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Three Songs No Flash

Fear And Loathing: Malevolence On A Locked-Down Planet
Dan Franklin , April 21st, 2020 11:32

Heavy music is uniquely equipped to get us through global upheavals. But who expected Sheffield metal crew Malevolence to be our champions through the Coronavirus crisis? Dan Franklin washes his hands and investigates

Malevolence portraits by Kim Quint

It probably goes without saying – but I’ll say it anyway – that this isn’t the piece I intended to write. I originally pitched a piece of gonzo writing to tQ about FuryFest – an indoor one-dayer of hardcore and metal bands, to be headlined by Sheffield’s Malevolence in late April. With a new EP out, called The Other Side, it felt like a good moment to capture the violence and absurdity of a Malevolence show.

I wanted to set the explosion of youthful energy of their fans, manic to get onstage and practice that weird shadow Kung fu that marks out modern hardcore dancing, against my own sense of getting older with heavy music. The piece was ready to write itself, I just needed to manipulate the reality of the gig to fit my pitch – it should have played out fine. But because of another explosion – that of COVID-19, the new, somewhat unknowable Coronavirus – the gig has been cancelled. Life stepped in and said, “No, not this time."

Instead, The Other Side has unexpectedly started speaking to this new reality in which we find ourselves. It consists of only three tracks and is about 12 minutes long, but each song inhabits an emotional state which seems to fit the psychic turmoil of a world in lockdown, at the mercy of a disease over which it has little comprehension and still less control.

Heavy music is for heavy times. Metal’s scale is grand and all-consuming. I’m not saying other genres are not capable of describing this historical moment to us, but a worldwide pestilence is very much in the Heavy wheelhouse. Heavy music is equipped with the tools to negotiate a crisis befitting of allegory. That is because its mode is often elevated to the transnational, and beyond that, the mythic plain.

Metal chews on the tough subject matter and does the Atlas-worthy heavy-lifting for us. I once saw author James Ellroy give a talk where he explained the themes of his novels as the “big shit” – sex, violence, power. After he reeled off this list he started barking like a dog. Metal too barks hard about the stuff that matters.

That said, Malevolence might seem unlikely candidates to shoulder this burden. Theirs is metal for the Too Fast Too Furious generation. It is rooted in the beefed-up chuggery of the turn-of-the-millennium New Wave of American Heavy Metal – Chimaira’s The Impossibility Of Reason, Hatebreed’s Satisfaction Is the Death Of Desire and Perseverance, with a dollop of Crowbar’s Sonic Excess In Its Purest Form.

Malevolence aren’t world-creators like Iron Maiden; they don’t draw on historical battles and warfare for inspiration like Sabaton; they don’t write concept records (well, this is only partially true, as we’ll see). At their best, Malevolence build sonic mountains in the Crowbar mould. Their sound is brutal but it is highly polished. They also hit you very hard in the face; giving you the bruising you didn’t know you’d been cruising for.

They don’t look right either. For anyone who grew up in provincial urban centres where townies and the alternative tribes were pitted against one another in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the fact these lads wear North Face threads and make intimidating videos set in council estates strewn with heroin addicts and Dead Man Shoes-like gritty criminality creates a certain cognitive dissonance. As lead singer Alex Taylor put it to me: “we play metal but we look like a bunch of chavs.”

"Malev", as their fans call them, run their independent operation MLVLTD like a grime or hip hop crew and sell long-sleeves that pilfer the Mercedes logo alongside the more traditional medievalist artwork of a typical death metal band. Malev embody a contradiction that challenges in all the right ways.

What I expected to find at FuryFest was as refreshing a live experience. This came off the back of recently attending the 25th-anniversary gig at Brixton Academy for Machine Head’s Burn My Eyes album – a landmark in melding hardcore and metal to describe societal meltdown. As Taylor roars on the new EP, “Time is the noose around your neck”, and as I saw the over-thirty moshers in Brixton running around in ever-slower circles and searching for lost possessions with their mobile phone torches during pauses in the set, that noose felt very tight indeed.

When the Brixton show was halted for thirty minutes because a punter had doused the soundboard with one of the venue’s two-pint mega-beers, it seemed like an act of mercy. There’s nothing wrong with being over the hill, it’s just a steep climb to attempt to return whence you came.

I have been denied seeing Malev live, but I’ve watched a lot of their sets on YouTube. The most recent additions were captured on their winter tour of Australia by Hate5Six, aka Sunny Singh, who is the D.A. Pennebaker of live hardcore music. He helped industrial hardcore wunderkinder Code Orange livestream their record-release show to an empty venue in early March and reframe it as an apocalyptic taste of the future: Last Ones Left: In Fear of the End.

Code Orange are another band who seemed to have landed their new album in the perfect moment. From ‘My World’ from earlier album I Am King to ‘Cold.Metal.Place’ from new one Underneath, their solipsistic despair of the late-capitalist wasteland, played to no-one, provides lasting imagery of the Corona period.

According to Taylor, Malev’s “main focus is that live energy” in a scene that sees them sharing stages with the nominatively determined Knocked Loose, of whom he says, “They are playing breakdowns, and heavy breakdowns, and they’re selling out 1000-count venues every night of the week.” To the older customer, these shows all look quite hairy: fists, boots and bodies are flying indiscriminately, and the code of conduct is opaque at best. “We've got the big lads running around swinging their arms, so you've just got to be a bit mindful”, Taylor says. Mindful moshing is an unexpected addition to the cult of wellness.

