[Photos by AJ Kinney]
[Review by Aaron Ruxbin]
It’s just after 9:30 pm on Tuesday, February 18, 2020, and I am saddled up to the bar at Union Transfer, nursing a Hop Hands, amazed by my luck at finding the Ardmore-based Tired Hands Brewery’s exceedingly aromatic pale ale on draft at the venue. So far, so good. I am here to cover Sheffield Metal-core quintet While She Sleeps, who are currently snaking their way throughout the lower 48 on their first-ever US Headline tour. Devout fans who caught their short support sets at the Trocadero (2017, RIP) and the Fillmore (last May, with Architects) had been waiting for this day to come with eager anticipation, finally able to bask in a full-length
performance from this hardworking band who continue to pay their dues.
Looking over the crowd, predominately Male (about 75%), I see numerous While She Sleeps shirts peppering the attendees: the ‘Sleeps Army’, as the band lovingly refers to their most engaged fans, is clearly ready to rage. The majority of the audience is pressed up against the rails, bathed in an eerie orange and red glow from the house lights while the PA pumps out Nü-metal. Suddenly the dial gets cranked to 11 for the opening bars of Linkin Park’s 2003 alt-radio smash “Faint,” and a discernable buzz reverberates throughout the crowd: it’s showtime!
Suddenly: sirens. While She Sleeps emerges from the bowels of UT, its stage pulled as far forward as the tracks will allow, and the band scatters into position with a sense of urgency. They waste no time in unleashing the percussive assault of ‘Anti-social,’ the riff-filled lead single off of their most recent LP: SO WHAT?
Released via the bands own Sleeps Brothers Records,
this album (their fourth) has been heralded as a landmark achievement. While some lament the inclusion of more electronic, alternative elements into the albums overall songwriting (along with much more ‘cleaner vocals’, heralded as the bands attempt to appeal to a more mainstream audience), it can be argued that adding in these experimental elements have helped WSS create their most challenging and sonically-varied album yet. While they do veer slightly away from the punishing metal-core elements that surged them into popularity on 2017’s ‘You Are We’, they haven’t abandoned those roots on this album, and if anything the mammoth choruses and radio-friendly rock riffs that accentuate the brutality here lend themselves more to bigger rooms and arenas rather than the half-filled floor of UT on a Tuesday.
Those of us who were looking forward to seeing how these new sounds would translate to the live arena did not have to wait long, as the band barraged us with 3 cuts from their new LP right off the bat: ‘Anti-social’ was followed by the finger-tappingly-ferocious ‘I’ve Seen it All’
and then right into the mosh pit-provoking ‘Inspire’, where singer Lawrence ‘Loz’ Taylor’s screaming before the breakdown really shined through the mix. Plagued by the need for continual surgeries to his vocal cords, it was great to hear Loz really giving it his all for this performance, especially after he had to drop off multiple dates of the band’s Euro run last Summer. Undeterred, the band posted on their Twitter that they would continue to perform even in his absence and would seek fill-in vocalists, telling their fans in no uncertain terms: “We need your voice!” Now that’s the DIY spirit!
While She Sleeps are absolutely no strangers to the Do-It-Yourself ethos. Having recently “gone skint” (that’s UK for poor!) pooling all of their funds into “converting a disused industrial warehouse into their own studio/band headquarters… with their own calloused hands,” the band suddenly finds itself free of label constraints and able to create untethered by the shackles of literally anyone but themselves. Having previously turned to their fans through a PledgeMusic campaign to fund their last LP (2017’s “You Are We”) the band has found a renewed faith and sense of solidarity and even invited fans who donated to the PledgeMusic campaign to come to the multi-purpose compound and participate in the music video for
‘Hurricane’ a song that would appear later in the set at Union Transfer. That tight-knit closeness with their fans is literally weaved into the musical tapestry of WSS: The title of their 2012 mini-album “This is the Six” is a direct reference to their fans’ place squarely alongside the band: there are 5 members in WSS, and the audience is the sixth.
While the cookie-monster channeling crooning of most metal-core acts is sparse with WSS, helping flesh out additional vocal duties early on sees rhythm guitarist Matt Welch take the reigns for ‘I’ve Seen It All’. Not to be outdone, Bassist Aaran McKenzie (woah, THREE A’S??) literally launches himself into the pit and spends sixty seconds sprinting around the venue, up the stairs to the bar, behind the soundboard and then back to the pit. The crowd is absolutely loving their energy right off the bat and it’s as if everyone in the room knows all of the words, even though the 1st three songs of the evening are from a record that was released just last year. Yeah, the Sleeps Army came to PARTY tonight.
“We had a scare for a bit…,” Loz says between tracks, addressing the crowd. “We thought this was gonna be an empty room. Let’s pack this little box out!” This would be a recurring theme of his banter throughout the night, imploring with great success the recesses of the room to pack together on the floor and form a pit. Frequentees of the sequestered 21+ back bar area at Union Transfer events (where the 2nd floor isn’t open) understand the logistical gymnastics required to pull this off: I can’t bring my beer down there, and there is a dude at the bottom of the stairs who will ensure that it won’t ever happen. Clearly, the only logical solution is to chug this thing as quickly as possible. With my apologies to the flavorrific brewmasters at Tired hands, I throw my plastic cup back and scramble into the fray.
