Review ‘em All: Fallujah, Dreamless

 

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Although Fallujah’s third album Dreamless was released back in April, I’m reviewing it now as a) death metal with a lot of technical playing isn’t usually my cup of tea/beverage of choice, and this is a highly honourable exception b) it’s cool to be late to the party.

Before I heard a single note, my first impression of Fallujah was that they were generic. My bias was partially fuelled by them being on the roster of Nuclear Blast, traditionally a stronghold of bands with a strong sense of the market they fall into, tried–and–tested and often slightly old–fashioned (whether you think that’s good thing or not) in comparison to the rosters of labels like those of Relapse, Southern Lord or Profound Lore. Furthermore, and maybe this wasn’t the case at first, but certainly by 2016, in being named and defined as ‘technical’, the implication is that whatever type of music it is being applied to (although I’m yet to hear of any type of music except for metal which has a ‘technical’ subgenre) has at some point confused performance with deliverance, ultimately losing all sense of soul. The five musicians who make up Fallujah clearly can play – and that they do – but what compelled me to listen to the whole of Dreamless (and continues to compel) was not ‘this is a good technical exercise from a musician’s point of view’, but, completely surprised by its melodicism, not being able to get single The Void Alone out of my head.

Pulsing, asymmetric riffs with bursts of double kick are matched with reverberating, ringing guitar lines, an abundance of spacious interludes and the snappy growls of vocalist Alex Hofman alternate with ethereal, high–register clean singing of guest vocalist Tori Letzler. This approach is true across the whole of Dreamless, with guest vocals from Letzler and Katie Thompson of prog rockers Chiasma on 7 of the 12 tracks. This pairing of heaviness and weightlessness, besides providing the contrast that a lot of death metal (whether technical or old school) lacks, combines with a lyrical preoccupation upon what waits beyond this life to provide a sense of story–telling momentum. A constant tension between an existential oppression found within this life, and the search for the higher realms of the next life, drive the album. These ontological lyrics, paired with these contrasting sections, at times seem a metaphor for the various twists and turns in the narrator’s musings upon death. In particular, The Void Alone, following a spacious interlude accompanied by

Paradise awaits as I unfold
Bleeding days into the soil

slams back in with double kick and a riff to match. Likewise, The Prodigal Son revolves around a sense of abandonment, the Biblical story cast wider to bring in all of humanity, referring to children, men, fathers and mothers. In this this it is an inversion of the Biblical story, with this theme of abandonment underlining the entire album.

In a case of being more than the sum of parts, Fallujah’s technicality serves to elevate the mood of Dreamless to that of something beyond the everyday; playing which bursts through expectations of human ability more readily lends itself to a sci–fi bent (listen to – and read around – Meshuggah and Wormed for two other good examples). A common criticism of technical bands is that their playing is ultimately generic, indistinguishable from the band that came before and the inevitable next one who play just that little bit faster. In this case, Fallujah’s technicality endows them with part of their own sound, rather than becoming something they are beholden to. Despite this review already containing the word ‘technical’ seven times, this is death metal which is technical but shouldn’t be defined as such. The more predictable (for lack of a better word) comparisons that come to mind are to Cynic, Atheist, and, big words indeed, Death. The guitar solo on Dreamless reminded me of Guthrie Govan, and although this solo is a guest spot from Tymon Kruidenier (of ambient jazz fusion band Exivious), this still indicates the sound and style that Fallujah are aiming for. The choice of guitarists Scott Carstairs and Brian James to use standard tuning on seven string guitars gives their playing a zip and a ping alongside the heft of that low B, and the tone in The Prodigal Son and Dreamless, clean with a touch of overdrive through an amp, sets a foot in jazz fusion territory. More surprising comparisons I found myself drawing, particularly on Abandon, were to The Cure and U2, partially through the regular use of chorus and delay effects to create a spaciousnessSuitably, Peter Mohrbacher’s artwork combines the familiar with the celestial, a giant anthropoid enclosing a world within its chest even as it dissolves into the surrounding sweeps of stars and clouds. On a semantic point, I did find myself wondering why Fallujah decided to call this album Dreamless, given its cerebral nature and philosophical musings; Dream does sound a bit strange, until thought of in the imperative rather than as a noun.

