Akercocke at The Underworld

Support: Hecate Enthroned| Kill for Company
October 28, 2017 at The Underworld

Akercocke’s first gig in their home city since the release of reunion album Renaissance in Extremis was always going to be a big deal. I never saw Akercocke back in the Satanic Gentlemen, Hellfire Club days when their suits were as sharp as their riffs. But, having seen them storm the main stage of Bloodstock 2016, and Incineration festival earlier this year, I know they’re every bit the stunning live band their legend ensures. And tonight it takes Akercocke almost no time at all to demonstrate that they remain as solid and unbroken as the Underworld’s famous pillars before which they perform.

But first the supports. Providence decreed that I miss London-based, thrashers Kill for Company, but I gather that their high-speed brutality whipped the early birds up a storm. Having first heard Welsh black metallers Hecate Enthroned on a Kerrang! compliation CD back in the day, I find myself seeing them for the first time tonight and thinking that, yes, the endless comparisons to early Cradle of Filth are justified, but certainly not in a pejorative manner. Hecate’s early material, like ‘Upon the Kingdom Throne’ which they blast through tonight, certainly has that Dani Filth high-pitched shriek going on, mixed with flourishes of stabbing organ like Dimmu Borgir in their prime. Horror is easy to find in black metal, but few bands use the sub-genre to achieve gothic romance as effectively as the Cradle did on their early recordings, and as Hecate do here. Vocalist Joe Stamps, enrobed in a tassled black gown, makes expansive gestures to describe the black soundcapes of Hecate’s hymns to the goddess of magic and necromancy. But horror is never far away, and Stamps switches from pained rasp to deathly growl with jarring ease, demonstrating how far away from the Cradle mould they have come. Overall, warming up the stage for their long-standing tour buddies, Hecate achieve power, pomposity and grandiosity in equal measure and with rapturous response.

And then there is Akercocke. Tonight they perform Renaissance in its entirety, bookended by old favourites from Choronzon and Goat of Mendes. It’s a statement that they’re moving into a new era rather than returning to churn out the ‘hits’ for cash. And in case anyone was in any doubt, the new material – from the opening intricately-chromatic punch of ‘Disappear’ to the delicate, sparking sourness of ‘A Particularly Cold September’ – sounds astonishing live. While post-reunion Akercocke tracks are more likely to begin with samples from field recordings of tranquil coastlines rather than Hammer horror, it does not mean the band have lost the shocking aggression or diabolic complexity of their core sound. All members of Akercocke should be praised for their virtuosity. But frontman Jason Medonça is really something to watch in full flow – switching effortlessly between gutteral growls (“Things I believed!“), screechy back-of-the-throat stuff, and high clean (but not too clean) melodies. All while perfectly peeling off broken, jagged guitar riffs and intricate chordal textures. Even his brief and tasteful trumpet solo on ‘A Particularly Cold September’ receives cheers, adding a perfect down-beat, blue-note quality to the track. Paul Scanlan, lead guitar maestro since 1997, is every bit the 80s’ guitar hero with his leather waistcoat, Action Man pecs and windmilling blonde mane. But when you can nonchalantly deliver 1½ hours of fast-and-fiendish fury, combining both technical perfection and feeling, you can do what the hell you like.

Renaissance in Extremis: the title audaciously positions the band as a return to civilization following the Dark Age, but is more bleak existentialism than sonic enlightenment. The visual imagery therein is classical antiquity shone through the lens of a dark, Magritte-esque surrealism. Bag-obscured face, blank stony glare: a relaxed, suited everyman. Tall-ceilinged, oppressive room. Human, seated, watches the reaper beckon the faceless bagman’s reflection which waves. The monkey is out of the cage, and immortalized in stone. Akercocke’s songs reflect these unsettling juxtapositions, marked by unpredictable flitting changes of time and timbre and linked by a kind of dream logic: the clean chordal patterns over chest-filling double-kick on ‘Unbound by Sin’ and ‘One Chapter Closing for Another to Begin’; the anthemic chorus of ‘A Final Glance Back Before Departing’, brutally interrupted by a deathly thrashing riff from out of left field. Even if you know the material well, there’s a density and complexity that still manages to astonish: you trust their songs to always following the unexpected path to the correct destination. Further hints of the surreal occur when the band ask the sound guy for “any seagulls in the sampler?” on ‘Familiar Ghosts’; despite this apparent seagull deficit, however, the track progresses, combining eerie synth and moaning vocals with more virtuoso lead guitar work. Most here are familiar with first new single ‘Inner Sanctum’, aired at Bloodstock and Incineration, and its mixture of melodic catchiness, tightly interwoven riffs and leadwork, and odd guitar harmonics, leave it a firm highlight. And hearing the penultimate lines, “The sanctuary/ Is in my mind/ A place to heal/ Unbound by time”, it’s difficult not to read them as summation of this whole experience, something indeed ‘Individual to us all’.

The other great thing about watching Akercocke is the addition of fifth, live-only member Sam Loynes on keys, samples and backing vocals. In this gig he’s mainly stabbing the keys, dramatically punching the air, and singing along whether it’s actually his turn with the mic or not. But – to those who know the London scene – Sam’s day job is mainman for SHRINES, and axe-man for Voices, two acts who’ve helped feed the capital’s need for intelligent, progressive extreme metal in Akercocke’s absence. That Sam could surely step in to fill the armour-plated boots of Medonça or Scanlan on guitar, should the need arise, says a lot about the musical calibre of Akercocke. While the keyboard isn’t exactly essential tonight (especially considering there are only two tracks from Chronozon, the album on which they utilized them the most), it adds a subtle extra layer of weight and power to their sound that you’d miss if it were absent. Furthermore, a different voice to complement Medonça’s is always welcome, and Sam’s occasional lead turns at the mic stand up well especially on quieter, more brooding tracks like ‘Familiar Ghosts’.

Akerocke always cast themselves as thinking man’s libertines, whose videos depict them engrossed in games of chess, aloof to butlers serving champagne and scantily-clad lesbians frolicking in the background. But there’s a note of genuine home-town love from Medonça tonight. With the exception of some fans to my left who are clearly a bit miffed they don’t pull out live favourite ‘Verdelet’ tonight, Akercocke have the crowd totally in their thrall. Clearly enjoying this bat-shit energy, Medonça is “lost for words”: “We’re very lucky people,” he says earnestly, “we get to travel to a lot of cool places, but there’s nothing like playing to a London crowd.” And if we’re whipped up tonight it’s because Akercocke are such an essential live band: playing complex narrative epics that bring a plethora of timbres and emotions to extreme metal. Everything is delivered with passion, virtuosity, intelligence and – most importantly – taste. If Renaissance in Extremis sounds good on record, it’s true majesty unfolds tenfold live. As pioneers of progressive extreme metal, Akercocke should be mentioned in the same liquor-stained breath as heavyweights like Enslaved, Behemoth, Opeth, and Nile and Emperor. But Akercocke have none of later Opeth’s self-indulgence, Nile’s occasional monotony, or the suspiciously poppy hooks from latter-day Enslaved; they’re more experimental than Behemoth and are actually releasing new material post-reunion unlike Emperor. Grinning like gibbering monkeys, stood amidst a final crescendo of double-kick and Baphometic lust, we’re all utterly ‘Enraptured by Evil’, yet it’s clear this marks the start of a new phase for Akercocke: Era Satanis is over, let Era Extremis begin.  

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