The Playlist – Celebrating The UK’s Sludge Doom Psych Horror Underground

by Jamie Jones

Gnod

Despite having a rich and varied history of weird and wonderful music, the UK has a nasty habit of ignoring its more leftfield bands.

This may be the land that spawned Black Sabbath and Hawkwind; The Yardbirds and Cream; Godflesh and Electric Wizard; but for the longest time, bands who weren’t suitably on-trend were largely ignored and forced to head onto the continent or across the Atlantic to get the appreciation they deserved.

Take those last two bands: they may be feted by just about every post-metal band since Isis popularised the term, but Godflesh couldn’t have got arrested when they dropped their landmark record Streetcleaner, while doom legends Electric Wizard were soundly ignored by most until relatively recently, when their retrospective shows gave the country a much needed reminder of what they’d been missing all these years.

But that said, the stranger side of psych, noise, sludge, doom, and stoner has always felt right in the smaller clubs and basements. And while there have been some fallow years, particularly in that dark period between the dawn of the downloads and the resurgence of vinyl, there have always been passionate labels and promoters carrying the torch for music that veers far off the popular spectrum.

And of late it feels like they’re reaping their rewards. The increasing popularity of leftfield festivals over the past decade has made it possible for those with niche interests to have their own gatherings, to bring like minded bands and fans together in one place and expose an open and excited crowd of people to fistfuls of bands at the same time.

Liverpool’s Psych Fest and L****n’s Desertfest have appeared, analogues of two of the world’s biggest out-there festivals in Austin Psych Fest and Holland’s Roadburn respectively. Bands who would normally have been low down in a tent at Download or Sonisphere finally got a chance to play to an appreciative audience of the faithful on home soil.

Other festivals, like Bristol’s Temples and ArcTanGent, and Leed’s Damnation Fest, have cropped to give fans of doom, stoner, black metal, post-rock, post-metal, math rock, psych, drone, sludge et al a gathering to call their own.

Whatever your sub-genre of choice, at least one of these events will more than cater for your needs. In an era when the big festivals have to rely on living relics to bring in the crowds, the smaller affairs can bring theirs to a climax with more interesting, vital, and relevant acts.

And then there’s Birmingham’s Supersonic Festival, where things get really weird..

Earlier this year Wales stepped up with their own effort, Red Sun. Spread over three days and across three venues all on the same street, it had the distinction of exclusively featuring UK acts. Considering the aural terrors being unleashed over the three stages, it was a wonderfully chilled and intimate affair featuring an eye-opening series of sets from rising and unheralded bands from across Britain.

Yet we’re probably still guilty of taking what wonders we have for granted. So what follows is a small selection of what we’ve got going on in this union of nations we call Britain – a mind-melting mix some of the best seasoned campaigners alongside some of the up and coming acts showcased at Red Sun.

The surface is scratched so lightly it barely leaves a mark, so if you like what you hear here – get digging. And keep your eyes peeled when walking through your town – you never know what arcane voodoo is being incanted by folks with guitars, synths, and strange ideas in those pub basements and backrooms all around you.

Click here to listen to all of these bands in a carefully curated playlist.

GNOD

What the hell are GNOD? Operating out of their Islington Mills base in Salford, Manchester, their ever shifting line-up and wide ranging sounds defy the simple catagorisation of being a mere, ‘band.’ They’re more of a collective operating under one name, like some spaced out tribal version of Andy Warhol’s factory – only based in the North of England, and with no single ego to gravitate around.

Earlier year they released triple record Infinity Machines, a meditation on the erosion of public and private space. Largely led by sax and bass jamming, it sounded worlds apart from the hellfire psych rock that coloured previous long player Chaundelande, or the meditative tribal spoken word jams of The Somnambulist’s Tale.

Difficult to pin down, Gnod are veterans of various split releases and collaborations, including Gnod Drop out with White Hills II, which is slowly earning itself legendary status in cult circles. They’re one of the most mystifying bands around – always intriguing, frequently magnificent.

Mugstar

Mugstar really weren’t meant for these times. They sound like they’ve fallen from a wormhole and found themselves in post-millennial Liverpool, pining for their homes back in 1968 Berlin. They do draw influences from British and American psychedelia, but their hypnotic sound feels most at home under that large and sort of problematic umbrella labelled Krautrock.

No surprise then that their latest release is a collaboration with Can legend Damo Suzuki. While Suzuki may be musically promiscuous to say the least, the nomadic psych legend always drifts towards kindred spirits – and wouldn’t have decided to join Mugstar if they didn’t have more about them than mere revivalists. Their records are full of experimentation and exploration, the likes of which is mesmerising enough to enrapture heads and non-heads alike.

But if you need a further seal of approval, they have the distinction of being the last band to have played a session for the late John Peel. Sadly there’s no way to ask the man himself, but I reckon he’d have been quite pleased to have them playing him out. Y’know, if The Undertones weren’t available.

Hey Colossus!

Hey Colossus! have come a long way. Formed in 2004 and with nine albums under their belt, they’d be forgiven for being a bit jaded by now, perhaps deciding to coast a little and rest on their laurels.

Not a bit of it – this year’s In Black & Gold takes the band into stranger, spacier territories than they’ve ever charted before. It seems a long while since the band were considered pure noise merchants, launching inscrutable slabs of harrowing sludgy ruckus. And yet, when you dive back into the murky waters of their earlier work, you find that the elements that make up their sound today were already in place, the intervening years being a matter of the sharpening of tools as well as the broadening of horizons.

Last year’s Cuckoo Live Life Like Cuckoo seems, in hindsight, something of an intersection between their cosmic aspirations and their more feral influences. Hot Grave was the obvious standout, a grinding, snarling dirge which takes one simple riff and bludgeons it to death. It’s like a krautrock jam gone wrong, where the trance state induced has rewired the players into murderous psychopaths.

