It’s always gratifying when local bands manage to fly the nest and get themselves out touring the country, and after years of drought Portsmouth currently has quite a few acts putting in their motorway miles in support of proper releases. Two such outfits are Cut The Blue Wire and Munroe Effect; the former have just about finished a tour in the company of Blakfish and Outcry Collective, while the latter are just about to head off on a jaunt of their own to promote their new EP. So what better time to put them both on the same bill in a local venue?
Well, the extremely cynical might say “not a Wednesday”, as midweek shows are not renowned for their great turnout. But even so there’s a fairly respectable crowd crammed into the side of the dreadfully-named Fat Fox pub on Albert Road this evening, who have already been treated to a set from the James Cleaver Quartet by the time I arrive. I just about have time to grab a beer before Munroe Effect take to the tiny stage to do their thing.
The most immediate shock of the evening is how good the sound is – hiring a decent soundman really does make a difference, as the light and shade of Munroe Effect‘s high-precision progressive post-hardcore really leaps out at you. The heavy bits are loud, but the tone is full and powerful rather than abrasive, and the calmer bits are bright and clear, full of sparkling chiming tones and devoid of squalling feedback. You can actually hear what’s happening, in other words, which means the Fat Fox ranks above another local venue with over ten times its capacity, for this evening at least.
You need that clarity to be able to fully appreciate Munroe Effect‘s work, because it’s very much based in shifts and changes. Their songs tend to mutate, developing organically from their starting point to conclusions that are as surprising as they are logical. I tend to avoid comparisons as much as possible, but sometimes there’s no better way to describe a band, so: to make a Munroe Effect song, take your average eight-minute Oceansize epic, and place carefully in a well-oiled vice; now carefully and steadily apply pressure from either end while compressing the sides to avoid messy spillage, and continue until the eight minutes has shrunk to no more than four. All those dynamics – those landscapes, journeys and narratives – are crunched down into swift sharp bursts of loud-quiet-loud that hide moody pop hooks in their hearts. It’s over sooner than you expect, and far sooner than you want.
Next up are Blakfish, who look like a mismatched batch of college kids who’ve climbed on stage merely to see how long they can stay before being kicked off, but once they start playing everything becomes very very serious. Or rather it becomes simultaneously serious and even more ridiculous… from a technical point of view, Blakfish‘s music is incredibly intricate and progressive (as well as loud and super-fast), and they all play with an astonishing degree of skill, but they’re also having a lot of surreal fun at the same time.
Point in case: topical political commentary. Blakfish‘s opening song contains the refrain “McCain is Obama and Obama is McCain“; I don’t know whether this is an old song, something fairly new or a spontaneous rewording of something in between. I also have no idea what they mean by it… or whether, indeed, they mean anything by it at all. The almost autistic hyperfocus of their manic mathematical spazzcore contrasts with the sarcastic Da-Da mania of the lyrics, and the only certainty would appear to be their disapproval of mundane conformity: “if I had a penny for every high-street look-alike / I’d be a happy man.”
In between tunes, however, it’s hard to believe they’re the same people. It’s like a flashback to your college days, overhearing the off-beat banter and inscrutable in-jokes of the small clade of stoner weirdos nestled in the corner of the common-room. But then they start playing again, leaping around like amphetamine-crazed macaques, knocking over mic-stands and careening into the gob-smacked audience, changing keys and time-signatures and direction at the drop of a hat, and you can’t be sure exactly what sort of joke is being played on you. But joke or not, Blakfish are a wonder to hear and watch; make sure you do so at your soonest opportunity.
Now it’s time for Outcry Collective, who are probably most fairly described as a foursome of slightly scruffy emo kids playing at being a Southern metal band. The only problem is that I can’t tell whether they’re doing it straight, paying homage or doing a pastiche, and I’m not entirely sure they’ve decided either.
Musically, everything works as it should – close your eyes and listen to the songs, and you’re in the territory stalked by the likes of Soylent Green or Maylene and the Sons of Disaster, all fierce metal riffola, heavy, loose and bluesy with the amps cranked right up over pounding drums and accompanied by mad-preacher howling. Being a younger band, Outcry Collective have brought some of the more modern tricks and tropes of metalcore and new-wave thrash to the party, meaning there’s a varied mix of hooks in their material, even if there’s nothing particularly distinctive or unique about their material.
Oh, they can play, don’t get me wrong – I’ve seen older and bigger bands than Outcry Collective play far worse, without a doubt – but the image isn’t quite complete. There’s been a half-hearted attempt at dressing up a little bit redneck-ish, the singer fades in and out of a faux Texan drawl between songs, and the guys on guitar and bass are well into their axe-hero showmanship (to the extent of borrowing boxes to replace the monitors they’re evidently accustomed to propping one leg on from time to time), but you’re left feeling they’ve either gone too far or not far enough. If they were to just play the music as is without the theatre, it would make more sense as a reappropriation or reinvention; on the other hand, if they went the whole hog with long flowing hair, Confederate flag belt-buckles and full-time characterisation, it would be more believable. As it is, Outcry Collective are caught between the two.
As is to be expected with a one-off five-act show, things are running a little late by the time Cut The Blue Wire get set up and ready to go, their set-up sprawling into the audience area due to lack of space. They’re the first to admit that they’re fairly well-lubricated by this point, but rather than manifesting itself as loose or sloppy playing their alcohol intake appears to ramp up their angular pop-punk into something much heavier than usual.
Perhaps it’s partly a result of following a bunch of bands with a much more aggressive aesthetic, but Cut The Blue Wire attack their own material with increased speed and ferocity, lending it a much fuller and harder tone than as recorded on their recent EP. The bass and keys seem to fuse together, thickening out the sound while the guitar riffs become sharper and more aggressive, and singer DD Ball sings and wails as if his audience were festival-sized and this was his last day on earth.
It’s quite the transformation if you’ve only heard them on record, but Cut The Blue Wire‘s punk and hardcore roots are much more plain to see this evening – as is their sense of fun. Nearing the end of a national tour and playing to a hometown crowd who know them well, the situation is well suited to a bit of clowning around, and most of the audience are in the mood for it too. So there’s back-chat and piss-taking, and friendly arguments about which song to play, and plenty of grins from band and audience alike. While it may not have been a chance to see Cut the Blue Wire at their tightest and most focussed, it’s an opportunity to see the people behind the music unwinding after the hard slog of a few weeks sleeping in a transit van between bouts of disciplined professionalism… which is one of the best arguments I can think of for going to see bands from your local scene when they play at home.