As mentioned, I feel compelled to continue listening to Dreamless, to follow its twists, turns and questions. Given the sense of wonder it moves with and imparts, perhaps its melodicism is its lynchpin, but I think where Fallujah distinguish themselves is in the balance they strike. Cynic, Atheist, Death, and, big words indeed, Fallujah.

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Review ‘em All: Gojira, Magma

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Not entirely sold on the Moonface artwork.

Although I am no longer convinced that Gojira are the second coming of metal (Metallica = the first), I still went out of my way to buy a copy of their sixth album Magma the day it came out. I did have criticisms of Gojira’s last album L’Enfant Sauvage, mainly that it felt linear and closer in scope to 2001’s Terra Incognita than a progression from 2008’s The Art of Dying. With time I’ve tempered that opinion in realising that L’Enfant is still a decent record – in particular, Mouth of Kala sounds like a cave in – but not the revelation that From Mars to Sirius and The Art of Dying were. So, perhaps to an unreasonable extent, I’m stacking a lot of chips on Magma.

Opening track The Shooting Star enters with one of Gojira’s mid–paced, churning riffs, but the first real point of note is that the opening vocals on Magma are clean. Starting the album like this is a symbolic declaration of Gojira continuing to evolve, away from death metal – although there are still elements of this multi–tentacled beast – into whatever they are now. This progression, which I suspect time will prove to be ongoing, is matched by the opening line

on the first light of the day you march on
departure has arrived
don’t look back.

I was unsure about the clean vocals at first, but with repeat listens they’ve grown on me. Silvera starts with a left–turning, bouncing riff that I found myself thinking of as ‘semi–thrash’, and Joseph Duplantier mixes his shouting with clean singing. It also contains not one but two squiggly tapping riffs, and fourth track Stranded incorporates another calling card of Gojira, unexpected noises (whale calls, wooden percussion, wind chimes) this time through the flanged, jangly chorus, which had me thinking, ‘Well, this certainly isn’t metal’, but then Joe Duplantier goes and roars his guts up everywhere and then sings clean as a whistle (no whistling though) in the interlude.

My pitch for this review, as you have probably figured out, is that Gojira are changing and have reached a tipping point. So it’s nice, amongst all the heavy thinking about vocal approaches, song structures and plectrum thickness, to hear what could only be Jean–Michel Labadie’s crunching bass tone on the obligatory instrumental (track number #5 this time round), Yellow Stone. It moves at a stately place, and, of all bands, actually reminded me of Mogwai. It was then even better to hear the next track, my notes for which were: ‘Magma. I have just heard the guitar make new noises.’ Following reverberation riffs and chanted vocals, at the song’s midpoint there is a Ride The Lightning riff that Metallica never got around to writing.

With time, I came to feel that The Art of Dying and L’Enfant Sauvage could have both done with trimming (From Mars to Sirius is fucking perfect). Magma feels concise in comparison, with only ten tracks to the twelve or thirteen on each of their preceding albums and the average song length standing at four minutes and 40 seconds. The longest song, Magma, is relatively short at 6.42. This album is more mid–paced, in addition to the song structures being a little more conventional. This is definitely Gojira’s most accessible album to date, a large part of which is due to the clean vocals. That said, there were also several points on this album that started a one man moshpit in front of my stereo.

This album prompted me to go back to Terra Incognita and listen through their discography to really understand how Gojira have progressed. Listening to each of these six albums, I hear the same band…but different. I apologise for making the comparison once again, but like Metallica, they’ve changed on each album. After several weeks of listening, my impression of Magma is that songs stand out (my favourite being Magma) rather than it being a stand–out album, but in saying this almost feel spoilt for choice; Magma is not Gojira’s best, but it’s still an album I’d be proud to have created and it’s still causing one man pits in front of the stereo.

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Yob Song by Song: Asleep in Samsara

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The circle of riff/life

The definition of ‘Samsara’, although seemingly as subject to variation as any other philosophical term, is roughly the concept of all life and existence moving through cyclical change. One definition I found (via the internet, mind you) was ‘cycle of aimless drifting, wandering or mundane existence’. Although I don’t think it’s aimless, nor mundane, and is a bit too heavy to think of as ‘drifting’, Asleep in Samsara does fittingly conjure the sense of meandering along through its 17 minutes.

