Gig Review: Gnarwolves @ The Borderline (20/05/2017)

You can taste the anticipation in the Borderline before Gnarwolves take the stage. I’m primed, in position, and I’ve made a tactical effort to finish my drink so I don’t end up wearing it.

Here are 5 things I learned tonight:

  • The revamped Borderline is perfectly designed for stage-diving pandemonium
  • Kamikaze Girls are fucking awesome (okay, I kinda knew that already)
  • Shut Up is destined to be the best song on the new Gnarwolves album
  • Bottle to Bottle has become so close to my heart that hearing it live makes me tear up
  • I have just seen the best show of the year so far

Rounding the corner to The Borderline, just off Soho Square, I’m met with a sea of trawler hats and thrasher caps, tattoos and black n white band tees. You can spot a Gnarwolves crowd a mile off.

Although at times the evening starts to look like a GCSE-revision party (apparently Gnarwolves are down with the kids these days), I’m left thinking that there need to be more all-ages shows. Sharing great music with the next generation is definitely worth the hassle of carrying ID. All three of the evening’s acts discuss mental health, particularly issues that affect teenagers and young adults, and there’s no doubt that it is this honesty that inspires such intense love from many of the bands’ fans. It’s essential that we keep this shit going.

The Borderline is a legendary London rock venue: a black basement that I read many tales of in the NME as a tween-ager. Since my last visit, it has transformed into a trendy industrial joint: the remodelled bar is straight out of the TARDIS and the mind-bending corridor to the toilets makes me glad I’m not on ketamine, I’d have been stuck there for a week. They’ve removed the standing area behind the sound-desk, and presumably reduced the venue’s capacity in doing so; it feels a lot more intimate.

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London indie-punk 3-piece Thrownups kick things off, sounding exactly like early Alkaline Trio in the best kind of way. Taking a side step from (Cornish prog punks) Crows An Wra, vocalist and bassist Jason White has a touch of earnest gruffness that I really enjoy. They suffer a hint of support-act sound-quality; the vocal and the guitar don’t cut through the mix as well as they should, and it comes off slightly monotone.

Faced with a full venue even early in the evening, Jason says, “We’re normally drunk and talking shit by now, but we’re trying to be professional because it’s such a big room.” It’s sweet to see them acting humble when they’re filling the stage so well. They give a big shout out to the Invictus Trust, who support teenage mental health, waving a collection pot around in a way that makes it feel more like a DIY show. It’s also heartening to see Max Weeks, drummer of Gnarwolves, grinning ear-to-ear in the front row even though it’s the last day of their tour. He put out their EP Sobriety Diner on Soul Doubt Records last year and he’s clearly chuffed with the choice.

If you don’t know them already, Kamikaze Girls are an angry duo from Leeds/London, only one of whom is a girl. They follow Thrownups with a beautiful cascade of atmospheric guitar-work, striking vocals and thundering rhythms. Lyrically they’re known for challenging preconceptions about mental health, particularly with their 2016 EP SAD, promoting the idea that it is okay to be unhappy. Tonight’s angst-driven performance follows in that theme, including some frank talk about anxiety and abuse. There is a real darkness at home in Kamikaze Girls and I bloody love it.

Their sound is powerful, raw and dynamic, and their performance is incredibly tight. On Stitches singer Lucinda Livingstone drifts seamlessly from fierce anger to touching serenity. New song Good for Nothing, from their EP Seafoam (out on June 9th) also stands out – with the lyrics, “Rain, rain on me, I’m good for nothing,” against backing that feels like a summer thunderstorm.

I feel fortunate to be able to watch two people who are so incredibly good at what they do, however it’s the fuzzy guitar is that really draws me in. In the closing song, they repeat, “I don’t want to be sad forever,” while Lucinda crouches on one knee, teasing the most ethereal, distorted noises from her instrument. It’s stunning.

