Live review – Tombstone Takeover 2022

The Red Lion, Stevenage, 25 June 2022

What can be better than a Saturday at your local pub for a grindcore festival? In my case, I live five minutes away from the Red Lion in Stevenage, which means I can stagger home after a day of extreme metal and heavy drinking.

Today’s organiser is scene linchpin, Jordan Allard, whom some of you will know as the drummer for Skullfucked and Negative Thought Process. He also plays in Trading Hands and leads a strange bass-heavy duo called Torpid State. As the founder of Tombstone Promotions and former barman of today’s venue, Allard saw an opportunity to bring together some of the finest grind, sludge, powerviolence and post-metal bands in the country. French grindcore trio, Cavalerie, had a place on the line-up as late as last week before events conspired against them and saw them pull out. I find out that London thrashers, Inhuman Nature, will also be absent when I make my way into the beer garden.

This place never used to look so big, but that’s because Tombstone made good use of the car park and imported a mobile arch stage with hired engineers and a power generator. A tall chap in his mid-forties shows meticulous attention to detail when testing the sound and mix levels of the drums and bass. I take a seat on a hexagonal bench and sup my pint with too much concentration. A trio of young people in their twenties sit to the right of me; to my left are two long-haired and bearded men who look like they’re here to perform with one of the bands. The three musicians on stage seem eager to kick off the proceedings despite being the first band of the day and the least likely to win the attention of an audience. The programme tells me this is Public Execution, and I can tell they’ll be heavier than a Bangladeshi monsoon with just one glance. Frontman and resident screamer, Kyle Townsend, wears Adidas tracksuit pants and an obscure underground t-shirt. The guitarist sports a baseball cap and baggy shorts and could pass for a football hooligan.

“Hi, we’re Public Execution,” says Townsend, still bouncing up and down on his toes like a boxer. Maybe twenty people are here to watch them blast through the first two blitzkrieg numbers before they tell us that the next song is called ‘Who Booked this Shit?’ Andy Edwards of Nomadic Regin sits down next to me. “This is like Napalm Death,” we say, reading each other’s thoughts. From my seated position, I feel my legs imitating the double-bass kicks of a drummer attacking the triplet-sixteenth notes. How else can I unleash my agitation to such violent music? Each song is more menacing than the last with the guitarist sliding between his fifth chords at lightning pace. The drummer pounds away at his snare and hides his blast beats under the clink of the ride cymbal as Townsend demonstrates the full range of his terrifying scream techniques. In between the humorous song titles (‘No I In Go Fuck Yourself’, ‘Queuing for Weed in A Bin Shed’, ‘I’d Rather Pay £10 Not to See You’) is a band that enjoy the catharsis of their unmelodious music and care not one bit about who watches or listens. “The bad news is we have five songs left,” says Townsend, “but the good news is that they last less than five minutes.” A few people, including me, let out a timid howl. Public Execution win no prizes for subtlety, but their debut album promises to be a savage affair when released later this year.

Above: Public Execution are available for weddings and christenings. They’re also big fans of Reading FC.

SBR enjoyed the latest record from Trading Hands in April this year, which makes their appearance one of the big draws for today’s show. The powerviolence quartet are in no mood to fuck around once they complete a short sound check. Vocalist, Max Hummerstone, and guitarist, Aaron Adams, sport shaved heads and intimidating forehead tattoos. Hummerstone dresses in shorts and wears the socks up to his knees like a prison inmate kitted out for a game of football during his one-hour of permitted exercise. More people mill around the front of the stage ready to slam. The spectators look even more odd. Men with harsh mulleted haircuts mingle with crusty punks and nerds in extreme metal t-shirts who look like they would write cosmic death metal music if they had enough time outside of their busy lives as software developers.

Most of us are on our feet when the band launch into ‘Curbed’ and then slice through the excellent ‘Bro Comply’ within two minutes. You want heavy – Jesus Christ! Kyle Townsend of Public Execution is a man of many talents. Now he takes up his position as the Trading Hands bassist as if playing in Dillinger Escape Plan. “Listen to the downward crunch of those guitars,” I say to Andy Edwards. We find our necks craning forward. People windmill in front of us. Some of the songs I don’t recognise. Maybe they’re new? The slow grind of ‘Tote Bag Punks’ works wonders as a segue to the chaotic noise assault of ‘Envy’.

Above: Powerviolence quartet, Trading Hands, are not to be missed. Bassist, Kyle Townsend (far right), is one of the standout performers at the festival as the vocalist of Public Execution and the four-stringer in Trading Hands. Photo by Andy Edwards.

“This one goes out to all the binmen doing a great job for this country,” says Hummerstone, with a smirk on his face. They launch through ‘Trashman’ like unrelated lunatics who’ve discovered the virtues of cooperation over individualist tantrums. It makes sense to end the set with their longest song on record, even if ‘No Wet Dreams, Just Dry Nightmares’ clocks in at just over two minutes. It reminds me of Conjurer covering an early Biohazard demo. Any people in the Indian restaurant and sports bar either side of the enclosure must wonder if it’s legal to play music as murderous as this. Admittedly, I wouldn’t want my mum to be here on a Saturday evening. But that’s what makes it fun, right?