Throat chanting, panning left to right and back again repeatedly, is joined by a fluttery, slow–funk wah guitar. A bell rings lightly. The wah riff drops the wah, stamps on the fuzz box, is joined by the rhythm section, and plays that same riff for over 11 minutes, with a couple of variations. This heavy repetition and sluggish pace leaves little to say about Asleep In Samsara in terms of technical aspects or specific characteristics. Although this main section bridges into a slow galloping riff after 13 minutes, accompanied by an unsourced quote that posits ‘Religion is a poison’, the appeal of this song lies in how it bubbles away, the sense of tectonics shifting, and of a power lurking just beneath this surface, helped no end by the tactile guitar tone.

One effect of listening to a lot of heavy metal, which, let’s not forgot, most people think is weird music, is that sometimes the notion of a song actually lasting for 17 minutes is taken for granted. Like how the preceding track Pain of I is too ugly a song to introduce someone to Yob with, Asleep in Samsara is too long a song to win over a potential fan, and admittedly patience is required to enjoy how long Yob take sometimes. As mentioned, this track is one to be swept along with and sunk into, rather than be looked to for a sense of pace or push and pull, and in this way it defies being pored over. Many of Yob’s long(er) songs derive from a search for meaning, but I think with this one it was a case of we’ve got a sweet riff or two, it’s the last track, there’s no hurry, let’s have fun.

And thus concludes Elaborations of Carbon: something simple in its base form taken beyond into something complex and deep. Compared to later albums, it’s a little more bluesy in the Master of Reality sense of the word, with none of the big, sad songs that Yob would place on later albums. It’s a bit raw, and overly longer at points, but nonetheless a distinctive and idiosyncratic album. Next up: Aeons, the first track of album #2, Catharsis.

 

 

Yob Song by Song: Pain of I

Despite its cabbalistic subject matter, and being 17 minutes long, Revolution is one of Yob’s groovier, lighter songs, bluesy rather than doomed. So I imagine Yob felt the need to pour the muck back in with the crackling distortion and recurring minor thirds and perfect seconds of Pain of I. The vocals enter not with a word but with a roar, and the song centres around that dissonant intro riff. It is ugly, played loose and rough to the point of sludginess, and is placed here to contrast with the preceding Revolution. This is really emphasised by the soloed slow ‘n’ low distorted bass that enters after a stretch of silence, following the root notes of the chromatic riff.

Although the difference between doom and sludge is blurred, with a lot depending on that abstract concept of ‘feel’, there is a consistent difference in their desired effects; a little wiser, a little sombre? Doom. Seeking alcohol and feeling filthy? Sludge. The grace present in so much of Yob’s playing is absent from Pain of I ; this is the ugly, rough track of the album, and is fittingly titled. Ironically, given that ‘I’ is used in the context of ‘I and I’, referring to the philosophical concept of the connection between all living things, I would not use it to convince someone to listen to more of Yob.

 

Yob Song By Song: Revolution

We have been brought up to experience ourselves as isolated centres of awareness and action placed in a world that is not us, that is foreign, alien, other, which we confront. Whereas in fact, the way an ecologist describes human behaviour, is as an action; what you do is what the whole universe is doing at the place we call here and now. You are something the whole universe is doing in the same way a wave is something that the whole ocean is doing. This is not what you might call a fatalistic or deterministic idea. You see, you might be a fatalist if you think that you are a sort of puppet which life pushes around. You are separate from life but life dominates. That’s fatalism.

Heavy music inspires people to headbang, throw the horns, start a pit, cut the sleeves off denim jackets and sew Motörhead patches onto denim jackets, but there’s not a lot of metal which truly inspires meditation. Doom metal – which let’s not forget, is named after the concept of the cessation of existence – is the genre most explicitly connected to existential pain. Ever since Ozzy first wailed about that figure in black most heavy bands have had quite a glum take on things (notable exception: Torche), but the best doom bands have tended to be the ones who have channelled this sense of suffering through a philosophical desire to understand why it is taking place. Scheidt’s interest in Eastern mysticism has steered Yob’s music and lyrics towards a more positive, new age take on this trope, and whilst the three songs covered thus far have suggested this, Revolution underlines it.

