So Near The Sky – Hel Sterne and Tom McKibbin of Undersmile

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So, you tell a band that the only thing you haven’t heard of theirs is their debut EP… and they tell you that they’re about to re-release it. A Sea of Dead Snakes (Blindsight) was very Grunge influenced” states Tom McKibbin, drummer with Oxfordshire Drone quartet Undersmile, “and we’ve gone down a much more dirge-infested road since then! We’ve just had another re-pressing done, and given it a purple tint. It’s our ‘Ribena’ edition! It’ll be going out in November, as that’ll be five years since it first came out.”

The band, comprising two couples, has had a number of experiences in their relatively short existence: “We were so disliked in the beginning; we’ve cleared many gigs before now, particularly playing in Oxford!” Tom muses. “Initially you tend to get thrown onto weird, eclectic bills where you don’t belong. One was a Gay Pride gig where they cut the electricity!”

“They came to us and said ‘Stop! You’re making everyone leave!” continues rhythm guitarist / vocalist and Tom’s partner, Hel Sterne, “We couldn’t believe it. Then on came Sassy Ribbons, a drag act…”

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The band’s second album, Anhedonia (Black Bow Records), has been out some months and has met with serious acclaim. Tom is enthusiastic about the reaction: “It’s been really great. The weirdest thing is that it was album of the month in Terrorizer, which you normally feel is reserved for Metallica or Slayer!”

The inclusion of cello on certain tracks has been considered a vital ingredient by many of the album’s admirers: “Taz [Corona-Brown, guitarist / vocalist] and I have always been obsessed with cello”, states Hel.

“We both have similar feelings about melodies, so it was basically something that had to happen. Our cellist Jo Quail is very talented: we told her to just do what she felt, and she did. She just went into that sombre zone which is where we like to lurk!”

There’s a wonderful blend of light and the disturbingly dark in Anhedonia, something that the band are aware of: “It was necessary in order to translate the amount of heartbreak that was intended in some of the songs”, Hel thoughtfully explains. “Some of those things, however, refer to other, nicer times. It’s so important to have contrast.”

“As long as I’ve known Hel and Taz, they’ve naturally gravitated to this close-harmony, slightly discordant edge” Tom feels. “As they’re the main songwriters, that’s what comes out in the music, and Olly [Corona-Brown, bassist] and I just try to bring it along. The Drone influence of Undersmile actually came from loads of different areas: Classical, Indian, Shoegaze, through The Melvins and Earth; but this time we wanted a more dynamic range. It’s nice to get these really clean chords – it has the same effect but with a cleaner, crisper sound. It can still be as mournful as it is with the distortion.”

“I think it can be more mournful” rejoins Hel. “Some people listen to music like that because they find it medicinal, purifying, even though it’s filthy, and I completely understand that. I listen to brainwave entrainment a lot, and I find a similar ‘cocooning’ thing in there too.”

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The band is now with Black Bow Records after releasing stuff on a whole host of labels. “We recorded at Skyhammer, Jon Davis’ (Black Bow founder and Conan leader) studio,” Tom acknowledges. “Jon offered to put Anhedonia out in time for Roadburn, which was really important for us. He’s well-connected of course, people are really interested in what he’s doing, and so that was it. We did our parts over four days; then it was all mixed in sixteen hours’ straight with Chris (Fielding, producer and Conan bassist) who managed to get such a wonderful, natural guitar sound. Obviously we’d be interested in working with Jon again, but it’s just whoever is interested in working with us really. In the past it’s been as a result of friends asking us if they can put stuff out, or friends we’ve made by putting stuff out. They’re all good people.”

Undersmile played two big sets at Roadburn this year – one as themselves, the other as their more acoustic, ‘Grunge Unplugged’ alter-ego Coma Wall – and has two more big sets to come in November. Tom explains further: “We’re playing the memorial gig for Grimpen Mire’s Paul van Linden, who sadly passed away in June. We knew he’d been unwell but his death was still a massive shock. We did a mini-tour with them, Conan and Serpent Venom a couple of years ago and we all got on so well: Paul was always such a lovely guy each time we met. So we’re really honoured to be a part of that. Damnation Festival just came up quite recently. It’s something we’ve wanted to play for a while so it was a ‘no-brainer’, but once we saw the line-up it was incredible! We’re on quite early in the day, so we’ve got the rest of the day to enjoy the music and get drunk!”

