Monday 19 July 2010, 17:52
I'm in a perpetual state of rush. Trying to hit the other end of the country the moment the band I want to see take to the stage, and not a moment sooner or later, is what seemingly defines my fate.
Basically I'm a peptic ulcer waiting to happen. I wish I could do something about this, but like John Cleese in Clockwork (and that won't be the most dated reference in this 'review') life would only stick outlandish obstacles in my way, cackling madly, if I was on the verge of getting somewhere in a cool, measured and timely manner.
"Do you know where Jacob's Antique Market is?" I ask the multilingual young man at reception.
"Yes, sir, it's just around the corner. But you know it's shut now?"
He doesn't understand that, on this occasion, I'm not going to buy antiques, transpires - in fact - that I will be the only antique present.
After ducking a couple of bridges, negotiating some perplexing footpath closures, and avoiding some boorish, perma-tanned monstrosities heading for St Mary Street, I see young people at an innocuous doorway. As I sidle through their fresh faces and untarnished enthusiasm I think that they must think I'm someone's dad come to drop off a forgotten purse or mobile phone.
People are heading downwards into the bowels of the building. I just follow the guy in front of me because I'm too shy to ask if this is where the bands will be. Being twice the age of all present I can just about handle and rationalise, but being twice as stupid would never do.
Fortunately he isn't going to the toilet and I find myself in what looks like an underground car park, minus the cars, plus whitewashed walls and a sickly green hue from the two fluorescent tubes that provide the illumination. I've been told in advance that there is a ticket for me, somewhere. Addled and confused by age shame and victim of nervous word torrent, I babble to the ticket checking people that I'm on the guestlist.
"There is no guestlist."
Of course there's no bloody guestlist! You're in the heart of Cardiff's DIY subculture, gigs are put on to cover costs, there are no gueslists! This isn't Barfly, for cryin' out loud. It feels like a major faux pas! I'm not a blagger. I blush, feel a extra line of self disappointment wrinkle the corner of my eye, and walk inwards with all the self assurance of Kevin Spacey's character in American Beauty.
There are groups of people standing round. They've had the foresight to bring liquid refreshments with them. There's no bar, see. You need a licence for a bar. And with a licence you are required to have responsible people present who will do all they can to spoil the fun. I haven't brought anything. I don't need to get drunk to enjoy myself, honestly I don't. But I am actually parched thirsty. All that rushing, you see.
I recognise a couple of people. Some are good enough, even, to talk to me. I'm used to going to gigs by myself. Once I get over the fact that I either look like a pervert or a very rubbish undercover police person, I manage to enjoy myself. It is all about the music. Generally the further away from your comfort zone you are, the more interesting the music you'll witness will be. So awkwardly standing on your own usually prefaces something special. And so it proves.
First band, Wooderson, are from Sheffield. They're well-trained hardcore, played with the same discipline to peripatetic rolling rhythms punctuated by blasts of noise as Fugazi. I like. More people fill the basement. Heads nod. Hands clap. The sound is remarkably good considering the PA has been squeezed down stairs for this event. Obviously there is no noise limiter. That kind of sanitising crapola is from a different universe. Like guestlists. Wooderson were good, if not all that memorable. But put that down to the early start.
Next up, after minimal backline fiddle, it's Exit International's turn to glow radioactive under the tubes. Scott grew up in Merthyr. Guns N' Roses would have been his touchpaper. And whereas most of tonight's bands make music that isn't peripheral but certainly has no ambitions beyond the periphery, Exit International write direct, hooky, monstrous pop songs. OK, two bass guitars distorted to the point of obliteration aren't your usual pop armoury, but that's just one of the many things that make Exit International such a thrill. And this is about thrills.
Scott knows how sex and anger are the two great fuels for great rock n roll. These songs distill them to their rawest constituent parts. Scott's remarkable voice swoops and screams like a Satanic orgasm. Alpha man lions stalking their enclosure exude the same sense of thrilling danger as Exit International do when they're performing. And it looks like they're ready to break free of the enclosure soon. Their début EP got a four K review in Kerrang! and they've just discovered they're on the Introducing Stage at Reading. There will be lots of pregnant ears and scratched backs around the UK this time next year.
This Hidden Switch make affirming punk rock that has no pretence beyond choruses to raise hearts above torpor and routine. Despite problems (blown bass amp, malfunctioning vocal monitor and a drummer who's hitting his kit through a tableful of empty pint glasses) This Hidden Switch's surging melodic power isn't obscured completely. Sometimes it actually is all stacked against you and this was just one of those nights. Their final gig, for the foreseeable future, is at Buffalo Bar in Cardiff on Monday 26 July. I wish I could be there to hear them when they get it right. I bet it will be ace.
Harbor - singular, I'm just reminding myself, here - are a much darker affair. Bludgeoning cave-ins of guitar filth are elevated by ringing, dissonant open notes. Long, dark night of the soul vocals drag it along with an all too human compulsion and vehemence. The basement becomes an unhinged mass of arms and legs, it's a storm of bodies, freed by fierce release.
It's astounding. Country boy bumpkin, here, is gobsmacked. I can't tell where the band begins and the audience ends. I see fists in the air and I hear something that sounds like magma trapped in a volcanic core. Or a meltdown of all the brooding brilliance of the first Killing Joke album, but faster, much faster (and, still, that's not the most dated reference in this piece).
How do you follow that?
This event is Saturday's Kids début EP launch. It's a measure of this musical community that bands book themselves bills that challenge them, that aren't there to prop up their own egos. That's not just about community, though, that's about confidence. And Saturday's Kids have plenty to be confident about.
Their début EP - wrapped in newspaper cuttings - was sent to me as a freebie recommendation by Matt at Diverse Vinyl in Newport. That was last year. The EP showed mad promise. Their choice of notes was, somehow, different to other bands. A tonal range that gave the band a distinctive them-ness. And if that was true of the simpler songs on that EP, the music they've been recording recently is an evolutionary leap as marked as fish -> amphibian -> ape -> man. In the space of 12 months.
But can they do it live?
Yes, they can.
Wales has three remarkable new bands who have wrought original, unpredictable shapes out of rock's wreckage: Bastions, Klaus Kinski and Saturday's Kids. Saturday's Kids defy and unwind clichés at every turn in their set. Their riffs could have dropped off a mountainside signed by Black Sabbath (that is the most dated reference here).
It's perhaps the wrong vernacular to talk about a post-hardcore-ish band in terms of 'riffs'. That's 70s muss speak. But the bricks from which these strange architectures are fashioned are stunning two or three note motifs you could trace back to Robert Johnson, for sure. I'm almost tempted to draw an illustrative diagram.
Grey On White is just about the most insidiously clever track you're likely to hear this year. It morphs, effortlessly, through an album's worth of ideas in its first minute. The audience are so inextricably linked to the peaks and troughs in the sound, it's like watching puppetmasters at work. When things get frenetic, people are - literally, no lie - stuck to the ceiling. The sinister, eddying troughs see fists in the air, a tide of arms and legs wash left then right over the floor. Someone is being carried on heads, shoulders, hands. It's five minutes before I realise it's one of the band.
They're astonishing. They're not tight. Well, they're loose and tight. Things that need to happen with any degree of accuracy do so. When things are slack - when the band are engaged with the audience - it's good slackness. There are so few bands with that kind of natural flow. I'm going to shut up, now. This isn't supermarket music. It might stay hidden in basements. It doesn't matter. If you've been looking for amazing, it's right here.