25 May 2012 was a gloriously hot and sunny day in North London. What better to do than shut oneself up in the cavernous Victorian shell of Alexandra Palace with a sextet of the rawest, heaviest bands around? Ahead of a two-day festival of indie music curated by Mogwai, promoters ATP assembled this all-American, all-metal showcase event themselves. Topping the bill, Slayer performed a set based on their third, genre-defining album, Reign In Blood, to mark the 25th anniversary of its initial release.
Slayer were exceptionally tight and well-honed, despite a recent line-up reshuffle forced by founder member Jeff Hanneman’s contraction of necrotizing fasciitis from a spider bite. Since original drummer Dave Lombardo rejoined the fold in 2001—just in time for the band’s first Reign In Blood revival, on the “Still Reigning” tour—they have consolidated their live set around it, bookending a half-hour sprint through their definitive album with more recent material. They’ve ditched the more expansive structures of their immediate pre- and post-Reign work to focus on Reign’s speed and aggression, stripping their sound back to its hardcore basics, powered along by Lombardo’s locomotive pounding and free from any atmospheric niceties.
Despite being the only founder member never to get a writing credit, Dave Lombardo’s ferociously innovative double-bass drumming is surely the key to their success in this style, which would be simply relentless under less inventive guidance. Bassist Tom Araya sings his scrofulous lead vocals in direct competition with the lacerating, occasionally deranged lead guitar soloing of Kerry King and Hanneman’s stand-in, Gary ‘Exodus’ Holt, who plays with ferocious commitment. At the end of a long day, Slayer still exercised a mesmerizing power.
Slayer’s set, though not yet over, reached its climax with the crescendo of “Raining in Blood”, triumphantly capping a night that got off to an unpromising start. I missed the opening band, A Storm of Light, thanks to the organisers’ inability to process arrivals in good time. A pity, because they sound interesting, with founder and multi-instrumentalist Josh Graham having collaborated on visuals for Neurosis in the past; guess I’ll have to hope for another opportunity to see them in the UK.
Playing in the West Hall, the smaller and darker of the two rooms in use, Oregon’s YOB are both more punchy and economical than a stereotypical doom metal band, and there’s a good deal more intelligence at play in their piledriving riffage than their name implies. Front man Mike Scheidt’s fluid and psychedelic guitar solos over Aaron Reiseberg and Travis Foster’s churning bass and thunderous drums is a potent combination. YOB take the basic Sabbath template, give it a good beating on the NWOBHM anvil, then adapt it to the looser, more long-form song structures of stoner-metal, as exemplified by Sleep. The psych lead guitar lines provide a connection to bands as disparate as Judas Priest, Tool, and—at a push—even Mastodon.
YOB were well sequenced to perform just before punk-metal veterans Melvins, first band on stage in the Main Hall at 18:30, with plenty of daylight still filtering through.
I’ve somehow contrived never to witness a Melvins live show before, and I expected, or rather hoped to see them either working out some of their more avant-garde experimental tendencies or grinding through a set at the sludgy, slow tempos they are probably most famous for; but in fact they made a typically intelligent choice to play a sharp, buoyant set of punchy songs in contrast to the fare on offer from the other bands here. I confess I didn’t recognise most of the tunes, though the new(ish), chant-filled “Water Glass” was a stand-out bit of rammalamma. As one Melvins nut of my acquaintance put it, they played a “fun” set.
Melvins mix of post-punk, classic rock and slow metal is always more Black Flag than Black Sabbath, but here they mixed in a touch of Ramones. The dual drums of Dale Crover and Coady Willis laid down the irresistible one-two rhythm punch combinations they’ve been perfecting since the 2006 album (A) Senile Animal first bought Melvins’ Crover and guitarist/vocalist Buzz Osborne together with Willis and bassist Jared Warren, formerly trading as Big Business. There’s a good deal more humanity in their hybrid rhythms than in the rigidly pseudo-mechanical drumming of many riders on Lombardo’s coat-tails. Warren and Osborne compliment each other beautifully, not just because they both rock big hair, but in their shared sense of irony and commitment.
The sharpest contrast in the night’s sequencing came with the move from the bold contours of Melvins to the Stygian gloom of the West Hall to catch Wolves In The Throne Room.
Wolves’ Cascadian black metal exhibits dramatic shifts in tempo and dynamic. There’s nothing particularly complicated in their musicianship; the band’s power resides in their mastery of tension and release. This was exemplified by the juxtaposition of Aaron Weaver’s Napalm Death-style blast beats and slow-motion passages that foreground his brother Nathan’s racked vocals and majestic, searing guitar and fx.
Nods to both Neurosis and Godspeed You! Black Emperor in the notes to the group’s magnificent Celestial Lineage album provide accurate coordinates to their sound, so it’s surprising how complete that sound is when divested of the album’s analog synthesizers, choral arrangements and field recordings; a testament to their reputed disdain for modern recording techniques. As far as I could tell, they played with only a guest bassist to complete the essential trinity, the occult opacity of violet stage lighting providing a fitting metaphor for their music’s vivid, electrifying charge.
A perfect band to follow directly on from Wolves, Sleep’s sound harks back to the foundation blocks of the metal genre: Blue Cheer’s psychedelic, blues-based riffola, the portentous rumble of classic Black Sabbath, and Motörhead’s speed-freak proto-punk biker music.
Two of Sleep’s core members are now reunited following a seemingly irrevocable split that saw guitarist Matt Pike form the Motörhead-inspired High on Fire while bassist Al Cisneros and original drummer Chris Haikus took quite another path with Om, whose trippy, chant-based rhythms sounded higher planes of consciousness. Now with Neurosis drummer Jason Roeder, the divergent inclinations of Pike and Cisneros sound clearer than ever, with Sleep’s current sound a magnificent synthesis of the two approaches. Perhaps Roeder, who is a more analytically precise drummer that Haikus, bridges the gap between them.
Though they maybe riffed on themes from the earlier, fragmented Jerusalem version of their classic hour-long opus Dopesmoker, Sleep based their set on more concentrated works, such as first album highlight “Holy Mountain” and its later variation, “Sonic Titan” (versions of which are tacked onto both the 2003 Tee-Pee and 2012 Southern Lord Dopesmoker reissues). But despite their relative brevity, these songs are still labyrinthine, crushingly heavy but invested with a mantric intensity.
Pike played stripped to the waist, flaunting both his paunch and the loosely-sketched tattooes it enabled him to have inked across his arms and ribs; a fitting reflection of his standing apart from mainstream metal orthodoxies. Although he did sometimes take off on a thermal updraft, he mostly held back from the more liquid soloing he’s free to indulge in with High On Fire, usually allowing his guitar to counterpoint Cisneros’s deep-vibe bass meditations. The two guitars often intertwined lines to set up deep, reverberant riffs that carried Roeder’s drums on a molten, kaleidoscopic, ocean-wide ebb-and-surge into head-space.
Sleep were the highlight for me, the most powerful and engrossing live act on a bill of fare with no weak links, of which Reign In Blood was nevertheless the cherry on top; or more appropriately the coup de grâce.
All photographs by Mike Winship © All rights reserved.
For Mike’s photographs from all three days of IBYM 2012, plus many more live music events, see: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mikemodular/