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The Introduction

When I was attending my first gig of 2015, I started a thing. I made a little note on my phone of the bands I’d seen that night, and resolved to carry on. Against all odds, I have carried on for three full years. I know, I’m as surprised as you are. So now I’m able to add my little review of my year in live music for 2017 to the pile along with the 2015 and 2016 entries

Just to quickly recap the basic ground rule: a band only gets recorded on the list if I watch a minimum of three songs (or about 15 minutes of set time if they’re really long songs). Once again, a number of bands fell short of this hurdle – mostly for not being remotely my cup of tea – but occasionally for being irredeemably terrible. Their names are best forgotten.

We’ll get to the actual numbers soon enough, but 2017 was a record-breaking year on all fronts, even though I was abroad for most of a frustratingly excellent November, and an ever-higher number of clashes forcing me to make some difficult decisions. Let’s hope they were the right ones.

Last year, I compared my 2016 numbers with those from 2015, but this time around I’m going to include the aggregated totals from three years of relentless gig-going. Good heavens, I’ve been busy.

Before we dive in, I again feel it necessary to point out that this is just what I choose to do with my time, and I fully realise that many, even most, people don’t have the circumstances or opportunities to see as much as I do. But I always like company, so pop your earplugs in your pocket and trundle along whenever you can. Watching great music performed by great musicians is an experience that can’t really be replicated by a download code or a live stream off your mate’s phone.

The What

In 2017 I watched 244 bands play 313 sets at 80 events across 41 venues. No, really.

As I said, this is my busiest year so far, beating 2016 by 24 sets and finally breaking the 300 barrier, but all four metrics are higher than ever. A big reason for this extra bump was a particularly busy weekend at ArcTanGent, as well as personal circumstances leaving my diary clearer at weekends than it was in 2016. If I’m honest, the numbers probably could have been even higher, but I have to admit to a certain degree of gig fatigue, particularly towards the end of the year, so I did skip some shows that I may well have gone to in the warmer months. This year I’m definitely not going to be actively trying to beat my score again – but that might still happen by mistake if things keep coming up that I can’t miss.

This means that my grand totals for 2015-17 were…wait for it… 490 bands playing 853 sets at 212 events across 64 venues. Wow. That means I’ve spent roughly 20% of my evenings watching bands over the last three years. I also find myself thinking about the thousands of hours of writing, rehearsing, spamming, sharing and performing by all the musicians required for it to even have been possible to see nearly 500 DIFFERENT bands in three years. You lot have been as busy as I have, and its making my head swim a bit.

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The Where

For the third year in a row, The Black Heart in Camden has been my most visited venue, with 16 gigs – as many as the next three venues put together. Perhaps they should just give me a key and be done with it. I am particularly thankful that the most commonly booked venue for shows I want to see is such a pleasant environment. I was also reminded that both Heaven and Oslo in Hackney are excellent venues for their respective sizes, and I kinda wish more shows I wanted to go to were booked at both of them.

The Crowndale Club, on the site of the old Purple Turtle by Mornington Crescent, appeared out of nowhere to claim second place this year, with six shows – but the venue was obviously beset with issues, and quietly closed its doors towards the end of the year. I can’t say it will be missed.

I went to a whole heap of venues for the first time besides the Crowndale in 2017, including extraordinarily overdue ventures to Nottingham Rock City and the 100 Club, as well as Birthdays in Dalston, and the Troxy. The ever-spectacular Nordic Giants continued their trend of playing in London venues I’d not been to previously, taking that particular count to four. I also went to a gig in a shoe shop.

Looking at the three year numbers, I see that my top thirteen venues are all on the Northern Line. Camden Town for The Black Heart (39!), The Underword (12), The Unicorn (17) and the Electric Ballroom (4); Tufnell Park for the Boston Music Room (15) and the Dome (9); Chalk Farm for the Barfly/Camden Assembly (10), Mornington Crescent for Koko (4) and the Crowndale (6); Angel for the Islington Academy 2 (6); Old Street for the Old Blue Last (4) and Kentish Town for the Forum (4). Well, it’s tidy, if nothing else. And has given me a couple of ideas about where to look if we ever want to move house.

