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EXISTENCE IS PUNISHMENT
:: Crowbar :: Shaped by Fate ::
19 January 2011 / Academy 3 / Manchester
By Rachel Mann

There are heavy bands. There are sludgy bands. And then there is Crowbar - the original southern beast steered for twenty odd years by guitarist and master beard wearer Kirk Windstein. Crowbar have been on an extended hiatus while Windstein has pursued various ‘projects’ including supergroups Down, Kingdom of Sorrow and a spell in rehab. Now, for the first time in six years, he and the band are back in the UK for a six date tour with a new album out in a few weeks.

I only managed to catch a couple of tracks by support act, Shaped by Fate, a five-piece hard/metalcore outfit from Wales. They were solid but unspectacular – there are a lot of acts pursuing this groove at the moment (though to be fair, they’ve been pursuing it longer than most) – and the lead vocalist Paul Fortesque (whose got a very nice low register snarl) seemed a bit pissed about the lack of energy in the crowd. Truth is, I’m not sure they were a great match for Crowbar - a little too post-hardcore for the ultimate sludge band, maybe? It was on the closing track, a long sludgy workout, that they really grabbed the crowd’s attention and really justified their billing alongside the sludge masters.

One of the many impressive things about Crowbar is their utter indifference to classic rock star tricks. There was no pseudo-classical intro music, there was no long darkness to whip the crowd’s excitement. Kirk simply walked on stage with the band, smiled, touched a few knuckles to his tattooed flesh, strapped the axe on and said, ‘We are Crowbar from New Orleans’. And the dense, impossibly heavy metal began.



How do I put into words what Crowbar are like? Well, firstly, they are impossibly manly, so manly in fact that I feared I might spontaneously grow a beard. Kirk is both unapologically male, sexist (‘Our new album is out on Feb 14th. Why not buy it for your gal. You might get some snatch.’), but also really bloody charming; a man utterly relaxed with himself on stage who just wants to play heavy music. And, Christ, are they heavy. This is music for blowing rusting ship-hulks up to; this is the thick sludgy music you might hear as you were being sucked relentlessly into a stinking swamp; this is music so hard it makes you want to arm wrestle that badass sea captain from ‘Jaws’ and Chuck Norris at the same time.

The opening two tracks were utterly crushing. To my shame I can’t even recall what they were: I was simply too caught up in the intensity of the moment and fighting with my fellow photographers for shots. All you need to know is that the openers were absolute pile-drivers, delivered with the assurance of a street brawler utterly confident of his skills. Crowbar followed up with the classic, ‘All I had (I Gave)’, a track undiminished in its brutality nearly twenty years since its first appearance; a track so testosterone-driven the women in the crowd risked growing testicles on the spot. A real highlight was Kirk stepping forward in the middle of the track to receive some manly, heterosexual love from the guys in the front couple of rows. It is still breathtaking how convincingly this track breaks down from a mid-tempo stomp into something so sludgy the entire sewer system of southern Manchester was blocked up for the night. Equally ‘Like Broken Glass’ retains fierce power, seamlessly moving from feedback and white noise into something spiky and punky and, for Crowbar, fast. What shows their class is their ability to throw quirky stops in the middle of a quick riff without drawing breath.
By now the crowd – who I’ll be honest with you, were annoyingly reserved as far as I could see – were beginning to warm up. Kirk threw in some tracks off the new album, tracks which - given that most folk won’t have heard them - were pretty well received. My own take on some of the new stuff is that, if anything, it takes Crowbar into even heavier and, crucially, groovier territory. It’s the sound of some hillbilly taking his dog out back and shooting it with a howitzer. There’s even some twin harmony guitar work; but even this classic metal trick feels like proper Crowbar as it was sucked down into something muddy. On ‘Cemetery Angels’, Kirk humorously points out that its closing breakdown (a technique beloved of recent ‘trendy’ metal bands) has not been nicked off some ‘scene’ metal kid; and of course he’s right. He’s been writing these monsters since before half the blah-core trendy kids were weaned from their mother’s teats. The song is a demonstration of Windstein’s undiminished ability to write a riff and the breakdown is so brutal its harmonic resonance loosened my bowels.



Crowbar closed with classic ‘Existence is Punishment’, which still sounds like the sound of an immense bridge creaking and shattering as the earth tears itself apart, before returning for a short encore. Crowbar remain a massive and potent live act – despite the change of personnel over the years – and Windstein is an immense stage presence. His voice – like rusty barbed wire being drawn slowly over a whetstone – retains awesome power and the consistency of his songwriting is dazzling.

What pissed me off was the crowd. A visit from Crowbar remains a major event as far as I’m concerned. The size of the crowd suggests it was for others. And yet – to stick with the masculine imagery – it felt, well, a bit flaccid; like the crowd couldn’t quite get it up. I wasn’t expecting mayhem and stage diving – maybe we’ve all got too old for that - but there was a lot more studious ‘head nodding’ than real passion on this occasion.

And I reckon Kirk sensed this too and was pissed off himself. Manchester crowds, in my experience, can be a bit more demanding and discerning than some, but this was Crowbar for fuck’s sake. Years of gigging told me that he cut the encore a bit short and was hungry to head for London’s softer, southern climes. I hope the crowd gave him and the band a little more energy. This music deserves it.


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