Despite our efforts to stay as desperately unpopular as possible here at Words From The Underground, sometimes we’re forced to cross swords with the mainstream be it wittingly or otherwise. This month was one such occasion. Well, sort of.
Progressive jazz shredding on a Thursday night really didn’t sound like it was going to be that popular on paper. Being estranged from most forms of popular media, I for one really don’t know what people outside of the punk and metal scene are listening to. As I found out, they’re listening to Chon – an absolute tour de force of sonic wizardry from San Diego. Fortunately, we’d pre-booked our tickets.
To return to normality, we figured we’d round the month off with an old favourite. Regular readers should know our love for Svalbard well. After seeing them support Oathbreaker in January, we’ve been eagerly awaiting their return to Manchester. If knowing they’ve been working hard in the studio sweetened the deal, hearing that they were headlining the Northern Quarter’s Whiskey Jar sealed it.
Chon with Support from Yvette Young (19th October)
We arrived at Rebellion Rock Bar opposite Deansgate Locks typically late. To our surprise, the venue was packed. Yvette Young was already on stage, every eye in the house fixed upon her, or more appropriately her fingers. Having only decided earlier in week that we’d cover the gig, I hadn’t bothered to research who was opening. Yvette’s a pretty big deal in the kind of guitar geek circles that you’d expect to find at a prog jazz-rock show but being as we only dabble in that world, she’d escaped my attention up to that point.
If you’re not familiar with her work, Yvette is a solo acoustic artist who accompanies her masterful fingerstyle playing vocally. Shut your eyes and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re listening to two phenomenal guitarists instead of one. She sings softly over breezy, winding passages of intricate and technical finger picking. Throwing in harmonics, tapping, and a myriad of other techniques rarely seen on acoustic guitar, every note rings true, even on her most testing phrases. She plays in a style that makes you take notes like “must smash my guitar immediately” instead of picking up on something more interesting or relevant. Sadly, some minor technical difficulties did plague the show. Occasionally you’d hear a subtle yet audible “pop” sound over the system. This is something I’ve heard other artists complain about when playing Rebellion Rock Bar but as an observer, it’s difficult to hear at the kind of gigs we usually frequent. However, at a show with a single vocalist and finger picking accompaniment, it’s painfully so. You could see it was getting to Yvette too, but she didn’t let it hamper the performance at all.
By the time Chon were ready to perform, the venue was even busier. Some friends and I decided the best course of action would be to stock up from the bar and take a speck up at the back on top of the steps leading out of the venue area. From there we had a great view of the whole stage, although some of the more intricate shredding’s finger work was difficult to drool over at such distance.
Ambient blue light flooded the stage as Chon took to it. Drums were set forward and at the side of the stage to the crowd’s right. True jazz style. This essentially created a line of musicians, allowing fans to stand in front of whichever instrument they themselves were striving to master in their spare time.
I’d first discovered Chon through Josh. He’d played me their 2015 AudioTree performance late one evening and since then it’d become a staple of our weekend soirees – usually, following someone’s request to “turn that fucking metal off.” I must admit, I’ve not delved too far into the four-piece from San Diego’s back catalogue but those 25 minutes on YouTube were enough to convince me that it’d be a worthy show.
Chon draw on a range of influences from jazz-fusion to heavy metal. In something of a rarity for predominately guitar-driven music, both six-strings are devoid of fuzz. Being completely clean makes it easier to appreciate all the band’s intricate phrasings, or something. They intertwine multiple layers of sophisticated melody and the musicianship is impeccable throughout. I had imagined myself staring longingly at the twin guitarists’ fingertips prior to the show, however both my eyes and ears were drawn more to the percussion. Nathan Camarena plays with a style all his own. Snappy and direct, he switches effortlessly between time signatures. He provides an unmistakable jazzy flavour to the ensemble atop which an interloping mesh of melody sits.
The set was just as you’d expect to see from a now seasoned act of virtuosos like Chon. Duck-arse tight. They riffled through their instrumental tracks with little messing around between each. Every piece works soaring parts of baffling complexity into one another creating a whole that sounds familiar yet completely fresh. Kind of like the soundtrack to a Super Nintendo game that should have existed.
