Live Review: Counterstrike Metal Festival - Birmingham
16th April 2022
Line Up: Dead Mob, Appocaholics, BornZero, Chaplain, King Abyss, Callous Hands, Embolectomy, Infested Angel
Words: Matt Noble
On a sunny Easter Saturday, I head down to Scruffy Murphy's in Dale End for Counterstrike Festival for a day of music that couldn't be any more different from the glorious weather outside. Everyone in Birmingham with a penchant for loud, guitar-driven music knows Scruffy’s; more than just a rock pub, it’s hosted countless gigs over the years, including a memorable weekender in November that celebrated its 20th anniversary of business. Counterstrike has had a few last-minute lineup shuffles due to illness and the dreaded plague that’s brought the world to a standstill, meaning that Eradikator, Internal Conflict and Absolution are no longer on the bill. There is a little confusion on opening times, but Dead Mob open the event at 2pm, earlier than expected. I’m regretful to have missed their performance, but I am told by an early-going friend that they put on a fantastic set to a small crowd.
Appocaholics take to the stage next, with a sound that combines 80s punk with 90s alternative music into a catchy cacophony. Led by a charismatic frontman possessing a great scream, they interact with their enthusiastic crowd, who open up circle pits at the front. The bill today is more focussed on extreme metal than Appocaholics’ grungy undertones, but they still own their spot on the lineup, and there are a few moments of real heaviness, brought about by a particularly impressive drum performance. The singer announces that it’s his 21st birthday before launching into the song 21st - which seems to be more about the 21st century than coming of age - but I’m sure this isn’t a birthday he’ll forget quickly. The camaraderie between band members onstage is infectious and brings a good energy to their set. I’d love to see them again.
‘We are Born Zero, straight from the gutter!’. Bringing a much darker tone to the stage, that remains for the rest of the afternoon, Born Zero show off a hard-hitting mix of nu-metal, hardcore and groove metal to a somewhat thinner crowd than Appocaholics before them. They take this in their stride, though, with an energetic set, full of stage presence. Jamie, their hard-hitting drummer, gets up on his feet to ignite the crowd before some of the more intense moments in GBH or Tear Down The Walls, for example. Each member is given time to shine, with a lead bass approach in some songs adding cool layers to the music, and Lost in Reality has a nice guitar solo partway through. Levi’s vocal performance is dynamic, with raps, gutturals, and baritone and tenor singing. Falling Away, a bouncy, catchy new single to be released this Friday, goes down particularly well towards the end. It’s likely they’ll be higher up the bill next time.
Next up are Coventry metallers Chaplain, who I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic when I was on a bill with them with one of my own bands. They open with Ascension from 2020’s A Disgusting Idea of Humanity, an atmospheric, marching rager with tinges of doom in their bouncy death metal sound. Their slower grooves engage the crowd and see heads bobbing along nicely in songs such as Ruin. A captivating frontman, Andrew windmills, headbangs and gets in the crowd along with their guitarist at times. His vocals are one of the band’s strongest points today, carrying lots of power behind them, and he teams up nicely with their bassist when he joins in on backing vocals for a series of potent, catchy, fist-pumping hooks. The anthemic Our Supremacy is a real highlight in this regard. The drummer’s unique percussive approach is a real point of interest for Chaplain. She handles tempo changes confidently, with inventive tom fills and double kick rushes adding flair. The band are not exactly watertight throughout, but sound better as they ease into their set and they pump out banger after banger.
King Abyss are extremely unlucky today in playing to a fairly empty room, but those early evening-goers are treated to a razor-sharp display of ripping, thrashy melodic death metal. They’re unfazed, assuring us that they’ll put on a show regardless of how many of us there are. They certainly do! On top form today, they dazzle with precise, fast drumming and a series of extremely tight, flashy guitar leads. It’s my first experience with King Abyss today, and as a relatively uninitiated member of the crowd, I’m surprised to learn that today’s quartet usually play as a five-piece. Their set is that convincing that you wouldn’t know that they usually, and ideally, have two guitar players. An unexpected but hugely effective moment comes at the end of the set, when they unleash a disgusting, brutal chug right as Eyes Always Watching begins. Complete with pick scrapes and ugly growls, they prove that they can groove just as well as tear it up at lightning-speed. Consider me highly impressed all around.
Birmingham death metal mob Callous Hands take the stage around 7:30pm to by far the biggest crowd of the day. A slow, epic intro to Pirate sets the tone with ringing chords and guitar harmonies before a blasting drum fill leads into a death metal frenzy. Their sound draws from melodeath, hardcore, doom, and all sorts of heavy music, with prog-tinged playing to a fantastically high technical standard. Huge choruses, as found on The Great Unknown, mesh with face-contorting breakdowns over the likes of Suffocate or Fading Light to create a multi-layered, well-rounded setlist. Frontman Kieran brings his own podium bearing the band logo, to tower over the audience at the front, making for a commanding stage presence alongside a dynamic and varied vocal performance. They roll with the technical issues, too; as Jim’s guitar cuts out during closing song Earth Mover he laughs it off and takes the rare opportunity to see his own band live and have a mosh for half a track. Overall they’re tighter than a (insert ending of your choice) and these relative newcomers perform like true professionals. You couldn’t bet against them tearing up much bigger stages very soon.
Embolectomy make the journey up from Southampton to sub-headline. Brutal, slamming, and boasting the most violent moshes of the night, they sound like a well-oiled machine. With this in mind, I’m again surprised to learn that their usual quintet has been reduced to four, similarly to King Abyss before them, although this time one of their two guitarists fills in for their absent bassist. I’d never have guessed, judging by the way he slaps, pops and taps with two hands, a gnarly tone complementing the fretwork. The drummer also stands out with precise blastbeating and double-bass work. Frontman Jordan, likely the tallest person in the venue that day, towers over us all, conducting the audience in between gurgling screams. Stage presence is one of Embolectomy’s many strengths, and one particular moment stands out as both guitarist and bassist get into the crowd for a particularly gut-wrenching beatdown, seeing concertgoers erupt into a sea of fists, two-steps and flailing limbs. The groovy Ritualistic Endowment engages those standing further back (possibly for their own safety) as well. Jordan acknowledges his crowd before closing the set, and they’re sure to return down South with some new fans tonight.
Tonight’s main attraction are Birmingham death metal trio Infested Angel. They have only really been active as a band since the pandemic existed, although I wouldn’t have guessed this prior to researching that fact for myself. Drummer Pat has an impressive kit, with a couple of bass drums beneath a seemingly endless supply of toms, but he proves that it’s not all for show with frighteningly fast blast beats and supreme control of the band’s tempo. Andrew, on vocal and guitar duty, has an utterly demonic scream, and impresses with dissonant guitar solos, such as over the doomy rhythms in Denaturate. Most of their material has that classic, old-school death metal feel to it, ugly and pulverising, and the crowd is receptive to these familiar stylings. Yet Unholy Decay has a classical prelude and a melodic undercurrent, and it wouldn’t be fair to accuse them of one-dimensionality. The brutal, blast-heavy Torture Condemnation closes the night off, its crushing, melodious outro a fitting conclusion for the event. They’ll be on tour with both Embolectomy and Chaplain in the summer. Fans of the old-school, the crushing, and the underground could do worse than to get themselves to one of their dates.