You know something? This whole local punk scene thing has it's upsides. 2 gigs in 2 consecutive Saturdays, both blessed with awesome lineups of the movers and shakers of UK underground punk and ska music. And both featuring Tyrannosaurus Alan, funnily enough. But, whilst the Medway boys were the undisputed stars of the show last week in Sheerness, a crammed Camden Underworld packed with an all-star lineup from the length and breadth of the UK is a different proposition. Make no mistake, this is a step up from last weekend, as good as it was; this is a heavyweight showdown in the heart of the capital, and one that has 'gig of the year' stamped all over it, top to bottom.
There's two ways you can view Tyrannosaurus Alan's (9/10) opening slot - either, it's to guarantee a blazing start to proceedings, or a result of booking agent politics that does the band a disservice. In a way, their 30-minute set gives evidence for both cases - for the former, they blast out their fantastic rap-ska-punk hybrid and get bodies moving with no effort at all despite the 4:30pm start time and a distinct lack of alcohol consumed thus far (I say that - I wouldn't put it past some members of this audience to have been drinking since sunrise), and for the latter, their set is of such storming quality (as always, really) that it leaves the nagging impression that they should be hitting the stage later and further up the bill. That would be the case in a perfect world, but a) I can understand the reasons behind the scheduling, and b) to be honest, the T-Alan crew don't look like they give a fuck about such issues - they're just here to kick ass and have fun, just as always, and it's only good and proper that they have a like-minded audience, with skank pits kicking off without a second invitation. The dual-vocal attack is as always a devastating combo, with guitarist Ollie Bill Harries spitting, bouncing and skanking, and partial trombonist Simon Champ hollering, barking and urging the crowd on. Drummer Craig Shepard holds everything together with tight and ruthless beats, and the horn section of Sam Wilson (trumpet) and Tom 'with dreads' Broster and Chris Humphrey (saxophones) deliver hooks aplenty in the eye of the storm. A blazing start to the event, and a childhood dream (if you believe the band) fulfilled in style. If there's any justice, this lot should be back here in more prominent slots - who knows, maybe even headlining - in the near future.
I spoke before about how difficult it is to follow on from T-Alan, and tonight it's the turn of Broken Nose (5.5/10) to try and step up in the wake of the explosive opening. What doesn't help this particular band's cause is a lead singer who's constant screamed vocals sounds like Zach de la Rocha getting raped by Frank Carter and Kid Rock in the toilets - this may be personal opinion, but I couldn't stand them. The rest of the band appeared to follow suit, spewing forth a somewhat functional blasting of punky, hardcore-y heaviosity that, combined with (and mainly because of) the razor-blade-being-rammed-into-my-ears vocal delivery, begins to grate very swiftly. However, occasionally they'll switch to a slower reggae groove, and it's here that they earn a few points back, because they're much superior in this element. It's almost cunning how they do it - just when I'm really getting pissed off over the terrible screaming, a nice reggae section or riff comes along to calm me down again. Yes, I see what you did there, Broken Nose, you sly bunch, but it's still not enough for me to fully enjoy your set, especially when you toss aside the reggae pretensions anyway for a final two songs of crashing caterwauling. Like I said, this could be personal opinion; I mean, a fair few people seem to think Laila from Sonic Boom Six's vocal delivery is maddeningly awful, and I quite like it. Also, the idea of ska-core as a genre doesn't really wash with me, so what I will say is give them a listen for yourself - if this is your thing, then take this review as ignorant bile. Otherwise, steer clear.
It appears screamed vocals are en vogue tonight, as next band up I.C.H. (7/10) are also quite keen on them. But instead of shrieking-cat-in-a-washing-machine, I.C.H.'s frontman prefers gruff, whiplash barking to get his point across, and it's a little easier to digest, if no easier on the ear. I was told minutes before their set that these boys are due to tour sometime next year with The Jack Brews, and it doesn't take long to work out why - crushing, rollicking old-skool punk rock with hardcore overtones are the order of the day here, delivered with absolutely no subtlety and a lot of devastating pace. If you're looking for a metaphor to describe them, try to imagine Rancid doing a set composing entirely of covers of all of Lars Fredrikson's favourite 1980s UK street punk and hardcore bands, and you have a fairly accurate summation of I.C.H.'s schtick. It's relentless, with buzzsaw riffs and runaway train drumming battering you senseless, and although I don't have much time for hardcore music personally, there's enough punk rock crunching guitars and attitude in the melee for me to be drawn in. It does suffer from getting a bit samey, but in a short, sharp, half-hour shock of a set, the lack of deviation from the standard formula works well, especially with the amount of alcohol now starting to float around the venue. Job well done, and that tour with the Brews sounds like an enticing prospect.
