Approaching Birmingham’s Wagon & Horses on a dark and desolate, yet muggy Monday night is no pleasant task. Meandering around Digbeth’s deserted back streets is scary enough without my chosen soundtrack – the vast majority of Southern Lord’s gruesome roster – thundering at full blast down my ear canals. As I discard my earphones there’s barely a drop in volume as the Wagon’s giant outdoor PA stacks come into range from around a blackened corner.
I always seem to hear and read a lot of reviews, interviews and underground insights than begin with the phrase “I was always a hardcore kid – I grew up with the DC scene man…” But I can’t say that about myself with any form of honesty – I was a classic rock and metal lad growing up and hardcore was always just something else that was vaguely out there somewhere. Gigs like these are relatively new territories for me and as this slam-dancing genre now merges and sidesteps into sludge, doom, punk, crust and metal to create one exquisitely fucked up pile of noise-bound vomit, I wonder once again about to my own sanity.
Try as I might, I struggle to leave work early enough to catch any of Black Country metallers Sentenced – sorry lads, maybe next time. Fellow support act Scorned feature a simple drummer and guitarist combo alongside some wretched spawn of a vocalist clad in a green rain-mack. The hellish trio bashes out some punishing riffs and well-accomplished beats that defy their clearly early years. They only get twenty minutes stage time but it’s still enough for some scissor-kicking partygoers in the pit to start going apeshit like a team of homeless, injured gymnasts warming up. Whilst Scorned could certainly do with a bassist to catapult their sound forward with better force, their confidence alone sees them tip-toe through a quagmire of werewolf-infected abyss.
I should mention at this stage that the Wagon & Horses stage area is out the back of a dank, dingy pub and sits entirely outside under a tarpaulin roof. The sound booth is quite literally a wooden shed and houses a sound tech who appears to eat upwards of six bowls of Chinese takeaway in between each band. This is as raw as it gets: grimey, filthy, outdoors and disgusting. We’re lucky there’s a roof at all. The PA is at least four times too big for this 15’x15′ floor space and with so many windmilling maniacs around, the black-bricked floor is already beginning to look ominous.
Below are up next, yet they somehow manage to take over an hour to make their way to the stage. Having a singer arrive on crutches and with other band members apparently having to rely on public transport I do begin to feel for them but when they turn up to play for all of 15minutes, you simply get the sense that this wasn’t really worth it for anyone concerned. Yes, Below may have some explosive breakdowns, but in this genre who fucking doesn’t and despite some lightning fast lead guitar work it doesn’t mar the fact that the vocals lack any venom, volume or noose whatsoever. Sorry chaps, it was too little too late.
Hierophant may not be tonight’s audience’s cup of ketamine but that doesn’t stop them completely crushing it. With a rhythm section both dressed in matching vests adorning Birmingham legends DOOM’s much celebrated logo, there’s no doubt that this band are 100% crust from their skin to their core as their thrashing blitzkriegs power them towards oblivion. Like fellow Italians The Secret, this is purist nihilism; one part black metal, the other punk rock and, like some bastard offspring of Entombed at the Sex Pistols, they make this abominable combination work in spade-fulls. Amidst all of this is some simply gorgeous third-wave BM guitar work, yet for this particular crowd: no beatdowns means No Deal Noel.
The mob returns to the fore, flying kicks and all for headliners Xibalba. It’s not often that you see bands come all the way over from California to the scummy Midlands to play for just 30 minutes, but that’s exactly what’s about to happen as Xibalba rip into some murderous leads and a range of socially-inept crusty chugathons. Ultimately however tonight’s headliners are a tad disappointing and fail to engage an audience who are here to simply cause stress-fractures and shoulder dislocations a-plenty. Not even a Satan-summoning ‘Hasta La Muerte’ can rally some truly riotous behaviour in the pit, although about 5 yards in front of me is a girl no taller than five feet in stature who’s going so bananas that if she continues in that vein will soon need to be sectioned.
Xibalba are big enough blokes to have huge stage presence by default but the issue is with frontman Nate Rebolledo who insists on breaking up the flow of their butchering laydown of riffs to preach to the clearly converted before almost every song. “It’s not about fashion, it’s about the music” he bellows, yet looking around the room at the sea of black hoodies on display, it’s oh so obvious that fashion comes into virtually nothing of relevance at this show, nor indeed any other heavy metal gathering that’s ever occurred, ever. Obviously. The bone-quivering ‘Stoneheart’ and the down-tuned orgy of ‘Cold’ notwithstanding, Xibalba simply fail to extend themselves out of second gear tonight and with the whole show running 45 minutes behind, many have already left by the time they crunch into their final riffs.
Perhaps it’s because I was never that “hardcore kid”, but on a night where for me the blackened crust of Hierophant was the standout spell of the evening, I kept feeling like there’s just something I wasn’t quite getting about this entire live show. Right now, the earphones are back in, the hood is up and some other Southern Lord-sponsored nasties are back to haunt my cranium on the train home.
Scribed by: Pete Green