Both Helmet’s Betty and Senser’s Stacked Up 20th anniversary shows in one night!
This is not quite your typical live review. In fact, it’s possibly at least as much a celebration of the opportunities that can present themselves if you happen to live in a city like London, as well as the tale of a rather splendid trip down memory lane for a hoary old timer like myself.
As I’ve probably mentioned before, 1994 was a big year for me. As well as being the year I turned 17 and was busy doing all the things teenagers do, we were blessed with an uncommonly good batch of new music as the soundtrack for our youthful exuberance. It was the year Pantera hit number one with Far Beyond Driven – a rare feat in the days when album charts still counted for something. It was also the year we had our first exposure to Machine Head and Korn. Heady days indeed.
Two other bands that made a particularly deep and lasting impression on me that year were Helmet and Senser - and both of these bands decided to play Halloween shows in London to mark the anniversaries, respectively, of the releases of Betty and Stacked Up.
Perhaps ironically, it was only made possible for me to watch both shows because of a practice London venues employ that is usually more of an irritant than a convenience. Especially on Friday nights, venues will slap a 10pm curfew on a gig so they can clear out the punters and let in a second batch around 10:30 for a nightclub. Normally, this means an early night for me, but tonight it proved to be to my advantage.
So at 7:45, with minimal fanfare and no support act preceding them, the current incarnation of Helmet took to the stage. Main man – and sole surviving member of the band that recorded Betty – Page Hamilton then let ring the dissonant chords that serve as the introduction to album opener “Wilma’s Rainbow“.
With the same stripped-back, no-nonsense approach that first attracted me to the band all those years ago, Helmet proceed to play Betty in its entirety, top to bottom, barely pausing between tracks, saying not one word to the audience – and it is glorious. I had purposefully not listened to the album at all in the lead up to the show, so each track appears like an old friend, with their signature stop-start mid-paced riffery having lost none of their bite and vitality.
I had been a little apprehensive going in to the show, in all honesty – I was concerned that the combination of the passage of time and the changes of personnel may not have been kind to the band. I was particularly worried about the drums, as John Stanier’s refined, precise contributions to Betty must rank as some of my favourite drumming of all time, but fortunately my fears were unfounded. Kyle Stevenson has been on the stool behind Page since 2006, and hit pretty much every beat exactly as it was written. Phew.
Similarly, guitarist Dan Berman and bassist Dave Case played their parts professionally, with my only real complaint being Dave’s rendition of the superb bassline of “Biscuits For Smut” didn’t quite capture the scratchy, grimy feel of the original – but that’s the nit-picking of an obsessive at work. Overall, it is a professional, tight and sympathetic rendition of these classic songs.
As one might expect from a 20th anniversary show, the average age of the crowd is comfortably over 30. Nevertheless, a determined few greet each uptempo track with an old-fashioned, bouncy moshpit, but the collective stamina is not what it once was, and these pits reduce back down to what would be best described as ‘spirited nodding’ by the time the second verse kicks in.
The closing track – the Tom Waits-esque “Sam Hell“, rolls around all too quickly. The end of this section of the performance is met by a warm and extended round of applause from a wide-grinned audience. It is obvious that I am far from alone in reserving for Betty a special type of reverence. If you’ve never listened to the album, I guess now is the time.
But Helmet weren’t done with us yet, and the end of the album playthrough marked only the halfway point of the show. However, certainly as far as my friends and I were concerned, Betty represented something of a high water mark in Helmet’s discography. So whilst this second half did include a couple of older classics, like “Unsung“, the majority were from the unfortunately more lacklustre later albums.
Happy with what we had seen, we stepped outside for a quick smoke and returned for a near perfect encore – “Give It“, a surprise appearance of “Just Another Victim” – originally a collaboration with House of Pain for the seminal Judgement Night soundtrack, but played tonight without the rapped contributions – and the grand finale of “In The Meantime“. All three were met with a rapturous reception, and sent the aging crowd out into the night satisfied.
But, rather than head down into the tube network to head for home, my intrepid band of revellers instead stopped off for a quick bite to eat before joining the long, snaking and mostly fancy-dressed queue for Voodoo, a club held just around the corner at the long-standing and notoriously shabby Electrowerkz venue.
For the uninitiated, Voodoo is a nightclub on steroids. With multiple rooms playing music across the alternative spectrum and two stages for live bands in a sprawling complex right through to six in the morning, it’s easy to get lost or overwhelmed by it all.
But we manage to get our bearings and make our way to the main stage ready to watch Senser play the second 20th anniversary celebratory show of our evening. As I’ve recently waxed lyrical about the re-release of their storming debut Stacked Up very recently, I won’t retread the back story again here.
Due to the diversity of Stacked Up, it doesn’t lend itself to a complete play-through in the same way as Betty, but Senser instead play almost every track from the album that is reasonably practical. This marks a return to the set for “The Key” and “What’s Going On?“, which have been absent in recent years, but most notably “Stubborn” gets an airing, which I can’t recall ever seeing the band play, despite having seen them at least a half-dozen times since their reactivation.
I can’t honestly comment on the general reaction of the crowd, as I spent the entirety of the set bouncing around at the front, pretending to be a teenager again – something I was painfully reminded I am not any more by the throbbing aches in my legs that lasted for days afterwards. But it sounded appreciative.
The set is rounded off by a clutch of more recent tracks, including the absolute barnstormer that is “Resistance Now” – a strong contender for my favourite Senser track bar none – and their version of Public Enemy‘s “Channel Zero“, which tonight comes complete with the introduction to Slayer‘s “Angel of Death” to compliment the sampled riffs used in the track itself.
Heitham makes some vaguely incredulous noises about the passing of two whole decades, and the band retreat into the night, leaving behind a clutch of very happy and very sweaty fans trying to catch their breath.
I then discover that I no longer have any idea how to behave in nightclubs any more. It’s been a good ten years since I’ve stepped inside this particular venue, and I now feel completely out of place. This certainly isn’t helped by the smoking ban, which has effectively turned the night into a war of attrition with my addiction, and dealing with the constant crowds trying to enter and exit the too-small smoking area.
But, at 2:30am I am back at the main stage, watching my fourth set of the year from The Algorithm. This absolutely is the perfect environment for Remi and Jean, even if the crowd is substantially smaller than the triumphant set at Euroblast last month (more on that soon) – but the setting, sound system and stage time are far more in keeping with the music than the more traditional venues in which I’ve seen Remi perform with his assorted drummers in tow over the last few years.
I obviously now know the tunes (choons?) in the set inside out and back to front, but there is a certain amount of dark humour to be found watching those both less conversant and rather too full of various intoxicants attempt to process the glitchy madness. Yes, I probably am going to Hell.
As the set draws to a close, I think it is time to head for home. I find the front door of the club on only the third attempt, but then freakishly manage to flag down a black cab within moments that whisks me back to North London.
Effectively, my pals and I had been given a hefty dose of the past, together with a sampling of the present and the future across two venues in the same evening. There can’t be many places on the planet where what we have done is even possible. Even in London, nights like this are rare, but the planets aligned to give us something memorable, and I certainly won’t be forgetting it in a hurry.