Svalbard with support from The Tidal Sleep, Glarus and Leeched (25th October)
We were back on more familiar ground later in the month for Svalbard and a cohort of the heavy and bleak. Josh being ever-the consummate professional had managed to leave his camera many miles away just in time for the show. He’d successfully sourced another, but was without flash. “Shouldn’t be an issue.” To me, the Whiskey Jar doesn’t sound like it’ll be a brightly lit watering hole. It isn’t. Fortunately, the bands are all dark as fuck thus the pictures should be dark as fuck too.
As per usual, arsing around in Weatherspoon’s caused us to miss the opening act, so unfortunately, we’ll have to jump right into Glarus. Not terribly professional but as a paying customer, it’s my right to miss the opening act, god-damnit. Unfortunately, that opening act tonight was local power violence marauders, Leeched. We were understandably miffed.
We got inside with time to get a drink before Glarus started. As they set up, I was instantly intrigued. As I’ve mentioned before, three guitars usually invites such intrigue. I rarely see the point. Glarus didn’t really change that either. Their sound was massive, as you’d expect from a triple-axed outfit and their breakdowns were epically doomy. The layers of guitars were able to create a powerful sound with echoes even of Radiohead. It’s hardly surprising either when you consider just how many effects units the group had between them. Each stringsman had at least 10 pedals making for some amusing between-song sound effects from 25 of them working ambiently in sync.
Unfortunately, the extra strings rarely added to the technically of the blackened post-metal sound. The songs are also consistently mid-tempo. There’s none of that double-time thump to really contrast with the staggering sections of doom they create. Personal preferences aside though, Glarus performed solidly under questionable sound conditions that were no fault of their own. This would become a bit of a theme for the night.
The Tidal Sleep
We found a spot close to the stage under an inconveniently placed air conditioner – or as Josh neatly put it, “the icy winds of Svalbard” – and waited for the next act.
The Tidal Sleep hail from Germany. They’re a post-metal group who aren’t afraid to mix up melodic vocal delivery with the more typically desperate cries associated with the genre. Their sound bears more resemblance to hardcore than that of Glarus, with plenty of ambience provided by the lead guitar. The greater appreciation of contrasting tempos sat well with me, and controlling the pace, a suitably gifted drummer was also worthy of note. At some point during the second song, the lead vocalist delivered a section without his mic, over gentle ambience provided by the band. Josh responded to this scene with a roll of the eyes and a “fucking hell, surprised they haven’t already done this yet.” Jokes aside, The Tidal Sleep deliver a powerful performance. They’ve all bleak hallmarks of true post-metal with plenty of post-hardcore cheese and a huge appreciation of melody. The show was self-deprecating and simultaneously uplifting. Just the way “post” should be. I’ve written “blackened indie” in my notes but I’m not sure what that means. Sounds like something so I’ll leave it in. I was several whiskeys deep by this point.
Finally, it was the moment I’d been waiting for since the Star and Garter in January. The technical difficulties which plagued both earlier acts continued as the Bristolian four-piece, Svalbard, took the stage. Some minor fuckery needed taking care of. Fortunately, it was handled swiftly. The band opened heavy with vocalist and one half of the band’s guitar section wildly wind milling her head around as she hammered out guitar chops with an exquisite touch. They powered through songs largely from their 2016 full-length, “One Day All of this Will End” and played a couple of new album tracks too. The fresh material was ruthless and punishing as ever. More of the same and I can’t wait for it.
Between songs they sounded tired from the road. For The Tidal Sleep and Svalbard, the Manchester show was the fourth they’d played on consecutive nights as part of their joint UK tour. Despite their fatigue, they sounded ruthless. Blackened post-hardcore at its finest. Beautiful bleak and bleakly beautiful.
Like their tour mates, Svalbard are equally adept at fusing sorrowful mids with soaring, uplifting highs. Some aspects of the noise they create would be fit for BBC ident whilst others are the unmistakable soundtracks to squat parties up and down the land. Long, single-string, tremolo-picked sections give them a real black edge and they’re played with such precision and accuracy that they could be an effect on a keyboard. Vocal duties are shared by the two guitarists and both deliver impassioned cries that are never clean or particularly melodious. All these elements combine to create songs that are an emotional roller coaster from start to finish. Once desperately futile, they awaken with hope and aspiration before inevitably succumbing to tragedy. Simply wonderful and delivered with genuine ferocity. I really can’t rate Svalbard highly enough.