adopts an iconic head-spinning posture throughout. The twenty or so people standing in the room are too timid to move closer to the band, but they play their set as if it’s their last. You can tell it’s their first gig in two years, and the introduction of three new songs go down a treat. Anyone who thought Thirteen lost their momentum after their line-up changes of 2018 needs to reassess them. Their new music sounds like Trivium rampaging through a rendition of Heartwork by Carcass. This band are on fire tonight.
The audience sense that London quartet, Enquire Within, will need to be on top of their game to maintain the adrenaline buzz created by Thirteen. Fortunately, they have the colossus that is Jacob Waller behind the microphone. My imagination wonders if the man beckoning me and two others to the front is a crazed Viking or a battle-ready Highlander. We dare not disobey his instructions to raise our fists in the air as the guitarist, Daniel Lewin, unleashes a monstrous voltage of guitar distortion. Heavy music makes us do strange things, and I’m fist-pumping my way through the opening song, ‘Bloodlines’, and screaming unintelligible syllables at the top of my lungs as if nobody else existed in this room. Two people next to me thrash their heads to the circular riffs and demonic vocals and seem to be having the same experience as me.
It’s only on the fifth song, ‘Annihilation March’, that I recover my senses and start to analyse the genesis of the music. Lewin’s technical groove riffs and Amelia P. White’s deep bass incursions give their chaotic death-thrash a perfect platform for Waller to clear his lungs and cleanse his body of the demons that possess him. I hear whammy bar heroics, pinch harmonics, and bonehead chug riffs all in one package. It’s Amon Amarth meets Hyprocrisy with a strain of traditional metal underpinning it all. You can even hear a Paradise Lost darkness to the heavy metalcore pulse of ‘Rebirth’. My neck is already experiencing the euphoric pain that comes with a solid dose of headbanging by the time they end their set with a cover of Power Trip’s classic, ‘Executioner’s Tax’.
Helgrind walk on to the stage with no stride but plenty of verve. They recorded the original Insurrection LP five years ago and now have their first opportunity to play the new version for the faithful. I say ‘faithful’, but it’s a small number of acolytes that remain for the headliners. We’re already hanging over the stage barrier when their pre-recorded intro track, ‘Dead Shall Rise’, bleeds through the speakers with its news commentary samples and ringing arpeggios. Paula Nelson says nothing but launches straight into ‘Burn’ from 2011’s Inquisition like Tom Araya in his prime. My back flops like a fish out of water and my body undergoes contortions I cannot control. The chap next to me has his air guitar raised to the heavens. I’ve never seen Slayer live, but Helgrind are the nearest thing I can experience since Kerry King and the boys retired. It’s possible I even scream “Slayer” at the top of my lungs in between slaking my thirst with a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale.
Tonight’s set is a varied one. The trio follow ‘Massacre the Suffering’ with a trip back to 2008’s ‘Back from Hell’ and ‘Prophecy of Destruction’ from their 2005 debut album. Guitarist, Si Ellis, is on top form here. You can tell this guy is a guitar teacher. How often do you watch a live axeman approach a sweep-picking solo with apprehension? Not here. Si raises the neck of his instrument like a venerable portal that’ll transport the hardcore few to another domain. We take turns to roar under the gaze of his shred patterns with the most ravenous of facial expressions. Paula Nelson keeps her eyes focused on the back of the room as she unleashes her husky vocal lines.
On any other day, I’d be concerned at the low turnout for this show, but who cares when the music is so captivating and demonic in its impact? The likes of ‘Black Rain’ and ‘Death Squad’ have the might of Xentrix in their sights. Drummer, Andrew Keel, teases us in between songs with iconic drum intros. At one point, he offers us five seconds of the famous percussion to ‘The Real Thing’ by Faith No More. This gets my pulses racing one more. I’ve had maybe six beers by now, but the adrenaline negates the inevitable fatigue. My only gripe is their decision to omit ‘Not My Enemy’ from tonight’s set.
“What’s our name?” roars Paula Nelson, by the time we reach the last song.
“Hell-grint,” we repeat back.
Now we’re in full Exodus mode and pumping our fists in the air. Everybody has a facial expression that a sinister desert wind would love to immortalise. This is where I belong.