Monday 17 December 2012

16th December 2012: It Bites / Frost* - Scala, London

And so to what is probably my last gig of the year - the fourth "sort of annual" Frost*mas AGM. ("Sort of" annual in that it happened once in 2008, skipped 2 years and then picked up again last year - I don't think there's an actual word for that.)

This year's event is billed as "Frost*Bites" - supposedly a double-headline set from Frost* and It Bites - a John Mitchell fan's wet dream and a quality night out for any discerning lover of modern, pop-infused progressive rock. It's the first Frost*mas gig not to be held at The Peel in Kingston, which is annoying when you live in Kingston and moved there deliberately to be near all the Prog, but also leads to the most odd experience of having an actual paper ticket for a Frost* gig, and security which doesn't consist solely of a ginger boy in a hoodie.

Tickets number 001 and 002 - 
sadly retained by overzealous security staff.

I wasn't actually meant to be writing this. I'd decided weeks ago that since I wrote about last year's Frost* AGM at ridiculous length, as well as reviewing It Bites twice already in the last 14 months, I'd give you all a rest.  I mean, how many synonyms can one man find for 'amazing'? However, as so frequently happens when I go along to gigs with the intention of not reviewing them, within 30 seconds of the band coming on stage, things start happening that I just can't stay quiet about, the phone comes out of my pocket and the notes begin.

Also I suppose I did promise to "take the minutes" again, on the condition that I didn't have to organise dinner after last year's fiasco - and sure enough, extra-curricular activities have been taken out of my hands this time, with a pre-gig meetup afternoon at the Craft Beer Co, not 5 minutes away round the corner. It's a lovely, cosy pub with a wonderful atmosphere and proper beers - until about 50 prog fans descend upon the place, driving out the locals. Within 10 minutes, prog sweat is dripping down the windows, due to a combination of London drizzle outside and the warming glow of Frost*iness inside.

The afternoon's meet up is ace - with many familiar faces, lots of new ones too, and a couple of famous/infamous ones, including Tinyfish scaryman Rob Ramsay, who arrives wearing a hand knitted black jumper with a white Frost*erisk on it, worryingly not created as a joke, but a present from his mother bestowed way before there was such a thing as a Frost*erisk. I suggest that all it's missing is a little drip, to which he pulls a face and says he'll refrain from commenting.

Photos by James Allen - the first person to get his pics up 
(mine were mostly rubbish as usual)

There's even the opportunity to recreate a photo from Frost*mas 2008, when a few of us met for the first time, and are all sitting around the same table for the first time since. Some of us are a bit thinner, some of us are a lot fatter. Bert is even a bit more cheerful, but pretends to be grumpy for the sake of continuity.

Anyway, after a couple of pints, we start to wonder when we should head in the direction of the venue, and I hit upon the bright idea of checking various social media outlets to see whether hardcore Frost*ie, Frost*vent calendar mastermind and actual giant, Pete (aka Pedro) is already in place and standing guard over the queue. Sure enough, 3 minutes previously he's announced that there are already 10 people waiting for the event of the year, so Karin and I judge that it's definitely time to make a move. Various people ask us where the heck we're going and look at us like we're mental, since doors aren't for an hour.

Arriving at the venue, it looks like we've made the right move - the queue has already tripled in size since Pedro's update, and it quickly fills up behind us. We end up in the queue along with regular gig friends James, Sarah and Rob, plus Celebr8 co-promoter and short-wearing legend Geoff Banks. There's also a guy a couple of places behind us who looks spookily like someone I know from work, who I briefly catch sight of, and ponder upon the resemblance. (It's not until I get an email the next morning asking if that was me in the queue outside the Scala that it even remotely occurs to me that it might be him, since we all know that you don't meet prog fans in the "normal world".)

