August 2002 – live reviews – Prong + Needleye + Foe @ The Underworld, London, 22nd August 2002 (“pin-sharp vintage thrash, bridge-girder hardcore tunes and even a couple of sandpaper-throated singalongs”)

24 Aug

Watching from a sparsely attended moshpit, it strikes me that Foe are an uncommonly serene rock band, especially for a metalfest like this one. It’s partly the demeanour. Stage right, Jason Carty with guitar, looking like a slightly-built Viking who’s opted for books and meditation instead of battleaxe. Stage left, the looming ox-powerful figure of bassist Crawford Blair, with the blank, heavy-lidded poise of the expert craftsman at work on his five-hundredth perfect replica. Only Paul Westwood – lashing at the drums with pop-eyed concentration – seems to have read the metal-frenzy rulebook, expressing enough frantic urgency to cover for all of his bandmates’ apparent dispassion.

To be fair, it’s a dispassion that’s illusory. Foe care profoundly about what they do, sending long clean jags of rippling twelve-tone math-metal out into the air. Each Foe piece seems to have been built out of a spasming DNA helix, infallibly convulsing and tearing off in a new direction every fifteen seconds. Time signatures and pitches leap about like fleas. In half a minute alone, King Crimson, Naked City, Henry Cow and Dillinger Escape Plan appear in the music, tip a hat, and disappear again. The overall impression, though, is of the passionate serenity (that word again) and protracted seriousness of a Frank Zappa guitar solo, mapped out on graph paper and rearranged for post-punk power-metal trio. Crawford reluctantly delivers comments between songs, as if his arm’s being lightly twisted by an offstage manager. One song’s apparently called Pick On God for a Good Laugh.

Dolled up to the nines, the London metal crowd line the Underground’s upper terrace and look on. Black clothing which creaks; carefully-selected offensive t-shirts. Cleavage and translucence for the girls, studs and sculptured hair for almost everyone; black-and-white goth paint here and there. Puzzled looks almost everywhere, as Foe continue their intricate, tone-carving wranglings. All of the metal regalia, though, is outshone by a single Foe fan in a homemade melange of furry lite-pastel artificial fabrics, a choker made of luminous toys, trousers made from railwaymen’s safety vests, and (the crowning glory) a Hello Kitty rucksack. It’s as boldly twisted as any of Foe’s shape-shattering melodies. A couple of new converts scuttle into the moshpit, as the numbers click into place and joyful grins break across faces. It’s tough getting this kind of rocket science across to an audience.. but there are always more free agents to pick up.

Click. Next.

“All right, fuckers, we’re Needleye!” bawls a hefty bloke with mascara, a shoulder-length sweep of black Silkience hair and a mysteriously off-white jutting broom of Catweazle beard. Unlike Foe, Needleye have no intention of letting the music do all the talking. Four stretched-out men do their best to look roof-scrapingly tall while decked out in swarms of tattoos, PVC, scalplocks, leather and the kind of satanic Pharoah beards you suspect they’ve swiped from Slayer’s make-up cupboard. Plus there’s one wraith-thin possible-ladyboy in black-metal corset, pancake and black lippy, scowling down at a stack of technology while jabbing and tweaking it with the sadistic, nipping fingers of a bully at a girl’s school.

The boxes respond with a counter-barrage of ripping samples, clamorous plane-crash textures, and Uzi drumbeats. There’s no actual drummer. Drummers just aren’t lean and scary enough any more. There are some green “alien” lights, though. And some angular guitars that have to be played with a convulsive whole-body flick, like grain bending in the wind while in the throes of an epileptic fit.

The music? Fear Factory-style cyber-thrash, if you hadn’t guessed already. Head Needler Duncan Wilkinson vomits up phlegm-wads of incomprehensible words from his pancreas, presumably before Cannibal Corpse can go in after them with their nice new bonesaw. Two guitarists make noises like sheet-metal presses on nasty speed, while a space station goes berserk in the background. There is much lunging up and down.

The next half-hour is filled by relentless music that hogs the air like a swarm of flies. As yet another identical piece lifts off from the stage and barrel-rolls over the bouncing audience, I suddenly realise what’s been nagging me about the unvarying tempos, the constant machine-gun beat spray, the static web of guitar thunder. Those frozen and unyielding dynamics, the way nothing whatsoever changes throughout Needleye’s set… For all of the tortured rage and costume drama being acted out in the electro-terrorism onstage, this is actually about reassurance. This is ambient music for headbangers.

(At some point during Needleye’s ranting, I get introduced to a woman who makes sculptures of toilets out of chocolate. Somehow this makes sense. It’s that kind of an evening.)

After the theatrics, watching returning metal veterans Prong is almost like watching B.B. King. Actually, that’s not too far off. Underneath their muscular, knowing thrash assault is more healthy hot space than you’d expect. I keep having R’n’B flashbacks: like Aerosmith before them, Prong have a healthy sprinkling of the other black music to them. There’s swing and swagger behind their raucous noise (more than a few moments are closer to Cameo than to Metallica), which leaves some healthy breathing room in the music between their crushing riffs.

And compared to Needleye’s painstaking obsession with image, this band pay no more than basic-black, sufficiently shaggy attention to the metal uniform. With sixteen years of changes behind him, singer/guitarist Tommy Victor is the only remaining original Prong member: and with the band’s links to darker musicians like Killing Joke and Swans now consigned to the past (guitarist Monte Pittman’s most recent gig was with Madonna), they’re able to bathe a little more in mainstream American metal. If it rocks, don’t glitz it.

If there’s a little more compromise to Prong’s music than there was back in the days when they were thrash-metal spearheads, it’s a compromise made entirely with their fans and no-one else. As the atmosphere of the now-packed Underworld begins to build up to New-Year’s-Party level, Tommy makes no attempt to conceal how much he’s enjoying himself. He’s the first man I’ve ever seen deliver those crypt-rattling hardcore/death metal vocals with a broad grin (instead of gurning in agony as if undergoing brutal rectal surgery), and he revels in bringing his Cockneyfied punk singing-accent back to its hometown.

Sweeping through a long set that draws on pin-sharp vintage thrash, bridge-girder hardcore tunes and even a couple of sandpaper-throated singalongs, Prong are as comfortable as they are tight. A band with enough history, and enough of a grasp of history, to relax into the flow and enjoy their snug place in the pulse of tradition. There’s more than one route to serenity.

Prong online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music

Needleye online:
Homepage MySpace Soundcloud Last FM Spotify

Foe online:
Facebook MySpace Bandcamp Last FM Amazon Music
 

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