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Gnarwolves are one of my top UK bands, although I feel they’re often overlooked. They play fast and melodic skate-punk with earnest lyrics that reflect the dark sentiments that inhabit all our skulls. Released on May 5th, I’ve been spinning their new album Outsiders relentlessly in preparation for tonight. I’m overjoyed to find that it essentially sounds like a Gnarwolves album: one of the biggest compliments I could give to any band. I nervously babble this bit of feedback to singer/guitarist Thom Weeks, at the merch table before the set. It’s rare for a frontman to make a point of asking your name and shaking your hand when you’ve only gone to buy a t-shirt, but Thom does. For a band that play such hard and sad songs, they sure are the smiliest bunch of lads you’ll ever meet.

You can taste the anticipation in the Borderline before Gnarwolves take the stage. I’m primed, in position, and I’ve made a tactical effort to finish my drink so that I don’t end up wearing it when it all kicks off. The second the band step out it goes wild, and I’m thrown against the stage, battering my knees and thighs on the edge. I can already feel the bruises that I’ll wear like a badge of honour tomorrow.

Their new single, Straitjacket is a storm of angsty yet hopeful pop and it’s gratifying to see how many people are already screaming the words back, only two weeks after the album’s release. New songs Wires and Paint Me A Martyr also slot perfectly into an otherwise solid roster of established material. They pull out Boneyard and Prove It as outstanding tracks from their 2014 self-titled album, and Smoking Kills remains one of their strongest songs live or otherwise, bluntly discussing grief and recovery in a way so many of us can relate to.

I’m ecstatic and surprised that they play every song from 2013’s Funemployed EP. The second Thom announces Tongue Surfer a clash of people me hit from all sides in a frenzy. There is so much energy, anger and excitement in the crowd that the space in front of the stage is unrelenting carnage for the entire set. The Borderline’s stage is two-feet off the ground with no barrier: perfect for crowd surfing. The band’s three-piece set up allows two channels to open, with people clambering up both sides and running through the band to fly off the centre of the stage. It’s the most stage-diving I’ve seen since Groezrock 2014, which is saying a lot.

I get a boot to the back of the skull and an elbow to my teeth, but I keep screaming along like everyone else.  Despite being bent over, gripping the stage and slipping around in my sweat-drenched boots, I just about manage to hold myself together, only to completely lose all composure during Shut Up. As the final song on Outsiders I’ve only heard it a couple of times, and I’m shocked by the effect it has on me. It’s full of tense silences, reeling feedback and heavy, melodic crescendos. It absolutely kills me and the rest of the crowd – when people are more familiar with the album it’s destined to be their biggest live song.

During Coffee Thom takes a step back and stares at the crowd as they hoarsely scream back the words, looking simultaneously humbled and critical. He struggles with technical problems throughout the set, with the amp, tuner, pedals and everything else all failing in quick succession. He admits that he’s having the worst night ever and jokes that we are the only thing keeping him from throwing himself of a bridge. In the last song, he hurls his guitar face down on the floor and cranks the feedback in an uncharacteristic display of rage. The band (or at least Thom) will probably be relieved to know that the technical problems don’t put even the slightest damper on the evening. If anything, his anger and tension add a layer of raw energy to the performance. When Gnarwolves abandon the stage, the crowd kick into the most desperate shout for an encore that I have heard in a long time.

Earlier, while waiting for Gnarwolves to go on, I was collared by a young guy who was trying to convince everyone to yell for Melody Has Big Plans, as a personal favour. According to him they’ve not played it all tour and, as one of their best songs, he needn’t ask twice. The entire room chanting, “MELODY!” relentlessly throughout their set doesn’t seem to work, but before the encore the guy clambers onto the side of the stage and offers the singer £20 to play it. “Deal,” Thom says, tearing immediately into the opening bars of Bottle to Bottle and destroying the last shreds of the crowd’s inhibitions in a heartbeat. No one’s holding back. There is a constant stream of people hurling off the stage with boots, hats and elbows flying everywhere. To everyone’s delight they close on Melody…, the biggest sing-along of the evening, crashing through the end of the night with panzer force.

In the last two years Gnarwolves have grown to be one of my favourite bands, and every single live show I see them play enforces that notion.  Their energy and enthusiasm inspires chaos in every crowd. Go listen to Outsiders, learn the words and come join me in the next pit.

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