Bury, Greater Manchester’s most famous death metal humourists, Foetal Juice, are next up. I’m on my way back from the bar when I hear the opening chords of ‘Take Your Face for a Shit’ ring out from the beer garden. “Shit, that’s Foetal Juice,” says my buddy. They might have amusing song titles (think ‘Big Trouble in Little Vagina’ and ‘Semen Evil, Smear No Evil’), but this band mean business when they’re on stage. And they also live up to their moniker as purveyors of violent death metal. Guitarist, Ryan Whittaker, has a devastating range of grimy metal riffs in his repertoire, most of which he unleashes in a set dominated by the quartet’s 2020 Gluttony LP. Indeed, the first five songs replicate the running order of their last album and would leave us with little time to breathe if not for the onstage banter from frontman, Derek Carley. The high range tremolo riffs and deep bass guitar incursions of ‘Manifestation of Falsity’ get the pulses racing and the odd person descending into body spasms. Fan favourite, ‘Dutch Oven’, is almost as terrifying as the recorded version from their 2016 album. On record they sound like Napalm Death covering Bolt Thrower with a black metal twist. Here, they roar through the PA like proud degenerates granted a licence to raid the bridge party next door. “We’d love to stay around after,” says Carley. “But our drummer – the bastard – has another gig booked after this.” He doesn’t tell us that sticksman, Rob Harris, is the man behind the kit in England’s finest black metal band, Necronautical, who have a show in Leicester later this evening.

A buzz surrounds post-metal quartet, This Ends Here, with Praetorian drummer, Andrew Bisgrove, singing their praises in the smoking area. Unfortunately, I miss their performance when I bump into the drummer of Pound and arrange an interview in the bar area. (You can read it here.) I can hear their menacing roars from the back room of The Red Lion, and the way the barwoman looks over her shoulder in angst suggests they’re a band that take no prisoners. They’re also fond of the sharp dynamics judging by the muffled sounds filtering into the pub. I’ll be searching for them on Bandcamp tomorrow.

Nine extreme metal and hardcore acts spread over 7 hours is just what you need on a Saturday afternoon on a historic high street in Hertfordshire!

I must be losing track of time by the time Brighton duo, TRAPS, walk on stage. This is an interesting duo. The topless singer/guitarist wears white long johns and parades a muscular frame, like a rock god version of Terence Trent Darby. He commands the stage with a swagger, yet his amps play some of the ugliest fuzz distortions you’ll hear all year. Behind the guitar shapes and the clatter of the crash cymbal is an unusual concoction of noise rock and sludge metal held together by a delicate melodic thread that could break at any moment. “Guys, feel free to buy us a drink after the show. Seriously, it’s expensive to travel here,” says the singer. I suspect there’d be a queue of women ready to do just that if this wasn’t a grindcore sausage fest. He then walks into the audience and stands on a table like a victorious prince walking through a sea of jingoistic supporters. Many of us watch in fascination as he holds the guitar behind his head and frets the last notes of the closing song.

TRAPS frontman, The Chainy, has a charismatic presence on stage and looks every inch the rock god.

You know you’re in for an audio bludgeoning when you see a band like Nothing Clean step on stage. In the case of their vocalist, Matt, he stands in the pit and screams with his back to the audience. We all do the sensible thing and get out of his way. Common sense dictates that you retreat when a stocky man in a baseball cap, vest and shorts bends forward with a mic in hand and a spring in his step. The Leicester powerviolence outfit blur the lines between grindcore and punk and race through the first three songs from 2021’s Disappointment album as if we’re not even present. Most of them last as long as forty seconds. Some of the newer untitled tracks are over before you can take more than two gulps of your pint. My focus switches to the drummer, who wears a yellow t-shirt and sports a Mohican and a moustache that would warrant a handshake from Anthony Kiedis. The guitarist looks like Martin Freeman (the guy who played Tim in The Office). You don’t mess with a band that get through thirty-five songs in just under half-an-hour. They even have a song called ‘Punched In’ for God’s sake!

Above: Get the fuck out of the way when Nothing Clean take to the stage, unless you’re the dude on the left. Photo by Andy Edwards.

