Let’s deal with the angry political elephant in the room before we go any further: Rage Against the Machine. Now the odd thing about Rage is that they took so long to turn up. Crunchy metal powerchords are clearly so much better suited to agitprop than that feeble two-chord bashing of all those inept first generation punk rockers who elected, for bizarre ideological reasons (ask your dad), not to learn to play their instruments. Now that Rage has abated, a rabble-rousing vacuum has been created.
With little mainstream media fanfare, Inglewood’s Fever 333 have emerged to fill that vacuum, just 18 months after unleashing their debut EP. This is the opening night of their first full headlining tour of the UK and Europe, which has pretty much sold out across the board. It’s fair to say that anticipation is at, well, fever pitch.
They do things slightly differently in Feverland. For a start, there’s no support act. It’s not entirely clear why, but there you go. Shows are described as ‘demonstrations’, presumably to break down barriers between band and audience. Oh, and they’re not a band; they’re a ‘project’.
So at 8:30pm (hey – they may be angry but they’re punctual) the huge curtain spanning the stage drops and SWX erupts. Despite the early kick-off, this cosmopolitan, no-fixed-subculture Bristol audience is seriously up for it, as though everyone present has the feeling of being in at the ground floor of something that has the potential to become very big indeed.
The Grammy-nominated Made an America opens the show – uh, demonstration – with Jason Aalon Butler (son of soul musician Aalon Butler and a former vegan cookie marketeer, fact fans) railing against “melanin felons” and “the government giving ghettos that crack rock” in his Inglewood neighbourhood, while name-checking Rodney King. Butler and guitarist Stephen Harrison are a constant whirl of motion, inciting a huge mosh pit, while drummer Aric Improta drives everything along with his huge, thunderous rhythms. If we’re not already woke, they’re here to wake us as loudly as possible.
Being a three-piece (no bass guitar, you’ll note), a certain amount of augmentation is required to perform these songs live, but this never becomes obtrusive. By Out of Control, Butler has bounded into the audience to crowd surf and be borne aloft, impressively continuing that barrage of his wordy lyrics throughout. Arguably their best song, One of Us sounds absolutely fucking enormous – an incendiary fusion of riffage and fury that hits rather like a hard rockin’ N.W.A. It’s compositions like this, along with Animal and Burn It, that showcase Fever 333 at their best.
All three musicians have track records with other, less successful acts (six years ago Butler’s previous band Letlive were playing the Fleece), but collectively they spark off one another in a way that proves far more than the sum of the band’s parts. It helps considerably that experience has taught them their way round a huge crowd-friendly chorus, and that these chant-alongs sound much less nu-metally when performed live.
Naturally, one hesitates to use the word ‘commercial’ in connection with Fever 333, but the change-of-pace Inglewood is almost a power ballad, albeit one about rioting, poverty, racism, police violence and gentrification. And at one point, Butler even hauls a keyboard into the audience to perform solo.
Refreshingly, they’re not relentlessly po-faced, evincing a keen sense of fun and are not above audience participation gambits (arm waving, jumping up and down, etc), even unexpectedly reviving the 1980s metal ‘dividing the audience into two’ routine, though on this occasion half of us get to chant while the other half clap. “I feel like I’m in a rock band playing stadiums,” smirks the singer.
Interestingly, all the radical politics is contained in the lyrics. Between songs, Butler trades in feelgood inclusivity and “change begins with yourself” platitudes. Like every other American rock frontman, he humbly thanks us all for turning up. Hell, he even praises the security for not beating the shit out of everyone like they do back home. Perhaps understandably, he seems reluctant to wade in to the toxic world of British politics, being more comfortable with the uncompromising gun control message of Trigger, which presumably doesn’t make Fever 333 universally popular in the US but will find no opposition on this side of the pond.
With just one album and an EP to draw on, this was never going to be an epic show. Indeed, it’s all wrapped up after 80 minutes. But such is the amount of energy expended onstage and off that we don’t feel short-changed. Once suspects the inevitable cynical critical backlash for ‘happening without permission’ will commence when Fever 333 become too big to ignore, with the slightest sign of political impurity seized upon as though this invalidates the band’s entire stance. (They’re signed to formerly indie metal label Roadrunner, which has now been subsumed into the big corporate Warner Music Group.) But by then they could well be unstoppable.
Towards the end of the show, Butler observes that while Improta looks like a rock dude from central casting, we don’t often see people of colour like himself and Harrison playing punk, metal and hardcore, and thanks us for being so welcoming. Our pleasure, pal. Probably see you in an arena next time, though.
All photos by Phil Watson
Read more: Metal & Prog Picks: November 2019