After what is essentially a five minute introduction, with two layers of guitar shifting like sand dunes, it drops into a solitary track of wah guitar before a single snapping snare drum kicks it back in and Scheidt declares ‘Oh yeahhhhh/Alllrighttt’, and off we go; we’re on a journey here.

The lyrics, even with some furrowed brow listening, are largely indiscernible. What I could make out (‘…brand new way…all the demons in my mind…truth…I feel the ground beneath me…you cannot see what is going down…time we have a revolution, yeah…revolution, yeah yeah’) wasn’t particularly poetic, nor did it provide much narrative sense. The only word that initially comes through clearly is ‘Revolution’, which is a broad, and in many ways, abstract phrase. If anything, it seems a little as though it’s pandering to the lowest common denominator; ‘revolution’ sounds cool, right? Turn up, tune down, play slow, smoke this, and the revolution will begin. The atmosphere of the song goes some way in alleviating this – after all, there are great songs with less than great lyrics (…Megadeth) – but when placed within the context of the next section they are invested with a deeper meaning.

After an echoing, wah–inflected solo, the track descends through a swung, descending riff into feedback, then the solitary track of wah guitar comes back in. A synth that sounds as though it may have been pilfered from The War of The Worlds enters, then a clip of philosopher Alan Watts quoting the above passage from his book Tao of Philosophy, positing on the connection between all living beings and the world, underpinning Yob’s leanings towards a new age, spiritual perspective. Among shimmering guitars it concludes a whole minute later with a slower, triumphant variation of the main riff in 2/4 crashing; enlightenment arriving via amplitude. That this interlude doesn’t arrive until 12 minutes is what makes this song work. It has been built up to, the listener journeying along with the song before wisdom is found.

I found myself wondering why so much doom metal and its variant of stoner metal is made up of long songs. There is an obvious correlation between songs being slow and taking longer to finish – speed is equal to distance divided by time – but I think there is more to it than that. Songs of these lengths (the average Yob song is 9 minutes and 55 seconds long) by their nature ask that they are listened to in the moment, that past and future are discounted for what is within that present moment; they become their own world. Yob are not the only doom band to play long songs slowly (Sleep’s Dopesmoker is known for being an hour long), but at least on an implicit level they seem to understand the subtext of playing in this style, which some doom bands do not. I am no Zen master, but from my understanding, this centring of the present moment can be a form of meditation. These riffs draw you in, looking inwards before outwards. The titular revolution is one of the mind.

Yob Song By Song: Clear Seeing

'8vb' means play an octave lower than notated.

‘8vb’ means play an octave lower than notated. And don’t forget the distortion and chorus.

Oh gawd, that bass riff. Detuned to drop A#, heavy on the chorus with a bit of distortion, meshing with big, laid back 4/4 drums that hold off the snare until the third beat, to my ears this is the first sign of Yob’s real potential. And what is it that they are clearly seeing? The lyrics describe some kind of enlightenment, starting with

In control of the mind
Thoughts are getting clear now

with a few ‘Oh yeahs!’ thrown into to compliment the bluesy groove. The vocals stick to the Ozzy and Geddy–esque style throughout, and this number is more conventionally structured than the other tracks on this album (roughly intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, interlude, guitar solo, re–intro, verse, chorus, outro) and is the second shortest track at 7.25 (we will come onto the shortest track, and why it is so, Pain of I, in a bit). The drums are solid, the snare in particular sounding massive, and post–wah guitar solo there is lovely use of space which doubles up to re–introduce that riff. And when it ends, it ends tightly with no feedback or fallout.

Information on Yob’s various rhythm sections over the years is hard to come by beyond names, but as Yob very much seems to be Scheidt’s fiefdom this doesn’t come as a surprise. Isamu Sato is listed as the bass guitarist in the sleeve notes, but as one Lowell Isles is credited for ‘past bass riffage’ I’m not sure who wrote this line. However, Sato, who presumably played the recorded line, is clearly no slouch. If you are listening to Yob for the first time, going through their songs chronologically, I imagine this would be the moment when you realise what Yob can really do.

 

Yob Song by Song: All the Children Forgotten

Sounds of The Rainforest Doom

I’ve come to think of All the Children Forgotten as Sounds of the Rainforest done right. The closing soundscape of Universe Throb re–enters as trickling water, gently wavering feedback and rumbling thunder, and for a minute and a half a guitar fattened on wah stabs, flares and flicks, before Scheidt begins, in Geddy Lee delivery;

I see the beauty in life…

(–”What is this hippie shi–”)

BUT I DON’T SEE THE DOGMA!

