We Are The Physics, The Rivers, Heels Catch Fire

Tim Miller 26/06/2007

When tonight's first act Heels Catch Fire don their guitars, grip drumsticks and turn to face the audience, they're greeted by the uncomfortable realisation that there are more of them on stage than standing in front of them to watch them perform. The Brighton Gloucester, hosting Barfly gigs in Sussex's seaside resort, only offers a standing area for about 63 people, but even with the tiny stage crammed in at the dark end of this decidedly dingy makeshift venue, the glaring spotlights picking out exactly no-one standing within ten feet of the stage must yawn like the Grand Canyon. “Sorry to get you here so early,” mumbles lead singer/guitarist Elliot Richards. “But you've paid your money to come in; you might as well come and watch”.

People do emerge from the leather seats by the entrance, and those of us lurking in the shadows nearer the stage shuffle into the light a bit more, until there are at least 20 people who, for argument's sake, are categorically part of the audience. With this having to suffice, Heels Catch Fire launch into their set. A four piece, they sport a range of Brightonian haircuts - Elliot's fringe curls thickly over one eye, bassist Mike Hornsby's flicks emo-ically away, lead guitarist Laura O'Rourke's Pulp Fiction-era Uma Thurman cut framing sleek, elegant cheekbones gives way to a ruffled mane at the back, and Dale Frost, on drums, looks like he hasn't bothered for several weeks. While pondering over these descriptions, it emerges that Heels Catch Fire are excellent live.

Immensely tight, their fine-tuned sound spits out of the Barfly's sound system from the word go, a furious and uncompromising mix of dual guitars, steeping bass riffs and staccato drum patterns in time signatures like 5/4, 3/4 and what seems like 999/4 (that is, the song appears to run and run, and only the band know exactly what is going on). But teased out in the noise, once her guitar is properly mixed higher up, is Laura's delicate fingering, her high-fret riffery cutting in between Elliot's own flawlessly picked melodies and thundered power chords. I'm a big fan of twin propelled guitar lines, brilliant when done the right way, and Heels Catch Fire show a clear indication of knowing how to construct the most intricate of wanderings along their guitar necks. And to great effect: this band is grounded in the kind of tumbling rock that made Forward, Russia! so refreshing, a carefully-weighted mixture of pop awareness - straight-up choruses sung pitch perfectly by Elliot - hidden among the incongruous surroundings of spiky guitar-driven, off-kilter songs.

With such an exciting start to what could so easily have been a nothing gig - it is after all a Tuesday at a small, gloomy Brighton pub - it's a real disappointment having The Rivers follow on next. The Toploader lookalike frontman tells the crowd to “come a bit fucking closer”, his big hair and bigger ego almost touching the ceiling. The Rivers, I'm confided in, are friends of the Kooks, and sound like them too. In fact, they also sound akin to Razorlight, only without the tunes, and that to some people might be the worst insult found in the English language. It's not that The Rivers are terrible; the five members clearly enjoy their set of four-minute indie pop songs that probably sound credible on record*, all jangly chords and the occasional sparkle of subtle picking. It's just that Onka's Big Moka and his band have basically missed the boat: in Brighton of all places, one of the most variable and unusual of UK cities, it doesn't matter how well you can mimic the current big-selling chart fodder if you're still playing it in a venue like this to no more than 60 people. A hasty round of applause and half-hearted whoops seem to stem from the sheer exasperation at how long we've been waiting to send them off.

*I wish I hadn't said this: on their MySpace they sound like Razorlight. Only, yep, without the tunes.

With things standing as they do, then, this gig can either go one way or the other, depending how We Are The Physics turn out. Choosing an unfortunate moment to head to the toilets, I return to find the wiry, bespectacled lead singer/bassist of the Physics atop the bass drum belonging to the similarly bespectacled and wiry drummer (brothers, perchance?), and an incomprehensible, pummelling mix of machinegun snare hits and thrashed guitar strings firing in all directions. It's loud, ferociously so, and it turns out to be absolutely wonderful.

After the unremarkable stuff dished out by The Rivers, We Are The Physics suddenly seem the best live band I've ever seen. Indeed, and more realistically, the Physics embody everything missing from the set prior. Youthful, enthusiastic and unpredictable stage antics: at one point (possibly rehearsed, but still), a song grinds to a halt so that the bassist/frontman can have his glasses pushed to the bridge of his nose by one of the two lead guitarists. Crazy eye-dancing abounds: when one song passes into a moment of rare restrain, every band member's eyes flit wildly around the room and the frontman yelps syllabically into his microphone. If there's such a thing as math-rock, then this is clock-rock: with impeccable timing, songs stop and start and within each tiny pause, the enigmatic bundle of elastic energy at the front pointing clockwise to each band member in turn with his guitar. It's funny, it's quirky, it's almost deranged, but it's fantastic to watch.

Their music, too, is a much needed blast of fresh air. Harking back to the opening band of the night with similar off-kilter tendencies, We Are The Physics make sharp, edgy rock that never fails to surprise. Offbeat drums, eccentric barking vocals about the alphabet and bulimia, half-finished atonal riffs: all at one hundred miles an hour, all unstoppable, a breathtaking rollercoaster of a set from what must be the most exciting new band in the UK at the moment.

It has been, after that suspect middle, a successful and engaging night for rejuvenating belief in new music and underground bands. Both Heels Catch Fire and We Are The Physics are bent on deconstructing mainstream perceptions of how rock music should sound like, and both are prime examples of the precocious hidden talent that can bring this level of innovation and originality to a music loving public. Certainly, We Are The Physics deserve to be as big this year as their compatriots The Fratellis, for the right reasons, and on this live showing, the plaudits (outside of those here) surely beckon.