On the corner of Camden High Street, outside the Underground station, there’s an agitated man talking about his relationship with Jesus. Under normal circumstances, it would be hard to hear him above the throb and bustle of the always-buzzing north London borough, but our hero is prepared, and has brought a microphone and a speaker. He will be heard and you will hear his story. It might be delivered with passion, but there’s a simmering tension underpinning his monologue.
In an apocalyptic movie, this detail might be laboured, but it’s very real. This island is very much in a pickle: the pandemic’s tentacles have yet to be severed from its far-reaching host, the economy could loosely be described as “shit”, while wars in far-off lands still rage. Across the English-speaking world, right-wing Poundshop political pundits attempt to distract with their own spiteful wars on the transgender community and refugees. Over the road, there’s a pub called The World’s End, beneath it a venue called The Underworld, and it's here that Empire State Bastard unleash hell tonight.
Everything might be fucked, but Empire State Bastard’s timing is impeccable. Formed by Biffy Clyro’s Simon Neil and his band's touring guitarist, former Oceansize frontman Mike Vennart, this vicious project was realised during COVID lockdowns and honed a brutal soundtrack which cuts through the noise of modern times.
Tonight is their third gig ever, the final show of a three-date UK tour which sold out before the group had officially released a single note of music. Here are members of an arena-sized band in a snug, sweat-dripping cellar, aided and abetted by ex-Slayer legend Dave Lombardo and former Bitch Falcon bassist Naomi Macleod. These musicians have travelled the world, but can they do it on a rainy night in Camden?
Before the answer to that question arrives, we are introduced to Grub Nap. This Leeds-based “low and slow terror” duo deal in sludgy Herculean riffs and guttural vocals. Think Iron Monkey. Think Medulla Nocte. Think post-pub beatings. It’s compelling stuff alright, and sets the mood perfectly for the headliners.
During a 30-minute changeover, the sound of a lone synth, jabbed at irregular intervals, is played over the venue PA. It's a quirky talking point initially, then appears to set some fans on edge: the sort of noise which security agencies backing up dictators and tyrants might play to political prisoners to break their minds.
With Neil and Vennart sporting the finest moustaches seen since The Bill’s DCI Tosh Hines (RIP), the band launch into their debut single Harvest. Looming like the 102-storey Manhattan skyscraper, their first release is buoyed by a crunching riff and confrontational verses, shot through with sheets of black metal and Neil’s piercing, agitated shriek.
First impression? Christ, they’re loud, with Vennart - a Mike Patton devotee - clearly in his element, providing a perfect foil to the Mr. Bungle / Fantômas man’s godlike work behind the kit.
On first listen, with the release of the group's debut album still tbc, there is much here to love. Sons and Daughters is a doom-paced Iommi-toned meditation which gradually builds but purposefully never quite explodes yet rumbles, while Neil sings: “You’re losing your sons and your daughters, you’re losing your war and your soldiers. Your vanity is not glorious, this isn’t the life that you sold us.”
Stutter is breakneck-paced punk metal punctuated with creepy 80s synth, while Palms Of Hands is a frantic two-minute barrage of scraping, insistent riffs, with cheeky nods to Slayer. Neil, meanwhile gargles his vocal cords and complains that “this shit never ends”.
Less than an hour after they take the stage, the quartet close with the epic The Looming, having inarguably proved that they can very much do it on a cold, rainy night in NW1.
Tinnitus 1 Ears 0. Back to you in the studio.