Doors open bang on 7 as promised, and the mad dash for the front begins, made more difficult than usual by the fact that the venue seems to have been designed by the Ancient Greeks and is a never-ending labyrinth of small passages and staircases. Will we end up in the VIP area or the ladies loos? All part of the fun. Luckily we do eventually make it into the main room, more by luck than judgement, and it evidently takes us longer than most since we emerge, blinking, into the place where all the magic happens (that's the gig room, not the ladies' loos, in case you were wondering) to find that a couple of people who were still in the pub when we left are already there. Still, as always, half the people who queued up for an hour with us have made a beeline for the bar or the merch stand immediately upon entry (I will never, ever understand this phenomenon, or stop being grateful for its existence) so we manage to grab a spot at the very front and wait for the fun to start.

Yes, that's an ironing board.

There are several things about this gig which are uncharacteristic of anything organised by Jon "Twang" Patrick, but the prompt 7.30 start is both the least expected and the most welcome, given that we're quite rammed in and it's getting a bit warm. The lights dim on the stage, revealing that the musical equipment and Jem's ironing board (don't ask) are all festooned with twinkly fairy lights, and then a familiar stomping sound heralds the arrival of...


... who've updated the excellent 'intro song' from their 'Philadelphia Experiment' live album for this evening's purposes ("We came all this way  / on the M25 / it took us all day / cause the traffic was shiiiiii-iiiite"),  and it has us all in stitches before the band come out to a massive roar (I expect I claimed last year there was a massive roar but there are literally 3 times as many people here this year, so this is a proper massive roar. Innit.)

The traditional 'What-ho!' from Jem announces the start of the set and then they head straight off into Hyperve... what? They don't start with Hyperventilate? Well, there's another break with tradition - no, instead it's time for a brand new song, something which with most bands is an excuse to bugger off to the bar, but Frost* fans have been so starved of sustenance in the 4 years since 'Experiments in Mass Appeal' that any tasty new morsels are pounced upon with excitement. So much excitement that two rather over-eager and possibly well-lubricated chaps a couple of rows behind me start bouncing around all over the place, falling into people and knocking drinks flying. Perhaps they think they're at a Slipknot gig or something (or insert actual hardcore gig experience here - as you may realise, I have no idea.)

Oh, the new song, yeah - well, it's called 'Heartstrings', apparently - and it's a bit flipping good. But since I didn't record it and I am blogging this hot off the press, I've beaten all the Youtubers to the punch so I can't listen to it again to give you any more info than that. Except to say that it was quite heavy in parts with some crunchy riffs, and sounded like a natural continuation of the EIMA sound - except to gig buddy Sarah, who thought it sounded more like Milliontown. Not sure which of us had more beers and can be trusted, so best wait until you hear it yourself.

'Heartstrings' comes to a close and Jem heads over to his ironing board - a reference, I do believe, to one of Jem's favourite sayings, that playing keyboards usually looks about as exciting as doing the ironing. It does look like he's about to start pressing Bob Dalton's shirt for the It Bites set, but (the scamp), he's installed some kind of gadgetry in the board and triggers some nice electro-sounding samples, which the rest of the band jam along with a bit before leading into the inevitable but extremely welcome 'Hyperventilate'.

Being the first familiar song of the night, it's here that you realise how far the band have come since the early (ramshackle, charming and fun) days. I think I said last year that Nathan King on bass and Craig Blundell on drums were the missing pieces of the live puzzle, but somehow even since the last gig and on only a few days' rehearsal, they've managed to surpass themselves. Both halves of the rhythm section really start to come alive tonight, making these songs their own instead of trying to replicate the albums, for the first time that I can remember (a feeling later backed up by Blunders himself online). I really start to appreciate their own playing styles, rather then worrying about whether they're playing the exact same notes as on the studio recordings (never easy to do with the tightly structured material most prog bands play), with Nathan bringing a slightly funky edge to some parts and Craig stamping his manic drum and bass-influenced style at the same time.

You again? I thought I told you to stop stalking me.
 No, I don't care if you write nice things about me. 