On an equally tidy and surprising note, I’ve set foot in exactly fifty London venues over the last three years, and only seven of them just the once. We really are spoiled for choice. My most visited venue outside of London was Brighton’s Green Door Store, usually for Mammothfest related all-dayers, and its location immediately underneath the train station is incredibly convenient. I’ve been to twelve venues outside London, as well as the festival sites for Tech Fest, Euroblast and ArcTanGent. I think this is probably the one number that isn’t quite as high as it could be, but with so much going on in London, I don’t really need to leave that often.

Sumer Tech Fest 2015 - Taria Dawson - Jo Moolenschot.jpg.JPG

Sumer. Photo credit: Jo Moolenschot

The Most

For the previous two years, Sumer have topped my most-watched list. Having seen them seven times each year, that fell back to just once in 2017, due to the band largely staying away from the stage and FINALLY getting around to writing a follow-up to their outstanding 2014 debut. About fucking time.

Instead, my most watched band was Harbinger, and I watched them ply their infectious cocktail of tech, death and groove on six separate occasions. Having been watching them since their very earliest shows, they’ve been visibly maturing in front of our very eyes. I expect 2018 will be equally busy for them, and suspect we’ll be getting some new songs too – so God knows where they’ll be this time next year. Wembley?

Behind them come boisterous rap-punk terrorists Ho99o9, who I saw five times. The first two times were as main support on the Dillinger tour, and I was instantly smitten. The third set was the real stand-out, squeezed into a probably over-capacity Underworld on the hottest night of the year. I didn’t even know eyeballs could sweat. The guys have been pretty much constantly on the road all year, so the fact they maintain such a consistently intense and energetic performance, that still retains a sense of spontaneity, is an extraordinary feat.

I saw four bands four times apiece – short-lived London doomcore My Bitter Half, tech-prog funsters Core of iO, thick and soupy sludge-monsters Conjurer and stunt-grungers Toska – and ten bands three times each (Press To Meco, Nova Twins, Sentience, Devil Sold His Soul, Novena, Frontierer, Senser, A Trust Unclean, Bad Sign and Loathe). Beyond that, I saw 28 bands twice and a whacking 200 bands once. I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t a few in that pile who I already have literally no recollection of whatsoever. Sorry guys.

So over the three years, its probably not that surprising that Sumer top the list, with a total of 15 sets since 2015 (plus an extra 2 in late 2014). Together with the rest of my most-seen bands, the list reads as a very neat snapshot of where I think the talent lies on the UK circuit right now. I’d considered writing a quick paragraph about each of them, but in the interests of brevity, you can just click the below links for content on each.

15 – Sumer
12 – Brutai and Harbinger
11 – A Trust Unclean
10 – No Consequence, No Sin Evades His Gaze and Core of iO
9 – Exist Immortal
8 – Press to Meco and Bad Sign
7 – Agent Fresco, Hieroglyph and Osiah
6 – Belial, The Colour Line, Disperse, FOES, Loathe, Shattered Skies and Toska
5 – A Night In the Abyss, Carcer City, From Sorrow To Serenity, Ho99o9, Nordic Giants and Novena

Below that august and distinguished list, I saw 21 bands four times AND 21 bands three times (which is a bit freaky), 82 bands twice and 339 bands once.

Carcer City - KT Croft Photography - Tech Fest 2014

Carcer City. Photo credit: Katie Croft

The Best

My live music adventures hit many points on the musical spectrum, so trying to pick a single best gig is an exercise in futility. So instead, here are ten stand-out moments from my year, presented in date order:

Frontierer @ The Black Heart – Our first opportunity to witness the caustic wonders of Frontierer definitely did not dissapoint. Sitting at the top of a particularly strong line-up of supports, I spent the show right in the deathzone immediately in front of guitarist Pedram, making it a thrillingly visceral experience.

