It’s certainly fair to say that “Scruffs”, as it’s known to the local community of black-hooded and denim-clad longhairs, is not the biggest, grandest venue in the land. What Birmingham’s premier rock bar lacks in size and standing room however is altogether far more valuable; a consistently good sound quality, cheap enough drinks, a very warm welcome to anyone who chooses to cross its rickety wooden threshold and now, more than ever, truly fantastic live line-ups via Heretic Promotions. Tonight’s audience, at around fifty people, is not a large one, but it is a group of the most passionate and inquisitive music fans you’re likely to encounter for miles around. After all, who in their right minds would give up a quiet Wednesday evening to come and stand in a dingy underground bunker in order to have their ears completely cleaned out by two Seattle, Washington-based bands playing as loudly and as slowly as a giant snail in a megaphone? Well, these fifty-odd Brummies would and their dedication to the cause is greatly rewarded…
Liverpool doomsters Black Magician are unfortunate absentees from this evening’s cacophonous bill due to those always-wretched “unforeseen circumstances”. With the ensued luxury of a 45-minute set, local sludge titans Grimpen Mire instead blow the dusty cobwebs off their amps nice and early with a simply monstrous death-doom assault. Guitarist Jim Goad’s top end wail matches bassist Paul van Linden’s throaty growl with equal languish as the imposing pair churn out gnarled gargoylian riffage from their deeply impressive ‘A Plague Upon Your Houses’ record. Chords of fortified solitude pollute the basement as the trio first crawl through the murky gutter before racing down the drain into blackened voids surely not of this realm. Ian Davis’ drum-work isn’t the sharpest throughout three quarters of an hour of dishevelled and torturous misery, but there’s simply no fucking with Goad’s clear, chunky guitar tone and van Linden’s gigantic bass riffs. Grimpen Mire sway as a unit through the deafening noise like a gnarled old tree that refuses to be felled by even the strongest of winds and end with the skull-muddying feedback of ‘Black Mass Hallucination’.
Proving just as popular a draw, if not more so, than tonight’s headliners Samothrace, two-piece doom engine Bell Witch set up a huge array of electronics before a strangely hushed silence announces their grandiose opener ‘Bails (Of Flesh)’. The duo’s music is a mysterious time vacuum and before I know it I’m completely wrapped up in their enchantment with simply no possibility of return. Dylan Desmond’s dreadlocked mane is so long it almost touches the floor as his skilled fingertips gently navigate a complex six-stringed bass fretboard and his feet tap-dance upon an entire floor of complex pedal mechanics. Drummer Adrian Guerra’s dizzying stick-work and deathly growls eventually give way to Desmond’s medieval-esque hymns which sound as though he’s singing alone in some sixth-century monastery, chanting away to a spirit very long forgotten. Bell Witch’s style of encapsulating and solemn doom hits home somewhere between Sunn0)))’s deafening abyss and Pallbearer’s near-religious sense of hypnotic abandonment and what’s usually a very savage musical practice mutates into a beautiful art-form. ‘Beneath the Mask’ sees Desmond play a baritone symphony over his huge bass almost like some bizarre lap-steel or even keyboard piece as Guerra patiently waits his return cue. The drone of the gorgeous and closing ‘I Wait’ takes you right to the outer limits of our largely unknown universe and eventually it feels like I’m almost outside of my own body, walking ghost-like through the church pews of my very own funeral. This is truly fascinating stuff from Seattle’s sub-sonic suffocators.
If Bell Witch were a slow gathering wispy wind, headliners Samothrace prove to be more of an oncoming storm. Their driving rock rhythms and crushing atmospherics slalom between vast valleys of noise and rocky mountain peaks of psychedelic remorse. Gigantic (and when I say “gigantic” try 20-odd minutes long!) opener ‘A Horse of Our Own’ breathes in the vast power of Year of No Light, passes it through the contemplative intelligentsia of Earth and colours it with the rich tapestries of Colour Haze before ramming it home with the type of up-in-your-face force that Acid King specialise in. The sound mix sadly is quite far from ideal and humble frontman Bryan Spinks’ vocals are so very distant that they fail to translate through the amp-wall, but his solos are evergreen and seep from the speakers like a yarn of silk from an over-productive worm. Giant drummer Joe Axler’s cymbals are so high off the floor and above his head that they’re practically sitting on Cloud City, but it’s his relentless percussion work (he pauses only to beg for someone to grab him a shot of tequila) that drives Samothrace endlessly forward. Dylan Desmond pulls double-duty tonight on his six-string bass and provides a solid, yet versatile platform for guitarist Renata Castagna’s bluesy solos on a triumphant ‘Broken Hearts’. As the four-piece close out with the feedback-swallowed ‘When We Emerged’, their melodic riffs seem to speak more to the audience than the otherwise morose tone of the earlier bands of the evening and the small crowd’s applause is as warm as Spinks’ closing well-wishes and vote of thanks.
And so the storm of volume passes over once again providing yet another evening of great music in Birmingham. The caps-lock text on Renata Castagna’s beer koozie sums it up best: “Tune down, drink up”.
Scribed by: Pete Green
Photos by: Helen Moss (www.facebook.com/OTOHPTCARTSBA)