Third song of the night is another new one - yes, that's twice as many new songs as we've heard in the last 4 years. Monsieur Godfrey, weez zeez new songs you are reallee spoiling uz. I believe this one's called 'Fathers', and starts with a sample of a small child talking softly before our eardrums are blasted with another Godfrey mega-riff straight out of the 'Pocket Sun' book of songwriting. In fact, there's more than a hint of 'Pocket Sun' about much of this song, especially Craig's drum parts (or perhaps that's just the beer talking.) Like all good prog songs, there are quiet bits with nice harmonies in amongst the chaos, and it sounds like it'll be a monster track to get to know at home, away from the distorted monitor-only mix at the very front of the stage.

Fan favourite, and my nomination for one of the top 3 prog tracks of all time in the Dead Nobodies XmasX poll, 'Black Light Machine' is up next, always a highlight of any gig, featuring as it does not one, but two of the best guitar solos of all time from star of the night John Mitchell and the usual breathtaking keyboard shreddery from Jem, who even plays the ironing board with his nose just before the "And you know..." section (aka "Milk it Godfrey, milk it...") 

Amazing though this is, I become rather distracted at this point by a pair of hands tenderly massaging my shoulders. Checking that Karin is still in front of me, I gingerly look round to see just how lucky I've got, only to see one of the drunk pair from earlier using me as a leaning post to get a better view - I suppose he thinks that in return, the least he can do is relieve some of the obvious tension points in my neck. This is just about tolerable, although I do make sudden violent movements every so often to see if I can make him fall over, and he eventually releases his loving grip.

My attention returns to the music just in time for the 'big banana' section of BLM, my traditional time for a spot of jumping up and down on the spot, however after 2 bounces, I remember that I've gone for the looser fitting trouser this evening due to anticipated beer consumption, and swiftly realise that my jeans are falling down  - something I'm quite keen to avoid given my new friend's close proximity behind me. The rest of the show is therefore a little more subdued on my part, though up on stage it's anything but.

Before we can get another song in, it's time, as always, for some arseing about (literally in this instance as it turns out.) "Did you know, that before they stopped making Speak & Spells, they briefly moved production to Birmingham?", asks Jem, prompting a mixture of laughter and confused interest from the crowd.

Jem's love of buggering about with electronics is well known, and this Brummie Speak & Spell is just the latest in a long line, but it does prove an excellent catalyst for some typical Frost*mas merriment, as the Speak & Spell asks Jem and Blunders in broad West Midlands-style to spell various words, which they do, using the keyboards and drum pads. "Frost Monkey Trumpet Arse" then becomes a jolly little trio for keys, Octopad and audience, in which the audience plays the part of "Arse" when prompted with significant success. Some duelling/showing off between Jem and Blunders in their usual fashion rounds off this section, before the Speak & Spell breaks its programming, and tells them to "Get on wi'it" - which Jem obliges by hammering out the riff to 'Dear Dead Days'.

It's another tour de force from the whole band, which I enjoy very much for the most part, but we're just getting to the emotional middle section when I realise that someone seems to be trying to steal my Oyster card from from my back pocket - they're doing a pretty poor job of it, too, as they keep fumbling about with one pocket and then the other. As the tone of the fumbling moves away from "inept thief" and veers dangerously towards "Jimmy Savile", I turn around and glare right into my drunken friend's eyes with a look which says "there are only two people I allow to grab my arse, one is in front of me, and unfortunately Simon Godfrey couldn't make it tonight". I'm not sure if he gets the exact nuance, as I don't recall ever seeing such a blank, vacant stare from any living creature, but it seems to work anyway, and I go unmolested for the remainder of the gig.

