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

Desert Storm – Omniscient Masters

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If the adage “times flies when you’re having fun” has any sort of current validation then Oxford’s Desert Storm must be having quite a lot of fun as this is, almost unbelievably, their third album. Following a debut record, Forked Tongue (independent/self-released), that showed a huge amount of promise, a second album (Horizontal Life) (Blindsight) that pretty much said “yes, they know exactly what they are doing: more please”, the band’s bluesy, riff hungry, gnarlier-than-you take on southern influenced blues/sludge rock suggested a band with its heart and its head in deepest Missouri as opposed to the English home counties.

For this third album, the enigmatically titled Omniscient Masters (Blindsight), the word “experimentation” occasionally springs to mind, although, worry not, the departures are more nuanced than truly startling- they haven’t gone all One Direction on us, for example. Omniscient Masters is the sound of a band feeling like they need to stretch their creative legs a bit, whilst continuing to deliver slab after slab of riff-tastic blues rock.

To these ears, Omniscient Masters is an album that owes something of a creative debt to Orange Goblin. As any fool know, there’s not much wrong with that and so it proves on the splendid and splendidly titled ‘Collapse of the Bison Lung’ which is stirring and heavier than a lead and iron sandwich. You won’t need a post-graduate qualification to know what ‘Queen Reefer’ is all about and ‘Outlander’ is dirtier than a post festival wardrobe. So far, so familiar and so very welcome. There is a very Anglo-Saxon sense of humour running through ‘Nightbus Blues’ and its very recognisable tales of that 4am walk home from a session too far will doubtless be familiar to many readers although I’m less sure how well this translates to an international audience.

Those highlights apart, the rest of the album is not quite up to scratch and, as a long time watcher of the band, I worry that this is going to end up as a missed opportunity. Omnisicient Masters is good but it’s not great and I so wanted it to be great. I rate this band; they’ve got a certain something that is genuinely worth championing. I can’t help but think that with a bit more work and a producer like, say, Andy Sneap working with them, we would have had a little bit more judicious editing and a bit more forensic focus on the execution; as it stands, Omniscient Masters is ok when it should have been K.O. Plenty of credit for the experimentation, but points deducted for the execution; a veritable curate’s egg, then. If your curate is a metal head, of course.

 

7.0/10

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MAT DAVIES