(“–oh fuck run!”)

The contrast between the two vocal styles comes clubbing in, and although there are other roaring doommongers who can switch styles out there, few do this with such dexterity (Mikael Åkerfeldt is another who springs to mind, although I’m not sure Opeth have ever been a doom band) and in such a distinctive style. The range of Scheidt’s pipes are brought to the fore by the space in the instrumentation, although I did occasionally wonder if this track, as well as a few others, might sound better without the clean vocals being run through such heavy EQ filtering.

Keeping tabs on the song structure of All The Children Forgotten is not straightforward; like many Yob songs, it is long and dense, and much like the trickles of rain through the leaves, the character of this song is that it meanders along, with a bpm of 96 in 6/8 time, even as the roars of ‘I see the beauty in life/BUT I DON’T SEE THE DOGMA!’ (or is it ‘DHARMA’?) (or maybe ‘I DON’T SEE THAT DAWG MA’?) form the closest thing this song has to a chorus. Bass guitarist Isamu Sato and drummer Gabe Morley work hard and well to keep it tight, and there’s a great interlude when the vocals whisper from behind flanged guitars, and you can feel yourself mentally leaning in to make out the words (I could make out ‘generation’ and ‘wake up’). In a genre in which the most common criticism is the (supposedly) indistinguishable nature of many of its acts, it is unconventional touches like these that make Yob special.

Yob Song By Song: Universe Throb

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Three figures in habits sit in a circle, a lit candle apiece, facing each other as they levitate upon a floating rock, into which YOB is carved in electric blue. Molten fissures and waves of energy crackle in the background. Various flavours of feedback hum and oscillate for a minute and a half, and then the first riff lurches in. It’s minor. It’s slow. It’s distorted. As first ever songs go (ignoring Yob’s three song demo released in 2000, which I will come back to), Universe Throb is solid, it’s promising, but it’s not spectacular. At 10 and a half minutes long, it is straightforward doom in that the guitar ploughs forward slow and steady and the drums make good use of the space afforded by these slow tempos. Of course, few bands anticipate having all of their songs dissected (Yob are too cool for cease and desist orders, right?). There are a few distinctive touches; vocalist Mike Scheidt’s gurgled Ozzy and Geddy adoption, run through an EQ gate and mild chorus, turns into adaptation with his six second roar at 4.55, showing an unexpected set of lungs. Scheidt also clearly loves his wah pedal. The outro starts with a big, dragging change of pace, bridging into a sonic landscape of scrapes, echoes, shivers, thrums and oscillations, ratcheting and melding, the sound of the universe throbbing. Hints of greater things to come.

 

Yob: Song by Song

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The best bits of writing I’ve ever read about music are Invisible Oranges’ series on Metallica’s first four albums. Cosmo Lee went through every song in chronological order and wrote a piece upon each in a deeply perceptive manner, balancing technical analysis with assessments of mood and context. Whilst re–reading these pieces recently, I went through the comments sections (Invisible Oranges was one of the few sites where you could do this without scrolling back up despairing for the human race) and found some thought–provoking comments discussing which other bands had the potential to warrant the same treatment. Slayer was mentioned. Death was mentioned. Black Sabbath. Iron Maiden. Bolt Thrower. Emperor. Celtic Frost. Darkthrone. Portal. Isis (no, not ISIS). Yob.

The application of this idea to quite a few of these bands appealed to me, initially; I like Slayer, but I certainly can’t tell every song apart. I think Isis may be worthy of such a treatment, but I’ve only heard Oceanic, so they’ll have to wait. Having only heard Individual Thought Patterns and Sound of Perseverance, this is also the case with Death. I thought Gojira could be added to that list, but I’ve already written a lengthy piece on them (here) and it’s too early in the night to start repeating myself yet. But Yob…Yob, the new age proclaimers of doom, the quiet iconoclasts. There’s no other band quite like them, and I’m confident that each song of theirs warrants a piece in its own right; there’s a lot going on and a lot to dig into.

