Saturday, 22 November 2014

Live Review: Serpent Venom / Trouble. Manchester Club Academy. 9/11/2014

Thirty years ago, in the February California sunshine, a quintet of desirous musicians were putting the finishing touches to their debut album alongside Metal Blade founder Brian Slagel and producer Bill Metoyer. ‘Psalm 9,’ the record in question, was originally released with the eponymous title, ‘Trouble’, an album Metal Blade Records would go on to market as ‘white metal’ in contrast to the bleak poundings of black metal, a movement which was very much on the ascent. But with the release of Saint Vitus’ self-titled debut offering preceding ‘Psalm 9’ by a single month and recorded some 30 odd miles south of Track Records studio, where Trouble, Slagel and Metoyer were sat twiddling at the mixing desk, the two records would go on to be widely regarded as the Adam and Eve of doom metal. A much more fitting title.  

’Psalm 9’s’ spirituality in Eric Wagners lyrics, coupled with the twin guitar attack of Bruce Franklin and Rick Wartell, would make a lasting impression upon our world. It was a record which drew hugely upon the sounds regurgitated from Birmingham in the previous decade – mostly Black Sabbath and Judas Priest – but their sound was peppered with originality too. Saint Vitus, you could argue, would build more successfully upon their early work, while line-up changes and frequent inactivity stunted Trouble’s progression. ‘Skull,’ their follow up album did keep momentum rolling at a promising pace and those first two albums would provide landmark inspiration for many bands to follow in their wake, but in 2014, Saint Vitus are the bigger, more established act.

Attendance at Manchester’s Club Academy tonight however, shows that they are still very much in people’s hearts. They may have dropped off the radar multiple times since they were unleashed upon the world all those years ago, but they were never forgotten. Tonight is a celebration of ‘Psalm 9,’ with the record dominating the set list. But it is also proof positive that, despite their, ahem…troubles, they still have a fantastic discography and history of which to be proud of.

They’ve brought the highly rated Londoners Serpent Venom along on tour with them, just one of the bands ‘Psalm 9’ would later make an impression on. They walk on stage without dramatics before the music turns that on its head. A devastating, droning guitar blares through the speakers, underpinned by cavernous bass and rumbling drums. All of a sudden, the room fills, people emerge from nowhere it seems, walking towards the stage like zombies to a helpless victim. The Sludgelord has sung this band’s praises on plenty of occasions in the past and here their enormous sound is utterly immovable. This is doom at its harrowing, ground shaking best.

You can tell a lot about a band by the shirts they wear: Motorhead, Deep Purple, Saint Vitus and Sleep are their choices of attire for the evening and they do very much sum up what this band is about. The booming sonics and sluggish pace of Vitus and Sleep marry brilliantly with classic rock aesthetics to create hard-hitting, poignant songs. ‘The Penance You Pay’ is a tremendous opening as they plough through gut-wrenching riffs. Thunderstorm lighting flashes in perfect syncopation with Paul Sutherland’s shattering drum fills and Garry Ricketts’s big, distressed vocals - half religious chanting half gloom-tinged rasp – provides the perfect finishing touch.

They leave the stage with you feeling that they couldn’t possibly have done anymore to charm, or ram raid their way into the crowd’s hearts, heads and ears.

Then the crowd vanishes once more the same way that pigeons disperse into evacuating chaos as a playful child runs through their flock. Just where they disappeared to, is a mystery but once more, as the chilling opening of ‘The Tempter’ signalled the start of Trouble’s set, they re-emerged and made their way to the stage.

’The Tempter’ is a truly great song, combining the low-end down tempo riffs of Sabbath with fast paced thrash riffs. They roll through their set with a great energy, Kyle Thomas handling vocal duties amicably with flashes of harmonised brilliance from Franklin and Wartell interspersed throughout. They have a look of a band thoroughly enjoying themselves, smiles broad and omnipresent. It’s infectious.

Playing upstairs in one of the other Academy venues which is buried deep within the sprawling university complex is a Polish rap band. The two bands couldn’t be anymore contrasting. It made for an interesting and amusing sight as the two sets of fans entered the building before going their separate ways. Rock fans always have such a distinguishable look, Bathory, Electric Wizard and a myriad of other band patches are sewn onto denim jackets in the crowd and tonight Trouble managed to encapsulate that community vibe wonderfully well. They may not be the biggest or best band in the world but seeing them live is a fun experience. Fans and band alike share a mutual affection for each other, the whole evening is really warming.

Then, mid-set, as Bruce Franklin took centre stage for an impassioned guitar solo, Wartell lit up a cigarette and watched at side of stage. Naturally, this really wound up the bouncer, who gave the death stick a thunderous glare. Honestly, you’d think he’d killed his only son based solely on his look. When he dashed it, half-finished on the ground, the bouncer couldn’t stop looking back over at it as it lay motionless on the floor. It was the most ridiculous sub-plot to proceedings.

‘When The Sky Came Down,’ taken from last year’s ‘The Distortion Field’ gets an airing late on. The guitars are rich in lots of clever little intricate moments – intriquilities, to coin a term. It solidifies the notion that this band is no mere nostalgia act. Alongside seminal cuts from ‘Psalm 9’ and ‘Skull,’ it sounds just as bold, just as lively, just as strong.               

The encore then topped the night off brilliantly. Covering Sabbath’s ‘Supernaut’ was a brave move but one they pulled off with a remarkably established esteem. By this point everyone had had a generous amount of booze and the atmosphere that fizzed as the opening riff roars into action is immense. Again, Thomas’ vocals are on point and the guitarists impress yet again with some terrific playing. When I see a band live I crave for that extra something you just can’t get on record. The atmosphere, the infectious joy of the band and the storming rendition of ‘Supernaut’ are those extras – it made for a special evening.

Words: Phil Weller  

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