So, do the couples ever take a break from each other?! “We have this year, post-Roadburn!” confirms Hel. “We’re all just so busy: there are Taz and Olly’s family commitments; we’ve just moved house; I run an acupuncture clinic and Tom is very career-focused at present; we’ve a lot of material for Coma Wall…with all that, we’re really having to ‘cherry-pick’ gigs. We did realise that we were spending so much time just working – Taz and I are best friends – and we thought ‘when do we actually make time to just go out and do ‘friend’ things?”

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Finishing with another exclusive for Ghost Cult, Hel explains the band’s latest foray into the visual world: “We’ve just finished shooting a video for the Anhedonia track ‘Sky Burial’. So that’ll be two music videos this year!” she laughs.

Stardom? Probably not, but there’s certainly no doubt that the star of this incredibly hard-working, creative and crushing unit is well and truly on the rise.

 

 

WORDS BY PAUL QUINN

Intensive Square – Anything That Moves

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From the rather clever play on words of their name, through to the arty if thoroughly disgusting cover, there is something overtly cerebral about Cardiff technicians Intensive Square. There’s a claustrophobic intensity from the outset of debut album Anything That Moves (Black Bow); complex drum patterns leading the way for some crunching, chaotic riffs and Chris Haughey’s dry scour. A febrile sound initially in keeping with the intelligent violence of Dillinger Escape Plan or Pyrrhon, twisting rhythms create grooves and craters as deep as the earth’s core whilst syncopated flickers leave your body convulsing with an involuntary joy.

The howling leads of opener ‘The Long Man’ are accompanied in the atonal melody stakes by the enigmatically-named Barnes’ wailing sax which, far from having you running for the hills, actually augments the power and further peaks the curiosity. The Cancer Bats-meets-Jazz of the ensuing ‘Ends’ possesses a brooding, building coda which heightens the tension; whilst the viciously switching, jerking grooves of ‘Me Vs the Cables’ and ‘Rhino Fight’ will leave those of us with knee problems in utter agony. The perfect timing of the band’s time switches and staccato rhythms enhance rather than frustrate: ‘…Fight’ slowing then quickening on a sixpence, the ferocious battery and squealing sax fully invoking the fear and drama of the titanic struggle the title suggests.

The blend of hostility and progressive sensibilities brings djent kings Meshuggah to mind but there’s a more organic quality here, a natural flow which harnesses that pulsating power, letting the invention run on an extending leash rather than wholly unfettered. The strange lead patterns in the stuttering savagery of ‘Gastric Emptying’ seem completely apt. The Death/Sludge template of ‘Vegetarians’, meanwhile, its ingredients warping and morphing in attempts to break free, still snaps back to the controlling structure; Haughey’s bellow letting blood over the exhausted body of the track.

The swerving riffs of the crushing, pummelling closer ‘King’, like Grind slowed to a virtual standstill, is as nerve-wrecking as anything I’ve heard this year. Indeed, the only thing that’s utterly untethered here is the rampant verve, the vivacity coursing through this bruising, intricate set.

Quite simply this is a huge shot in the arm for progressive, extreme metal and one of the most vital releases of recent years.

 

8.5/10

Intensive Square on Facebook

 

PAUL QUINN

Golden Axe – Jon Davis of Conan

Conan at Maryland Deathfest 2015, by Hillarie Jason Photography

Conan at Maryland Deathfest 2015, by Hillarie Jason Photography

 

Jon Davis, guitarist and sole founder member of crushing Doom behemoth Conan, is one of the UK’s most hard-working, beloved and respected musicians; a man of both modesty and determination. Before their recent show in Manchester Ghost Cult quizzed him about their latest tours, their new set-up, and the forthcoming recording of their third album.

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This is the penultimate date of an extensive UK tour – the first since your first ever trek to the US. How has this one compared to others?

There aren’t actually that many good places to play in the UK. We’ve had some amazing shows, but a couple of shit ones also – not naming names! There is a difference between playing in the UK & the US, and in Europe. The latter is very professional and business-like; the UK and the US slightly less formal. Over here we tend to drive home every night; we will tomorrow from Glasgow. It’s only four and a half hours so it’s not so bad.

