Live: Layers, O2 Academy Birmingham 3, 20/9/13

Birmingham, the grey, gargantuan pulsing heart of the country. It’s not really our cultural heart, nor does it pull in a vast amount of tourists, and once you get out of the city centre, it’s kind of a dead zone, slap bang in the middle of the country. But once you get past its need for regeneration and the sense that ‘this isn’t quite London’, you might discover that there’s a passionate and unrivalled music scene that refuses to give up the ghost. Bands like Layers, who are uncompromising, innovative and incomparable, are the kind of bands that grow from these Midlands scenes and in this case, are going to take the UK by storm.

Traffic mishaps and misadventures meant that we walked in halfway through Dead Sea Skulls’ (3.5/5) set, but the half that we caught was good fun. Indie rock and roll but with a neat twist in that the drummer is the frontman and he plays his drums standing up. It’s an endearing and charismatic move, even if it means that on occasion, the songs end up becoming a bit simplistic in their structure. Nevertheless, their showmanship and cheeky hooks more than made up for it.

There is nothing at all lacklustre about Layers (5/5). From the very first bars of their set, it was clear that something special was about to happen. Frontman Lance Joseph is entirely captivating as he dives from stage to floor, running the length of the room with pure childlike glee, all while maintaining the perfectly soulful vocals that make Layers stand out from the rest. That’s not to say that the rest of the band aren’t equally as involving or brilliant – the harmonies that make the new EP so exciting sound just as incredible live, there’s a great bit of slap bass and Layers take their musicianship extremely seriously while still retaining that passion for live performance. For the encore, the band play epic Gradually in its entirety, complete with string section and their ambition is entirely refreshing and joyful to behold. It’s a set filled with crowd favourites as well as the stunning new tracks though, and the packed out Academy 3 is filled with grinning faces and sweaty bodies by the end of the night. After all, this is a hometown crowd at an EP launch, who knew exactly what to expect, but there’s no doubt that in a different venue in a different city, Layers would have just the same effect. For any who thought that the Midlands wasn’t capable of producing anything as innovative as Layers any more, who play a weird but compelling combo of soul, pop and hardcore, they need to get down to a show. Mindblowing.

Live: Empire/Planecrasher/Layers – The Firefly, Worcester, 1/8/13

So. A baking hot school night in a provincial city in middle England. Three stories up above a side street and behind a sprawling new Asda… we have some bands. Three sweaty examples of the best the Midlands scene has to offer. And at £3 in – that’s a whole quid a band -seriously, what’s not to love?

First up – Empire. Billed as Faith No More does hardcore, these boys were bright as you like. A simple but highly effective riff-heavy sound of drums, bass and lead providing a rock solid platform for the hugely, hugely impressive vocal range of their charismatic and snake-hipped front man. And yep, this boy has a genuine touch of a young Mike Patton in manner and delivery. These guys are maybe what you might call post-emo: crystal clear vocals, but with a scuzzier feel to their melodic sound than the Alkaline Trio-s of this world. For sake of comparison, there isn’t quite the nails-hard edge here that you find, say, in Mr P’s works peri or post Faith No More – and no down low screaming from the legendary crouch… But then, who wants to rehash the trademark stage antics of a man who when given his own free artistic rein does songs about sex with food (Mr Bungle – google it, people). In all, Empire work up a really interesting sound, with stacks of potential – and the vocalist in particular deserves more superlatives than I can give him here. A couple of their tracks had a groove that kind of got right down into your pelvis, and I believe you can find the video to one of these – ‘Blackheart’ – on that facetube right now. Go see it and give these good people your support.

Now. Planecrasher. Sounding initially like a wall of ultra-heavy stoner, but with way more spark and crank than than this moniker implies – this was utterly engaging and unashamed carnage. Loud as sweet merry fuck, with said wall of noise decorated with twiddly guitar detailing straight out of Gregg Ginn’s SCT playbook and pure filth basslines straight out of Trouser Minnow-era Rapeman – Hereford’s Planecrasher are aptly named. This was weapons-grade chugging that could take out a fucking airbus. These guys obviously know their hardcore history (the influences of the band were plain to see from the bassist’s Shellac T-shirt, which was apparently gifted by the very hand of the speccy fruitcake Albini himself) – and this was a fair joyous fusion of Big Black, Iron Monkey, Black Flag and Kyuss. Think a waaay gnarlier QOTSA and you won’t be far off the mark. However. Josh Homme and friends are damp as a wet Christmas live – not so these fellows. The towering brute on lead guitar and vocals was obviously the alpha monkey of the group, but the ball of dreddlocks on the four string was pretty much the star of the show, totally going off to his dirty, dirty music. Point of note is that they even drove the uber-geek front man from Fights and Fires away from the front of the stage, eventually. It was either the aural onslaught, or he needed a pee. Maybe the latter.

A few words about the drummer, too. Every stick man should be slightly off his nut. Goes with the job description. And the nuttier they are the harder they play. And in my book, he (or she) can never play too hard. And the wiry little Iggy-a-like in this band played like he hated that shaky kit more than the man who had just killed his cat. Brutal.

Last on – Layers. These cheeky chappies really look the part. A very modern, good-looking bunch of lads – including the mega-bearded chrome dome in the Billy Talent T-shirt on lead, who had a style and stage presence evident in the face of tech adversity he had to gamely deal with. Bouncy and energetic as hell and no shortage of poke – if they’d been able to get into their stride fully this band would probably have taken the roof off. The pool of hip kids they had clustered around the stage were visibly bursting to hear them play, and they coped with the tech difficulties that interrupted the set very well indeed – launching right back into it with vigour and professionalism once the various guitar issues got sorted. Their sound is decidedly “now” – taking influences from hardcore and pop punk, even some pure metal – and mixing it freely with no mind to genre or orthodoxy – with soul and R&B. Plan B meets Let Live? That’d actually be a disservice – mainly because the geezer that helped butcher the Sweeney remake hasn’t got an ounce of the spunky freshness of the vocalist in this outfit – and nowhere near his soaring, gospel-quality delivery. You’ll make good pros gentlemen, if all the internet whispers about you come to fruition. Ones to watch indeed.

And finally… just a shout out to the people behind these gigs too. Every town dreams of having its own scene. Well, any town with self-awareness and personality. And through the efforts of a local crew of promoters (Surprise Attacks) there may, just may, be the first sparks of one starting here. With things apparently mobilising behind the scenes, a stable of bands representing for the local area (Fights and Fires and Thirty Six Strategies not least), and some fairly awesome gigs – Crucial Section, Baby Godzilla, HDQ – booked at this same venue (the Firefly) over the Autumn, here’s hoping that the Wu really is on the rise. Who knows. Or dares to dream.

4.5 out of 5 high fives!