In making the step up to a venue the size of Camden’s KOKO, tonight Red Fang stake their claim as one of heavy rock’s premier bands. Opening for them on what is to be their biggest UK headline show to date is therefore both an honour and a test. A test that much more daunting considering Torche, a headline act in their own right, are supplying the main support. As Wolverhampton duo God Damn fly into opener ‘Fake Prisons’ and flay every last bit of energy from the rapidly filling pit it becomes evident that not only are the band at home on a stage this size, they are in fact revelling in it.
Performing as a three-piece with the addition of James on keys, standout single ‘Ghost’ flickers and grinds through its crunching chorus and elicits a roar of appreciation from the crowd. With drummer Ash Weaver dressed in dungarees and a white t-shirt, his curly hair flailing in time with his sticks, it’s as if Mario sacked off saving the princess and joined a kickass band instead.
Singer Thom Edward actually takes the vocal prize across all three bands tonight, switching between clean and effortless scream with impressive control. God Damn bring their set to a close with the pulsing tap and groove of ‘Vultures’, leaving the stage to a well-executed crescendo of noise and then cut. The cheer that greets them confirms my suspicions that these guys are bound for bigger things with their killer riff-and-scream in tow.
As Torche take to the stage so begins tonight’s tale of a Jekyll and Hyde approach to heavy rock. Torche have eluded the standard genre pigeonholes for most of their career, employing a combination of crushing sludge riffs and up-tempo pop melody. With their last record Restarter they slowed the pace right down and in doing so split their fanbase. For fans who preferred the breakneck catchy hooks of Harmonicraft, the more traditional sludge pace present on Restarter dragged, and whilst there is a pummelling reward if enough time is invested, the album is markedly less accessible. There were however many who welcomed this heavier approach and for them the record simply added another filthy string to an already impressive bow.
I must confess that I fit into the former slice of the fanbase so I’m anxious to see how the setlist plays out. To my relief Torche front-load the set with most of the hits from both Meanderthal and Harmonicraft. ‘Grenades” opening guitar-lick still brings a shiver, evoking Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins. Steve Brookes and Andrew Elstner’s superb vocal harmonies on ‘Across The Shields’’ verse pull smiles from across the crowd as Meanderthal’s standout track hurtles into its double-time pounding outro.
Coming in at just shy of 80 seconds, Harmonicraft’s ‘Sky Trials’ distils everything that is great about Torche into one furious, joyful audio-uppercut. The band must have played this song hundreds of times but the sheer energy and pace on tap here induces frontman Brookes to grin widely, like he only just realised how insanely good his drummer is. As he sings “Lights on, in the kingdom” and a wave of recognition washes across the crowd, ‘Kicking’ explodes into view and the pit morphs into a sea of grins and crowdsurfing.
For me, what prevents post-Restarter Torche from delivering a truly great live offering are the introduction of the newer and slower tracks. ‘Minions’ visibly saps the momentum from the crowd and, whilst an undeniably heavy onslaught, when sat next to a plethora of frantic gems from earlier records the juxtaposition of two vehemently different paces makes for a frustrating lurch and lull. This is not to say that sections of the crowd are not pumping their fists to the down-tuned hammer riffs it’s just, personally, the contrast between Torche’s two musical faces is too big an ask.
Red Fang are days away from releasing their hotly anticipated fourth record Only Ghosts. Having set mouths watering already with the early release of ‘Flies’ and ‘Cut It Short’, the standard of both singles is unsurprisingly high, so as the quartet walk out to a huge cheer there is a tangible buzz in the air. Along with genre-mates Baroness and Elder, Red Fang are a band who really stepped up on their previous record. It would seem that playing KOKO has become a reward for heavier bands who’ve matured and really started to bloom.
Similarly to Torche, Red Fang have two distinct gears. The first and more well-known setting involves bass player Aaron Beam on vocals and catchier hooks. This more accessible pool is where the majority of Red Fang’s singles are derived from. The second gear puts guitarist Brian Giles in the vocal seat with a much harsher and irate delivery. This is often combined with a punkier approach to riff.
Where the difference with Torche lies is that this more brutal line of attack is not compromised by any easing off on the pace. Again I have to admit to preferring the catchier songs, but whereas on record I might be tempted to reach for the skip button, when Giles takes charge of this rammed opera house the sheer brute force of his delivery is superb. Both ‘No Hope’ and ‘Crows in Swine’ provide unexpected highlights tonight mainly because I didn’t expect to enjoy them so much.
Of course the singles are why Red Fang are topping this bill and as the grungy haunting punch of ‘Blood Like Cream’ swings out of the speaker early on, I pocket my notepad and venture into the pit. ‘Hank Is Dead’ and ‘Wires’ are perfectly paced for the swathes of beards to hurl their overpriced lager to the rafters in moist appreciation of rock music crafted to precision.
What is encouraging this evening is the ease with which the newer songs slot into the set. ‘Cut It Short’ is already able to reach into the crowds’ collective throat and wrench out a sing-along. As the band pulp the two aforementioned gears into a fierce new third, ‘Flies’ combines the best of both singers and bodes extremely well for the album only days away.
‘Prehistoric Dog’ is the song that made Red Fang and as the house lights raise before it has been played the crowd laughs in disbelief. When you have a song so good and so apt for the live environment that its omission draws such a dismissive response from your crowd, you know you’re onto a winner. Obligingly the band retake the stage and proceed to smash the life out of KOKO one last time.
With my writer’s cap already lost in the pit I take a momentary glance around and what I’m met with is a sea of faces singing their hearts out. Tonight Red Fang have more than justified their ascension to this larger venue and with Only Ghosts just around the corner it would appear that the only way is up.