Review by Will Harris
The reign of sunshine over the last few days has quickly and inevitably given way to bleak dark clouds and miserable drizzle; the browns and greys of the bricks and concrete of Birmingham city centre have all been dampened and dulled with rain — what better night, then, to take solemn refuge in the dungeon-like claustrophobia of Scruffy Murphy’s basement room, for a night of pessimistic doom? None better, apparently, as Seattle sludge merchants Samothrace and dirge duo Bell Witch arrive here as part of their three-date UK tour.
First to dole out the desolation, however, is local three-piece Grimpen Mire, who open to 20-odd spectators with a lurching, fuzzy, bass-heavy riff, plodding heavily to the bassist’s low screams. This is by no means their only mode: their second number kicks with a rolling stoner riff that’s almost Kyuss before descending into a funeral march, before their lumbering guitarist pulls out an atmospheric wah solo that borders on psych. Across their set of deathly cumbersome slow sections, descending groove riffs and occasionally traditional doom parts, there’s some really intricate and expressive playing going on here, not to mention some big drops; easily a worthy and well-chosen opening act.
Dozens more black t-shirts have filled the room by the end of Grimpen Mire’s set, and they stay for Bell Witch. After a pause of near-silence, bassist Dylan Desmond tentatively picks two notes from his six-string bass and abandons them to heavy feedback. He slowly fills the space between each pluck with melodies fretted by his right hand, as drummer Adrian Guerra’s arms fall heavily on the cymbals, building to colossal distorted lows and extended growling, before giving way to clean bass and Desmond’s higher, melancholic vocal. It’s these kinds of gradual ascents and descents that comprise the bulk of Bell Witch’s two-song, 45-minute set, and they’re also what make their music so captivating. It might feel like an endurance test to some, but this performance is dense with subtlety and deft emotion.
The virtually wordless set of the support acts contrast markedly with headliners Samothrace, whose vocalist Bryan Spinks opens with a thank you and some chat, but both band and audience are completely silent before the first gigantic opening chord of ‘A Horse of Our Own’, from whence monolithic crashing riffs rise, lifted by melodic lead work and Spinks’ atmospheric howls. Once at the first plateau of the track, Spinks draws out feedback as the song dissipates and sinks to the clean(ish) three-part harmony of both guitars and bass. Tension builds through whining notes and the growing attack of the drums, before an explosion of almighty stoner riffage. Through this section, Desmond pulls intricate melodies above his rhythm playing, before giving way to the bluesy guitar solos of Renata Castagna and Spinks. All the way, all four members push strong-but-steady energy into every chord, before the song’s final, slowing descent into effect-laden noise and vibrations. For some, nigh-on 30 minutes might feel indulgent for an opening number, but there are dynamics at work here of such galactic proportions the effect for most is stupefying.
The same approach is adopted on second song ‘Awkward Hearts’ to mostly good effect, though for its comparatively trim 12 minutes it loses a sense of direction midway. Closer ‘When We Emerged’ rises from quiet melancholy to a hulking riff, as Spinks’ screams overlay the drama of the bulky chords. When it shifts to an ascending riff, the pace is slower than the studio version — diminishing its gravitas a little — but when Spinks’ unholy shriek reaches its summit, the result is no less gratifying. From here, feedback, drum fills and stretching chords tumble into a sea of ever sparser noise, before one final thank you and good night.
One day Samothrace might want to consider altering their presentation; the stark contrast between the drawn-out, dramatic power of the music and the informality of the likeable Spinks’ chat does remove some of the sense of theatre from the performance, but who can complain? It’s not every day you get to witness music this thrilling — especially on a rainy Wednesday night.
Set list: A Horse of Our Own, Awkward Hearts, When We Emerged.