I’m already buzzing from my interview with the American duo of David Stickney (drums) and Ryan Schutte (guitars) from Pound when their crew set up their gear ready for thirty minutes of insane math-grind. No other band here today uses a nine-string guitar or plays outside of common time. They don’t do song titles. Instead, each composition takes its name from drum notation and looks like a strange piece of twentieth century computer coding. We need a headfuck among this assembly of ugly grindcore and hardcore bands, and they don’t disappoint. I’m spinning my head and roaring “Fuck, yes!” in the calm between each song as if I’m their secret publicist. Some of the people next to me think I’m hammered. They’re not wrong, but this music makes my eyeballs bulge. I have a permanent gurn on my face. Think of that superhuman feeling you experience when you listen to ‘Suffer in Truth’ by Meshuggah. “This is like Car Bomb,” I say to the guy next to me. I don’t think he’s heard anything like this before. Pound must be doing something right if most of the audience have no idea how to react to their music. Just watching the concentration on Stickney’s face as he accents the strangest of squirming guitar rhythms brings me great satisfaction. They’re the only foreign band here today but easily the most original.

Above: Pound play a strange math-grind form of music that requires intense concentration from drummer, David Stickney. Photo by Andy Edwards.

The one group I know least about (other than TRAPS) is Brighton blackened sludge disruptors, Walllowing. They’re not easy to forget. Each member wears an identical black boiler suit with a sharp trilby sown on to a face veil. I assume they can breathe through the small slit in the face covering. Their attire comes with a fluorescent green neck torch straight from the costume department of Dr Who. The empty pint glasses on the tables in front shake underneath the bass fuzz of opening song, ‘Flesh and Steel’. Some of us are tired at this stage and let our heads fall in a despondent rotational movement as if we’ve lost the strength in our muscles. It’s a fitting response to the monstrous amp distortion and blood-curdling vocal abrasions. They follow it with a drawn-out song called, ‘Earth Reaper’, which lasts for longer than twenty minutes and annoys nobody with its challenging duration. We have alcohol inside us. Everyone wants to be here. Extreme metal is our religion. Lengthy sludge metal songs with dynamic twists and black metal goblin vocals are just what we want on a Saturday evening in a busy town high street. This is our culture. We can expect to hear more from Wallowing in the next few months when they release their sophomore album.

Above: Wallowing also have a guitarist, bassist and a drummer. Photo by Andy Edwards.

It’s fair to say the majority, including me, are here for the headline act, Mastiff. They come from Hull and play miserable music from a miserable city. They’re also more aggressive than a pitbull with a hare between its jaws. Scream Blast Repeat had last year’s Leave Me the Ashes of the Earth at number six on our Top 50 Albums of 2021. Along with Urne and Conjurer, these boys are at the forefront of the English extreme metal scene. Today, they know their surroundings. We want the faster stuff rather than the earlier sludge metal filth. Is it a coincidence that they blast through the three shortest songs from last year’s masterpiece at the beginning of their set? More people seem to be wearing Pound t-shirts in the few moments when I can look up to catch my breath. ‘Fail’ and ‘Midnight Creeper’ are over before you can say the Lord’s prayer to beg for mercy. You won’t get it from vocalist, Jim Hodge, who towers above his microphone like he’s about to demolish it in one bite. I roar the unsentimental line of ‘Biege Sabbath’ back at him when he points the mic in our direction – “Same old shit/ Nothing’s changed.” Is it me or is ‘Endless’ closer to death metal than grindcore? The tremolo riffs and double-kick grooves would find pride of place on a Vader album. Drummer, Michael Shepherd, is on top form here and looks like he could walk across a motorway unharmed. That’s what this music does to you. It makes you feel invincible. The jagged guitar chords sound like match ends scraping against a henge stone. We’re all too happy to shout “endless suffering – endless pain” as a sort of anti-anthem soundbite.

Above: Is there a heavier band in England than blackened sludge grind outfit, Mastiff?

Speaking to guitarist, Andrew James Lee, last year, I know that ‘Scalped and Salted’ is his favourite song to play live. They treat us to this bass-heavy monstrosity as the penultimate song on the setlist and unleash a force of blast beats that terrify even the most seasoned grindcore fan. Why do I feel a strange barbaric anguish when listening to this band? They make me do things I wouldn’t do in normal life, like looping my head in a circle until I’m nearly drooling at the mouth. (It could be the beer.) “Leave me the ashes of the earth!” I roar. I’m a bit light on my feet now, and everyone looks like a crust punk through my squiffy eyes. There’s a song with a monstrous breakdown they haven’t played yet. “Ah, this is brutal,” I say when they launch into ‘Repulse’. Hodge prepares us for the carnage of the chug riff at the end. The pit widens out. A semi-circle in front of the band opens up for the hardcore attendees to lose their shit. I’m among them and too drunk to be concerned for my safety. Flailing arms and slamming bodies collide in a euphoric rush. A stocky guy crashes into me but makes sure not to follow through with his full weight. That’s the thing people don’t understand. We might look violent and act violent in the pit, but we’re all comrades. It’s like the simulation of violence during the era of the warring Italian city-states, when the fifteenth century conduct of war showed as much concern for honour as it did for destruction. Mastiff are our leaders tonight, taking us to the places we seldom see in our cooped up lives.

Jordan Allard has an aftershow party lined up for us inside, but it’s time for me to stagger home.