Review by Gary Spiller for MPM
Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink,
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The waters of the Redcliff Beck shimmer an oily black in the autumnal darkness. The waters barely stir upon this strangely warm evening.
The bony tendrils of fall sense no boundaries as the seasons switch with unrelenting ease. Once crisp the fallen leaves are sodden underfoot whilst smoke eddies upwards from the house boats moored close by on the opposite side of the waterway.
Here at East Mud Dock, lies at berth, the one-time coastal trading vessel Thekla finding a new home and role in her nautical career. Bristol has a lengthy maritime history, in part chequered with controversy, however there is an ingrained sense of pride too. The one-time wharves, workshops and warehouses that remain, as portals to the past, have undergone significant regeneration and the Floating Harbour (as the 70 acres of the original Port of Bristol is locally known as) is now a hub of culture and entertainment.
The beating heart of this area is The Thekla, which this evening plays host to two of the finest bands hurtling headlong from the underground. Two outfits with vastly different identities and styles but with a common thread of sublimely quality rock that is devoured hungrily by their leagues of passionate fans.
A mystical vibrancy dances and skits through the air as a lengthy pre-doors queue threads, much akin to the mooring ropes of the past, alongside the harbourside towards Prince Street Bridge. Not even the temporary closure of the Redcliffe Bascule Bridge, Prince Street’s partner in crime, can thwart this massed turnout. There is a palpable sense of anticipation, a moment of sensing history writing a new chapter. A marker awaiting placement in the sands of time.
From out on the deeper waters of the Bristol Channel so an ethereal vessel turns southwards into the Avon Gorge. Having safely navigated the oceans, with the guidance of Neptune’s trident, the spirit merchantman strikes for the last few miles before it offloads its cargo. The skeletal crew ready themselves, their precious goods will make their master a good coin once alongside. It’s a varied freight and there’s a hushed reverence abounding. Shipped in from the South Coast are five darkened otherworldly overlords concomitant with an equal number of Scottish clansmen, Celtic kith and brotherhood.
Descending into the bowels of this former coaster the crowd begins to steadily fill out the for’ard hold of The Thekla. The blackened metal hull and bulkheads enhance the sensation of being somewhere quite different to the norm. By the time the lights darken, and a deep rumbling bass accompanied by a capacious beat emanate from the PA, the venue is rammed to its very gunwales.
Full scream ahead incendiary Bournemouth quintet South Of Salem burst, full bore, on to the cramped environs of the Thekla stage. Howling vampiric rocker ‘Let Us Prey’ threatens to paint the city a half century shades of rouge. Engaging frontman Joey Draper cups his ear to hear the crowd roar the words back to him and his salty cohorts.
Joey roars, in encouragement “Let’s see you jump!” as screaming demons unleash ‘The Hate In Me.’ Middle digits are raised in time to the “I don’t give a fuck” lyrics. Newly appointed skinsman James Clarke is a blur of frenetic activity behind his kit. Toxic six-string twins Kodi Kasper and Starfish MacDonald along with their four-string miasmic brother Dee manically bounce along connected by an unseen force.
Joey, clearly moved by the response of The Thekla, issues sincere praise commenting “You guys and gals really know how to move!” The highly infectious gothic noire anthem ‘Made To Be Mine’ with its pulsating Sunset Strip hook illuminates that this five-piece are in fact the bastard offspring of Motley Crue and Alice Cooper. Fine parentage if you ask me; seemingly the Thekla crowd are inclined to agree.
Each track is greeted with an even louder roar than the one preceding; a velvety layer even more embracingly darker than those previous, a caressing stupefying blackness that ravenously devours the light. Hotblack Desiato of plutonium rock band Disaster Area would approve.
Prowling stage front Joey has the Thekla in the palm of his hand; slowing things down to dedicate the forever haunting ‘Demons Are Forever’ to a couple of friends the band have lost, during lockdown, to suicide. A dark, brooding tempo infuses the hold as Salem explore mental health issues with the track’s strikingly resonant words. Kodi delivers a stunning solo as Joey emotes “I’ve got friends on the inside.”
Howling through the ether to the fullest of moons punky hellhound ‘No Plague Like Home’ invokes a raucous maelstrom of devilment. Twin lead diablerie is brought forth from the frets of Starfish and Kodi to the delight of the massed Coven. Time is passing in the very blink of an eye as sleazy rocker ‘Pretty Little Nightmare’ is, cheekily, dedicated, by Joey, to all the ladies in this evening’s audience. A snippet of Ozzy’s ‘Crazy Train’ briefly invades this anthemic song.
Goosebumps rise as the twin lead intro of ‘Cold Day In Hell’ with Joey rallying “Let’s get crazy! We want to rock this fucking boat!” Thekla roars its approval as ripples are sent across the waters of the harbour. “I know you love me Bristol, but you just don’t know it yet!” Otherworldly enterprises industrially work their magic, a high bar has been set by South Of Salem here this evening.
