(originally published in LeftLion)
“We’d just like to say to Forest Fire: we’re not usually like this”, said James from Fists, following a second fluffed intro. “We played Glastonbury!” he added, smiling sheepishly. “Yeah, but that was two and a half years ago”, a band mate reminded him. The band giggled, shrugged, regrouped, and tried again.
Perhaps they’ll never be the slickest of acts, but Fists – who, despite booking the acts and promoting the night, were happy to place themselves at the bottom of the bill – aren’t the sort of band who will let the odd wobble knock them off their perches. Not that they were exactly perching in the first place; The Chameleon’s lack of a raised stage literally placed the band on a level with their audience, allowing an easy rapport to bloom.
Mixing brand new material with relatively old favourites such as Ascending (which has to be in the running for Nottingham’s single of the year), the band exuded a ragged good cheer. This sat well with the amiable menace of their music, the guitars coalescing into a sustained collective growl. Fists have a winning knack for playing as if teetering on the edge of a precipice; it could all collapse in an instant, but by lashing themselves together for support, they battle on through. Their journey peaked with the final track Stag, in which a steady one-note throb gradually became subsumed into a raging squall, climaxing with a rasping, chanted refrain from the whole band.
Despite being led by Nick Lawford from Hello Thor – the label who signed Fists, as well as Anxieteam and We Show Up On Radar – Twenty Year Hurricane were perhaps the least known of the four acts on the bill. They might not play out that often, but you would never have guessed it from the quality of their performance, or by the ease with which they gelled as a unit.
As rock trios go, they were an improbably diverse looking bunch: a burly drummer, a close-cropped, hard-looking bassist (whose demeanour stood in marked contrast to the fluid grace of his playing), and a front man who performed as if he was exorcising personal demons, raging bitterly against the hard knocks that life had dealt him. On occasions, they evoked memories of The Jam – one song in particular sounded on the cusp of morphing into David Watts – but in this instance, Weller’s politically fuelled recriminations were replaced by Nick’s altogether more personal settlings of scores.
Worthy successors to the grandiose, orchestrated lugubriousness of Tindersticks, and boosted by a superb sound mix that filled the small room with a cavernous, reverb-drenched magnificence, making their lone trumpeter sound like an full brass section, Hhymn made good on all the promise of debut album In The Depths, casting their spell upon a rapt crowd.
“We haven’t got time to talk”, lead singer Ed Bannard muttered near the start of the set, before once again clenching his eyes half-shut in concentration, and channelling his sorrows into an affecting and wholly convincing performance. Album opener These Hands was a particular highlight, and as good an illustration as any of the Albert Camus quote which greets purchasers of the band’s CD: “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invisible summer.” If Hymn hailed from Brooklyn rather than Nottingham, or if they were signed to Bella Union rather than Denizen (without meaning to cast any negative aspersions on one of our finest labels), they would surely be feted across the land.
As it happens, headliners Forest Fire do hail from Brooklyn – and while they’re not exactly feted across the land, they’ve been steadily accruing a solid critical reputation since the release of their debut album in 2008. Still, you sensed that the touring life was taking its toll; garments looked threadbare and torn, and tempers felt equally frayed, leading to a heated exchange between some of the band before the set began.
For those of us who hadn’t seen them before (although apparently we hadn’t missed much, if their sour dismissal of the previous Nottingham show was to believed), it was a surprise to discover that Nathan Delffs – the tall, charismatic guitarist with the rock-star bandanna and the thousand-yard stare – wasn’t the band’s front man after all. Instead, the duties fell upon the slender shoulders of Mark Thresher: a bespectacled, dorky looking fellow with a Dee Dee Ramone haircut, and the look of a miniaturised, 1983-era Mike Mills.
Forest Fire’s recently released second album, Staring At The X, sees the band moving away from the folksier textures of their first release, and towards a fuzzier, dronier sound. This was signalled from the off, as a casually flicked floor switch set off an extended electronic drone, which acted like a call to prayer, summoning stragglers up from the bar downstairs.
A mostly downtempo set was saved from becoming too gruelling by occasional flashes of contrast – a loping funk groove here, a flashy guitar solo there – and by unexpected theatrical flourishes, such as when Nathan opted to turn his guitar into a mouth-organ, sucking it and chewing it with alarming relish. Thresher snapped a string early on – as did Nick from Twenty Yard Hurricane, two sets earlier – but once again, this barely registered.
The band’s odd approach to songwriting dynamics meant that songs often ended just when you least wanted them to, stopping dead in the middle of strong sections that didn’t yet feel resolved. This left us wholly unprepared for the seemingly endless krautrock jam which closed the set. Underpinned by a brutally simple, never-changing drum pattern, the players lurched into grinding battle, stretching and detuning their strings, and scaling ever greater heights of mesmerising madness.
Reaching for an uplighter in the back corner, Nathan pressed it into service as a bow for his guitar, brandishing it high as his eyes gleamed with malevolent fury. As the track neared its climax, he collapsed into a corner, twitching like a foetus that had been returned to its womb. Still clasped to his chest, his uplighter flickered on and off in time to the music, like a malfunctioning home-made life support system.
“Let’s get drunk”, he gurgled from the floor as the music spluttered to a halt, coaxing nervous laughter from the stunned onlookers. As show-stoppers go, this one had passed all known points of return.
Crystal Stilts, Wet Paint, The Manhattan Love Suicides – Nottingham Chameleon Arts Café, Wednesday February 25.
It might not be the highest profile of venues (and unless you know exactly where to look, you’ll struggle to find it), but the Chameleon on Angel Row is currently hosting some of the most exciting grassroots gigs in the city. Because of the lack of publicity (you’ll probably need to be on Facebook), there was a sense of having stumbled across a well-kept secret, far away from the shallow hipster pack.
The Manhattan Love Suicides churned out a low-fi, fuzzed-out racket, channelling elements of 1966-era Velvet Underground, 1976-era Ramones and 1986-era Jesus And Mary Chain. The playing was simple, fierce and precise; the effect was mesmerising and energising.
Wet Paint appeared to have recruited Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls on bass and Scooby-Doo’s Thelma on drums. They were the most conventionally indie band of the night, and perhaps this counted slightly against them.
Like half the hottest acts of the past two years, Crystal Stilts hail from Brooklyn. As with their two predecessors on the bill, their drummer is female. On record, they mostly sound like sulky Mary Chain copyists. On stage, they quickened their rhythms, expanded their range, and came to full and glorious life. It was a privilege to experience them at such close quarters.
Fan Death are Dandi and Marta, an electro-disco synth-pop duo from Canada. They’re tiny and giggly and eager, full of fresh-faced fun, a bit arty, and quite brilliant. If there’s any justice in the world, you’ll be hearing a lot of them in 2009.
Late Of The Pier are the biggest and best act to appear from this part of the world in living memory. Last night saw them return to Nottingham for a barely advertised show in a tiny café above a card shop on Angel Row. It was the launch night for Sausage Party, a new venture from the Liars Club crew. Half the crowd seemed to know the band personally, making for an uncommonly friendly vibe that felt more like a private party than a standard rock gig.
With no raised stage area, visibility was tight. The front rows were asked to sit on the floor – which they did, for all of five minutes. As the spiky, punchy set progressed, a kind of collective frenzy engulfed the room. The singer surfed the crowd, before scaling a wobbly speaker stack. The moshers shook the floor so hard that fears were raised for the ceiling below. “Please don’t dance”, the singer pleaded. “Or else YOU’LL DIE.” The sense of danger merely heightened the mood.
An unforgettable night, from one of the most exciting young bands in the country. We should be proud.