Vicious Vacation

A DAY IN HEAVY METAL MECCA: GRIM KIM DOES BIRMINGHAM

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birmingham

So I’ve been living in the UK for about four months now, and have managed to take in quite a lot of this “culture” thing they’re so fond of over here. I’ve been to nine countries, eight major metal festivals, and a handful of cities in Ol’ Blighty itself; I’ve gate-crashed hotel parties in Norway with the drummer of Swallow the Sun, stage-dived into a sea of muddy grind freaks in the Czech Republic, gotten roaring drunk with Wolves in the Throne Room in the Netherlands, met Gaahl’s boyfriend in France, gotten lost in Rome, watched Electric Wizard blow an amp in Manchester, lost my mind to Eyehategod at Hellfest, seen Manowar (‘nuff said there) – and that was just the first couple months. Between all the metal, mud, bruises, whiskey, calimocho, hard cider, and terrifying Czech liquor (Becherovka and Fernet are no fucking joke, even if it is Kevin Sharp and Danny Herrera pouring you a shot), I realized that, somehow, something was still missing.

To my immense chagrin, I had yet to take that all-too-necessary pilgrimage up through the Black Country and into the Unholy Land itself – to Birmingham, England. Every metaller worth his leather (and several million other music fans besides) knows exactly why this unimpressive, coal-smudged city matters so much. Birmingham is the ancestral home of heavy metal. Everything – whether it be doom, black metal, powerviolence, or even the plague that is deathcore – everything came from here. The famed Mermaid Pub provided a fertile breeding ground for extreme metal, nestled as it was in a dodgy part of town where the cops ignored the punkers and longhairs milling around out front as the early rumblings of a deadly new sound thundered away upstairs The city itself was the original stomping ground of the dirty sexy hard rock’n’roll of Led Zeppelin, the NWOBHM gods in Judas Priest, the crusty proto-grind of Sore Throat, the scummy grindcore forefathers of Napalm Death, the industrial noise terror of Godflesh, and the one and only BLACK FUCKING SABBATH.

Capsule’s Supersonic Fest, the UK’s most open-minded and forward-thinking experimental music event, happened to boast an unbelievably stacked lineup this year, which provided me with the perfect excuse to finally make the trip up to Brum. I headed north last weekend to catch the holy-shit Saturday lineup of Iron Lung, The Master Musicians of Bukkake, The Accused, and the monolithic pre-Sunn 0))) emissions of Thorr’s Hammer. To my immense delight, seldom-seen Japanese sludge/doom fiends CORRUPTED were due to headline, which was reason enough for me to make the trip.

Thusly, two hours after I left my flat in North London and way too much money later, I was there: Heavy Metal Mecca. No shining walls or lithe male virgins in Hellhammer shirts awaited me, though – just dingy sidewalks, abandoned buildings, and endless construction sites. Before I got to Birmingham, I’d entertained notions of doing a bit of Black Sabbath-inspired sightseeing – swinging by the Mermaid, having a pint at one of the bars the Sab Four used to frequent, visiting the factory that claimed Tony Iommi’s fingertips and unwittingly launched a million doom bands – but as soon as I stepped off the train, I realized how fanciful those aims had been. Not only was I caught up in the madness of the festival and general amplifier worship of Thorr’s Hammer and Corrupted’s jawdropping, flawless, and mercilessly doomladen sets, I realized that it’s damn near impossible to find your way around the main train station in Birmingham, let alone obscure landmarks or out-of-the-way bars. After Iron Lung fucked everyone’s day up with their two-man powerviolent assault, I wandered past the festival complex and went off to explore the area a bit anyway. I sprawled out on the pavement next to a construction site to indulge in some crisps and people-watching, and was immediately depressed by what greeted me.

Almost forty years after “Black Sabbath” was released, Birmingham is still a shithole.  It’s bleak, it’s grimy, it’s desolate. Step five feet outside the city center, and you’re greeted with the smog-choked atmosphere and droning factory hums that kept the city limping along from its coal-mining past, out of the smoke and rubble of WWII bombings, out of the grasping clutches of Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher, and grudgingly, painfully, into the modern day. Walk along the pavement at the first smoky sign of sunset, and you’re greeted by dimly-lit kebab joints, unfriendly-looking pubs, and miles upon miles of scaffolding, propping up vacant shells as workmen keep busy tearing down neglected buildings and building up new ones that will fall surely silent in less than a decade’s time anyway. Curtains are drawn, people walk with their heads down, and massive warehouses and apartment blocks dominate the post-apocalyptic skyline.

Birmingham is not a pretty place, and even a short stroll past its dubious attractions make it easy to see why four young lads from factory families reached for a couple old guitars and did their best to drown out the clanging din of industry with some heavy sounds of their own.  Bill Ward used to drum along to the rumbles of the factory outside his window, and we all know why Iommi started tuning down so low; the heavy metal thunder of Birmingham itself played a crucial role in the development of the band. Who knows if they’d have been able to, or even wanted to, achieve those dark, depressive tones, borne of working-class pathos and disaffected youth, that soon became their trademark had they hailed from a more hospitable environment? For that alone, Birmingham deserves our respect, no matter how much it, well, sucks.

After my short-lived bout of urban exploration, I headed back to the venue in time to check out a special presentation on the Home of Metal Project, an online archive conceived and compiled by Kerrang! DJ Johnny Doom (of legendary Brummie crust bands Sore Throat and Doom) with help from a legion of volunteers and bands with the aim to raise awareness of Birmingham and the Midlands’ place in history as the home of heavy metal. Johnny Doom showed a film highlighting the goals and successes of the Home of Metal Project, and held an illuminating roundtable discussion with Nic Bullen (ex-Napalm Death/Scorn) and Steven O’Malley and Greg Anderson of Sunn 0)))/Thorr’s Hammer/Southern Lord Records to discuss the effect of the region, the sound, and the bands on their lives in heavy music (with unexpectedly hilarious results).

I was only there for a day (well, a day that stretched into night that stretched into morning, with too much booze and a catnap on a hardwood floor in between) but that was long enough to soak up the city’s vibes, see one of my favorite bands, snag Dommedagsnatt on vinyl, and gain a greater understanding of the coal-black roots of heavy metal. And so, the next morning, with a sleeping village fading into the distance behind me and “Behind the Wall of Sleep” in my headphones, I said my goodbyes to Birmingham and headed back south towards London.

-GK

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