You need to see to believe just how small Sheffield’s Café Totem really is. Its unassuming black front conceals a labyrinth of strangely placed rooms and steep stairways that make even the soberest guests feel a little unsteady with their step. With your hand on the walls pasted with gig posters, you make your way down the narrow steps to the basement. This is where everything happens. The matchbox-sized room is overbrimming with shoulders touching shoulders; people weaving in and out of every fracture in the crowd they can find; the band, you note, are sweatier than usual – a lot sweatier, in fact – and so are you.
Imagine how that is when you throw Dirty Hit’s latest conscripts King Nun into the mix, on their UK headline tour, supported with Valeras, and the cream of Sheffield scene. What you get, let me tell you, is an incredible gig.
Kicking it all off was jangle pop outfit, Sweetness. Their set list was spritzed with songs from their latest EP, ‘An Honest Man’. Its title track indulges in the rambling poetics of Morrissey. Though The Smiths were prone to sparsity, Sweetness, performing ‘An Honest Man’, let the track-bound with a free-spirited, rollicking instrumental. Their frontman has kept a British charm to his voice that’s often bartered with; ‘Woman Delayed’ sees it wash languidly over the pace of percussion that runs far ahead. Though Sweetness’ stock in trade is in infectious, sparkling melodies that are a pocket of sunshine, ‘Get Off The Stage’ shifts in a lower gear. The band take aim at musicians who have long outstayed their welcome, in particular, the likes of Morrissey who – though they are sonically inspired by – has fallen from grace since his heyday. “Oh, won’t you give it a rest?” their vocalist warbles, “We’ve all loved and despised you.” For a band only officially four songs deep into their careers, Sweetness hold a bounty of promise. They have the skill and intelligence to see them right, in a time when they’re still forming their own musical identity.
One of Valeras’ songs is called ‘Knives and Flowers’, and in many ways, that’s how they sound. The Reading five-piece is a rose with the thorns. Lead singer Katie King has a voice that has been absolutely primed for their grunge sensibilities which run seamlessly from record to stage. When it comes to that, King knows that less is always more. ‘Louder’ shows her voice is like gossamer, fine and delicate, but not without an edge which firmly defines Valeras as a rock band. They had barely fit on such a small stage, but that only added to their performance. The instrumental of ‘Knives and Flowers’ comes crashing down, thriving on the claustrophobia. Their latest single, hot off the press, ‘Intention’ was more immersive with a wall of breezy backing vocals surrounding you on all sides. You’d be forgiven, on the bridge, for thinking the track was a lazy summer dream until the guitars rip into the chorus. Stylistically, Valeras are in a league all of their own. Their sound carries a conviction that can guarantee, be it on record or live, that they will never fail.
It feels like King Nun came into being fully-formed. It’s as if they knew from the start the art behind anthemic choruses, tangled riffs and percussion that strikes like bullets. The set was a balance between tracks from their debut EP, ‘I Have Love’, without neglecting the songs that paved the way to it. ‘Hung Around’ prowled on stage with its snarling start-stop pace; James’ guitar solo on this track is an indulgence enough on record – hearing it live is another thing entirely. Though ‘Tulip’ and ‘Speakerface’ are blow-out riots honed to take over your mind and body, of their older material, ‘Sponge’ and its twinkling melodies are a cool antidote on stage. It builds a different atmosphere entirely; King Nun don’t use sonic brutality as a crutch to keep them standing – they embrace violence and vulnerability in the same breath. The tracks on ‘I Have Love’ are the best illustrators of that bittersweet taste. The staggering, stomping ‘Heavenly She Comes’ brings out the wild-eyed chaos of King Nun. Theo is at his most captivating on this track, descending into this incredible, rabid madness as he throws himself around the stage, screaming bloody murder. Every chorus, from ‘Chinese Medicine’ to the chant-worthy ‘Family Portrait’ is an invitation to drunkenly sing your heart out – it doesn’t matter if it’s not what you’d usually do; it doesn’t matter, even, if you’re drunk. You really can’t resist King Nun, even if you tried. They know, with an absolute certainty, who they are and exactly where they’re going.
Words by Sophie Walker
Image credit: James Harker.