Still, a piece on every Yob song is a lot of column inches. That’s 31 songs across seven albums, consisting of six hours and seven minutes of music, and, taking into account a two year hiatus, 14 years’ worth of material. But, as mentioned, they’re a band of considerable depth, so I think a piece on each song could be both enjoyable and educational, two words we are all normally and rightly suspicious of when in the same sentence (‘you don’t fool me, Teach’). Whilst I am dubious about anyone ever saying that these pieces are the best bits of writing upon music of all time, I do think I have some perceptive thoughts to share upon Yob. Up first: Universe Throb.

Live Review: Holy Roar X

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Holy Roar X, a one day festival celebrating ten years of the eponymous record label on Saturday 25/5/16 at The Dome and Boston Music Rooms, featured a staggered line up across two stages, 18 bands for £15, and Hang The Bastard as co–headliners on what was (possibly) their last ever gig with original vocalist Chris Barling. As an aside, if we take that second figure of 18 and divide it by two, you will arrive at the approximate number of beers consumed on a personal basis, so don’t expect a comprehensive, well balanced or insightful review it’s a little patchy in places, and there were a few bands who I just didn’t have much to take away from.

With my ears still ringing from Holy Roar’s warm up gig at The Unicorn Camden the night before (listen to: Wren and Conjurer), I arrived halfway through Up River’s set. Despite being left unsure about their melodic hardcore (after a whole 15 minutes you say?), I was convinced to go and listen to some more.

Eulogy were OK but overall didn’t do it for me, but they did have some good riffs. Svalbard, on the bigger Boston Music Rooms stage, played a solid set of their melodic, tremolo–picked and reverb–heavy metallic hardcore (‘Can I have, like, nine years of reverb?’), with yet another new bass guitarist, and sounded great.

I realised around two bands in that I was going to keep moving from stage to stage without a break for the next nine hours in order to see every minute of every set, or miss out on a band or two in order to compliment the beer consumed thus far with food. I opted for ‘not hardcore’, and, foolishly, decided to do so during Haast Eagled’s set. However, I can confirm that the quality of the second half of their set matched the vegan dhal I enjoyed during the first half, with their thick lurching doom really complimenting the lentils and special spices. One of the strengths of Holy Roar as a label is the diversity of its bands, who still make sense when placed together. How, you ask? Another pint please, I say.

Body Hound looked like they were having a great time on stage, and those cats could play. In particular, guitarist Calvin Rhodes was shredding away. I felt that some vocals, preferably screaming and/or shouting (I’m not fussy) would have made me a big fan, but their instrumental set up came very close and I’m certainly going to give them another listen. If you’re a fan of instrumental heavy music that’s almost jazz at points definitely listen to these guys.

Slabdragger were fucking cool. Wallow in that sludge, worship that riff, pray to that monolith, listen to Slabdragger. Despite hearing good things, I purposely missed Departures (sorry) to get in place for Hang The Bastard. I was a bit worried after not really enjoying their set at The Old Blue Last in April, but they came out and stomped everybody’s asses and ears with the whole of Hellfire Reign and then some deeper cuts. I loved how they really dragged the beat on the slower sections, and just think that Chris Barling is the better vocalist for their style of music. I nearly shed a tear when it ended, and wished that they had played just one more song or a few more songs or a few more albums or for a few more hours. However, an insider tip suggests there will actually be one more gig later this year with vocal duties split between vocalists old and new before it’s all over, so daub away those tears and keep an eye out. I spent the next day humming The Year Is One through ringing ears.

After Hang The Bastard I wasn’t expecting Rolo Tomassiwho I’m still not sure if I’m a fan of after several years (so…I guess not then), to top them, but given what I have heard I was expecting some sonic weirdness. Unfortunately I never really got that, and overall found them to be solid but indistinctive, something I didn’t think I would ever find myself saying. I enjoyed it, but couldn’t really pinpoint moments that stuck out. It wouldn’t be fair or true to say they played a bad set, I just think their music is not for me, and the environment (towards back of room, full of beer, ears ringing from Hang The Bastard) (did I mentioned Hang The Bastard?) didn’t help.

Overall, Holy Roar X was an excellent gig. It was well set–up and featured a line up that was a good representation and celebration of Holy Roar, and I heard several bands for the first time who I’m now a fan of. Here’s to 10 more years.