These are the jagged rocks that upon many headline acts would potentially flounder, but this evening’s top line act is a force of nature itself. No quarter requested, no quarter given as the bar South Of Salem raised track on track will continue upon its upwards trajectory in the most capable hands of pyrotechnical Glaswegian rockers Mason Hill.
With a Braveheart essence coursing through veins as they project the pride of their ancestral clansmen Mason Hill take to a stage bathed in pools of light from four spotlights beaming downwards. Congenial vocalist Scott Taylor enquires “Are you ready?” as he and his bandmates enter stage starboard. No lefts or rights herein, it’s firmly nautical terminology. Feral rocker ‘No Regret’ sets off at a blistering pace and the ensemble is completely captivated. Castle walls crumble upon impact from this rock n’ roll cannonade. Encouraging James Bird, Mason Hill’s unassuming firebrand lead guitarist, Scott yells “C’mon James!” The crowd are on point and a prolonged loud cheer says it all.
Track-end and Scott, broadly smiling, enthuses “Fuck me! We have been fucking excited for this show for months. Everywhere we go somebody mentions the boat. It’s the first time we’ve played on a boat!” The environs are playing their part in quite a direct manner. Craig McFetridge’s tumbling drums are the lead into ‘DNA’ a turbo-driven anthem of mammoth proportions that has clenched fists aplenty pumping into the air. This is a phenomenal advert for grassroots rock in the UK; two bands playing their absolute hearts out to a near-sold venue. Who would have dared dream of such a few years ago? “Bristol it’s part of my D N A” emits Scott.
Looking across the sea of smiling faces in the crowd it’s safe to say a good 90% of punters are wearing merch from one or other of this evening’s bands. Those wearing ‘tributes’ to the classic side of rock are in a definite minority in an approximate barometer of the storm brewing. A new wind is blowing.
In a genuine compliment Scott, between tracks, notes “You know for a second I thought we were in Glasgow. You’re giving us hometown vibes, one of the coolest nights!” The balcony bounces – in Quo at the Apollo ’77 style – throughout their set. Reminiscent of mid-90s Reef the blues edged ‘Out Of Reach’ is laced with Celtic ebullience. Gritty vocals and a slick Via-esque solo from James encapsulate an emotive moment.
Consistent stand-out sets at Steelhouse, Love Rocks and Winter’s End have seen Mason Hill deservedly ascend in profile throughout the last 18 months since the release of top-20 album ‘Against The Wall’; these set of dates representing the last of that breakthrough long-player’s tour. A new album is in the offing for 2023.
Prowling and snarling ‘Now You See Me’, from their 2016 EP, hops about like a cat upon a hot tin roof. Rhythm guitarist Marc Montgomery and bassist Matthew Ward face one another off mid-song as they step out of the shadows. This crowd is, for sure, not one step behind as they lap up Scott’s vox; a pleasant melding of Steven Tyler and Gary Stringer.
The Aerosmith feel continues with the balladic ‘Who We Are’ which proves to be the catalyst for loud and repeated “Mason Hill” chants from the Thekla crowd. Rivets pop and bulkheads warp under the strain. A triple burst from James and the warriors storm down off the craggy ridge. An anthem of the clans, ‘Find My Way’ is a tartan belter that sees the castle wall succumb.
Gremlins strike the start of foot-stomping beast ‘We Pray’ with Scott playfully asking, “OK who fucked up?” A loud cheer of support emanates from the crowd, and all is good in the world. A deeply resonating bassline washes across to the opposite side of the harbour whilst the band produce a machine gun delivery with a shotgun intensity.
Mason Hill is reaching a crescendo as their set approaches a triumphant finale. A flag-waving exultation that is kick-started with Scott proudly wrapping Saint Andrews Cross around himself for an impassioned ‘Where I Belong.’ Raising the Saltire with Celtic pride the Thekla roars in appreciation for this Highlander-sized epic.
Rebel rousing ‘Broken Son’ with its immediately accessible chorus sets the stage for the only track that could finish off the evening’s set. It’s the last man standing, for the entire album bar one has been aired. Befittingly ‘Against The Wall’ is saved to last. Mason Hill let fly in a demagogic groove as the Thekla, unified, soaks up every last note and beat.
“We’re the happiest band in the world” an animated Scott effervesces as he ushers on their tour manager Mik Gaffney to take deserved applause with his band. This is a moment that will live long and is destined to be entered, for posterity, into the hallowed annals of rock. A moment of coming, a moment of tangible result of the efforts thus far. A truly memorable night on all fronts.
Photography by Kelly Spiller for MPM