Actually, the remainder of the gig consists of just one song, but before we can get to that, there's the small matter of the traditional band intros, never a dull affair, but this year Jem surpasses himself with a "rawwwwk" intro for King Nathan, whose bass lights up in appreciation (not a euphemism), and then the traditional "John John-Je-John-John" Toreador song for Mr. Mitchell, which we all sing with gusto. In the middle, though, we get one of the most hilarious things ever seen in King's Cross as Jem dances across the stage to greet Mr Blundell, Gangnam Style- surprisingly accurately. I have a sneaky suspicion that more rehearsal has gone into this than the rest of the set.

In between pants (of the lung-related variety), Jem announces that we've come to the last song of the night, which I can scarcely believe since we've only just begun, but it is at least a biggie - the early classic and none-more-prog 'Milliontown' from the album of the same name. There are amazing, understated vocals in Jem's typical style, amazing guitar and keyboard duels, amazing explorations of the bass guitar's range, and amazing, impossible drum fills from the Blunderbot. (See, I told you I was out of synonyms for 'amazing'.)

In fact it's at this point that I realise that I've been staring at Craig Blundell pretty much solidly for the majority of the set so far. Yes, it's easily done when he's right in front of you, but then again, there's a reason I'm drawn to that side of the stage - there's nothing like watching a phenomenal drummer at close range, and Blunders is one of the best. Crazy time signatures? Pah, he laughs in the face of any time signature you can name (and hundreds you can't.) Patterns only previously thought playable by drum machines? Yep. Ridiculous fills every couple of bars which raise the standard over and over? You bet. In fact, I would happily go and watch a whole gig of him just playing drums - as these lucky folks at the Gadget show live witnessed the other week.

It's not 'Milliontown', though, without the "oboe" solo during the quiet section in the middle, with its customary man-love moment, as John crosses the stage, to play Jem's keyboard and gaze lovingly into his eyes. And it wouldn't be a Frost* gig if it passed without humorous incident, so Jem has thoughtfully programmed the sound of dogs barking onto the key required for the last note, which causes John to giggle like a little girl.

It's also at this point that I notice that a piece of fluff from the Santa hat Jem was wearing at the start of the set has become attached to the stubble on the back of his head like a mini-mullet- a fate which also befell his ex-bandmate Jim Sanders at a previous Tinyfish gig, and makes me strangely happy. The song eventually reaches its many climaxes and fake endings (not before he's changed the lyrics of the last section to "My lovely Scala..."), and finishes with a roar absolutely befitting to what we've just witnessed. 

Let's hope this year is finally the year of Frost*'s third album - which sounds like it will be well worth the wait - and there are more chances to hear these amazing songs live, to watch Craig playing, and for me to get my arse felt up by more middle aged men.


Frost* setlist:

New Song 1 (Heartstrings?)

New Song 2 (Fathers?)
Black Light Machine
Dear Dead Days
Band Intros

It's at this point that there's a choice to be made. We have possibly the best spot in the house, from a visual point of view anyway, but we desperately need a drink. Looking at the crowd and assessing (correctly) that there's no way either of us will make it out and back again, we decide to relinquish our position to the It Bites "even-more-faithful" and head out to the foyer, where we get our drink and have a quick chat with Nellie at the Merch Desk (buy the calendar - it's for a good cause and it contains several of our friends and their photos!).

And then...

It Bites

... start playing, so we decide to go back into the room and watch from the back. Not that that proves to be an option, as we go up to the doors and realise that the lucky people who have made it in are so tightly rammed that the doors won't even open. We therefore head off to take our chances in the corridors of prog, to see where we end up.

The design of the venue is actually really good fun, because you never know where you'll find yourself - if you're lucky, like some of our gits... er, I mean friends, you'll stumble across the VIP bar, with a large window onto the stage from up above the throngs, the sound piped in directly from the mixing desk, and prog celebs like Matt Stevens and Kavus from Knifeworld to chat to. If you're unlucky, like us, you'll find yourself in the topmost bar, which is 90% empty, zero queue at the bar, comfy sofas... it'd be lovely if there were any way to see the stage from here - sadly those more proactive than us have bagged all the spots by the balcony so no such luck. It becomes apparent that the venue's advertised capacity includes having 150 people in this bar, all of whom are currently in the main room.

