Devilskin, His Master’s Voice & Sumo Cyco – Powerstation October 21, 2017

Hamilton rockers Devilskin headlined a three-act bill at Auckland’s Powerstation. The 13th Floor sent Cameron Miller along to review and Ivan Karczewski to photograph…

Paradoxically, there are many ways to be unoriginal. I saw three bands at the Powerstation last night, all of whom could fairly be accused of being generic or derivative in one way or another. One was great, one was awful and one was just dull.

I spent a lot of time pondering just what the band I greatly enjoyed had that the others didn’t, since originality was out of the question. Was it entirely my prejudice? Did I just like their style of music more, and that was the only difference? Am I missing something vital, or is everyone around me wrong? What is art, even? Such questions tend to bubble up when two thirds of a three hour gig leaves you unmoved.

His Master’s Voice were the lesser known local openers for the two international acts, but for me they were the clear highlight of the show.  Jumping back in time to when rock and blues really were the Devil’s music, they stomped and rollicked through a set that unashamedly borrowed from some very clear influences.

Here was Led Zeppelin swagger, Black Sabbath proto-doom, swampy Delta Blues and shades of stoner rock. I immediately forgave them for being so widely derivative, because they pulled it off with such enormous joy and panache. This wasn’t mere copy-pasting, but a set of well known tropes embraced lovingly and with intimate knowledge. His Master’s Voice also have a great grasp on song structure, knowing exactly how to build up to a crescendo, transition into a solo, or bring the main riff thundering back in. I could hear every instrument clearly, including the bass, which is always a point from me in loud guitar bands. The standouts for me were Jesse Sorenson’s clean vocal bellow, which just dripped old school rock n roll, and Rene Harvey’s bombastic but fluid drums. First time seeing these guys, a new one to watch for me.

Then it was Sumo Cyco’s turn, and oh dear. This band had me searching desperately for the right metaphor for all the wrong reasons. This was pop-punk for people who miss nu-metal; a loose collection of heavy genres presented in their most commercially sanitised form, stripped of any authenticity or roots, all chopped up together like poser salad.

This was the essence of the film Suicide Squad distilled into band form; wacky pseudo-edge with no real substance, a group of people very invested in convincing you they just didn’t give a fuck. The lyrics sounded like they were written by someone who’d found Avril Lavigne’s Sk8er Boi SO rebellious when they were 12, and had grown up maybe three years since then (DO WHAT WE WANT WHEN WE WANT CAUSE WE WANNA!). If you’ve thought that through and realised that puts us around 2005, well exactly. Following the throwback to classic rock, this was a throwback to an era when Limp Bizkit was getting hit singles.

Despite what you might think, I didn’t loathe these people. Their music and their image, absolutely. But the band showed a genuine love of performing and interacting with the crowd. Frontwoman Sever especially pulled out all the stops. Edginess aside, she was energetic, likeable and full of antics to rile the up-front folks in the crowd. Traipsing to the back to get a shot and sing on the bar, or getting down amongst the crowd to direct the pit up close, is commendable audience camraderie. Gimmicks don’t save her lack of talent though.

Her voice veered wildly between styles she showed about equal ability for, from nasally chanted pop-punk anthems to Korn-esque “i’m crazy, really” muttering to embarrassingly powerless low growls. The guitars were no better. If you’re going to direct me to the floor so you can give me a big, simple riff to leap up and go nuts for, it better be a hell of a riff. It better grab me by my spinal cord and rumble in my gut. Sumo Cyco’s guitar sound throughout got about as heavy metal as crumpling tin foil. The drummer must have been consistently on beat, at least, as I didn’t really notice him much. Kudos?

Next up headliners Devilskin.

After the trainwreck that was Sumo Cyco, these chart topping hard rockers were fine. For the first few songs it was refreshing to have a vocalist who could actually summon some power and guitarists who had a grasp on the traditions of their genre. It wore off quickly though, and before long I was bored.

For a band whose promo material proclaims “the art of song-writing is back,” Devilskin sure get repetitive. Intro riff, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge (harsh vocals go here), chorus, outro riff, abrupt cutoff. It’s not just the structure either, which could be forgivable if they brought interesting riffs or musical complexity. They don’t. The riffs are simple and for the most part slow. My favourite guitar sections were the few faster moments, which combined with the double kick drums were the only times the energy Devilskin were evoking actually reached me in any way. For the most part the simply measured grooves lacked any power or impact to make my head start bobbing.

Let’s talk about Jennie Skulander. The frontwoman is always a focus of image and marketing, and Devilskin proclaim this one’s talents “set her apart from any vocalist New Zealand has put up so far.” Which, Jesus. I mean, she’s good. She’s my favourite part of the band, which is admittedly scant praise. Her cleans have a nice rich sound to them, and she can belt out some very strong crescendos at her top form.

Sadly last night the mix was a bit out, so the guitars were competing with her in the upper registers. This was especially sad on the song Voices, which cheesy as it is does give Skulander room to really stretch. I don’t like her harsh vocals at all though. They’re not as embarrassing as Sever’s, but they don’t sound disgusting or evil or enraged or sinister or any of the effects harsh vocals are usually employed for. They’re just there, and if that’s all then what’s the point?

Devilskin had clearly put a lot of work into their stage show, with lights flashing and roving, and smoke machine blasts firing out over the front row. They also performed energetically and with enjoyment that was infectious to the appreciative crowd. Plenty of people seemed to have an excellent time at their show, with fans opening up mosh pits, headbanging, dancing, and one fellow even getting shirtless and jumping over a couch (anarchy!). If any of those read this, I’m sure they’ll say “what gig were YOU at?” To that I can only say I wish I’d been at the same one as them. It looked like a lot of fun.

Cameron Miller

Click on any image to view a photo gallery by Ivan Karczewski: