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Three Songs No Flash

Hardcore Masculinity: Every Time I Die at Koko
Dan Franklin , November 28th, 2017 19:58

Almost 20 years after they formed, Every Time I Die are performing a victory lap. From the chaos of the moshpit, Dan Franklin finds their primal aggression is actually a conduit for more complex messages about the problems of masculinity and the power of love.

The spectre of suicide raises itself from the depths early on during Every Time I Die’s headlining set at Koko. ‘Floater’, a song of astonishing violence and a brutal final statement that used to end their gigs, is played second. Its furious tempo and sporadic beatdowns, punctuated by strangled dissonant accent notes, belies its lyrical sophistication. “To my mistress the bridge, I don’t feel well / I’ll be leaving and you can’t stop me,” roars Keith Buckley, poised to leap into the “warmest body” of his “lover the river”. Killing yourself is a lovelorn choice. The waters of the moshpit churn, a boiling sea of sweat and beer and mutually assured bodily destruction – we barely notice that Frank Turner has taken the mic for its final bitter refrain: “Drag the lake / You’ll find it full of love”.

Every Time I Die swing between love and hate as if the tattooed fists of Robert Mitchum himself were windmilling through the moshpit. The centre of the floor is a mesmerising fight club – it is a minor miracle that no one is seriously hurt over the course of tonight’s four-band bill, which also includes British newcomers Higher Power, Canadian veterans Comeback Kid and Virginia’s aptly named Knocked Loose. This is hardcore, and in 2017 it has pummelled metal into submission.

The two cultures of heavy music have long vied for supremacy and fed off one another’s energy. Every Time I Die subsume classic rock’s groove and metal’s technical flourishes into their own overwhelming torrent. The speed-demon momentum of their performance is startling. Blunt-force breakdowns pry open chasms into which the audience hurtles relentlessly. As ornate as Koko is as a venue it also has a low first-floor balcony and the result is a standing space where the audience is hemmed in tightly. Nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.

The two most dangerous things a hardcore gig can hand its audience are time and space – the air pockets between cascading riffs and excess room on the floor invites a unique form of shadow martial arts which is amusing in just how studied it is. With enough time and space, men plant their feet and lash out indiscriminately at head height, or throw roundhouse kicks – all of which adhere to a different code to most metal moshing. It is also open to subversion. During Knocked Loose’s set, the furrowed brows and chained-up-Bullmastiff demeanour of the young men encircling the dancefloor is broken by a woman in thick-rimmed glasses and a precarious full pint bouncing into the melee. She clearly doesn’t give a shit about the rules of engagement here and by the point Every Time I Die are in full swing, neither does anyone else.

On the face of it this is a spectacle of primal aggression, testosterone and inchoate fury, locked into a cycle of escalation: “When the iron sharpens the iron” as Buckley screams with Old Testament fury (‘Underwater Bimbos From Outer Space’). But this aggression is embraced, consumed, exhausted and finally – in a sense – resolved. The afterglow of a hardcore show is comradeship, community and a feeling of family, long after its homosocial angst is expended in the act of rutting like stags in the pit. It is not right to say this is a male-only domain (there are a happy few women holding their own too) but Buckley’s lyrics centre on the masculine ‘I’ in all its angst, humour and insecurity.

This is not politicised hardcore in the vein of its 1980s forebears, but politics has a place in the armoury of woes which are summoned in the service of its chaos. The tenor of this music has its origin in the furious melodrama of Brooklyn’s Life of Agony and their debut record River Runs Red (1993) whose title track gets straight to the point: “I’ve got the razor at my wrist / ’cause I can’t resist”. In three interstitial skits we are forced to eavesdrop on the woes of our teenage protagonist who has been dumped by his girlfriend, is failing at school and is being berated by an abusive mother. The songs directly address divorce, depression, bereavement, but also the solace of the hardcore underground. The album ends with him killing himself.

Though spiritually and sometimes musically they recall Life Of Agony, Every Time I Die’s performance feels instead like a dangerously out-of-control party. Flanked by his Tasmanian Devil of a brother Jordan and giant, kind-eyed part-time pro wrestler Andy Williams on guitars, Keith Buckley can now claim to be heavy music’s greatest frontman. His abrasive, confessional lyrics are well-considered, well-drawn and very well-read. His blur of long, chestnut-brown hair, beard and red plaid shirt resembles a Brewdog barman with an attitude problem, but one who really just craves your attention.

The band plays a raft of songs from last year’s Low Teens that count as their best ever. The frenetic thrash and bitter humour of ‘I Didn’t Want to Join Your Stupid Cult Anyway’ (“New clothes! New home! New job! New god! From faith to doubt, I’m hard wired to short out.”) offsets the condensed brilliance of ‘The Coin Has A Say’: “I will aimlessly wander this wasteland guided only by a sickness, not a purpose. I can’t go back to what I was: Metallica without the drugs. A faith healer without the plant. There’s no home for a hollow man.” Not one, but two, TS Eliot references there, and then a one-liner as good as “Metallica without the drugs” – the literal and symbolic truth that lies ahead when a singer in a rock’n’roll band reaches some kind of self-knowledge and the creative chastening that comes with it.

As their name suggests, Every Time I Die are really about rebirth and renewal. “We’re going to fuck you up,” Buckley promises as they start their set, but that fucking up is considerate and reciprocal. They will show you their wounds if you bleed a little for them. None more so than on ‘Petal’, about the complications that Buckley’s wife had giving birth to their daughter and the bleak months mother and daughter had to spend recovering in separate locations: “The longest winter I have ever seen. From hospital to hospital. Repeat.”

As the song hits its pounding apex, Buckley launches into his most desperate plea: “If I have to walk alone I’m giving up. I can’t stay here knowing love is not enough.” The guitars squall and drummer Clayton Hokyoak flails all over his kit, the crowd is smattered in darting, blinding lights: “Untimely ripped into this world I was born again as a girl.” We respond with bared teeth and the physical intensity the words demand. Lay on, Macduff…

In this crisis of masculinity we are living through, the death of the ailing male sense of self and it being “born again as a girl” seems a fitting solution. Men’s work is their refuge and their hiding place but when it comes to true crisis these must be given up. As such, ‘Fear and Trembling’ closes the gig with the same towering intensity that it opens Low Teens on that subject. “I am sorry, it's not right / But you are mine to sacrifice”: Buckley is addressing his craft itself and how this whole wild ride might need to be ended.

Appropriate too that Knocked Loose frontman Bryan Garris joins the fray for counter-vocals on this song, which most closely resembles his band’s own flayed-to-the-bone industrialised hardcore (think Fracking: The Musical). The ghost of the possibility of Buckley losing his wife and child looms large again (“When I robbed two early graves / I was sick with grief”).

This is why ‘Floater’ was dispensed with so soon in proceedings: suicide is the easy way out. There is defiance: “Though it may haunt us and break our hearts / Death cannot tear us apart.” But its other key refrain is “Sacrifice / Kill to survive” - and the great apes of the moshpit answer the call during this, the evening’s most punishing moment.

Like the repeated exhortations for the crowd to come over the barricade, Every Time I Die pitch their fans’ id against Buckley’s superego and succeed by appealing to the audience’s basest instincts, hopes and fears. Ask anyone who was there: you’ll find them full of love.

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