Saturday, 2 April 2011

Live: Castles in the Air Launch Show - The Red Lion, Gravesend 1/4/11

Okay, so you've just started a promotions company setting up gigs in an area of the country which is notoriously difficult to actually persuade anyone to get off their Xbox-inflated arses to come out to gigs. You're determined to get the name out there, and to kick off your operation with a bang. How best do you do that, d'ya suppose? Well, booking in five of the best and most well-known bands in the Kent underground scene would be a pretty good place to start, and a half-decent second step would be to put them on at a well-known and much-loved venue. Obviously Castles in the Air attended that particular school of gig logic, as that's exactly what they've done, with this show containing a lineup of scene favourites from far and wide, all of slight variation, and all ready to celebrate the launch of a new promo company by giving the familar settings of The Red Lion in Gravesend a sound maiming.

First up, it's a warm welcome back to the circuit for everyone's favourite acoustic punk duo, Torn Out (77%), and it only took a few bars of opener 'Chasing Lost Nights' for it to feel like 2009 all over again. Yes folks, that really was the last time this author actually saw the Essex boys play live, and in all fairness, not a whole lot has changed. Guitarist and singer Ben Smith still barks his lines with that trademark whiplash shout, and bassist Steve Knight is still all relaxed wit and smooth, fluid basslines. There's a bit of ring rust around the edges, with a couple of messed-up chord progressions and 'oh, it's that bit now?' glances across between the two, normally descending into good-natured giggles and banter. The experiance is still as charming as ever, and the songs remain the band's ace card. The newer songs, from their recent split EPs with other groups, show a marked emphasis on melody and pop hooks compared to the street grit of their first EP, but Smith's lyrics have lost none of their gut-punch brutal honesty. Overall then, like an old friend whom you've just invited out to the pub for a pint and a catch up, Torn Out are still as enjoyable as ever, and it's good to see them back.

From one variant of punk to another, acoustic punk gives way to pop punk, with everyone's favourites A Boy Named Girl (85%) up next. It doesn't really matter when you last saw the Dartford five-piece, or how many times you've seen them full stop; they'll still sound the same, still look the same, and still kick just as much arse. They've developed a back catalogue that can happily urinate all over many bands in the pop-punk stable, and while it doesn't bring anything new to the table, their sound and style is so well-executed and so damn fun that you'll wonder why you gave two shits when Fall Out Boy went on hiatus - who needs 'em and their preening when you've got a band writing stuff on a par with their 'Take This To Your Grave' record playing venues like this? And what's more, they can nail their tunes live - Christian Swaisland (drums) and Andy Sargent (bass) hold the others together on a monstrously tight leash, and Steve Wilde and Craig McCall throw catchy, razor-sharp guitar riffs and chords around like they're going out of fashion. Phil Harrison nails every single high-pitched and wavering vocal line, and is refreshingly unpretentious as a pop-punk frontman. Brilliant fun, and an experience I'd recommend to anyone with even a hint of liking for rock 'n' roll.

From pop-punk to ska-punk, it's
My Third Leg (79%) playing their home venue, and my, how times have changed since their debut on this exact stage in December 2009. Paul Smith is actually becoming a half-decent drummer, for one thing. I'll just pause for a second so you can clean up the drink you just spat on your screen in shock. In all seriousness, he's matching the endeavour he's always shown with some hard-hitting chops nowadays, and it's improved wholesale from those early days. The same can be said for the rest of the band - while the songs have remained largely the same, their execution live has tightened up immeasurably, with the band growing steadily in stature with every gig. Guitarist Mike Smith embodies this progress rather nicely - from unassuming rhythm guitarist, he's now fleshing out the songs with backing flourishes of chords and arpeggios, leaving frontman Will Woodrow to handle the skanking riffs and leads. Will himself has developed a a distinctive vocal style, growing into the frontman role with confidence and great gusto. Bassist Dave Ja Vu is...well, he's Dave: bouncing around, grinning, yelping excitably, all that we've come to expect and enjoy. M3L are an example of a band sticking to their guns and relentlessly honing their sound, steadily growing in stature until you turn around and realise that, actually, they've become a really good band, without anyone ever particularly noticing when or where this transition to greatness ever happened. Tracks like 'Going for A Drive' and 'Yes Please' are growing into fan favourites, with the former in particular getting bodies moving with ease, and their delivery is sharp, assured and confident. Job well done lads, and the recording sessions for the rumoured upcoming album cannot come soon enough.

From ska-punk to...well, just punk, in the form of this author's personal favourites The Submission (83%), as they like Torn Out make their long-overdue return to the Red Lion stage. And there's no other way of saying this without spoiling my opinion somewhat, but my inevitable enjoyment of their set was tempered by a tinge of disappointment, and a cold realisation. The punk rockers from Deal are battle-hardened veterans now, with rookie drummer Matt Browne having to hit the ground running or risk going under. I speculated in my review of their Canterbury comeback show that Browne would improve on his impressive debut showing, and indeed that was the case, with a much more assured and powerful performance. But whilst the tunes remain as strong and muscular as ever, there's just something a bit cold about them tonight that I can't entirely put my finger on. Frontman Rich Harris was terse between songs, and granted, he's never been the most verbose of frontmen, but this calculating bluntness sat awkwardly at odds for me with the warmth and relaxed front of Submission gigs past. He also seemed to phone in the trademark madcap bombast of his live persona, although a fair bit of this may be attributed to sound problems involving him unable to hear himself play. Compensating for this unnatural dip in energy, though, was bassist Sadie Williams, whom seems to be getting more and more energetic by the show. Despite the ceaseless bounding around and grooving, however, she still remains an absolute professional, never missing a beat or run. What this show does prove to me, however, is that The Submission do miss having an extra guitarist to call on as backup. Expecting Harris to carry all the guitar work on his own, strong as he is in this area, is too much to ask, and I still remain to be convinced that 'I'm Lazy' works with large chunks of the song missing the rhythm guitar. Don't get me wrong, folks - The Submission remain a blazing live proposition, and with tunes like 'Number One Sensation', 'Get Up' (which makes a welcome comeback tonight), 'Reggae Rock Rebels' and 'You Just Don't Know', plus covers of The Clash's 'Career Oppurtunities' and The Ramones' timeless 'Blitzkrieg Bop', you have a set packed of blistering anthems and barnstorming action. But tonight, the realisation occurs that the band have perhaps moved on from past glories, and are a different beast now. More clinical, more ruthless and hard-edged, and perhaps more cynical. For better or for worse, this is the Submission of 2011.

It would probably be harsh of me to give a full review on headliners One Day Elliot, as I spent most of their set either outside at the burger trailer or out in the beer garden. That probably tells you all you needed to know about what I thought of them, and the few minutes or so I did catch only confirmed these impressions. Maybe they're beginning to suffer from jaded fatigue after countless years on the circuit, but for me their set lacked spark, and felt crushingly flat and lacking in joy de vivre. As I say, maybe the good bits of their set passed me by, but unlike the other bands on the bill, they failed to captivate my attention. The fact that a fair amount of people were also outside for their set makes me think that maybe others had the same idea.

So in conclusion, despite faltering just past halfway and the evening staggering to a lethargic and disappointing climax (insert 'this is how my girlfriend feels' jokes here), Castles in the Air's launch was a definite success. With a lineup that strong, even with one or two bands misfiring, you were still guaranteed by simple law of averages a great show, and indeed that was the case. Nice job.

All photography by Ian Castle.

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