Ack! Ack! Ack! get an eyeful of that fantastic ‘monsters of rock’ promo artwork would you. A couple of local promoters combine to put this juggernaut dream bill together, a loud and joyous farewell kiss to summer, and it does not disappoint. Squeezing this much greatness in takes both stages and an early kick off but there’s already a decent size crowd and a good atmosphere for the hot sound of young Birmingham – HAQ 123. Having made their debut and charmed us all on the imposingly big stage at Supersonic at the start of the summer, it’s fair to say they’ve got better already. The first thing anyone’s going to tell you about HAQ is that two thirds of the band are little kids. Warm encouraging smiles and appreciative nods spread through the crowd and there’s a small group of fans their own age down the front. It’s brilliant, life affirming stuff. They’re better than “hey, not bad for kids” and thankfully the furthest thing imaginable from over competent, hot-housed, stage school brats. Their songs are like mysterious kids’ drawings you can’t quite decipher so you ask and get a great story that rests on its own curious logic and leaves you both more impressed and more confused. Because the mental codes and structures you have for this stuff don’t apply here. So it goes with their songs, open ended and rough at the edges, peopled by strange characters. Dave, the ‘grown up’ one on bass (and tonight sporting a pair of flared jeans so capacious he might have smuggled the rest of the band in under them) does an admirable job sitting back and letting them lead it while making no concessions to their tender ears with his filthy sludgy riffs. Only their teenage years can stop them now.
Tough act to follow. In a more traditional opening act scenario I miss most of Squalor Fan in the bar but do make it upstairs before they’re done. One plays bass and grins another mans the table full of electronic whizz-bang gadgets. There’s some drones and some beats, some vocal samples and all sorts. I’m briefly minded of ‘Love Missile F1-11’, I’m briefly minded of both Suicide and OMD at different points. In some ways not all that far to travel but your mileage may vary.
Back downstairs it’s party time with Rainbow Grave, truly the most grindingly bleak and yet hilarious band you could hope for. Rainbow Grave’s relentless churning riffs of doom are a world where even working yourself into a rage about the appalling state of things and/or your own pitiful soul is just one more embarrassing charade, one more tired and stupid pose of disaffection. It’s thirty years now since Bullen made his name with Napalm Death’s ‘Scum’, even then sensing it was a dead end he couldn’t be bothered to walk down. Now he wears the futility of it all about his shoulders like a practical yet comfy car coat and dances an obscenely mocking parody of existential pain. Figuratively speaking of course, he actually plays guitar and yells at us. Previously the dark humour that undercuts the brutal unpleasantness of the lyrics gave an impression the band was not entirely a serious undertaking but tonight completely dispels that idea. Like their idols HAQ123 it’s clear Rainbow Grave have been practicing, they’re harder, meaner, uglier than before. They’ve even been making records. Although I suspect they’ll hate you for buying them.
Keeping things fierce Bruxa Maria come out swinging. Once again in a different configuration but still ruthlessly drilled and almost suffocatingly intense. Matt Cargill’s electro noise contributions are clearer in the mix tonight which is all to the good. Bruxa pull noise rock, hardcore, sludge and more into songs that twist and turn in unexpected ways but do it with such an impressive lightness of touch you never see the join. That said, the pounding bass in ‘Human Condition’ shows its roots in Gill’s love of techno a little more than it ever has before. They may have played new stuff, I’m not sure, with Bruxa I recognise riffs and sections more than songs and they do seem to run together into one gigantic beast laying waste like Godzilla stamping on your pathetic matchstick houses. Monster. You should have their album ‘Human Condition’ because it’s A) great and B) cheap as chips – but if not here’s a free download tune that came close to the end of the set and was crushing.
Although it’s fairly warm out for the end of September AJA is doing her thing in the more comfortable confines of upstairs because no-one wants to roll around in their pants on the cobbles of a pub courtyard. I suppose I expected something similar to the performance at Supernormal. Not just from her but from the audience too and ultimately that just isn’t the case tonight. It’s confrontational and feral and it does sort of make the rock bands playing in the courtyard seem quite conventional but I think she loses the battle this time. I’m over in the corner with my mate who’s working one of the strobe lights so perhaps not in the best place to judge but she doesn’t seem to succeed in binding the crowd together to exorcise the pain, eliciting more of a typically brummie shrug of “steady there, love”. A couple of people later admit that they enjoyed it to start with but felt it descended into something voyeuristic that made them uncomfortable. That’s obviously a risk with this sort of performance, it may even be partly the point of it and I’m certain she’s played to smaller less appreciative audiences numerous times but it was disappointing. It has to be an exhausting and utterly draining thing to actually do, and ultimately unsustainable. Maybe in ten years time she’ll be onstage in elaborate headgear doing something more measured and we’ll cast our fading minds nostalgically back to when she used to scream in her pants and climb the pa.
The night has already proved a runaway success but the best is yet to come. It is an absolute joy to see Hey Colossus again. Tiny doubts that they might, despite the evidence of ‘The Guillotine’, miss Jonathon’s sparkling guitar parts or that maybe the full force noise of the evening’s entertainments thus far might make their shorter, more melodic songs, that now even have audible lyrics, seem a bit timid are immediately and comprehensively steamrollered by ‘Honest To God’ and a massive, rattling ‘Back In The Room’. They are ferociously loud and exhilarating, a tremendous amount of love flows back towards the stage. Sykes is in boisterous form, even managing to break a mic stand. As always I’m struck by how the separate parts combine with such elegance to build the colossus and set it stomping around the room. There’s complexity and richness in the texture of their roaring noise. The set draws heavily on ‘The Guillotine’ but stretches back across the last few remarkable albums (not quite back to the recently re-issued ‘Happy Birthday’), finishing on a punishingly great ‘Okktave Dokktor’ by the end of which I’m convinced it’s the best show I’ve ever seen them play. Honest To God.