With a lengthy and excitable queue having already formed well before the 7 pm opening time, you can already tell heading to Birmingham on a typically drizzly September evening is going to be well worth the effort. After disappearing for a few words with Rivers of Nihil drummer Jared Klein, I arrive back into the previously empty venue to find it heaving with activity. The bar area is already packed, beer flows freely and merchandise is being handed over at an impressive rate.
The first band of the evening is Swedish act Orbit Culture who calls the crowd immediately into action with half an hour of aggressive but melodic death metal. The riffs are suitably chunky, and the drums pound relentlessly into your skull, but Niklas Karlsson’s vocals are a little too low in the mix, diminishing his vocal attack at vital parts of certain songs. Still, nobody in the crowd seems to mind and the band goes down very well indeed.
There are five members in the Danish band MØL. Not that you’d know it, as for the vast majority of the set your gaze is directed only towards Kim Song Sternkopf, one of the most intense and (quite literally) in-your-face frontmen in the scene. As the band slash their way through post-black metal riffs and slower atmospheric, shoegazy material, Sternkopf takes that fervidity and turns it up to 11, even going so far as to leap off the stage a couple of times, performing one song in the middle of the room, surrounded by a horde of bemused Brummies. Towards the end of the set, guitarist Frederik Lippert even loses a D string, but after a quick and seamless mid-song retune carries on like nothing has happened, with most of the crowd none the wiser.
The level of musicianship goes up a notch or three with US-based technical, progressive death metal act Black Crown Initiate. New single ‘Years in Frigid Light’ sounds massive, as does the quite superb ‘A Great Mistake’, as bass player Nick Shaw performs a five-string masterclass, and magnificently bearded guitarist/backing vocalist Andy Thomas fingerpicks his way through no less than eight strings of complicated timings and arpeggios, the only downer being his clean vocals being lost somewhat in the mix. Frontman James Dorton roars his way powerfully through a blistering set, only stopping to ask someone/anyone in the crowd to go and fetch him a beer. His wish is granted, and all is right with the world once again.
Playing latest album Where Owls Know My Name (Metal Blade) in its entirety, Pennsylvanian headliners Rivers of Nihil already have the audience in the palm of their hands before they even play a single note. From the opening strains of ‘Cancer/Moonspeak’ through to closer ‘Capricorn/Agoratopia’ the band own this little venue in Digbeth. Circle pits open up, fans are urged to sing along, vocalist Jake Dieffenbach even thrusting the mic into the face of one enthusiastic fan to roar a line or two. Sticksman Jared Klein shifts from jazz timings to brutal blastbeats in the blink of an eye, while bass player Adam Biggs sends us off to another world with his wonderfully proggy noodlings. All this while the dual guitars of Brody Uttley and Jonathan Topore slice and interweave with ridiculously deceptive ease, the venue held entirely in their thrall.
Inflatable saxophones are held aloft for the arrival of saxophonist Zach Strouse, whose hefty stature belies the intricacies and smoothness of his playing on tracks like ‘The Silent Life’, and the mesmerizing ‘Subtle Change’. Closing the show with an encore of ‘Sand Baptism’, Rivers of Nihil perform an often breathtaking set, where apart from the occasional (and thankfully brief) lack of volume from Jake Dieffenbach’s vocals, the only downside is that it has to actually end at some point.