Not two seconds after I make my way onto the floor, I am tapped on the shoulder and I groan at knowing what is coming next: I turn around just in time to catch the awkwardly outstretched leg of a fellow patron awaiting his hoist into prime crowd surfing position. Dutifully, myself and the lucky fan to my right help this human projectile into the air and do our best to toss him, haphazardly, directly into the back of the heads of the 3 rows in front of us. Sorry folks, it wasn’t my call. Dude was really into it though, and sadly I did not stick around to see how it all worked out for him as I used the distraction to secure a prime spot on house right in front of lead guitarist Sean Long, who is absolutely shredding and spinning in place in tiny little Benjamin Weinman-esque circles while punishing his guitar. Throughout the night, his playing was absolutely a cut above, and I found myself rearranging my position on the floor to maximize his placement in the mix. As the main riff (and song idea) writer in the band, Sean is a
force to behold live and I absolutely recommend securing your spot on house right prior to his appearance so that you can take in his dizzying technical prowess. Dude shreds.
There were also more than a few surprises mixed into the set during the evening, including a nice long sample from Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Dictator,’ in which attendees were reminded by fictional dictator Adenoid Hynkel that: “The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men! Machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines, you are not cattle, you are men! You, the people, have the power [to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Let us use that power. Let us all unite]!” If there is one thing that WSS has learned the power of over their 14+ year career, it’s the power of UNITY! They would touch on this theme heavily during their powerful performance of ‘Brainwashed’, from their eponymous 2015 album and this was really where all of the elements of WSS fully came together in the set: the staccato guitar licks, stop/start drumming and even stray blue-note guitar noodling boiled over into one giant circle pit in the middle of the floor. The band really shines while playing the harder cuts from their older albums. The superb 90’s alt-radio rock riffs of ‘Four Walls’, also from the Brainwashed album, was a further standout moment of the evening.
Another welcome surprise in the set was the inclusion of brand new track ‘Fakers Plague’, a single that was released last December right before the band’s Euro run with ‘Every Time I Die’, and also the only cut of the night that doesn’t appear on any full-length album [yet]. This track also features prominently into WSS’s newest merch drop, with a long-sleeve T-shirt for sale screen-printed with lyrics from the tune: “I’d rather be a sinner than a hypocrite.” Bathed in blue and purple lights, this was only the 11th time the band had performed this track live, and it kicks off with some really weird percussion samples and incorporates electronics as it just gets weirder. If this is the direction WSS is heading, I’m along for the long, strange trip. Delightfully, the band would follow this up mid-set with ‘Death Toll’, an absolute banger of a highlight for me where drummer Adam Savage is totally cut loose to punish the skins. Death Toll is actually a bonus cut from the 2013 deluxe edition rerelease of ‘This is the Six’, and damn, does it sound great live!
After pummeling us with new material at the start of the set and taking some twists and turns in the middle section, the band returned to their roots for the closing third and dug their heels in deep. While the tried and tested method of layering melody/sing-alongs/chants into the quiet/loud dynamic of their industrial/heavy intros elicited cheers from the crowd on ‘The Guilty Party’, it felt slightly too formulaic for me, and it was the final 3 songs of the evening that all hit a perfect stride, and non-coincidentally all came to us from 2017’s superb ‘You Are We’ LP.
The 1-2-3 punch of ‘Hurricane’, ‘Silence Speaks’, and title-track, ‘You Are We’, had the crowd on their feet and losing their minds to close the night out. The youngest fan in the audience, a girl no more than 10 perched precariously on [presumably] dad’s shoulders smack dab in the middle of the pit, could be seen with her ponytailed fluttering furiously in the air while she air-drummed every fill and screamed along with Loz. Taking notice, the singer tossed her a guitar pick which she snatched from the air with precision, potentially altering the trajectory of her entire life with that one meaningful connection! While the room wasn’t at full capacity, the lungs of every fan in that room were: they all knew every word and they all sang them right back at that stage, some wearing shirts with the very words they were screaming emblazoned on them.
While She Sleeps new sound may be gearing them for bigger rooms and larger audiences, but in an era where butt-rock reunion tour tickets can cost hundreds of dollars and potentially provide the opportunity cost of 10 smaller gigs versus 1 larger arena tour, sometimes you can feel more at home with 200 people who know every word versus 20,000 who might only know your radio-rocked single. It’s a tough tightrope to walk, for sure, but
While She Sleeps is willing to experiment with what got them here in order to take that fateful next step and they have proven they are willing to make the sacrifice to put their money where their mouth is. Here’s hoping that mouth continues to belong to Loz, and that no more surgeries silence the prolific singer. Luckily though, even if he goes reticent for a short spell,
fans of While She Sleeps knows the band will soldier on… and they’ll just have to show up en masse, lend them their voices, and sing EXTRA LOUD! Full photo gallery below: