Blimey, we really were spoilt rotten on the 5th of February 2011, weren't we? A day of absolute mayhem in the football Premier League (and a day that Arsenal fans are probably still trying to forget about), and then this gem of a gig tucked away in the evening, with in my opinion the two best bands on the circuit at the moment in the top two slots on the bill. The term 'not to be missed' is one of those terms bandied around by over-zealous promoters in a desperate attempt to get bodies into venues and cash into their pockets, but in this case, such a term feels wholly appropriate, which is why I'm thankful for the late lift down there I received at literally the 11th hour.
This late arrival meant that I missed everyone's favourite Gravesend ska-punkers My Third Leg, but honestly, if you're that interested to know what they are like live, go and read one of the many other reviews I've written on them in the last few months, and odds are good that you'd be able to apply what I've said in those articles to their performance tonight. Unless they had just finished packing away the pyrotechnics and breakdancing cats, then I'm pretty sure I've not missed anything I haven't seen multiple times before.
Having said that, I'd rather have missed L.O.W.D (39%) (that's pronounced 'loud' if anyone was wondering) and seen M3L for the umpteenth time in the last few months, such was the mediocre fare of their set. It's probably unfair of me to fully grade their performance, seeing as I was outside, taking my chances with the cigarette smoke and the cold for most of their set, although that in itself probably tells you how highly I regarded them - answer, not very. The first impression was not good - they suffered from 'yeah, we're a band' syndrome, which seemed to give them an excuse to stand completely still and not look in the least bit interested in what they were playing, whilst the singer strutted around and demanded that the audience get moving, jump up, etc etc. Such things are a two-way street, pal, and if you're not putting in the effort, then why should we? Especially when your music is so painfully anodyne and by-the-numbers that this alone is enough to bore most of the prospective crowd into submission and a long ciggie outside. Their take on aggro-punk was so painfully tedious and beige sounding that had this been the sound of London and New York in the late 70s, punk rock would never have made it out of the squats, and thank fuck bands like The Ramones, The Clash and others were there to turn it into the amazing musical genre it has become today. Oh, and speaking of the Ramones, they then went and massacred 'Blitzkrieg Bop', which I thought was both illegal under international law and impossible to actually do. They played it slower than the original studio version, for Pete's sakes! And unbelievably, despite this, they will now be able to say that they've supported Random Hand. Don't let that fool you, folks - this was some of the most boring dross I've ever heard served up under the banner of punk/rock 'n' roll, and this crushing lack of energy and joie de vivre will hinder any further progress the band wishes to make.
So whilst they headed back to the rehearsal room and the proverbial drawing board, the anticipation levels cranked up as the time ticked down to the start of this colossal clash of the titans. The challengers and potential heirs to the throne, Tyrannosaurus Alan (92%), were up first, and unsurprisingly, it was explosive and energetic from the word go. The boys seem to have a knack of finding an involuntary muscle reflex in everyone's bodies that makes them start skanking, dancing, jumping and hollering along like lunatics whether they were actually planning on doing so or not. You just can't help it - with the ferocious cocktail of outrageously catchy horn hooks and muscular guitars and drumbeats laying waste to everything in it's way, you have absolutely no choice but to respond accordingly and dance. As usual, guitarist and frontman 1 Ollie Harries' vocals are set to full-auto, and they chatter and rattle unrelentingly alongside trombonist and frontman 2 Simon Champ's cannon barks at the choruses, and the formidable rhythm section of Ben Robinson on bass and Craig Shephard on drums is rock solid and razor sharp, holding the myriad horns and crashing riffs in check with immense precision and fluidity. The majority of the brilliant 'Campaign' record is rolled out, as well as one new song, which largely eschews the ska-punk carnage for the most part and worships at the alter of hip-hop, with a suitably grimy beat driving on Ollie's extended raps, and it's an interesting change of pace, although I'd be concerned if this was the exclusive new path they were taking. Still, look how far Sonic Boom Six have got with the whole hip-hop-with-guitars path, and besides, the T-Alan collective could release a second album comprising entirely of Mumford and Sons covers played on balalaikas and harpsichords - with anthems of such strength as 'The Officer Problem', 'Bombard the BBC', 'Spitting in a Dead Man's Eye' and 'Kourtney Palmer' already in the bank, and with a live show as devastating and immensely enjoyable as this, their status is secure, and their star will continue to rise in 2011.
So, the challengers laid down the gauntlet in stunning style. How did the incumbents respond? With a powerhouse performance right out of the top drawer, that's how. Despite the traditional bout of early deserters, there was still a large contingent with just about enough energy left over to skank and shout themselves to a standstill. And Random Hand (94%) provided the perfect fuel for this rabid fire, with a set of crunching, melodic and soaring ska-rock anthems, delivered with rabid, phlegm-spitting energy from frontman Robin Leitch and his cohorts. Recently added drummer Sean Howe has earned his stripes as a rock 'n' roll drummer par excellence, and his rock-solid beats and raucous crashes drive the entire music on at a relentless pace, with bassist Joe Tilston locking everything down alongside him. This allows Leitch's vocals to snarl and bark with wild abandon, and Matt Crosher's crunching guitar riffs to smash through the mix like a devastating whirling dervish of overdriven power and melody. They are a monstrously tight and razor-sharp unit, and all this adds up to great anthems aplenty. A shrieking siren wail signals the crushing 'Anthropology' to start the set, and the excellent 'I, Human' swiftly follows. 'For Roni' (a personal favourite of mine), 'Devil's Little Guinea Pig' and 'Roots in the Crowd' keep the pace fast and unrelenting throughout the set, before the quite brilliant triumvirate of 'Anger Management', 'Play Some Ska' and 'Scum Triumphant' brings the evening to a spectacular crescendo.
So, after a thoroughly boring undercard, the heavyweight title fight was an absolute stormer, with the reigning champions from Bradford only just retaining their title on points after an epic bout. Fantastic fun, and both are looking in fine fettle to take 2011 by storm and make it their own.