So it's back downstairs to try again, and we do manage to sneak inside at the back just in time for 'Plastic Dreamer' - a Christmassy classic, as John Mitchell in his second role of the night describes it. And so we stand for a few songs, just listening to the band, which actually proves to be excellent fun as they're sounding the best I've heard them so far. Nathan King is on bass, also on double duties tonight, giving a welcome boost to the rhythm section and knocking rock-solid if unflashy drummer Bob Dalton up a notch or two. And John Beck, of course, founder member, key songwriter, keyboard wizard - there wouldn't be an It Bites without him.

Or I'm assuming that this is the line-up, I can't verify that because this is my view:

For all I know, JM's being backed up by Daniel O'Donnell and Anne Widdecombe on Uzbekistani nose flute.

Luckily Karin finds a little raised hobbit hole in the wall at the back, in which she can just about stand with crooked neck, and we pass a nice half hour in an odd role reversal where she towers above me watching the gig while I examine people's scalps for nits and listen to the excellent sound mix (apparently at this venue you can either see, or hear good sound). The best bit of the gig for both of us are the blistering renditions of some of the best tracks from this year's amazing 'Map of the Past' album (spoiler - it's on my end of year list), starting with current single 'Cartoon Graveyard' (as played by Dermot O'Leary on Radio 2 - surely the crowning achievement of anyone's career), and moving on to 'Send No Flowers' and proggiest song on the album 'Meadow and the Stream' with its funky time signatures and widdly keyboards.

Sadly at this point Karin's neck starts to complain, so we forgo 'The Wind that Shakes the Barley' for a bit of fresh air, and are just contemplating heading home when I hear the opening strains of something awesome. "That's... they're playing... what is that?", I start blabbering. "Once Around the World!", calls Nellie from across the foyer - but it's too late, I'm already running for the doors back towards the action. 

And so I spend the last 20 minutes of the main gig in aural rapture as intense as my ocular deprivation, rocking out to the keyboard solos of It Bites' finest epic on my empty Diet Coke bottle, singing loudly at the back of someone's head and ooohing and ahhing as I spot bucketloads of fake snow being unloaded onto the band's heads. It's bloody ace.

Oh, you would raise your camera above your head
at the exact same time as me, wouldn't you? Git.

And that, for me, is where the gig ends. As I head out to collect Karin and get on our way, I hear the band start up 'Kiss Like Judas', which I assume is the last song, but I fully expect someone to leave a comment now telling me that Jem comes back on and him and John Beck play the whole of 'Relayer' with Widdy on the spoons.

It's been a cracking night, and I'm happy for Twang, managing to sell 800-odd tickets this year compared to the 250-odd people at last year's Frost* Peel gig. Either It Bites have lots more fans (probable), or there are lots more prog fans willing to buy tickets for gigs at Central London venues where you can book tickets online and you don't have to get back from Norbiton at midnight. I'm going to say both - it looks like the House of Progression is going places. (Let's just hope they're places where everyone can see, eh?)

It Bites Setlist:


The Big Machine
Plastic Dreamer
Yellow Christian
Cartoon Graveyard
Send no Flowers
Meadow and the Stream
The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Once Around the World
Kiss Like Judas (how come It Bites get an encore, eh? I thought this was a double headline gig... huh? HUH?)


  1. Another cracking read young James, thank you for that. I did indeed find the secret entrance to VIP lounge where I saw Tomskerous and Beano and managed to give Jem his Chrimbo card....I felt rather like I'd broken in to Buck Palace though so I didn't stay long.

  2. Did the drunken thief look a bit like a young David Seaman??! If so he completely ruined most of the It Bites set with his jumping around and swaying (he went home with a bruised shin thanks to me though!!)

  3. I knew I was in the VIP lounge cos there were a load of people I knew :D