 

There speaks a man who’s just driven across America! And then it’s straight to the studio?

We’re booked in around July / August time. We’ve a couple of standalone festival shows before then, plus shows in Sheffield, Nottingham and Oxford. Aside from that we’re just going to concentrate on writing the album, getting it finished and trying to get it to the label by September.

 

With such big international tours, it shows your profile has grown since second album Blood Eagle (Napalm). Does this increase the pressure on the new album?

I haven’t really noticed a difference. As we’re playing live more often we have to make more of the time we’ve got. What we’ll tend to do is get together in the studio and write a song every day or two, then record it in basic fashion. So we’ve got a demo of songs for the album by the time we hit the studio proper.

 

Things have really taken off since Blood Eagle, with much critical acclaim. Have the last couple of years seemed a bit of a whirlwind?

It seemed that way after Monnos (Burning World Records), our first album, and last year was our busiest year so far: we did over 80 shows, and must have been away from home for at least 100 days. So yes, but we’ve been in control of it. We really enjoy the touring, it’s tiring but rewarding and leaves us with a positive balance in our minds. We’re more in demand, and that’s what you want. I promised myself when I was fifteen or sixteen that I’d play guitar on stage. This venue [Manchester’s Star and Garter] is really important to me, because it’s the first place I played outside of Liverpool – we played here with Charger back in 2010. It was a big turning point for me, and ever since that gig we’ve embraced that energy.

 

Since Blood Eagle Conan has a new drummer and bassist. How has that affected the writing process?

The writing’s really good as all three of us are in the same room. Chris (Fielding, bass) and Rich (Lewis, drums) are both really good writers, but I don’t think they could write a Conan song yet without me being there. I don’t class myself as a good guitarist but I do have a certain style, which is to focus more on the drums and with the three of us in the room it works more easily. Chris has been our producer since day one, so he understands exactly where we’re coming from and if I write something, he can imagine just how it should sound and move it on. The core Conan sound won’t change; we’re just getting better.

 

So there’s more energy?

I’d say so. There’s more spontaneity; we’re able to use more of what we come up with so we don’t waste as much now. Rich is no stranger to bands, he’s a very accomplished musician, so having him in the band has been really beneficial. I’m really happy to have both guys in.

 

So what stage is the album at?

Four songs are demoed, and a release date penned in for January next year. So we’ll be quietish for the rest of this year, then next year we’ll get touring again properly. When we’re in the studio Chris is always the boss, and that’s the way it will stay this time. It must be a little different in his mind, now he’s actually playing bass also, but he doesn’t show it. Chris is actually a great guitar player, better than me by far, and he’s taken to the bass with ease.

 

And it’ll be out on Napalm, rather than your own label Black Bow?

Yeah. Napalm have a contract for our next two albums and, to be honest, I’m not sure it would be such a good thing to have Conan on my label as I need to separate the two. I also don’t think my operation’s big enough to sell the kind of amount that Blood Eagle did. I’d rather Black Bow was my business, and Conan my enjoyment.

 

Conan on Facebook

 

PAUL QUINN

Slomatics / Holly Hunt – Split 7″ single

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A 7-inch ‘split’ release (Black Bow), with one track each… the ways of ‘putting yourself out there’ shrink by the minute. The track from Belfast sludge-doom trio Slomatics, ‘Ulysses, My Father’, is Conan incarnate: all colossal riffs dropped from the skies, Marty Harvey‘s vocals echoing from atop Olympus, until some subtle and welcome sequencing introduces a slight quickening of pace and some pulverising stickwork from Harvey.

‘Bill Ward’, the track from Miami instrumental monstrosity Holly Hunt, is something of a powerhouse. Buzzing, crunching guitars fade in and out as if bouncing on the surface of a ‘woofer’, sucked back then spat forth with venom whilst drums reminiscent of the man the track is named after fling the riff around like a toy. The resonant power is stunning and dulls the senses in a hypnotic fashion, but in truth one four-minute track each is not the sort of advert that makes me want to further investigate, especially with the Belfast unit having four albums under their belt.

A multi-track EP could have pushed this intriguing sound further into the psyche.

 

6.5/10

Slomatics on Facebook

Holly Hunt on Facebook

 

PAUL QUINN