"You'll never hear that tone again." Conan have just finished and in my mind, it's like a hundred bells vibrated by Balrog roars are ringing and the alley-disguised-as-a-street outside the Black Heart is some sort of cathedral, reverberating every sound a hundred times over. Alex from Ghold has made his point: I have already marked today's date, "October 5th, 2013: the last gig I ever went to without earplugs". (Having taken five months to get this finished and published, I can confess that forgetfulness meant that this marking was premature.) You might think I was asking for it, standing at the front throughout Conan's set. But as guitarist/vocalist Jon Davis remarked the night before, when the band played Colchester, being further back isn't necessarily safer. About ten feet from the stage is where the bass wave peaks: you don't want to be there.Photo credit: Karen Toftera (taken at the Hole in the Wall)
Derby-spawned two-piece Bismuth are loud -- asked to turn down the night before in Colchester, bassist/vocalist Tanya takes great pleasure in cranking her multiple amps tonight. Their compositions sprawling, horrific monstrosities -- 2012's Tartarus-released tape, _The Eternal Marshes_, is a double A-side composed of a single 18-minute cut -- Bismuth are the perfect openers for this evening. Compared to their dragging, hypnotic din, Opium Lord are just another sludgy band unworthy of being called doom: it's not that the five-piece are bad, it's just that they come across as more of a distraction from this evening's devastation than anything else. If only Iron Witch had been here to take their place.
While in Colchester Bismuth were pressed for time, tonight they have all they need -- and it is mesmeric to see them play without pause. The soundcheck is almost worth the price of entry alone, the two-piece having to do it while a still-sparsely-populated Black Heart waits for them to begin. When we arrive at just past seven, expecting Bismuth will be on in mere minutes, drummer Joe is standing outside, having a fag while waiting for the soundman. Slabdragger have been forced to pull out -- their drummer having "fucked his knee", according to Alex Ghold -- so Bismuth won't be on until five past eight. It's a crying shame we are deprived of Slabdragger -- putting them between Opium Lord and Conan would have been a perfect warm-up for the Liverpool doom titans -- but having Bismuth on at a reasonable hour is adequate compensation. So Bismuth are on time -- it's 20:04 as they take the stage -- but are doing their soundcheck in public, and the soundman asks for some vocals. Tanya obliges with a blast of venomous screeching. "You've got quite big voice, haven't you?" remarks the soundman, evincing a smile from the diminutive bassist. The screams serve as a rallying cry. When Bismuth begin but a couple of minutes later, a crowd has already begun to gather: the soundcheck has only made them five minutes late.Photo credit: Karen Toftera (taken at the Hole in the Wall)
Yesterday in Colchester, Bismuth seemed uneasy. That was their first date playing with Conan and tonight is their last -- they originally hopped on this tour because they were well up for playing London, and Colchester was too tempting an opportunity to turn down (though they ended up having to -turn- down...) since that saw them opening for their mates in Meadows at a venue (the Hole in the Wall) with something of a reputation for remarkable nights. Yesterday, Meadows made veggie burgers and their entourage cake which, along with all the band's merch and piles of other seven- and twelve-inches and tapes, they sold at a massive table reserved for them: Conan had to ask some punters on the other side of the pub to vacate their table so they could set up a merch stall. Yesterday, Bismuth's set was interrupted by Tanya herself. She thought they didn't have time for another number, remarking in her disarmingly shy speaking voice that their other song was fifteen minutes. The gig organiser widened his eyes and said, "Fifty?" but after being corrected assented to the continuation. It was a lovely moment but it broke the spell. Nothing breaks it tonight. You can't meaningfully buy _The Eternal Marshes_ at present -- Tartatus only made 100 tapes, they're all long gone -- but it can be downloaded here
on a pay-what-you-choose basis (and the twosome's split with Undersmile is stil available on black LP from Tartarus here
).Photo credit: Karen Toftera (taken at the Hole in the Wall)
