Like every other subgenre definition on the face of the planet, describing modern bands as 'prog' will mean nothing to those who haven't heard them already and everything to those who have. Thankfully, progressive rock music has moved a long way from the overblown concept albums of the late 70's, and nowadays tends to focus far more on abstract song structure. But that, again, is a generalisation. There are as many different approaches to progressive rock as there are bands who get labelled as peddlers of it, and this evening's show is going to take us on a journey through a number of those styles.

Starting with Brenda – whose oddly Brit-poppish name is very much at odds with the atmospheric and trippy music they make. Scattered jazzy drumming sketches a framework underneath angular scratchy guitar chords with plenty of space in between, smeared with a generous layer of looped and effect-drenched vocals that occasionally soar into the falsetto range and back out again before you realise what's happening. Their music is a living thing, a thing with a pulse - and the band are floating in that bloodstream, utterly absorbed and involved with their creation, losing the listener in a world to which only they have a map. Beautifully solipsist and internalised, this is the sort of music that gets accused of elitism by the same people who think that Radiohead are wilfully obscure just for the sake of it. Someone should give these guys a tour of their own.

Stout are an altogether different proposition. You could easily put them in the ill-defined bucket marked 'prog', but they're taking a route utterly unlike the rest of the acts on the bill. To be fair, I think they might have come across much better on a different bill, but this evening their ADHD stylings seem out of kilter. I'm always hesitant to review an act by comparing them to a mash-up of other bands, because it strikes me as lazy writing, but I can't think of any other way to describe Stout's set: a botched amalgam of Bis and System Of A Down, trying to imitate At The Drive In after a year long diet of nothing but the weirder end of Saturday morning children's television. Every song features the same blundering wall of post-hardcore guitar and drums, with the vocalist jabbering like a Tourettes victim who stutters so badly he can't get out more than a syllable at a time. The first few songs were forgiveable, but after a full 45 minute set I was more than happy to see them depart the stage in a cloud of feedback ...

... making way for the violently chilly post-metal architecture of These Arms Are Snakes, whose skinny vocalist, Steve Snere, flails and hurls himself around the tiny Joiners stage with reckless abandon, while his band-mates sway and nod like clockwork Romanian orphans, metronomically locked into their songs as if there were no defined point at which their bodies end and their music begins. It's a furious performance, reminiscent of the more frantic end of DC hardcore, and it fits perfectly with the music. It takes them a few songs to capture my interest thoroughly, but once they get a full head of steam behind them their set soars in quality, with a couple of songs toward the end that have all the sharp hooks of killer singles with none of the false accessibility and sheen that the industry still demands of such material. The drumming is frantic, constantly threatening to fall on its face like someone running too fast, but never quite tipping over into collapse. Over the top of that, we get layers of bass, synths and guitar: there are clanks and rumbles; drones and spooky glissando howls; walls of noise and crushing metal riffs.

They're at their best when the songs aren't trying too hard - when they just let loose and go with the feeling, as opposed to actively thinking about what should come next. This results in sudden unexpected changes of pace and tone, a feeling of change and evolution, while the vocals veer from atonal chants and monologues into primal screams, Snere trying to play his keyboard while simultaneously garotting himself with his microphone cable. I'm never too sure where I should be looking, and the aural assault just adds to the sense of disorientation, a cognitive dissonance that marks These Arms Are Snakes as the audio equivalent of a William Gibson novel. They end their set in a wig-out blizzard of keyboard and feedback, and, while they may not have written the most original material ever, their commitment shines deep red through the darkness like the last stubborn ember at the core of a bonfire.

Perhaps it's just because it's late, but it seems that These Arms Are Snakes had the lion's share of the crowd turning up to see them, as things have thinned out a little when Pelican arrive on stage. It appears that those who remain are already faithful converts to a band I have yet to hear for the first time, but I join their ranks within the first three minutes of the set – Pelican are epic.

Epic is a very overused word these days; more so in cinema reviewing than music, but the overall effect is still a devaluing of the term. But Pelican are the real thing – they're epic like the pyramids at Giza, epic like the the tale of Gilgamesh, epic like the view from an aeroplane window as you pass over the junction of land and sea at 20,000 feet. They blast off with huge all-band riffs, weighty without being abrasive, a slow powerful pace driving songs whose apparent simplicity disguises the skills of a band who know exactly what they are doing. They must do – I can't think of another outfit who can hold a room in the palm of their musical hand so easily, all without a single word or line of vocals in the set. Pure instrumentals: the tunes move from airy post-rock passages into the blissful mass of amplifier saturation, contrasting smooth and rough textures with the skill of an abstract painter. Pelican have also stolen a trick from dance music – the long slow 16 or 32 bar crescendo breakdown, peaking into a salvo of soaring brilliance, the exact right note at the exact right time. Pelican are not just epic, they are effortlessly epic, dispensing moments of beauty you wouldn't expect to find in the work of a four-piece rock band. As the encore song fades out, I keep my eyes closed for as long as possible, hoping no one talks to me and breaks the spell – I don't want to lose the sensation of flight.














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Commenting On: Joiners, Southampton, 14/4/2007 - Pelican, These Arms Are Snakes, Stout and Brenda








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