Gentleman’s Dub Club @ The Troxy – I seem to always reference GDC in these lists, but that’s simply because they consistently deliver a gigantic party. If dub reggae doesn’t make you want to be sick in your hat, go see them next time and wear your dancing pants.

Plini/Disperse/David Maxim Micic @ The Borderline – When it comes to mature and twinkly prog loveliness, there was no better touring package all year. Just as with the ‘Plintervals’ tours of 2016, various musicians pulled double duties across the three bands, and an extended jam during Plini’s set brought almost all of the astonishing talents on the tour together simultaneously.

Jamie Lenman @ Scala – The last time I saw Jamie, he was backed by a full band complete with horn section. This time, he brought only a drummer and a splitter pedal onstage with him, and still held a packed out venue in the palm of his hand for over an hour. Tracks from both of his solo albums, some old Reuben favourites and a cheeky cover or too, served up with warm and self-depreciating between-song banter. He’s touring again in February, so catch a date and watch probably the UK’s finest singer-songwriter in action. Big talk.

Employed to Serve @ The Old Blue Last – if there’s one way to guarantee that the release show for your much-anticipated (and bloody marvellous) second album goes with a bang, then its to book it into a too-small room and make it free entry. I may have found a relatively safe haven, tucked into a back corner of the venue and shielded from the most violent excesses of the moshpit, but I couldn’t have gotten out of the room even if I’d wanted to. Thrilling.

Vola/Sumer/Valis Ablaze/Novena @ Dingwalls – This was a lovely, summery evening that kicked off ArcTanGent weekend with four of our favourite names in modern prog-metal and a room full of friends. And it was the only time I saw Sumer during the year, so of course it was going to stand out.

Harbinger UK Tech Fest 2016 - Ben Sutherland 01 - Evie Murphy

Harbinger. Photo credit: Evie Murphy

Harbinger/Loathe @ The Black Heart – two of the most exciting young metal bands on a joint lap of the UK small venue circuit gave us a little taste of the shape of things to come. I think we’ll be referencing both names a lot when describing what new bands sound like over the next couple of years.

Mutation/Barrabus @ Underworld, Agent Fresco/Leprous @ Dome, Nordic Giants @ Bush Hall – OK, this is a bit of a cheat because its three seperate shows. But they did happen on consecutive nights, making for the most awesome three days of music of the year outside of the weekends spent at Tech Fest and ArcTanGent. Barrabus were probably my live discovery of the year, with their heavy Tomahawk vibes, and then Fresco and Nordic are both right near the top of my current favourite bands list, everyone having moved up a space now Dillinger have called it a day. It’s also a very neat illustration of why living in London as a live music addict is so brilliant.

Press to Meco/Bad Sign @ Hackney Oslo – my very last show of 2017, and a wonderful way to round off the year. We’ve been hyping Press to Meco for a few years now, and it seems to be finally coming together for them. Playing a mix of older tunes and choice cuts from their upcoming second album, its clear they’re ready for the big time. Expect “A Quick Fix” to feature in your list of favourite songs from 2018. Bad Sign, too, deserve wider recognition for their masterful command of The Big Riff, and both bands together prove Brit Rock is in rude health.

I think attempting to compile a list of my favourite shows of the last three years would be a surefire route to madness. So instead, I’m going to use this space to extol the virtues of Tech Fest.

Press To Meco Tech Fest 2015 - Lewis Williams - Jo Moolenschot

Press To Meco. Photo credit: Jo Moolenschot

Since we first descended en masse on the festival in 2013, it has been as solid a fixture in our calendars as Christmas and International Bark Like A Polar Bear Day. In total, I have watched a staggering 112 sets across three Tech Fests. Delivering a near-perfect mix of established favourites, new discoveries and a warm and welcoming community spirit, it consistently remains the highlight of the year. And judging by the first announcement, 2018 will be no different. Kudos to all involved.