The first of the three touring bands, Dirty Revolution (7.5/10), are up next, and...hang on, are you sure this isn't The Skints arriving early? A female-fronted band playing mellow reggae...actually, that's where the similarities end. For one, The Skints actually have memorable tunes - too many of DR's early songs just seem to float absent-mindedly out of the venue without ever leaving any kind of mark. Which is rather odd, considering I've been led to believe that these guys (and girl) are known for a gritty and powerful mix of punk, ska, and reggae - I can only think I got the wrong Facebook page, although it did look very convincing. Because what I'm seeing, and what I'm hearing, isn't particularly dirty, and it's not very revolutionary either, if you'll pardon the pun. I did miss the very start of their set, so maybe I missed a few gems, but what I did see was pretty run-of-the-mill, cookie-cutter stuff, with their music lacking the chilled, easy melodies of Captain Accident or Jaya the Cat, or the gritty street feel of The Skints. It's desperately crying out for an identity, which is why it's refreshing to see them chuck the reggae pretensions in a skip for the final couple of songs and up the tempo, and it's now that they reveal themselves as a fine little ska band with real promise in this area. And by ska, I do mean just ska, for a change - as I've said before, whilst ska-punk is all very well and good, there seems to be an absolute deluge of bands ploughing that particular furrow currently (including the two bands at the top and bottom of this bill), and not much exclusivity for either ska or punk rock as individual styles, and I'd love to see Dirty Revolution progress with their ska overtones, not only for the reason above, but because they seem so damn good at it. The excellent band anthem 'I Love Reggae (I Love Ska)' proves this with a fine ending to their set, but it doesn't seem enough. It may be that the earlier reggae-orientated stuff needs repeated listens on Myspace to sink in, but it's the 2-3 ska tunes at the end of the set that earn them most of the points, because they were the only tunes that managed to hold my attention and get me interested.
I happen to end up directly stage front for the start of Moral Dilemma's (7.5/10) set, and as a result I end up getting shot-blasted in the face with an assault on the senses as they kick into their set. It's a 3-piece, with a singer touting a Gibson SG and a female bassist who contributes backing vocals, but any comparisons to The Subways are given a stern battering over the head with a stick of wood before being dumped in the gutter. Like I.C.H. earlier, MD are all about the hardcore punk, and just in case you hadn't gotten enough screamed vocals for the evening, frontman Craig Temple knows no other way of delivering vocals than by screaming them like an outraged bear. Musically, they remind me a lot of Black Flag, and for most that would be a massive complement - but I'm not a big fan of Black Flag, sacrilegious as that probably is. So by all rights, I should stick my fingers in my ears and head for the bar, but again like I.C.H. earlier, there's more than enough here to keep me heartily engaged, no matter how much the vocals begin to grate - and believe me, they do. First off, the sheer amount of energy on display is pretty astonishing, from all members. Bassist Chloe Chourrout snarls backing vocals and bounds around the stage with wild abandon, and Temple himself is a mass of sweat and frenzied spasms of movement - when he's not abusing his guitar or loosing his temper with the microphone, he's rallying the troops in the crowd in between the songs with stirring anti-authoritarian speeches, topically revolving around the student protests and riots in London a few days ago, and whilst I do think it's easy nowadays for bands to shout 'fuck the police!' and get a reaction, much like it was cool for US bands to shout 'Fuck Bush!' intermittently a few years ago, the level of passion and righteous fury these sentiments are delivered with deserves much respect. Secondly, they aren't afraid to mix the standard hardcore formula up occasionally, either by slowing the tempo a little (which isn't saying much considering their standard tempo is somewhere between stupidly fast and hyperspeed) or breaking things down, bit by bit, allowing Chourrout a chance to exhibit some neat and excellent bass skills, before building things back up to a riotous conclusion. It's these moments that prevent things from getting too samey, and this (admittedly rather slim) level of restraint gives the high-octane moments more impact. I'm curious to see if they develop on this in the future. For now, I can best sum them up as Black Flag mixed with 80s UK and US hardcore punk, so if you're a big fan of those styles, then feel free to dismiss my ramblings, because you'll almost certainly enjoy Moral Dilemma.