But the fact remains, I can’t comment on any of this first-hand because society itself is unwell at the moment. And it will get more unwell. The creeping dread of things certainly getting worse before they get better means we need to draw deep from our emotional reserves, to seek ballast that gets us through – when the only way is through.

On Malev’s 2017 album Self Supremacy, the song ‘True Colours’ embodied the resilient sink-or-swim attitude that runs through hardcore like an iron rod. It asks question of our resolve: “Will you stand when the cracks begin to show? […] Will you stand back and watch your loved ones bleed?”

This is all very well when we can be active participants in defeating a common enemy, or rushing to the defence of others. What is curious about now is that the vast majority of people (save heroic key workers) are compelled to be passive participants – actively doing nothing. The EP’s song ‘Keep Your Distance’ is ostensibly about what Taylor calls “your negative energy - you wanna get rid of that.”

It is transformed into a song for social distancing with its instruction to “stay the fuck away from me”. When Bryan Garris from Knocked Loose pops up for his guest vocal, sounding more than ever like an apoplectic Morty from Rick And Morty, his line “You shake with one hand, stab in the back with the other” has piercing new bite in a time when handshakes kill in terrifying multiples. All of a sudden, ‘Keep Your Distance’ is not merely a warning but is an anthem for Coronavirus-stricken society.

I did a Route 66 roadtrip five years ago, and dialling through the FM rock stations one song kept coming back again and again: ‘Wrong Side Of Heaven’ by the subtlety-averse Five Finger Death Punch. A big, brash ballad with a video depicting grizzled war veterans, and lyrics flagging an individual in a religious and ethical limbo – “I'm on the wrong side of heaven and the righteous side of hell” – it made one thing clear: tough guys cry harder.

So it is on the Malev EP’s title track, ‘The Other Side’, which Taylor puts into his emotional framework for the release as a song where “sometimes you need to take a step back and wallow in the reality of things”. The other side of our mortal realm is where we inevitably end up, but it’s a destination that we are currently desperate not to reach. That said, we are also compelled to travel through to the other side of this crisis.

With a lush acoustic introduction, windswept guitar lead and Konan Hall’s lead vocal, delivered like a barbarian with heartache, ‘The Other Side’ breaks on through with earth-shaking immensity. Its guitars are layered like the bedrock in the earth’s crust, and it is all-enveloping. It’s the bear hug we are all craving. Tears of magma roll down our cheeks.

The artwork of The Other Side depicts a largely naked man surrounded by a swirl of pale, fleshy arms, pulling and manipulating him into a swirling vortex. One of the hands holds out the golden apple of discord, which has filled his mouth with liquid metal that drips down his chin.

According to Taylor, the grasping limbs “symbolize the temptations of society, the white lights, the street lights, your mobile phones”, that are “pulling you away from who you are, what you are and obviously you've got the hand offering the golden apple which is the temptation – sex, drugs, the kind of thing that would pull you away from real life.”

This near-obscene image of being drawn to the other side of living a good life is by artist Eliran Kantor, who worked up the concept from the brief the band gave him to create something around the theme of vice. Again, there is an intense irony of gazing at this image when mobile phones, screens and remote communication have become the only way to remain connected to the people we need to be in touch with to remain afloat in the world, as well as the people we love.

On 22 March, the band’s Twitter account, @MalevolenceRiff, put out the following message: “Something we still have is music. For us it will always play a powerful role in motivating and driving us through the difficulties we are faced with day to day.” This was preamble to introducing the new single from The Other Side EP: ‘Remain Unbeaten’.

The accompanying video is another outrageous addition to Malev’s catalogue. Filmed in Tokyo, the band is moodily silhouetted in backstreets, guitarist Josh Baines mimes a shredding guitar solo on a bustling pedestrian crossing, and the band tower over the city atop a high rise with a yellow neon backdrop as a lightning storm illuminates the horizon.

Drummer Charlie Thorpe wears a white surgical mask – elsewhere fans wear Malevolence-branded equivalents. Merch like that was ridiculous a couple of months ago but now seems eminently reasonable. We also see the mask of hardness slip and that this band is having a lot of fun.

The song contrasts the protagonist’s resolve (“Will harder than iron”) with the accusations of others “stuck within your own self-hatred”. This chest-beating in the face of adversity and perceived slights is one of the hallmarks of hardcore. It reaches back to the New York Hardcore trailblazers Madball.

Madball’s song ‘Lockdown’ from 1994’s Set It Off rails against a cruel and punitive justice system. The aggrieved reaction in the lyrics is justified when one is unjustly imprisoned, but now that we are imprisoning ourselves for the greater good of society this gets twisted. For the prisoners currently getting ill in New York’s Rikers Island prison and across global penal systems it gets contorted even further. A world in self-isolation and willing lockdown is a world where music like this gets turned on its head.

The riffs of ‘Remain Unbeaten’ tumble down the groove like Sisyphean boulders – full of threat and toil. But the song sweeps the listener along with it, rather than crushing them. By the point of the half-tempo finale, with its knowing, outrageous pinch harmonics its work is done: pumping fists, cheesy grins and uplifted spirits.

If we could have imagined it, Malevolence would never have been the band expected to carry us through a pandemic. Yet here they are, present and correct, and armed with the sonic and emotional weaponry to brace ourselves as best we can for whatever is coming down the tracks.

The Other Side EP proves heavy music’s capacity to break out of its enclave and explain a global crisis to us. Everything now is more diffuse and harder to explain, but this band have proffered the material to prop us up: Sheffield steel in the hour of chaos.

The Other Side EP by Malevolence is released on 24 April