I also can’t really let this section pass without briefly reminiscing on our curated all-dayer, held at Dingwalls in 2016. Having nine of our favourite bands and a load of our friends all under one roof was magical. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do it again sometime, but you can revisit my thoughts from the immediate aftermath here.

The Notable

Alongside the shows that were great fun, there was also the usual clutch of one-off or otherwise special events. These are the ones that I’m most likely to find myself saying ‘I was there’ about in years to come.

Early in the year, The Dillinger Escape Plan came to play their final UK tour. The urge to go to all of them was particularly strong, but circumstances (and a re-injection of sanity) meant that I settled for just two of the dates. I have something else Dillinger-related in the works, so I won’t say much more about them for now.

Elsewhere, I was also in the crowd at ArcTanGent for Heck‘s final performance. The sudden announcement that they were over was both a shock and a pleasingly fitting end to their chaotic narrative. Few bands have so perfectly embodied the spirit of rock n roll that various hoary old musicians keep insisting, quite wrongly, is dead. Their passing is a excellent reminder to grab any and every opportunity to watch bands while you can. All of these points are underscored yet again by the dissolution of The Colour Line, who played the penultimate set of their time as a band at Tech Fest, and we miss them just as much as Heck or Dillinger. It’s a sad time for chaos.

At the other end of the spectrum, I witnessed Sleep Token‘s first ever performance. I will admit that I’ve not been wowed by the recorded material thus far, but the transition to the stage – particularly with the addition of live drums – adds a whole other dimension to the songs. Certainly enough for me to be looking forward to seeing them again, and I wasn’t expecting that.

Sitting somewhere in between first and last shows, December also saw the return to the stage of Swiss hardcore lunatics Coilguns after a two year hiatus. It was deeply pleasing to see that time had not blunted the ferocity of their attack, and that their new material is likely to be one of the high points of 2018.

Album playthrough shows are always a bit special, and I saw three of them. Devin Townsend played Ocean Machine, reminding us all just how long that particular disc is, Devil Sold His Soul, complete with dual vocalists, played A Fragile Hope, and SikTh gave us all of Death of a Dead Day.

Again, I don’t think this section really warrants a three-year round up. And this article is already quite long enough. So if you do want to see the notable gigs I saw in 2015 and 2016, then you can just look back at the previous articles.

The Conclusion

So there we have it. If you’ve read the whole thing without at least one big scroll to skip a bit, then fair play to you. I hope you enjoyed it.

I do find myself wondering whether the simple act of keeping these lists has actually compelled me to see more bands than I would have done otherwise, especially once I’d gotten the idea in my head that it would be cool to try and see 300 bands play in a year. I guess we’ll never really know for sure, but I think the argument for it is a strong one.

As I write these words, the live music circuit is gradually waking up again, and with the best part of a full month between my last show of 2017 and the first of 2018, I feel refreshed and ready to start the count for another year. I’m probably not going to actively try and best my totals again this time around, so it will be interesting to see where we end up. With my diary already rapidly filling for the next few months and tantalising first announcements from both Tech Fest and Euroblast, I still expect the numbers to be high, just maybe not quite as ludicrously so.

I’m going to leave you with one last neat little illustration of why I love going to gigs and always make a point of getting there early enough to see the supports – going to see Dillinger meant that I got to see, and fall in love with, Ho99o9. In turn, going to see Ho99o9 meant that I got to see, and fall in love with, Nova Twins. I’m sure that if I dug back into my database, I’d find plenty of other examples of these kinds of daisy chains of discovery. And finding new bands this way is LOADS more fun than ploughing through lyric videos or Spotify links. So why not come and join me? Bring earplugs.

Simon

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