Ranging from skewed cosmic blues to the bone crushingly heavy experiments of a self-proclaimed “tinnitus machine”, the one certainty when it comes to Hey Colossus! is that you can never quite be sure what to expect.

Teeth of the Sea

I don’t say this lightly – When operating at full force, Teeth of the Sea are the best live band in the UK.

On record I’ve often found them intriguing, but it’s rarely something I feel like returning to often – though 2014’s Master was the moment where this started to change. However, I’ll run to any venue in any kind of reasonable distance to catch them live.

A big bubbling melting pot of avant garde influences, TOTS take that old cliché, “shouldn’t work but does” and make every other time it’s been written look a bit silly. Hazy electronica, minimal techno, blasts of feral metal guitar, John Carpenter-esque sci-fi nightmares, krautrock beats and kosmische psychedelia – they take all these disparate elements, add a healthy dose of trumpet, and create something that’s at once frightening and transcendent.

It’s a weird alchemy they have going on that’s hard to describe – it needs to be witnessed first-hand. The last time I saw them, the guy next to me in the crowd greeted the end of their set by raising his pint to the band and blurting “bloody hell!” That reaction probably says it better than I could.

Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats

After sharing a stage with Black Sabbath, these guys are probably the most famous band listed here – which given their inception is quite something. Initially the brainchild of one man band from Cambridge who recorded a bunch of stuff out of frustration at the lack of a scene in his home town, something in their doomy proto-metal stomp struck a chord with fans of weird heavy the world over.

Maybe it was something to do with the mystery that surrounded them – the music was released into the wild of the internet anonymously, and backstories around their inception were passed around as a limited number of tapes were sold at increasingly silly prices.

Since then, the mystery may have worn off, but the music has stood up for itself. Their transformation from internet oddity to full touring band is complete. With a third record in the bag, and a tour planned for the Autumn, they could well prove just how fertile the ground is at the moment. If one anonymous guy with a love of Sabbath riffs and camp horror can make it, surely anyone can?

Hogslayer

Hogslayer are, put simply, terrifying. They played to the biggest crowd at Red Sun, cramming The Full Moon with sweaty, feral bodies. They caused absolute chaos, the crowd resembling a washing machine full of metalheads on full spin, crowdsurfers being lifted up as if being offered as sacrifice to some dark gods.

The band stood presiding over it, orchestrating the madness with barely concealed glee. It’s not the most dynamic sound, all played at the same, relentless ditch-digging pace, but what stands out about them is a myopic dedication to a viscous, horrible idea of how metal should be played. Even the most avid sludge fans might find their stubborn brutality a lot to stomach. In short – not for the faint hearted.

VAILS

Plenty of two piece bass n’ drums combos have shown that you don’t need any more members to cause a decent racket, but few sound quite as monolithic as VAILS in full swing. Singer/bassist O Street possesses an incredibly guttural roar, and fans of the almighty riff will find plenty to love in their groove laden songs. Mini album Galactic Triceratops is, as the title suggests, delightfully silly and worth a listen, but their inclusion on this list owes more to what they can do on stage and, hopefully, what’s to come when they really find their feet.

It’s early days for VAILS, and I think it’s fair to say that, so far, they haven’t quite captured themselves at their best in the studio. But catch them live if you ever get the chance, and keep an eye out for future releases. Because if this beast is ever successfully contained on record, it’s going to be brutal.

Thought Forms

Bristol’s Thought Forms felt a little bit out of place at Red Sun, probably because they’d been scheduled after a bevvy of full on doom bands. They may not have the same kind of straight up heft possessed by some of the other bands on this list, but their beguiling blend of shoegaze, drone, post-rock/post-metal and Sonic Youth-esque guitar abuse makes for an intoxicating listen.

They’re an oddity that don’t quite fit in with any company, which perversely makes them welcome in any – there’s something to catch the ear of any fan of experimental music and lead them into their haunting little world.

Opium Lord

Speaking of full on doom, here’s Opium Lord. If you’re not a fan of being bludgeoned senseless by slow paced metal, then a minute or so with Opium Lord will send you running screaming.

Operating within a genre infamous for it’s lack of dynamics, they break the mould a little with sudden bursts of pace, but they’re mostly happy to sound as depressing as a birthday party in a morgue.

With bass that that feels like wading waist high through mud, and eerie guitar that wails and whines like the sounds of a distant torture chamber, there are few who can claim to be quite this fiendishly heavy in their crowded genre. And while their vocals sometimes veer into the sillier end of the grunting and snarling metal style, anyone who’s ever caught them live and witnessed vocalist Nathan Clyne stalk his way into the crowd, dispense with his microphone and scream his vocals at the heavens unaided, knows that it’s not played for laughs.

Their début record The Calendrical Cycle: The Eye of Earth earned them praise from all the right quarters – they seem destined to be heavyweights of the scene.

Thorun

It was stoner legends Karma to Burn who were first to realise that, when it comes to primal riff-based rock, vocalists often just get in the way. Thorun have clearly taken that lesson to heart. While they can straight up riff like Karma to Burn, they’ve a more considered sound that’s prone to going off on little flights of wanderlust, and is all the better for it.

It’s a tricky thing to keep an audience’s attention without the focal point of a frontperson. But at Red Sun, Thorun managed it with such aplomb that they attained that rarest of all musical traditions – a genuine encore. The lights had gone up, the DJ was back in action, but the insistence of the crowd had Thorun plug back in and go once more around the block. It was a testament to how good a repertoire they have already that the track they didn’t plan to play was just as good as anything they did.

Jamie Jones is a sort of online wizard who writes for Echoes & Dust and Wanton Dilettantery.