By Bec Wolfers
When I get to The Hifi the evening of March 21, the audience is a sea of black t-shirts. Rollins Band, Helmet, Black Flag, Cog and of course, The Mark of Cain, are heavily represented. The room is already pretty full, and we’re still two bands away from the headliner: this is some serious fan dedication.
First up is two-piece Theseashallnothavethem, an instrumental band from the Gold Coast. Their tiny membership and sunny home base belie their epic, profound sound. As the duo take to the stage, swirling guitar noise emanates from Curt Emerton’s Epiphone, a bass loop drones from somewhere, and swirls of mysterious, 80s darkwave sounds ensnare the sizable crowd into a web of entranced silence.
Mat Wilton’s live drums sound so tight, they could be looped. Granted, this probably has something to do with playing to a click, in order to complement the percussion samples used. Even so, his Yamaha kit has one epic sound – the toms solo in one song lulls me into spasms of delight (I’m a sucker for the deep throb of a tom drum).
Theseashallnothavethem choose a stellar playing order with their tracks; the lack of vocals isn’t noticed, as the band build up a wonderful rise, swell, momentum and crescendo throughout the set. One of their slowest songs is a highlight for me. The music is so expressive I can almost see it – with mallets used on the tom-heavy drums, I see large, bold, shapes, and the shimmering highlights of ambient feedback and cymbals are like flecks of silver and gold. This is movie-soundtrack stuff.
It’s really amazing to watch how Theseashallnothavethem navigate their live performance. With only two people, they manage to fill every inch of airspace in the sizable cavern that is The Hifi. There is a depth to this band’s sound that leaves me spellbound. They truly raise the vibration of the room, setting up a heady expectation of what is to come.
Unfortunately, Melbournites Blacklevel Embassy, to me, do not build upon that energy. From their weird, unprofessional-seeming sound check, I’m already getting a bad vibe from this three-piece of guitar, bass and drums. When they begin playing, all I can hear is heavy dissonance that never quite seems to come together properly. Perhaps the sound at The Hifi is the issue; everything seems muddy and indistinct, and vocals are often off-key. It can be tough to get a crystal clear sound with a band this heavy and loud. I have to buy earplugs from the bar to deal. As Blacklevel Embassy are the national supports for Mark Of Cain (following them to all of their tour dates), I’m wondering if there’s something I’m missing about them – but no matter how I look at it, I just can’t seem to like this set much. There are a few exciting moments; a few guitar riffs that make me go “fuck, yeah”, and some mad basslines from Brett O’Riley. The band has a lot of energy onstage, and singer Adam Cooper has a prowling, confident stage presence that’s engaging to watch. I like drummer Dan McKay’s laser cat-eyes shirt. But I want more to love.
As much as they obviously have a rather brutal, punk-tinged, New York heavy hardcore sound, I can’t help but detect something close to cock rock beneath the layers of other genres. Adam seems to have a bit of a ‘tude, and I’m not sure if even the crowd digs it. I see many people nodding their heads, but in a sea of 200+ people, only about five take to the dance floor sporadically throughout the set.
With a strong final song, the band somewhat redeem themselves, with Brett’s driving, distorted bassline a winner in the track. All in all, I find myself underwhelmed by Blacklevel Embassy – they had some good moments, but didn’t seem able to follow through with any wholly engaging songs. Their sound got very same-y by the end of their set, and I found myself wanting another dose of Theseashallnothavethem, to get rid of the cloying heaviness that had just clogged my ears.
If nothing else, at least Blacklevel Embassy have brought the heavy, waking the crowd from their chilled slumber. Excited anticipation builds for The Mark of Cain, as people swarm to the dance floor. The trio appears suddenly with a minimum of fanfare, and the crowd goes nuts. “Brisbane, it’s been a long time,” singer John booms, with a smile. This is The Mark of Cain’s first national tour in 6 years.
Brothers John and Kim Scott are getting on in age (understandably, as the band was formed in 1984!). But they play as competently as ever, John’s Rickenbacker and Kim’s heavy, distorted bass sound locking in with each other immediately to bring ‘First Time’ (a fitting opener!) to life. John Stainer is currently on tour with Tomahawk, so in the grand tradition of The Mark of Cain’s ever-revolving door of drummers, 22-year-old Eli Green is standing in for these shows. His youth is immediately forgotten as he holds his own, banging out a hard, tight foundation for the songs.
The sound is great for The Mark of Cain – everything, even John’s voice, is crystal clear. The heaviness comes across just fine, and I don’t even need my earplugs anymore. Kim’s signature driving, cement-mixer bass plays beautifully off of Jon’s sprawling, evolving riffs.
Set-wise, it’s a good mix of old favourites and tracks from the band’s latest 2012 album, Songs of the Third and Fifth. Mid-set, the band break out the heavy jams, with Eli’s brutal drums accentuating the progressive breakdowns and off-beat timing in Tell Me. The energy grows from there. A small pit forms in the audience, but this is not a hedonistic, reckless mosh – everyone still seems respectful of their neighbours.
The band bulldozes through the set with no fuss between songs. I get the sense of a very professional and efficient group of guys; there’s not a lot of ego flying around in their attitude or clothing. They’re a no-frills band that just want to play great music. John switches his Rickenbacker to a Fender Tele during Avenger. In The Contender, as John talk-sings, “I could’ve been a contender/I could’ve been almost anything/If not for you”, a touched punter whispers into my ear, “That song is so true”.
Interloper’s blasting heaviness is a crowd favourite. The driving riffs, downtuned chainsaw bass and mad-preacher vocals of 1000 Days are a highlight for me.
Too soon, the band break out an abrupt ending, to thunderous applause. The lights come on, but the crouching guitar tech in the wings isn’t fooling anyone. The Mark of Cain inevitably come back for a three-song encore, finishing with the song everyone’s been wanting to hear, Point Man.
“If you listen to me, I’ll save your life/ Are you listening to me?!”
It’s been a great night. As we filter out of The Hifi, sweaty, exhausted, but smiling, I think about the impact this band has had on these people. Having been around for over two decades, there will be people who have grown up to this music – gone through school, taken to the road, had babies, settled down, perhaps retired. They may not be household names to everyone, but Mark of Cain are the soundtrack to lives. May they go on making music forever.