Since when did it get so crowded in here? Seriously, there's suddenly no room to move in here, with bodies crammed shoulder-to-shoulder on the Underworld floor. Actually, it's no surprise that the room has filled up so quickly - we're at the business end of the gig, and the penultimate band on have been the go-to band to support pretty much every big US punk/ska band that has toured here in the last 18 months or more. Yup, it's time for me to see what the fuss is about and catch The Skints (8.5/10) live for the first time, and whilst I do enjoy their set of gritty street reggae/dub stylings, it bewilders me just how maniacal the crowd get - moshing, pogoing and stagediving at the slightest opportunity, which seems odd considering the music they're actually hollering along to, though I suppose with the amount of drink flowing around the venue by now, you could put some dross by Coldplay on the speakers and people would still go berserk to it, and as I've already said, The Skints collective have been gathering fans left, right and centre over the last year or so to form together a hardcore band of followers. All of what I've written so far sounds like I'm being condescending to The Skints, which would be doing them a disservice - their high musicianship and technicality flows into the gritty, guttural rapped vocal lines to create a lovely fusion of melody and bubbling rhythm. They see T-Alan's 2 co-vocalists and raise them 3 here - drummer Jamie Kyriakides is probably the pick of the bunch with a throaty and soulful delivery, which meshes brilliantly with quasi-frontwoman and multi-instrumentalist Marcia Richards at stage front. Richards' vocals veer sometimes into dancehall in a rootsy trip through reggae's history books, and it always has this lovely feeling of flitting over the top of the music around it. The only weak link is guitarist Josh Rudge - his rapping is often close to God-awful, and sometimes downright cringeworthy, but it does improve in all fairness as the set goes on. Musically the band are close to spot-on, with Richards' threatening to steal the show whilst flitting between vocals, saxophone, flute, melodica and keyboards with ease, but to be honest the true heroes of The Skints are the rhythm section of Kyriakides' drumming and Jon Doyle's excellent and fluid basslines. The band themselves recognise this and allow Doyle a nice solo section in one of the songs, and his bass work subtly drives each song forward. In reggae, great bass work is absolutely vital, and The Skints have that area nailed to a tee. Overall, a higly enjoyable set, although it still doesn't convince me that the band are worth the rabid adoration they are affored. Maybe I'm being overly cynical, and The Skints themselves certainly deserve plaudits for an excellent and unique take on roots reggae.
So, just like last week, the penultimate band on the bill threaten to steal the show, and also just like last week, a fair few people seem to bail, thinking that there's nothing else to offer. Unlike last week though, a) there's still a very healthy contingent in the crowd for the headline act, and b) there's absolutely no way Random Hand (10/10) will allow themselves to be upstaged by one of the support acts, and as they charge into action, there's a sense of something pretty special erupting. 2010 hasn't been the best of years for the Hand, but now that they have a new drummer in place, they've returned and are ready to make up for lost time. The formula they've crafted and honed demonstrates the advantage of restraint I talked about earlier - the furiously skanked verses mixed with anthemic choruses and buzzsaw riffs to form a ridiculously catchy, energetic and powerful ska-punk-rock explosion quite unlike anything I've heard. The closest comparison I can perhaps give is a ska-influenced Billy Talent, but even then that particular metaphor is tenuous to say the least. What is so special to behold is that nothing the band does feels at all forced; it's all so natural, effortlessly fluid and razor-sharp. Frontman Robin Leitch is an intense whirligig of energy during songs, and a warm, friendly presence between songs, chatting with the crowd in his distinct Bradford burr, and directing the captive audience to pull off a couple of Camden Underworld firsts: the first ever 'crawl of death' (as opposed to Wall of Death, see?), and the first ever figure of 8 circle pit around the twin pillars on the Underworld floor. As a promised reward for this, he gives us 'partial nudity' in return - basically him struggling to get his sweaty T-shirt off. All fun stuff, especially with guitarist Matt Crosher interjecting occasional lines, and a brief technical delay with Crosher's guitar is smoothed over effortlessly. So, with any divide between band and audience well and truly dismantled, we're invited to join in heartily with the Hand's ska-punk party, through any way possible - outright moshing, pogoing, skanking, hollering along with Leitch and his cohorts, crowd-surfing, stage-diving, you name it, people are doing it without a second thought; almost as if it's obligatory, nay, compulsory. Even members of the other bands are at it, with several members of T-Alan in particular dancing and grinning like idiots (and even stagediving at some points). They inspire that level of rabid emotion through almost every second of their set - and when you've got an armoury of tunes of such high quality as this, coupled with such a superb live show, it's no surprise at all. Every member plays their part - new drummer Sean Howe is a powerhouse of crashing beat precision, bassist Joe Tilston stakes his claim to be one of the best bassists in the business at the moment with a superbly rhythmic and fluid performance, and the dynamic duo of Leitch's barked vocals and Crosher's dynamic guitar work are the formidable icing on a brilliant and anthemic cake. Speaking of anthems, the Hand certainly aren't short of one or two of those - the obligatory new songs from delayed new album 'Seething is Believing' show a nice progression from the already existing material, ramping up the riffs and trombone hooks to new levels. But with a back catalogue as strong as this, inevitable fan favourites have already been formed, and nearly all of them are unleashed tonight; the rousing 'Play Some Ska' comes early on, and the stunning double-gut-punch of 'Anger Management' and 'Scum Triumphant' ends the regular set. After a one-song encore, the band say their goodbyes and depart, to leave behind the wreckage of a sweaty and delirious crowd, delighted with the night's entertainment.
I began this review by touting this gig as possibly one of the best of the year, and overall, despite some dips in quality (and a contingent of plastic punk posers trying not to spoil their mohawks, but we'll talk about that in another post), tonight has lived up to billing in some style - a great combination of reggae, ska and uncompromising hardcore punk, bookended by probably the two strongest ska-punk bands in the U.K. at this time. And on tonight's evidence, 2011 looks like a fantastic year in prospect for the UK underground scene.
Overall Rating: 9.5/10