Cerebral Ballzy / The Bendal Interlude / Smoking Hearts / Stereo Virgins / Knickerless Cage @ The Kazimier
Cerebral Ballzy are an odd creature – half band, half cultural litmus test. You can try this at home; go up to anyone you can find and tell them you’ve just been listening to a band called Cerebral Ballzy. If they sneer, sigh or make one of those weird squiggly-eyebrow faces at you, you are talking to a douchebag. If they crack a smile, buy them a drink.
Back in Liverpool on the UK leg of their European tour, Ballzy appear to us tonight minus guitarist Mason, who we are told is back in their native New York for a court date. No details are given, but vocalist Honor Titus drops the helpful hint that “the last time we were in Liverpool, we got into a fight”. Naughty lads. But there’ll be time to talk about Cerebral Ballzy and their hobbies, both misdemeanour and felony, later on. First the support acts…
I was replacing a reviewer who unfortunately and unexpectedly couldn’t make the gig. As a result the call to cover this gig and sadly because of this I missed Knickerless Cage’s set. Their links are below to check out. Up first for me is local 4-piece Stereo Virgins (named, one assumes, for their chastity in both channels). As with almost any band with a half female line-up, it would be an easy job to drone on about their ‘sultry vocals’ and ‘seductive lyrics’. But I’ve already made one crude euphemism at their expense, and I’m not about to palm off an excellent band with a quick cut and paste job of semi-erotic clichés. No doubt there’ll be plenty of those in store for them in future. In the meantime, if you’re that hard up you might want to try 50 Shades.
What does catch your ear is the sheer noise of the band, powered forward by driving guitars and snarling, filthy bass. The mass of fuzz being puked out of the speakers makes your face wobble and your brain smoke. The drums ring through clear and precise, but the rest of the band’s sound is the sonic equivalent of a sandstorm, somewhere between stoner rock and early grunge (think Kyuss in Chains), with the occasional nod to The Stooges. Lead guitarist Stuart has a definite tinge of Ron Asheton in his solos; never technically stunning, sometimes even sloppy, but always coming off with a sneery lo-fi charm.
At times their influences show a little too much, particularly when they introduce a song ‘about witches’ which features the words “She has to burn” and a riff too similar to ‘Burn the Witch’ for comfort. All in all though, Stereo Virgins are a refreshing experience. You don’t get too many bands these days who can play grunge and stoner rock with restraint, and restraint is often the only thing standing in the way of a cool grunge band turning into a droning, psychedelic, prog-rock wankfest. Stereo Virgins walk that line with an easy grace, and manage to rattle your bones while they do it.
(Image: Stereo Virgins)
‘Easy grace’, however, is not a concept I imagine Southend something Xcore band, The Smoking Hearts, have much of a handle on, except as the name of a particularly friendly Essex girl. There is a tremendous amount of force in their delivery, but unfortunately not the good kind. You know that one frontman who always helpfully reassures the audience that they are indeed allowed to come up to the front of the stage? Yeah, he’s in a hardcore band now.
That band’s songs are pretty good for their type (if I tell you their last song’s chorus goes “I crossed my fingers when I crossed my heart”, I think you’ll know what type that is) and the whole band throws themselves around with a metric fuckload of energy, but it all comes across as a bit try-hard. It’s hard to fault their enthusiasm, but it does feel a bit too much like the kind of enthusiasm a street-vendor might have for his totally legit Rolexes. Admittedly, the crowd could be a bit bigger and a bit more up for it, but Stereo Virgins just showed us how to play to a small audience with class (during which, incidentally, I noticed The Smoking Hearts were conspicuously absent).
By the end of the set, with both guitarists off-stage and stalking through the audience and the lead singer threatening to jump from a balcony of about eight feet (a small jump, but I do feel a pang of genuine concern that he might lynch himself with his mic cable) the audience finally starts to take notice. There’s even a small pit, and I start to get the feeling that, with the right crowd and in their right element, this could be an impressive band. But the big show-stopping jump still has a children’s TV presenter air of “Would you like to see a magic trick, boys and girls?” about it. No-one wants to sense that kind of desperation coming from a band, fellas. Sort it out.
The Bendal Interlude are a bit more like it. For an idiot moment I let myself think that, because they only have one guitar, they’ll somehow be less intense than the preceding bands. If anything, there’s more to them. Guitarist Stu (and I’m starting to think that’s the only name guitarists are allowed any more) manages to maintain the intensity required of a hardcore night while showing more range with one guitar than the previous bands tried with two. From full-on, searing, dissonant filth to rounder, almost bluesy tones. Only almost, mind. We stay locked in a state of hardcore thrashing fury throughout, exploring the outer edges of the landscape, but never easing off the pedal. There seem to be shades of later Black Flag in their sound, but that might just be the natural result of absorbing influences into a melting pot and spitting out something fresh.
Even more refreshing is the sudden interest of the crowd, who swarm down to the front and form pits that engulf the centre floorspace of the Kaz. They’re drawn in at least partly by frontman Nat’s unconsidered, self-deprecating personality. There’s not a whiff of a ‘stage-persona’ about him. One guy is either so excited, so drunk or both that he jumps up on stage, takes off his football shirt and cracks off a couple of headbutts to drummer Dave’s crash cymbal, charmingly displaying the crack of his arse in a way rarely seen outside of building sites. He does eventually fuck off back into the mire of the pit, and The Bendal Interlude close what has been, in terms of crowd reaction, the most successful set of the night.
By the time Ballzy take the stage, there’s a definite sense of mischief in the air. Hardcore kids (you can pick them out of a line-up by their baseball tees and trucker hats) have amassed in the middle of the floor and are shaking their limbs loose like boxers before a match. There’s a roar when the headliners take the stage. “We’re Cerebral Ballzy out of Brooklyn, New York. This song’s about pizza.”
At the first thrash of the first chord, a foamy arc of cheap beer shoots over the heads of the crowd. A pit forms underneath it before the first drop hits the floor, and before Titus can get a screamed word out, the floor is a dirty, sweaty, slippery mess. This has the unlucky side effect of driving out from the pit anyone who doesn’t fancy taking part in a punk rock Slip ‘n’ Slide, but the few who remain never let up for a moment.
And you can’t blame them. Ballzy have all the power and energy you could want from a hardcore band, and the sounds to match. Even without Mason, guitarist Jason Bannon keeps the riffs tight and huge. ‘Insufficient Fare’ might actually sound better with one guitar. And Titus is on fire tonight, screaming out vocals that on record are half mumbled and half yelled. While there might be fewer people in the pit for Ballzy than for The Bendal Interlude, they’re clearly having the time of their lives, especially when Titus swings his mic down into the crowd and lets them sing on ‘Don’t Tell Me What to Do’. Titus has a little fun at the expense of those who don’t join in – “I guess you guys just paid ten quid to come sit down and look at me, huh?” – but there’s no real malice in it.
Truth is, as ballsy and hardcore and angry and fast and loud and frequently in court as they are, I’m not sure Cerebral Ballzy are really capable of malice. There’s too much fun in them to mean any real harm. And after so, so long of hardcore bands taking themselves so fucking seriously, it’s a bit of welcome relief to find one who don’t seem like they could take themselves seriously if they tried. The hardcore scene in general likes to think of itself as so above the puerile antics of other punk sub-genres. But as Cerebral Ballzy go to prove, when righteous indignation is the norm, the only rebellion left is self-ridicule.
Words: Michael O’Farrell
Original ManGone Review