The clock strikes ten as Conan begin, but the amps are at least one louder. As brutal a volume as it is, it is by no means the worse for it. Packing enough output power to run a dozen FM transmitters is a dangerous thing, even in the right hands. But in those same right hands -- including the ones that strum strings and bash skins and cymbals into next week -- it can be as affecting emotionally as it is physically. Standing at the front, you can actually feel gusts of air being propelled away from the stage -- and there is not a fan in sight. Though drummer Paul O'Neil does not spontaneously combust and leave a stain (or a globule) on his stool, he does get close. Even as Conan begin -- each with a pint of water within reach -- the Black Heart is getting hot. By the time they finish, dead on eleven, it's like a blacksmith's ballsack. O'Neil admits that he nearly passed out, remarking to Jon after they finish that Conan need to get themselves a fan, "A big fucking fan, man." One more bit of gear to add to the armoury, you might say. That someone manages to get all the way to the bar and back to the stage three-quarters of the way through Conan's set with another water for Paul is both amazing and fortuitous. Had he collapsed, it might have suggested that old adage about bad things always coming in threes was worth heeding -- the hi-hat pedal chain breaks a few songs in; a leg falls off the floor tom shortly before Paul's lifesaving liquid is delivered -- but it would have put a sour note on a night that will live in legend.Photo credit: Karen Toftera (taken at the Hole in the Wall)
Packed to the rafters, the Black Heart is in thrall to Conan from first note to last, as if those four amps lining the back of the stage atop their towering cabs had the mystical power their Stonehenge-evoking appearance suggests. (Credit to Adam Stone from Head of Crom for making that connection when writing about the Liverpool power trio's titanic 2012 Roadburn performance, captured on _Mount Wrath_ and released last year by Burning World.) As they kick off with "Hawk as Weapon", a cheer just audible above the din goes up. Following on with "Battle in the Swamp" and "Grim Tormentor", Conan delight the assembled with this stunning representation of the first side of 2012's _Monnos_. Jon tries to thank the crowd but no-one can hear, and without much of a pause they go back to _Horseback Battle Hammer_, playing three quarters of the landmark 2010 EP, the special treat being the airing of "Dying Giant".
Before the immense "Retaliator" from their 2011 split with Slomatics closes things off, we get the two new tracks which were unveiled to the public at large in the now customary modern fashion (via YouTube) when Conan toured with Bongripper in early 2013. "Foehammer" and "Gravity Chasm" are both from the groove-laden column of Conan's dance card -- more "Satsumo" than "Krull". After the creeping crush of the aforementioned, rarely-aired "Dying Giant", these cuts (available on _Blood Eagle_, released earlier this month, which was not yet recorded when this gig took place) return the room to a madness of mid-paced moshing. Entranced as I was I couldn't say for sure, but I believe it was after "Foehammer" that O'Neil was rescued from collapse by a heroic punter ploughing through the crush with a pint of water.Photo credit: Karen Toftera (taken at the Hole in the Wall)
All thanks and handshakes after they finish up, Conan belie the impression evinced by press shots of them looking like hardmen (their hoodies up over their heads, their faces in part-shadow) and the crushing cacophony that they create onstage. A lovely trio of lads from Liverpool (well, the Wirral more generally, actually), they smile and roll their eyes in good humour when their London audience greet them with unflattering impressions of stereotype Scousers -- "Kerm down! Kerm down!"; endure an idiot drunk who grabs O'Neil's ride cymbal multiple times without resorting to violence (the crowd keep the fool in check: we also pity him); and happily hang around after they finish to chat with their public. Arguably the most significant rallying point in the UK's doom underground now that Ramesses have left this world, they are similarly down to earth people. We'll see what happens to them once they have an album out on Napalm Records and are gearing up for album number three, but you'd be foolish to bet on them changing. Like their namesake, Conan know what they are about: their outlook is somewhat more progressive (not involving hearing the lamentations of many women, you suspect) but crushing their enemies and seeing them driven before them? They're into that -- and it is something at which they have come to excel.